Time flies, too

August 1, 1997

Even more so than pilots, time flies. An AOPA member recently visiting the office asked me how long I had been flying. I must have looked pretty silly standing there with my mouth agape after I computed the time. It couldn't possibly be 20 years since I soloed. Why, 20 years ago, I was just a child. I'm surely not old enough to remember events from that long ago.

I later dug out my first logbook to confirm … and there it was: July 1, 1977. My first flight was in N66089, a gold-and-white Cessna 150. I conducted the preflight (undoubtedly with much supervision from my instructor) and then we flew for 48 minutes, studying the "effect of controls," according to the notation. We next flew on the Fourth of July, a holiday that, I discover in perusing my logbooks, has become a flying tradition for me.

A little more than a month later, on August 11, 1977, I soloed. In my logbook, the event is recorded — rather unceremoniously, it seems — with the words "1st solo." I remember wearing the same old T-shirt to at least two prior lessons, thinking that I would solo, but weather conditions were not quite right. Finally, with the shirt probably a bit smelly, my instructor turned me loose in the 150. Upon returning, after the requisite three landings on the grass runway, my shirttail was promptly cut off, signed, and hung on the wall. It remained there — the words and color fading — for at least a decade, until the terminal building was remodeled. As I travel around to airports these days, I don't see "solo shirttails" hanging on the walls much anymore. I found it a real honor to have my name hanging up there with those of all the other pilots. It's too bad the tradition has been lost.

My flight training stretched over 2 more years. Finally, on April 29, 1979, the day before my written exam expired, I passed the private pilot checkride. College and finances — or lack thereof — associated with that stage of almost everyone's life, and then marriage and starting a career kept me from flying very often over the next decade. Upon coming to work for AOPA in 1988, I began flying regularly. On my birthday in 1989, I took the checkride for the instrument rating. It was going to be a memorable day one way or another — either because I passed or because I didn't. I did, although the designated examiner offered not a hint one way or another until I had parked the Piper Warrior on the ramp. "Congratulations. You're an instrument pilot," she said, offering a congratulatory handshake.

In reviewing my logbooks, I noticed that memorable flights often occurred on July 4. It's a good holiday to use an airplane — summertime, so the weather is generally flyable. If the holiday falls in the middle of the week, you can use an airplane to go someplace interesting and still make it back to work the next day. Most of the Independence Day flights involved family members — either taking them for rides or using an airplane to go visit them.

This year, we used our Cessna 172 to fly the 2 hours from our home base in Frederick, Maryland, to Bradford, Pennsylvania, to visit family there on the Fourth. The next morning, it was another hour northeast to the Finger Lakes region of New York for the rest of the weekend. And then 2 hours back home. All told, 5.7 hours of very enjoyable flying across some 450 nautical miles. By car, the trip would take more than 13 hours across 700 statute miles, much of it on curvaceous two-lane highways — hardly an enjoyable 3-day weekend. On the way back, we flew over numerous traffic jams on the highways near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By those standards, even 110 knots in a Skyhawk seems fast.

I enjoy the efficiency of airplanes on trips such as that. We shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking that general aviation is always the best way to go, but if you can solve the ground transportation issue at the destination, light airplanes can open many opportunities.

For us in central Maryland, the ocean is 4 hours away by car — not a pleasant excursion with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old lashed in car seats. It would certainly require an overnight stay. However, in late June, we strapped the kids into the back of the 172 and flew to Ocean City, Maryland, for the day. The long drive was shrunk to just 1.2 hours of flying. A golf cart shuttle met us at the airplane upon landing at Ocean City. We hustled through the terminal lobby and out the front door to a waiting cab. Six dollars and 10 minutes later we were on the beach, the kids bounding off to chase waves and dig in the sand. The return went as smoothly, kids zonked out in back. We were home in time for dinner.

For a trip like that, the economics of a light airplane start to make sense. The higher operating costs of the airplane are offset by not having to spend the night in a hotel nor having to buy meals away from home. The pleasure and satisfaction of flying yourself are a bonus.

Several of the more memorable flights over the last two decades involve children.

A few years ago, some friends asked that I take their 10-year-old son up for a ride in an airplane. He was interested in becoming an airline pilot, the parents insisted. Generally, I enjoy the experience as much as the passengers do. This time, however, I think it was the father who was more interested in the ride than the boy. Shortly after takeoff, I looked to the back seat to see the kid with his nose buried in a comic book. I'm paying $100 an hour to haul him around, and he's more interested in Spiderman. To my knowledge, the kid hasn't been in an airplane since — and certainly not with me.

Restrooms would surely make our airplanes more comfortable for kids — and parents, too. Two years ago we were on a 1.5-hour trip in a Piper Saratoga with the four aft seats arranged in a club configuration. My wife was in the back with the kids, then just 2 years old and 6 months old. The 2-year-old was newly potty trained. Naturally, before takeoff, we insisted she use the restroom. About 30 minutes into the flight I look over my right shoulder into the cabin. The 2-year-old is standing between the seats with her pants down. Her mother is holding a strategically placed plastic grocery bag. "Daddy, I go pee!" she says triumphantly. Meanwhile, the baby is screaming loud enough to break the squelch on the intercom at my microphone. And my wife gives me one of those "I need a vacation" looks. Oh, for a camera.

In hundreds of logbook entries, only a few rate stars in the margin: new ratings, particularly trying weather conditions, and unusual aircraft I've flown. Sometimes it's the contrast from one entry to the next that merits attention. Even without the logbook review, I can vividly remember July 10 and 11, 1990. It's so hot and humid in North Carolina that the mosquitoes have headed north, and even they have filed IFR flight plans in the haze. Our assignment is to fly the Pezetel Wilga one day and an Ercoupe the next for two different feature articles. The Wilga is a radial-engined, knocked-kneed, overgrown Cessna 180 built in Poland. The taildragger is as stout as a dump truck and flies about like one, too. Enormous flight surfaces are manipulated by manhandling a giant control stick rising up from the floor. The controls are about as responsive and harmonious as you might expect.

After I drive the Wilga around for a bit and manage to keep it somewhat in formation with the camera airplane for a photo shoot, we head a little farther north to another airport to fly the Ercoupe. Talk about a study in contrasts. The tidy little Ercoupe doesn't even have rudder pedals. Gently turn the dainty yoke, which looks more like a steering wheel, and the airplane gracefully responds to your every move. It was great fun to fly and so very different from the Wilga; the problem was the haze. The silver Ercoupe seemed to disappear into it in the photographs. To this day, when we need to illustrate a story about haze, the art department digs out the "invisible Ercoupe" photos.

Some highly experienced pilots I know don't keep logbooks anymore, except to record the minimal flight time and experiences they need to maintain currency. Any flights beyond that go unrecorded. It's a shame to lose such memories when only a few minutes of writing can capture them forever. Each and every flight seems to take on a life of its own. Every one is different; something new to be learned. No matter how tired the route, the changing light and cloud conditions bring out different terrain details and features, making each flight a new experience.

One of these days, someone else will ask that seemingly innocuous question again: How long have you been flying? I'll scramble to check, thinking that it's been 25 years or so and discover that it's been 40. The stack of logbooks will hopefully have grown by then. Memories of some flights will well up only after reading the logbooks, and others will stand out without prompting. Each, though, will be captured in those bound pages.