Proficient Pilot: Playing favorites

I’ve never met an airplane I didn’t like

January 1, 2013

Barry Schiff

It’s no secret that I have flown many types of aircraft—330 at last count—explaining why I occasionally am asked, “Which is your favorite?” My temptation is to say, “Whatever I am flying at the time.” Paraphrasing Will Rogers, I have never flown an airplane I didn’t like (although there are some that I enjoy less than others).

This might seem like a flip response but it is generally true. It is not because I consider an airplane to be anthropomorphic and am concerned that, if insulted, it might challenge me more than it would otherwise. It is because the joy of flying is derived not so much from the type of aircraft we fly, but rather from what we do and experience with it.

This morning was an example. A cold front had passed through Southern California and left in its wake widespread and small cumulus puffballs set against brilliant blue. Unable to resist the beckoning, I drove to the airport, rented a plain-vanilla Cessna 172, and headed toward uncontrolled airspace. There I cavorted among the clouds while listening to music I had recorded especially for such purposes. (It includes oldies such as Born Free and stirring themes from 633 Squadron and The Dambusters.) The flight reminded me of when flying on an instrument flight plan, seeing a convenient cloud with a well-defined vertical side, and trying to slice a wing tip through it so that only one side of the cockpit goes IFR while the other side remains in the clear. This is fun—in any type of airplane.

While ferrying home my factory-new American Champion Explorer, a 1998 retirement present to myself, I had descended into Colorado’s broad and griddle-flat San Luis Valley. I was following a straight highway that led to the horizon while cruising at 500 feet agl. The airplane’s sharply defined shadow following alongside the highway provided a visually exciting sense of speed, even at 100 knots. I turned a few degrees left, trying to cage my shadow between the shoulders of the highway. My shadow soon began to overtake a large truck heading in the same direction. I carefully reduced airspeed to match the speed of the truck and ever so gradually laid my shadow directly over it, thus creating unexpected shade for the driver. He had to have wondered how this could happen under such a cloudless sky. I then saw him lean out the window and look up at me. He waved. I rocked my wings, added power and passed (on the left, of course).

Would it matter what type of airplane I was flying? As long as it was relatively slow and had high wings, the joy of that event would have been the same. Having said that, I do have favorites, but my preference depends on my mood and the type of experience I would like to have. For example, if selecting an airplane to satisfy a craving for raw excitement, I cannot think of anything I have flown that generated as much of an adrenalin rush as when I soloed a P–51 Mustang. (Sadly, I soloed the famed fighter only once, so the thrill remains a punctuation mark in my career.)

If lured into the sky at dusk on a warm summer day, I would prefer donning helmet and goggles and climbing into a classic, open-cockpit monoplane or biplane. Any of several types would do the trick quite nicely, thank you. If pinned to the mat, though, I would confess that my favorite is a toss-up between the Ryan PT–22 and the Stearman PT–17. When I want to wash my wings in the wind, commune with nature, and be at peace with myself and the world, it is difficult to beat a sailplane. My favorite? The one without an engine. And then there are times when I yearn to soar across the yellowing pages of history to maintain an appreciation of what the Greatest Generation and its successors achieved and sacrificed so that we might continue to live in freedom. For this, I am satisfied with any aircraft built to be emblazoned with symbols of the United States military.

None of these, however, is practical for taking friends and family to nearby or far-flung destinations. For this purpose, my favorite airplane depends on my requirements for speed, range, and passenger capacity.

A problem in choosing a favorite flying machine is that there are so many I have not flown. Sigh. So many airplanes, so little time.

My son, Brian, who flies for a major airline, says that his favorite airplane is a jetliner flown by a three-man crew. “Think about it,” he says. “If someone in a two-man crew does something inadvertently and quietly malodorous, the other knows immediately who is the culprit. But when on a three-man crew, no one knows.”

That’s my son.

Barry Schiff has written more than 1,600 magazine articles and currently is writing his fourteenth book. Visit the author’s website.