Learn to Fly
The View From Above
Crossing the USA in a light airplane
BY RICHARD L. COLLINS
Travel in light airplanes is like nothing else. Compare it with airline travel, especially over longer distances, and it may seem slower. Compare it with cars, and it is almost always a lot faster. There's more to it than the numbers, though. The biggest difference is in what you see and how you move about with total flexibility.
In the years that I have been flying, I've crisscrossed the United States many times, and this has left me able to visualize just about any spot in the country. I've seen it not through the porthole of an airliner or the limited view from the road, but from the expansive view from my airplane. Every bit of it is beautiful, though large areas of the country are, well, stark stark beauty.
Even though a person might use an airplane for business, that doesn't mean you can't look out the windows and savor what you see. There's also aerial touring in a light airplane, a fine thing to do with family and friends. We have a group of congenial people that we tour with, and it's honestly a lot of fun. Because we are all on the East Coast, most of our tours are there, concentrated in the Southeast. In recent times, we have flown as a group to Ocracoke Island, North Carolina; North Key Largo, Florida; Asheville, North Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; and Charleston, South Carolina, to name a few places.
Whether you tour with a group or by yourself, or enjoy the pleasures of flying when on business, there are some sights not to miss. Let's take a few flights, so you can see what I mean.
The mountains of the West are particularly beautiful, and most eastern pilots choose to go touring in the West in the summertime. My first trip out West, more than 30 years ago, was memorable. I had been flying for 10 years in the eastern half of the country, and this trip made me wonder why I hadn't gone west sooner.
I started in Vero Beach, Florida, with a brand-new Piper Cherokee, a 120-mile-per-hour four-seater. The purpose of the trip was to deliver the airplane to its new owner in Portland, Oregon. The first day's flying was up the Florida peninsula and then diagonally across Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and into Oklahoma. I spent the first night in Tulsa. That first day, I flew routes I had flown many times and didn't see a lot new.
The next morning, the territory would be familiar as far as Wichita, then I'd be seeing new things. Because of some inclement weather along a direct route, I elected to fly a more northerly route. That's one of the assets found in flying light airplanes. Plans can change as often as you wish.
The Great Plains stretch for endless miles, flat as a pool table, and are always quite a sight. The first stop for fuel the next day was North Platte, Nebraska, and after that, I really started seeing new sights. On the north side of the North Platte River, the terrain was dotted with only occasional ranches and small ponds. At one point, I didn't feel like there were more than 200 people within my field of vision, and the visibility was unlimited.
The first of the Rocky Mountains that I saw was Laramie Peak. Its elevation is 10,272 feet. I was flying at 6,500 feet a safe distance away, but the mountain was most impressive anyway. At Sheridan, Wyoming, which is just on the east side of the Rockies, I must have looked like a country boy getting his first peek at the Empire State Building. I just wandered around on the ramp and took in the view while they pumped fuel into the Cherokee.
After Sheridan, the destination was Helena, Montana. There were some clouds around, so I wasn't going to be able to fly the straight-line courses I had been. One technique available in such a situation is to follow rivers just make sure the valleys are wide. My plan was to follow the Yellowstone River and then fly through Bozeman Pass in Montana and then on to Helena. If clouds obscured the pass, I would simply turn around and make a new plan.
Flying down the Yellowstone River Valley from Billings, Montana, to Livingston, just east of Bozeman Pass, was a beautiful ride this day. The clouds, white puffy ones, were broken at about 2,000 feet over the wide valley floor. There had been rain in the area, and the valley floor was a rich shade of green. The patches of sky were a deep blue seldom seen in the East. Years later, I can still visualize the sight.
I got to Helena that evening and spent the night there. I liked the area so much that I've gone back, taking my family on one trip and treating them to a flight into the wilderness area northwest of Helena, where the U.S. Forest Service maintains some landing strips. Pilots are free to use these, but they must be used with caution. The best way to prepare is to get an instructor-pilot who is familiar with the area to check you out on the strips that you wish to use. Then you can go commune with nature on your own.
Helena at the time was still using silver dollars as normal currency, and I could not resist leaving with a real pocket full. I still have them.
The next day was one of the prettiest I have ever flown. It was partly cloudy. The clouds were relatively low, and I made my way carefully to Portland, stopping frequently and seeking the advice of local pilots. In every case, their advice was good. As I flew through the Columbia River Gorge, just north of Mt. Hood, and was treated to a spectacular view of Multnomah Falls, I thought that this is about as pretty a sight as you can see.
That was as nice a three-day trip as you could have in a light airplane. I flew from the lower right to the upper left of the country, 2,937 miles in 23 hours of flying.
Another out-west trip that stands out is one from Long Beach, California, to Kalispell, Montana. Once the Los Angeles area and the desert are cleared, the route goes over the Sierra Nevada, a really spectacular sight from a light airplane. The mountains are as rugged as they come, and on a clear day, you can literally see forever. Farther north, the route affords a view of the Idaho primitive area north of Boise and then goes on into Kalispell, which is just north of Flathead Lake.
More recently, I had need to get some video footage of Mt. Rainier one summer and spent an hour on a calm afternoon flying around the mountain, taking its picture. It is a beautiful sight and looms large and high above, even with the altimeter on 12,500 feet. A few months after flying around it, my wife and I were in Seattle on business and drove a rental car down to the mountain. Seeing it from the ground gives perhaps 10 percent of the feel you get for the mountain and the area from an airplane.
Another thing that strikes you as you fly any of the routes west is the dedication of the folks who made the trip in wagons. In many areas, it is hard to imagine how they found their way through the mountains, and while we know that a lot of people made it through, a lot must have failed along the way. I recall sitting in a bar atop a hotel in Las Vegas and asking the bartender how the town happened to develop in this location. His answer: "This is where the axle on the wagon broke." Most of the towns and cities in the Rockies must have come to be simply because of reasons like that.
There's plenty in the eastern United States to see, and folks from the West have as great a time with aerial discovery as we do in their part of the country.
It's across the border, but Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has a beautiful small airport right on the lake, with customs and everything else you need, including a ferry to the mainland. It's a nice city to visit, too.
We went with some nonflying friends to Block Island, Rhode Island, one weekend. Yes, an airplane is the best way to get there or to Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, as well. We were flying back to New Jersey, where we lived at the time, and I asked the air traffic controller in New York if we could have a scenic tour of the city. He wasn't busy and let us cut across Manhattan, over Central Park, and then fly south down the Hudson River, all at about 3,000 feet. The only way I have seen New York prettier was on a night flight from La Guardia down the East River and on to New Jersey, at a level even with the tops of the buildings. I grew up in New York City and worked there for a number of years, and believe me, it is much more beautiful from a light-airplane cockpit than it is from the streets.
New England is filled with great places to fly, including the famous Sugarbush ski area where, in the summer, you can learn to fly a glider. Just across the Green Mountains, Basin Harbor, on the banks of Lake Champlain, offers beautiful views and high living. There's much to see and do all along the East Coast, as well as the rest of the country.
One of the earliest fascinations with flying has been the transcontinental journey, and when you learn to fly, it will just be a matter of time until you take on the whole country on one trip. It has been done many ways, one of the most innovative being in 1929. That year, the Pennsylvania Railroad teamed with Transcontinental Air Transport (the forerunner of TWA) to offer a 48-hour coast-to-coast combined train and airplane ride, lopping 36 hours off the fastest train trip. The train left Pennsylvania Station in New York at 6:05 p.m., and the riders ate and snoozed their way to Port Columbus, Ohio, where, the next morning at 8:15 a.m., they boarded a Ford Trimotor airliner and flew to Waynoka, Oklahoma, with stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Wichita. The Waynoka arrival was scheduled at precisely 6:24 p.m. The sleeping car on the train was ready for occupancy at 8 p.m., but the car wasn't attached to the train and rolling until 11 p.m. The switch back to the airplane the next morning was at Clovis, New Mexico, and the landing at Grand Central Air Terminal in Glendale, California (near Los Angeles), was at 5:52 p.m.
A footnote to this bit of history is that the old air terminal in Columbus where the transfer was made is still there, at the southeast corner of what is now called Port Columbus International Airport. One hangar at Central Flying Service in Little Rock, Arkansas, where President Clinton parks his airplane when he goes home, is the very same one they put the Ford Trimotor in at Waynoka, Oklahoma. The hangar was moved to Little Rock in the 1930s by the government's Works Progress Administration, a job-creating scheme during the Great Depression.
One of my favorite trips in a light airplane now is to do a coast- to-coast trip in one day. It takes an airplane that will cruise at 180 mph, and even then, it is a long day. It gives, though, a feeling for the country that you can't get anywhere else. Because the prevailing winds are west to east, the trip is easier from the West Coast to the East Coast, with a tailwind; though I have done it in the other direction, as well. For now, let's fly from west to east.
Start in southern California, and once you clear the urban area, there's desert. Those of us who live in the East tend to forget that the whole world isn't crabgrass and swamp maples; flying for hours over the desert is a good reminder of the great variety that is our country.
The flying is a bit different, too. In the major areas, there is constant jabber on the air traffic control radio frequencies. It gets pretty quiet in the wide-open spaces.
My favorite route is one that goes over the Grand Canyon and then just south of Monument Valley. Both are spectacular, and unless the lighting is identical each time you fly by, you see something new. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times because the low light accentuates the beauty.
My most memorable flight over the Grand Canyon came one day with my son. He was flying, and I was using the airborne weather radar to avoid some thundershowers in the area. Because we were navigating primarily to avoid the clouds, I wasn't aware of our exact position in relation to the canyon until we flew into a clear area. My son said, "Gee, Dad, look." We had flown out right over the middle of the Grand Canyon. It was clear over the canyon, with billowing cumulus to the north and south spectacular.
Flying on east, I always fly out of the Rockies with a tinge of regret. There is so much to see, and I suppose you could use all your days poking around out there and never see it all.
Having left the bustle of a big city, the first stop for fuel is always interesting because it is strictly at small-town America, places like Lamar, Colorado; Garden City, Kansas; or Childress, Texas. The folks are friendly, and the service is good. I always wonder what it would be like to live in one of those towns, literally hours by car from the nearest larger town.
Flying east after the fuel stop, the pace quickens on the radio. There are more airplanes out there because the urban areas are closer together and are lined up along the route Wichita, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Dayton, Columbus, Pittsburgh like a string of pearls if you happen to fly it at night.
From southern California almost to Kansas City, you look down on few trees. At least there are no forests down there. To the people who live there, though, it's God's Country, and that is what counts.
Little towns are fun to examine from a light airplane. It's like looking at a detail map three stores, a gas station, and a school. There is no question that basketball is the biggest sport from Texas to Ohio because the gym is the largest building in town. Fly by a college town, and the football stadium dwarfs everything else.
Where my little airplane looked substantial on the ramp at the small-town stop, it will be parked among the big airplanes belonging to the Captains of Industry if I select, say, Indianapolis for the next stop. More air traffic too, with the air traffic controllers busy getting all the airplanes in a line and feeding them to the runways.
The accents of the air traffic controllers change as you fly across the country, but their excellent service does not change. In California, they had neutral accents; in the middle, there's that good old twang; and when you get to New York, they talk rapidly but clearly.
The sun usually sets somewhere around Columbus, and on a clear night, the ride on into the Northeast is a real treat South of Pittsburgh with Cleveland but a glow on the horizon to the north. Then Washington and Baltimore and Philly become visible, all lined up and seething with activity. The glow on the horizon is the real Big Apple.
Wonderful a purely wonderful way to spend a day. Close to home, a friendly air traffic controller might ask where I came from today.
"Wow, that's a long way."
"Not so far and a lot of fun. Beats a wagon, too."
In fact, it is a true magic carpet.
Richard L. Collins has written numerous general aviation books and articles. He is a former editor in chief of AOPA Pilot.