Midlife crisis

November 1, 2005

Mark R. Twombly has been reporting on general aviation for more than 20 years.

The car that I have owned and loved for the past 14 years, a dark-blue sensible sedan, now belongs to my oldest son. He needed a decent set of wheels to tide him over until he can afford something new, and I got my justification — don't have a car anymore, gotta get one — for finally acquiring the thing I've been eyeballing for about a year. It's a Sebring silver-colored roadster with black and red interior, six-speed manual transmission, push-button starter, and a soft top that I can make disappear when it's sunny and warm, which in Florida is almost always.

This was not an easy decision. I obsessed for weeks about the impracticality of having a two-seater as my only car, but I rationalized that I do very little driving and I'm covered if I have an occasional need for a larger vehicle. My wife has a small SUV, and my youngest son will gladly loan me his two-door coupe as long as he gets my keys in return.

Now, after about a month's experience in the contoured, low-slung seat, I couldn't be happier. With one exception. I just found out my wife is telling her friends that my new ride is my "midlife crisis." I've explained to her that if this is both true and mathematically accurate, she's going to have to hang around until 2060 to see what kind of car assuages my end-of-life crisis.

For argument's sake let's say she is correct and I'm responding predictably to some gender-based need to rediscover the vigor of youth (in a marriage-friendly way, I might add). If so, what does this midlife crisis portend for the pilot in me? Am I to tire of the mostly straight-and-level, business transportation-oriented nature of my personal flying activity?

Will I develop an urge to take up extreme flying sports — competition aerobatics or high-performance soaring? Is it finally time to learn to hover a helicopter? Or, instead of flying perfectly good aircraft, should I start jumping out of them?

And how about my airplane ride? Am I to adopt a middle-aged roving eye and start thinking about getting involved with airplanes other than the one I'm partnered with now? The Piper Aztec is a solid performer — six comfy seats, large dual baggage bays, two beefy piston engines, 200-mph cruise. Just feed it and watch it go, like a size-extra-large friend.

Some might say our airplane is stodgy, what with its thick airfoils and rounded wing tips, long and bulbous nose, split windshield, and oversize tail. I say it's utilitarian in appearance. An excellent example of form following function. But there's this: It is 38 years old, going on 39. In airplane years that makes it a lot older than me, certainly well on the far side of its own midlife crisis. Doesn't act it, mind you, but that stat, 38, keeps coming up.

Happens late at night, usually. The doubts, that is. A hip dude who is driving around in a cool little two-seater with push-button starter and soft top, shouldn't a guy like that be flying around in an equally cool airplane?

I'm talking about something like the warbird route through midlifedom. Big, beefy tailwheel airframe propelled by big, thirsty, radial engine with "jugs" instead of cylinders. Sliding canopy, sticks, fake bombs, and dummy machine-gun barrels poking out from the wing leading edges. Perfect for mock strafing runs designed to relieve everyday tension. And the ramp presence!

No doubt a warbird would be just the thing for long-lasting ego extension, but I'm not sure I'm up for wearing the mandatory warbird pilot's uniform — tight-fitting flight suit — no matter the heat, humidity, or midriff heft.

Some kind of very light jet pocket rocket then, with an angled side stick and multiple database card slots where we have only traditional yokes and round instruments with actual quivering needles and numbered dials.

But who am I kidding? I've got three partners in the airplane I'm in now. At that same level of investment I'd need 49 partners in a warbird or very light jet, and we'd need to hire a full-time scheduler plus an arbitrator to settle the infighting.

If not a warbird or VLJ, how about a light sport airplane? Not quite on the same make-an-impression, trophy-airplane scale as a junior jet or snarling combat veteran, but potentially loads more innocent fun. In my mind the perfect LSA would be a high-wing taildragger capable of performing basic aerobatic maneuvers, and it has to come with a float kit. That way I could take off and land on grass or water, always have a great view of the Earth ambling by underneath, and go upside down to clean the carpets.

It would be the perfect complement to my present airplane. Whereas it belongs on the utility side of the fun-versus-function scale, a loopy, water-resistant LSA would be all about getting back to flying while wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Kinda like how I'm driving through my midlife crisis.

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