Waypoints

The general aviation experience

December 1, 2007

AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines often takes his wife and two daughters on flying adventures.

The New York Departure controller deftly interpreted the thickly accented response from the Olympic Airlines pilot and then handed off the jumbo jet to Boston Center; next stop, Athens, Greece. The controller might as well been working at the United Nations given the cacophony of accents and call signs he was managing as one airliner after another burst out of Kennedy International Airport's airspace bound for points around the globe. We listened in intently on the international party line, our ATC needs minimal as we tooled along over Long Island Sound savoring the view.

The flight home last fall was an enjoyable end to a most enjoyable long weekend on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From Frederick, Maryland, a trip to Cape Cod, especially for the weekend, is one of those perfect missions for a general aviation airplane. Driving that distance for the weekend is impractical—probably nine hours in the car if traffic around Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City isn't any worse than usual. Airfare for the four of us and then the hassles of airline flights, especially for such a short distance and at least one connection, was impractical. By Beechcraft Bonanza, though, it was an easy two hours and 20 minutes, flying over Baltimore and then near the coast up to Kennedy. From there we had glimpses of the Manhattan skyline through a few bright white puffy clouds and then across Long Island Sound to Bridgeport and Hartford, Connecticut, then to Providence, Rhode Island, and out to the Cape. ATC helped us cut some corners from its preferred route, making our trip not as circuitous as it might sound.

As usual when we are planning weekends via Bonanza we allowed ourselves an extra weather day for flexibility. Our planned return day of Saturday dawned gray and rainy with low visibilities because of fog—just as forecast. It was all scheduled to clear by mid-day. Sunday, our back up day, was also forecast to be clear. We had a leisurely breakfast and found a few indoor activities near Barnstable, Massachusetts. By early afternoon we could see a few breaks in the clouds, but then quickly the rain stopped and blue sky appeared between gaps in the gray, low clouds.

After a late lunch, we piled back in the airplane and headed home, glad to have a relaxing Sunday at home before heading back to the rat race of work and school. Our route home was a bit more direct, heading almost down Long Island Sound. With the now clear skies and terrific visibility, Block Island, Rhode Island, was in sight almost as soon as we took off. It was nice to see what it looked like from the air. Last year we attempted a weekend flight there, but torrential rains forced us to drive to Rhode Island and take the ferry over instead; the weather was so bad we never really did see much of the island. As we crossed over the Long Island shoreline we realized how remote the tip of the island is even though at the same time we could see several major cities across the sound and ahead.

Approaching Republic Airport near Farmingdale, New York, I rousted the kids from their MP3 players to look out the windows at the enormous cemeteries bordering the airport. The graveyards seem to go on for miles. The unusual perspective and the litany of airline communication on the frequency reminded me of the many, many unusual sights and sounds we experience while flying GA airplanes—something that those who aren't so privileged will never know.

For example, as we flew over Kennedy again, the Manhattan skyscrapers soared upward on that small island like the giant redwood trees in the Northwest. With that thought, I found myself flying over Mount St. Helens in 1990, viewing the massive gash left by the volcano eruption that blew half the mountain away. Still awestruck by that, a short time later I'm landing the Cessna 180 on a remote mountain strip and only minutes later driving up to a stand of giant redwoods—awestruck again.

The many bridges connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn and New Jersey reminded me of the many cities I've flown over and the diversity of bridges in this country. There's the enormous and beautiful Talmadge Memorial cable-stayed bridge near Savannah, Georgia, the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia that looks so fragile as you fly over, majestic Mackinac Bridge, and the perplexing Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that from the air appears to stop and start in the middle of the bay. From the air, river cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis seem nothing but a network of bridges.

The odiferousness of it all

The sensations from an airplane are not all visual. Flying up the East Coast on a humid day, you know when you are near Brunswick, Georgia, because you can smell the paper mill there. Ditto when you fly over parts of Pennsylvania. Sometimes the smell drifts in the atmosphere for miles. I was landing at Dalhart, Texas, once and found my way to the area by sniffing out the cattle yards near the airport. And I've smelled fresh cut hay while flying low over the countryside in such open-cockpit airplanes as a Travel Air, a Waco UPF-7, an AirCam, and a Breezy.

And then there are the sounds we hear. Fortunately, I've not been in a situation of silence while flying a powered airplane, but I've heard an almost unnerving silence standing next to a Cessna 170. We had just landed on a dry lakebed in Nevada and shut the old airplane down. Stepping outside onto the hard, cracked dirt, we heard nothing but the tinking of the cooling engine and the breeze in our ears. Desolate doesn't begin to describe the loneliness of the place. Miles away, craggy brown peaks wedged against a cloudless blue sky provided the only visual relief to the flat lakebed. Glitzy Las Vegas was only a 30-minute flight away, but we might as well have been on another planet.

Crossing this great country, it's fun to listen to the controllers and how their accents change as you fly along. You can tell the Boston and Jersey kids who made it back home to work an ATC facility near where they grew up. Having grown up in northwestern Pennsylvania, I can pick out you'ans from Pittsburgh. But by the time you get to Kansas City and points west, you could be anywhere. Make a left turn, though, and you'll hear the South come through your headsets at places such as Little Rock and Jackson, Mississippi. Cross into Texas and you'll know you arrived not by just the long ride ahead to New Mexico, but also because of the Bush twang.

Continue west and you're back into an area with few accents, but into a region of spectacular sights. There, I've managed to fly slowly by the arches of Monument Valley, over Rainbow Bridge near Lake Powell, and then across the Grand Canyon—another of those places best viewed from two perspectives—on the ground at the rim and from the left seat of a general aviation airplane. Even then, you'll find it indescribable.

No matter where you live, take a minute on your next flight to savor the sights, sounds, and even smells of what you experience. Be reminded of how privileged we are to have a general aviation experience like none other in the world.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

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.