On private wings

December 1, 2000

When plodding along into double-digit headwinds, or when overseeing a mechanic who has his hands wedged deep into the cowling on a busy ramp, many a general aviation pilot has been heard to quip: "Time to spare? Go by air!"

It's true that our chosen form of transportation isn't always as efficient as we'd like it to be. Yes, we enjoy crowing about groundspeeds two or three times faster than the groundpounders stuck in traffic, but door-to-door our GA speeds can sometimes be less than competitive with the airlines and automobiles. We comfort ourselves by remembering that we're having a lot more fun and are doing so on our own schedule.

However, times are a-changing and, from an efficiency standpoint, GA is beginning to look good. In fact, the current airline definition of service is the best thing that ever happened to business aviation. Fractional ownership programs are gobbling up business jets quite literally as fast as the manufacturers can churn out airframes. Truth be told, the growth of some fractional ownership programs is hamstrung by a lack of available airplanes and pilots.

If I were a marketing manager at one of the fractional companies, I'd buy every billboard I could find in airline terminals. Frustrated executives stuck at crowded gates on oversold—and often late—flights must surely be good targets for business aircraft.

Several recent successes in my airplane and a couple of airline horror stories have convinced me once again that GA is far more efficient than you might think. And when I fly myself, I arrive with my sanity intact.

After a hectic few weeks in the office doing 2001 budgets and strategic planning (it was a toss-up between that or having bamboo wedges driven under my fingernails), I was looking forward to a mid-September trip to San Antonio to the American Bonanza Society annual convention. With planned stops in Kerrville, Texas, to visit Mooney Aircraft; Oklahoma City to visit Commander Aircraft; and an impromptu swing by Tornado Alley and General Aviation Modifications, Inc. in Ada, Oklahoma, it turned out to be a poster itinerary for GA. Imagine attempting that route on the airlines.

To top it off, I could do the whole thing on my schedule.

The plan was to leave Maryland early Sunday morning in time to make it to San Antonio for an ABS banquet that evening. It would be a long day of fly-ing. A strong tropical storm nudged into Louisiana and promised to drench the Deep South, offering the possibility of plenty of weather along the route on Sunday.

By midday Saturday, the grass was cut and the weather looked good along the route, so I left that afternoon. My new plan was to make Memphis on Saturday afternoon, but I also knew that it would be a stretch to make it nonstop. It is on trips like this one that I really appreciate a fuel computer. Tied into the JP Instruments engine analyzer and porting data to the Garmin 530, the fuel computer reported shortly after takeoff that it would be tight making Memphis without a stop. The weather to the south stayed there and all I had to contend with were a few cumulus clouds, a couple of rain showers, and one isolated thunderstorm. I dodged the storm with the help of flight watch, and set a course for Jackson, Tennessee, which is about 60 nm northeast of Memphis—just enough closer to satisfy my personal fuel minimums.

I climbed out of the airplane feeling relaxed and invigorated. The office drudgery was hundreds of miles behind me; I felt as if I had accomplished something worthwhile. I left early the next morning for an easy flight to San Antonio. The rest of the trip went just as well, with each leg equally rewarding.

Contrast that with an airline flight to Denver a few days later. I considered flying the Bonanza to Denver, but decided to leave the flying to United Airlines. It was a mistake. United canceled my morning flight out of Baltimore. The company's automatic reservation system conveniently rebooked me on a flight out of Dulles International, which happens to be located 50 miles and about two hours away in traffic. The ticket agent helpfully explained this as my ride pulled away from the terminal at Baltimore. The Dulles flight left in midafternoon, only minutes earlier than the next flight out of Baltimore, so I spent five hours people watching and reading at BWI. As every hour ticked by I reminded myself that I could be 170 nm closer to Denver were I flying myself.

A few days later four of us from the AOPA Pilot staff piled into my Bonanza for the trip to New Orleans for the National Business Aviation Association convention. We departed Frederick, Maryland, at 8:40 on a clear fall Sunday morning. Forty minutes earlier, another staffer had departed Frederick for the one-hour drive to BWI for an airline trip to New Orleans, with a tour of Atlanta thrown in for no extra charge. After a quick stop in Chattanooga, we landed at New Orleans Lakefront Airport at the same time our colleague touched down at New Orleans International/Moisant Field. Four days later we returned, this time stopping in Knoxville, Tennessee, for fuel. Again, the weather gods smiled on us with spectacularly clear, smooth air as we skimmed along the autumn-painted Appalachians.

It was only a few days after the pleasant flight home from New Orleans that I was stuffed into an airline seat for a flight from BWI to Long Beach, California, for AOPA Expo 2000. Again, I considered flying my airplane, but the distance and time constraints made it seem more practical to leave the flying to the professionals.

The trip west was uneventful, but the return more than made up for it. About a dozen AOPA and AOPA Air Safety Foundation staff members ended up on the morning flight out of Long Beach, with a connection through Phoenix. Unfortunately, America West delayed the flight from Phoenix to Baltimore. After several hours of delays, the flight was finally canceled, causing a mob of passengers to run furiously through the concourse to the nearest customer service desk for reticketing. While waiting in line, I used my cell phone to call the America West (quickly dubbed America Worst by the impatient crowd) reservation center to book seats for myself and several other staffers on the next flight to Baltimore. Other members of the staff ended up on a flight to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C. But they faced a long drive to Baltimore in the wee hours of the morning to retrieve their bags. One practical staff member threw in the towel and spent the night in Phoenix.

Predictably, every seat on the next flight to Baltimore was full and its departure was delayed an hour for no apparent reason, or none that was communicated to us. Ultimately, we arrived into BWI at 2:10 a.m., some seven hours after our scheduled time and about 13 hours after leaving Long Beach. We waited bleary-eyed for another 45 minutes for our baggage and withstood yet another hour's drive to Frederick. I arrived home just before 4 a.m.

The same trip home from Long Beach would take about 11.5 flight hours in my Bonanza. Add in a couple of fuel stops and you'd be up to the same 13 hours. It would be a long day for sure, but it's certainly doable, particularly with another pilot along to share the duties. If we had left Long Beach at 7 a.m. Pacific time, we could have arrived in Frederick by about 11 p.m. Eastern time, facing only a 10-minute drive home.

Next I'm headed to Florida for a meeting. Within 40 minutes of leaving the house I'll be in the air headed south. Five hours later I'll be at my destination, including a fuel stop somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia. From a time standpoint, that's competitive with an airline flight, including the hour drive to the airline airport and the hour wait at the gate—assuming an on-time departure. But rather than returning from bustling and crowded Orlando International at the convenience of the airlines, my return will be on my schedule from one of the many hospitable GA airports in Florida.

And when I get back it will be with the sense of accomplishment I experience only after meeting the challenges of piloting an airplane myself, something I'll never feel strapped into a cramped center seat in the back of an airliner.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.