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Postcards: Me and My Cessna

With an airplane, the world becomes your neighborhood

A world of great adventure, general aviation maximizes your vacation and recreation time and stretches you intellectually, emotionally, and geographically as few activities can. A pilot certificate and an airplane give the freedom and flexibility to go when and wherever you want, make accessible what would otherwise be out of reach, and elevate traveling to exhilarating heights. With some 13,000 airports in the United States, there’s a place to land near just about any vacation destination you can imagine. Like no other mode of transportation, airplanes can provide the incomparable perspectives of flying above snow-covered mountains, great forests, and open beaches and heading home at sunset or at night over the jeweled necklaces of city lights below.

Island hopping

If islands are your preference, the choices include Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard on the East Coast, the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound of the Northwest, or the Caribbean.

Rather than driving two hours, finding a parking spot, and waiting for a four-hour ferry ride, fly yourself and the family to Nantucket, just an hour from Boston, and have a picnic lunch on the beach, followed by an aerial tour of the lighthouses of Cape Cod and nearby Martha’s Vineyard, or do some whale watching. After dinner in a gourmet restaurant, you can spend the night in one of the many bed-and-breakfast places in central Nantucket, once the whaling capital of the world and home of the Pequod in Melville’s Moby Dick. Summer is the busy season, but the crowds are fewer, the weather is fine, and the prices fall by as much as 50 percent after Labor Day.

The airport at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island of Washington State is within walking distance of the center of town, where you can dine on freshly caught salmon and stay at a floating bed and breakfast, The Jacquelyn, a 60-foot traditional sailing ship docked in the main harbor. A 5-mile bike ride takes you to the site of the famous Pig War, which helped establish the border between the United States and Canada. Orcas Island, just 15 minutes away by air, has the highest peak, Mt. Moran, among the islands, a beautiful harbor, and the Rosario resort, which offers gourmet dining, golf and tennis, sea kayaking, and a breathtaking view.

Azure water, warm breezes, tropical forests, and bronzed bodies on white beaches are among the attractions of the many islands of the Caribbean. The weather is usually great for flying and going over water is no cause for anxiety because there are plenty of islands with landing spots and only about 55 miles of open water.

The Bahamas, the Netherland Antilles, the Cayman Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, and the Caicos Islands are just some islands that have airports open to general aviation. You can even get an aerial view of Cuba if you use the Giron Corridor, which will bring you within a few miles of the coast with the assistance of the friendly Cuban controllers.

Baja California, Mexico

Where the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez meet at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula are Cabo San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo, called the Palm Springs of Mexico. Featuring 22 miles of beaches and ever changing landscape, the resorts offer the variety of water sports and the best whale watching. Cabo San Lucas is a modern resort with shopping, golf, restaurants, and night life. The more traditional San Jose Cabo has wide landscaped boulevards in the Mexican tradition and more casual night life. International cuisine, beautiful beaches, snorkeling, golf, tennis, horseback riding, and deep-sea fishing are among the options once you land on the 7,225-foot runway of San Jose Del Cabo airport.

On your flight down, there are more than 100 airstrips along the coast, some of them right on the beach. Guest ranches at Mulege and Punta Chirato have airstrips that literally take you right to the front door.

The golden West

The history of the Gold Rush unfolds as you fly along California State Highway 49 in the Sierras, known as the Mother Lode Skyway. Land at the eight airports that connect the 215 miles of dramatic man-made topography of the gold rush, and you’ll taste what the West was like. Flight time is a couple of hours in a single-engine airplane; terrain elevation runs up to 6,200 feet, and Mt. Bullion, Coarse Gold, Dry Digging, and El Dorado are some of the names you’ll see on the San Francisco sectional map. Drytown, so called because of lack of water, made up for it with 26 saloons. The Argonaut and Kennedy mines, at 5,912 feet, are among the deepest in the world. There is camping on the field at Westover-Amador Airport, and the Oak Tree Coffee shop is within three blocks.

Columbia, on the national historic registry, is restricted to horse and buggies, and downtown functions as if it were the Old West, except there are automatic teller machines. The airport has 200 campsites, with showers and toilets, and the region, a gateway to Yosemite National Park, offers hiking, fishing, hunting, and skiing.

Nevada County Airport, with on-site camping and a restaurant, is the former base of operation of aviation pioneer Lyman Gilmore, who successfully flew a steam-powered glider a year before the Wright brothers’ historic flight at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina.

Rafting

Piloting your Cessna 172 to the Greenville, Maine, airport, right on Moosehead Lake, sets the stage for four hours of white-water rafting. Wilderness Expeditions will pick you up for a wild ride down the Kennebec River in huge rubber rafts, followed by a steak and chicken barbecue and a video-viewing of your adventure. Another option is flying to Millinocket and renting a car for the 20-minute drive to the start of the white-water trip down the Penobscot River. With an airplane, either adventure can be done in one day. Or you can stay at The Birches on Moosehead Lake, an 11,000-acre resort that offers kayaking, camping, and hiking—the total wilderness experience in comfort.

Hemingway country

Trout fishing, white-water rafting, and a choice of hard-core camping or being pampered at a wilderness resort are some of the choices when you land on the back-country airstrips of Idaho. Yellow Pine, on Johnson Creek and near Thunder Mountain, has campsites complete with cut firewood, picnic tables, and hot-water showers. The ghost town of Warren is a relic of the gold-mining days, complete with saloons. The Lodge at Big Creek is the staging area for serious steelhead trout fishing. These possibilities in the largest wilderness area among the 48 states are accessible only by airplane. There are no roads.

Fall for football

Fall means football, whether it’s watching your alma mater or divisional playoffs. University of North Carolina alumni or fans have Raleigh Durham or Chapel Hill airports or the university-owned Horace Williams Field, just a mile from campus.

For California’s Stanford University/University of California- Berkeley game, use Palo Alto airport, with its taxis and car rentals, to get to the stadium, or land at Oakland Metropolitan, with its limousines. Both campuses are worth a visit; Stanford’s 8,200-acre farm features Romanesque architecture and landscaping, and UC Berkeley has a botanical garden and planetarium.

For the best scenic view, the University of Washington stadium overlooks the Cascade and Olympic ranges. Land at either Seattle’s Boeing Field or Renton Municipal, just 5 miles from the campus.

University of Michigan Wolverines require raccoon coats and stadium blankets, and Michigan Regional Airport is near the Studebaker mansion, where you can enjoy prime rib in the restored Tippecanoe Place.

The Deep South also has its share of conference leader and bowl contenders. Tuscaloosa Municipal runs limos directly to the stadium where the Crimson Tide of Alabama compete. Florida State’s Seminoles are served by the Tallahassee airport, and the capital itself is worth a tour, with archaeological dig and historic sites testifying to settlement well before Columbus.

The flying and skiing combined event

A personal airplane enables you to fly to the destination ski resort for a day or weekend of skiing and return home without fighting traffic or exhausting yourself. Two ski areas that promise to have you on your way to skiing within an hour of touching down on the nearby airport are Red Lodge Mountain in Montana and Sun Valley in Idaho. You can see the snow-covered trails of Red Lodge Mountain from the runway and the sliver of the airport from the 9,300-foot peak. Red Lodge serves as well as a gateway to Yellow Stone National Park.

The glitz of Sun Valley hardly overshadows excellent skiing. You can save some money on lift tickets with your family because, believe it or not, your 17-years-and-under offspring ski for free. Hi-tech computerized snowmaking ensures plenty of powder in this high desert area, and because of the short distances and services Sun Valley resort provides, your day can consist of downhill skiing in the morning, cross-country in the afternoon, skating on the centerpiece rink, and a pleasant dip in the 100-degree-water outdoor pool. Sun Valley will pick you up when you land at Friedman Memorial Airport, 14 miles down the road.

Across the country

An incomparable experience that every pilot should do once is fly across the country in his or her own airplane. By stopping where whim or weather takes you, you’ll learn that Lewistown Airport in Montana was once a refueling stop for B-17s being ferried to the European theater, that F-16s taking off from Sioux City sound like thunder from hell, that the farmers plow their fields in concentric circles to accommodate irrigation systems, that home cooking in restaurants isn’t necessarily that good, that Jack Barrow, memorialized at the Midland, Michigan, airport, knew Charles Lindbergh.

In the same day you visit Seattle, enjoy the pleasures of the San Juans and then go off to the gold-rush country of the Sierras in California. At altitude, you nearly touch the mountaintops and feel the vastness of the valley, the loneliness of the cattle ranch served by a single thread of a road extending to infinity, the surrealism of the Great Salt Lake, and the isolation of a small town in a parched valley that has you wondering what your passing above has to do with the lives below.

A network of friends

Pilots and their families are eligible to take advantage of a worldwide network of bed-and-breakfast inns and private homes that offer overnight lodging at reasonable prices, plus the friendship of like-minded people. As a member of the Pilots International Bed & Breakfast Fly-Inn Club, you will find friends you haven’t met throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and even Australia, and they’ll gladly pick up at the airport and show you a good time.

For example, if you’re flying across the country and need a place to stay, Pat Christensen’s Country Home in Spearfish, South Dakota, has room for eight guests and offers billiards on an authentic 1840 Monarch Brunswick table. The "best fresh water fishing anywhere" is promised if you fly to the Log Shack Village, a guest house for six 50 miles northeast of McMurray, Alberta, owned by Jim and Dot Martin.

In Rots, France, Dominique and Pat Leullier are your hosts in their lovely home, close to the D-Day beaches and among castles and manors dotting the French countryside. Alex and Joan Culvenor have room for four guests on their working sheep farm 70 miles north of Melbourne, Australia, and they’ll even loan you the car when it isn’t being used on the farm.

Around the world

The ultimate trip in your airplane is around the world. It’s done more often than you would think, with either single- or twin-engine airplanes, and by pilots with relatively low number of hours. Circumnavigation could have you camping on the lava hills of Iceland, playing polo in Kashmir, or sipping Pims #1 on the front deck of your tent while gazing at the African wildlife of Kenya. You might experience the charm of the Greeks, the work ethic of the Vietnamese, and the hospitality of Vladivostok Russia and ponder the birth and evolution of civilization in Alexandria, Egypt.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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