Waypoints: Share the power

February 1, 2009

Tom Haines uses his Beechcraft A36 Bonanza for business and pleasure flights.

What if you had the power to change people’s lives? What if you could help them take their minds off of everyday problems, at least for a little while? What if you could help them to feel a sense of accomplishment and give them a means to live a more fulfilling life, to go places they never imagined? Helping them would cost you very little, maybe nothing. Would you do it?

That pilot certificate in your wallet is your license to practice such powerful medicine. The only tool you need is your enthusiasm for general aviation flying. Access to an airplane helps, but if you’re good at your practice, you can overcome that. Think you’re not capable or worthy of taking on such an important task? Think again. Think about how aviation has changed your life. I know no one who has learned to fly who can report that life went on just the same once they slid into the cockpit.

For some, the experience of earning a pilot certificate was simply the personal satisfaction of doing something that only a tiny fraction of a percentage of the rest of the people on the planet had done. You’re special for that reason alone, if none other. Others have used their aviation experience as a means to bolster their confidence and sharpen their skills in other areas of life—maybe to go after that next best job, to muster the courage to start working on that advanced degree, to ask that special someone out on a date—maybe dinner at a nearby airport after an introductory flight (lay that ground work early!).

Other pilots live the general aviation experience in other ways. For some it is the occasional flight around the county where they can clear their mind and simply enjoy something that is so far removed from the rest of their daily lives that it maintains a special place in their persona. For some, those flights will be with a flying buddy who will share the flight time, the expense, and the experience. Would that friendship and camaraderie exist without the pilot certificate? Probably not.

For some pilots, aviation becomes a lifelong learning experience—a means of challenging themselves to stay sharp and engaged. An instrument rating this year. A seaplane rating in two years. A glider rating in five years. Rotorcraft. Balloons. A tailwheel checkout. A high-performance signoff. The abilities to grow and improve can last a lifetime.

Some pilots strive for aircraft ownership. For them, possessing an airplane is not just about owning a piece of aluminum or carbon fiber—for they know that those pieces of material are inanimate until carefully crafted into an airplane, at which point the vehicle gains a heart and soul and personality all its own. Tell me you haven’t patted that spinner as you walked by after a particularly rewarding flight, whispered a quiet thanks for a glimpse at sights not possible from any other venue, quietly stroked a wing leading edge while pulling a tiedown rope tight.

Access to an airplane allows some pilots to spread their wings to new territories, whether it’s new sales territories that leave competitors in the wake or new personal territories with a beach house or a mountain cabin in the middle—probably just a few miles from a general aviation airport. Indeed, airplanes have helped build economic empires: from Wal-Mart, which uses a fleet of business aircraft to run its highly efficient and far-flung business across the globe from small-town Bentonville, Arkansas; to Jim Robins, who flies his Socata TBM 700 from his office in Chicago to factories in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Pittsburgh and back to his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico; to Dan Geist of Crookston, Minnesota, who has poured his life into a couple of high-tech Air Tractor agplanes that help him earn his living.

For me, a barely used private pilot certificate qualified me to at least respond to a newspaper ad from an aviation magazine I had never heard of that was seeking an associate editor. The certificate set me apart from the thousands of other twenty-something new journalism grads who didn’t have the FAA’s blessing. I fooled that magazine’s executive editor enough to get me hired. Two and half years later that experience allowed me the chance to move to a magazine I had read since before I had earned the pilot certificate as a teenager: AOPA Pilot.

Others sharing the masthead here can tell similar stories. Editor at Large Tom Horne made maps for a living. Senior Editor Dave Hirschman was a newspaper reporter, as was Associate Editor Jill Tallman. Editor Mike Collins was a photojournalist. For some, having the pilot certificate opened new doors. For others, the passion for aviation only surfaced once they were exposed to it. As I reported last month in an interview with new AOPA President Craig Fuller, aviation has played a part in his life since he was a teenager—the interest there even earlier than that. After a career in politics, corporate America, consulting, and association management, his pilot certificate led him to the AOPA president’s office—a fork in the road that wouldn’t have appeared without the certificate.

I recently exchanged some e-mails with a young man who was lamenting that career and family obligations had nudged his flying off the schedule, but he remains enthusiastic about flying and plans to stay connected to aviation the best he can until time and finances allow him to fly more. I reminded him that the pilot certificate is a forever investment. Once you have it, you have it—short of a medical situation that grounds you. Tom Linton, a close friend, stopped flying decades ago. But recently, with kids out of the house and on their own, he returned to flying in a careful and methodical way, but enjoying every flight as his proficiency returned.

J. Lloyd Huck went through that phase, too. Leaving the military after World War II as a B–29 pilot, he went into civilian life as a chemist and got married. During the war years, aviation had been his life, but it suddenly took a back seat to career and family—although it remained a part of him. He rented airplanes, but wanted to fly more and to fly less expensively so he joined a flying club, then bought an airplane with a partner, and ultimately ended up owning several airplanes of his own. He seldom used the airplanes for business. His aviation was almost purely for recreation and relaxation. Today, at age 86, he has decided to stop flying his high-performance single and enjoy aviation at a more leisurely pace, and savor more of those Saturday morning get-togethers with fellow aviators at his local airport near State College, Pennsylvania.

Recognizing the importance that aviation has played in his life, he wanted to give back, so he donated his Cirrus SR22 to The AOPA Foundation. AOPA will be using the airplane as its 2009 sweepstakes prize (see “Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes: The Gift of Flight,” page 76) and will showcase the airplane this year as a symbol of just how phenomenal and life changing aviation can be.

You can help make sure that Huck’s mission succeeds by sharing the power of aviation with others. Be the spark that ignites in someone else the passion that you feel for aviation. The AOPA Let’s Go Flying Web site has videos and other resources to help you explain what general aviation flying is all about. Through this exciting site, you can help someone explore all facets of aviation, understand how they can use a general aviation airplane, the places they can go, how to find a flight school, and how to take that first flight.

Not the right time, you say? With fuel prices falling, fuel surcharges disappearing, used aircraft values lower than in years, finance rates sinking, and insurance costs decreasing, now may be the very best time to let others know about the wonder of general aviation flying. Now is the time for you to help someone change his or her life.

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