The High and the Mighty

Dealing with life's changing aviation missions

August 1, 2005

This past week I made my annual trip to my local airport, North Las Vegas, to turn in my gate activation cards and receive new ones. The lady at the airport office was her usual friendly self, and she shared a story about a local pilot who came in last week to request a new gate card.

This past year he sold his airplane, a pristine Cessna 172 on which he had lavished huge amounts of time and money through the years, and the hangar he kept it in. He had made a mistake, he told her. The hangar and airplane were part of his life, and so was the airport. He wanted a new gate card because he was trying to find another hangar and looking for another airplane. Golf wasn't enough. (She didn't say if she gave him a card, but I suspect she did.)

The next day I received a postcard from the FAA, informing me that the new sport pilot certificate was here and inviting me to a seminar to learn all about it. That card seemed to symbolize, for me anyway, my year in aviation.

This past year Deborah and I have wrestled with whether we should keep our Cessna T310R. I have used it for years to fly back and forth between my home base and the East Coast, an average of three or four trips a year. We have never used it for business trips, our rule being that if we really had to be on time for a business commitment, we went commercial, thereby avoiding any get-there-itis that might tempt us to fly in marginal weather and the occasional delays caused by mechanical problems. Staying current on instruments was always a hassle, and even though I was current, I wasn't flying enough to be comfortable in actual IFR. The rising cost of fuel made every fill-up a sobering event. Five hundred bucks a month for insurance sounded reasonable, until Deborah bought a commercial ticket from Vegas to New York for $117, an amount that would insure the twin for six days. A $30,000 annual inspection last winter also was a great motivator. If we had a business that would have allowed us to write off part of the expense of flying and maintaining the twin, perhaps we wouldn't have come to view the airplane as an expensive toy.

Still, I agonized over the decision to sell the twin. I learned to fly in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era and flew carrier-based Grumman A-6 Intruders, all-weather attack jets. Night IFR was where we cool young Navy studs lived way back then. Today, in addition to the 310, Deb and I own three little VFR poppers, but would we miss the cross-country machine?

Finally we pulled the trigger. After trying to sell the twin ourselves, we called a broker in Arizona who agreed to sell the airplane for us. I delivered the airplane to him. It was a VFR flight on a gorgeous, clear January day.

I slipped out of Las Vegas by flying around the west side of the Class B airspace so that I wouldn't have to talk to the controllers and mix it up with McCarran traffic. Well clear, I turned southeast and began a cruise climb to 11,500 feet. Up I went over the desert mountains, leveled at altitude, let the airplane accelerate. Soon I was ticking off 188 knots over the ground — I knew because we had installed a Garmin GNS 530 in the panel a few years ago. The unit alone cost $18,000. I used it so seldom that I never could remember exactly how to program it. Still, it is a damn cool gadget that tick-ed off one by one the minutes remaining to go until I reached my destination.

Phoenix was clear and busy, as usual. I made an average landing — not enough practice — and shut down the airplane for the last time only 1.4 hours from Northtown. I came home on Southwest for $79. While the cost of airline travel has got to go up, so will the cost of maintaining and flying the 310. I figure that the proceeds from the sale of the airplane, properly invested, will fund Deborah's and my airline travel for the rest of our lives, or 83 years, whichever comes first.

Yesterday we got a break in the winter monsoon that has dumped record amounts of water on Southern California and the desert Southwest. With my new North Las Vegas gate card burning a hole in my pocket, I went out to the airport and pulled our 1953 Cessna 170B from the hangar. The taildragger inherited the hangar after the twin left.

I was airborne at 7:10 in the morning. I flew out to the west, climbed over the Spring Mountains, and motored over to Shoshone, California, to visit my favorite breakfast café. Inyo County maintains a 2,350-foot-long paved runway in Shoshone — more than enough for the taildragger, yet not enough for the big twin, so I never landed it there. I got to Shoshone so early that I had to wait for the café to open. I stood around in the parking lot with folks camping in the area, talking about how green the desert was this year.

After breakfast I followed the Amargosa River southward to where it bends to run into Death Valley, marveled at the water flowing in what is usually a dry wash, and watched people on all-terrain vehicles attack the sand dunes in that area.

The little airplane hummed right along. It flies great if I remember to pay attention to the ball in the race. It climbed with enthusiasm when I finally pulled the nose up. I aimed it eastward toward Vegas. The earth slides beneath the Cessna at a sedate pace, so the pilot has time to inspect cloudy mountain peaks, watch how roads wind over the land, marvel over nature's handiwork. We have a little GPS in the panel that tells me the direction and distance to where I want to go, so navigation is pretty much a nonissue. Staying out of restricted airspace is more of a chore, but that's why the government prints those charts.

All in all, if you like flying, a little popper like the Cessna 170 is a great way to do a lot of it. The airspeed indicator is not the fun indicator, as many folks seem to believe. Fact is, getting there is way more than half the fun for me, so I don't really care about the airspeed, as long as I have enough of it to stay aloft.

That was yesterday, a Friday. This morning the air is clear and still. Two hot air balloons were up at dawn, and I watched them land on the west side of town when the breeze finally began to blow.

Maybe this afternoon I'll go out to the airport and pull out the 170. With all this rain, Lake Mead is rising again. Someone said the water level is up two whole feet. I should probably go look.

The truth is that Deborah and I made the right decision — for us — when we decided to sell the twin. Gadgets and glass cockpits and IFR approaches aren't where either of us is in aviation or in life. Low and slow works very well indeed, thank you.

Deborah's favorite airplane is a Piper J-3 Cub, which we keep on our farm in West Virginia. It sits on the dirt floor in the pole-barn hangar and seems quite happy when we come for a visit, flip the prop, and motor off over the green Allegheny Mountains. A compass, altimeter, and airspeed indicator are all we need. Clear winter days are good — the Cub takes off and lands very well in an inch or two of snow, and soft, squishy turf doesn't bother it a bit; a mud-spattered airplane has a seductive appeal to me. Flying on spring days with gentle breezes and the trees turning green is superb. Summer means open doors and hopping rides for squealing kids and white-knuckled nonfliers. And autumns — flying over fall foliage, surfing updrafts along mountain ridges, and looking for eagles and bears along winding river valleys — are sublime.

And now, the J-3 can be flown by anyone with a sport pilot certificate, which doesn't require a current medical. I sort of suspect that someday I'll fly with one of those in my wallet.

In my opinion the sport pilot certificate is the best thing the government has ever done for general aviation. Born in 1946, I am on the leading edge of the baby-boom generation; a lot of pilots will be following me and wrestling with the decisions that Deb and I faced this year. In addition, I believe that a lot of people who are non-pilots now and can't or don't want to pay the ever-increasing costs of owning or operating complex airplanes are going to enter aviation through the sport pilot door.

If general aviation is allowed to shrink until it is mainly composed of corporate operators and folks with warbirds or machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, it will be in irreversible political trouble. Airports will disappear at an accelerating rate, victims of suburban sprawl and development pressure; general aviation will get an ever-shrinking percentage of taxpayer dollars; fee-based government services (such as they have in Europe) will become inevitable; and folks like you and me and the fellow who is now looking for another hangar at North Las Vegas will get squeezed out of the sky. The sport pilot certificate will breathe new life into general aviation.

I don't know about you, but I need aviation in my life. I'm not done. Not by a long shot.

Deborah and I are thinking about getting sailplane ratings. Maybe this summer. The sky is up there, and we are very much alive.


Novelist Stephen Coonts is the author of 13 New York Times bestsellers. He maintains a Web site ( www.coonts.com).