January 1, 1999
Most general aviation pilots tend to gravitate to local airports in their spare time, even when they are traveling away from home. Airport restaurants and airplanes on ramps seem to be a magnet for those of us who fly. Whether on business or vacation trips, members often drop by AOPA headquarters at the Frederick (Maryland) Municipal Airport during business hours for a tour of their association.
On one of my "airport excursions" when I was in France some 15 years ago, I drove to the Agen airport, in the southwest of the country. I stood by the fence and watched weekend flying activity. There was no formal FBO, so there was no way for someone to look at rental rates, peruse the pilot supplies, or buy a chart. But at the edge of the field, near the fuel pump, was a small building with a handmade sign labeling it the "Aero Club."
Because one of my few living relatives, an uncle, resided nearby, I had visions of someday flying my own airplane across the Atlantic — and one of my stops would be here. This meant that I would need information about this airfield. I was not fluent enough in French to be able to translate these highly technical aviation terms, so I was at a loss. Standing near the fence was a teenager, and I got up the nerve to ask him, "Parlez vous l'anglais?" In better English than my French he answered in the affirmative, and that conversation began a decade-anda-half friendship that has seen him graduate from college, marry, start a family and, from time to time, visit me in the United States.
By the way, I did make that trip across the pond (before coming to work for AOPA), did visit Agen, and over the years have gotten to know Phillippe and his family. He and his father owned a souped-up Skyhawk and several years ago upgraded to a Cessna 210. Phillippe has earned his instrument rating and finds that the airplane serves both his work and recreational travel needs.
Last summer, while I was in Paris for an International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA) meeting, Socata made a Trinidad available so that I could visit my uncle at Agen. This personal side trip gave me a firsthand look at what it is like to fly a French-registered airplane in Europe. My previous experience had been as a U.S. citizen flying a U.S.-registered airplane, which is a fairly simple matter. In this case, however, I needed special certification, not just the simple sign-off provided foreigners who wish to fly in the States. To make matters even more complicated, I was picking up the airplane at Le Bourget, which is adjacent to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport. The airspace restrictions around Paris, for those who think Class B is prohibitive in the States, are horrendous. I had hoped that this GA flight would provide me with some sightseeing, but lightplanes are kept so far from central Paris that even spotting the Eiffel Tower is impossible. To make matters worse, the weather was poor, so I had to file and fly IFR. I have yet to add up all the charges for weather, flight planning help, and airport fees.
Some months later, Phillippe and his wife visited Washington, D.C., and I decided to return the hospitality that he has shown me in France by picking them up at Washington National Airport. Since small airplanes just aren't welcome at airports anywhere near this size in France, he was shocked when I said we'd meet him there with our Cessna 172.
Phillippe grinned from ear to ear when I told him to take the left seat, and we were cleared to follow a Boeing 737 from the terminal to our runway. During our climbout he and his wife got a spectacular view of the nation's capital. At 1,000 feet I asked the departure controller if we could follow the Anacostia River for a view of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the White House. "No problem," answered the friendly voice, and we got about as close to these world-famous structures as safety and the prohibited areas would allow. Phillippe was amazed at the ease with which this all happened, compared to the negotiating and heavy-handed control common in his country.
On the way to Frederick, we passed over the pattern at Montgomery County Airpark, a typical U.S. nontowered facility. I explained that there was no charge for landing here, using the restaurant, walking over to the Harley-Davidson store, or any of the other reasons we pilots find as excuses to fly. This was in sharp contrast to the landing fees charged by most of the airports in Europe.
As we arrived back home at Frederick, my foreign friend was shocked at the amount of traffic in the pattern, and with no control tower — a situation unheard of in his country. He quickly understood, however, how pilots' following the worldwide traffic pattern procedures makes operations both safe and highly efficient. The cost of these unnecessary control towers in his country has bloated the air traffic control budget and produced a user fee system that we have avoided in the United States. You could tell that he'd flown Cessnas before as he greased it onto Runway 23 at Frederick, and you could also tell that he was quite taken by the contrast in aviation environments between his country and ours.
I get so wrapped up in our AOPA battles here in the United States that I sometimes forget the environment Phillippe sees every time he decides to fly. We continue to enjoy more freedom in our flying than pilots anywhere else in the world. In large part, this is because of the 60-year existence of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and your support of our efforts to keep general aviation safe, affordable, and fun.
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