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Aha moments

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines owns a Beechcraft Bonanza for personal and business flying.

Lest we get too cynical about general aviation flying, every once in a while it provides an "aha" moment that reminds us how truly remarkable this avocation is that we embrace. While we espouse the wonders of flight to others, we live the reality of avgas topping $4 a gallon, aging airplanes, limited utility, and a public and general media who seem at times hellbent on wiping general aviation off the face of the Earth as if it were some deadly virus. Smallpox we're not, but there are days when I feel like I live in a petri dish.

When I'm sitting with the aircraft insurance bill in one hand and the annual inspection bill in the other, it's easy to go down a path of thinking that begins with the question: "So why is it that I do this?" At that point one might be tempted to actually figure out what it costs per hour to fly. Trust me on this, you don't want to go there, and you certainly don't want to show your spouse the result.

Instead, you need to go in search of one of those aha moments. They can happen anywhere and at the most unexpected times and on the most routine flights. I had one just a few weeks ago.


Two days before school started this fall, I left my 12-year-old daughter speechless, which is an achievement in and of itself. "Last-word Lauren," as we call her, looked at me slack-jawed and stunned. "No, really, Dad. What are we going to do tomorrow?"

"Why not the beach? It's only an hour in the airplane," I queried, somewhat perplexed by her unimaginative thinking. This is a kid who took her first airplane flight at 6 weeks old and who thinks of our Beechcraft Bonanza as just another means of conveyance — one that shrinks the five-hour drive to grandma's to just an hour and 15 minutes in the airplane. With the airplane, we regularly make weekend or overnight trips that her friends would need a week to complete.

"Hey, Jenna. Did you hear that?" she quizzed her 10-year-old sister. "We're going to Ocean City tomorrow."

And thus began our annual daddy-daughter pre-school outing. Last year it was a trip to Pennsylvania's Hersheypark, where we sampled all of the roller coasters. Storm Runner, launching you from zero to 72 mph in two seconds, is worth the price of admission.

Beachbound, we took off the next morning a few minutes after 9. We left behind Western Maryland's sunny skies and flew across Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay toward overcast conditions. The datalink weather on the Garmin GNS 530 showed scattered light to moderate showers just south of our destination, Ocean City, Maryland. The night before, the forecast had been for clear, sunny skies at the beach.

A few sprinkles splattered on the ramp as we tied the airplane down at about 10 a.m. We shrugged off the rain. We were planning on getting wet anyhow. The visibility was good and it appeared that the worst of the showers would stay to the south for most of the day.

A cab was waiting outside the FBO and 10 minutes later we were on the boardwalk — just 90 minutes after leaving the hangar. It's normally a four-hour drive to the beach, making it an impractical day trip for most people in our neighborhood.

On this late August Tuesday, the beach was nearly deserted — at least relative to the usual summer weekend crowds. We romped in the waves for hours and spotted two schools of dolphins meandering down the coast, playing in the bow waves from the boats. A couple of showers dampened our towels on the sand, but we hardly noticed in the water. Overhead, a pair of pilots earned their keep towing banners behind Piper Pawnees. One had the cockpit window open, his arm hanging in the breeze.

As I snapped a picture of my daughters linked arm in arm, tumbling over a wave, I had one of those aha moments. This is why we fly airplanes — one of the reasons we fly airplanes — to allow us to get more out of life. You only go around once and an airplane helps you make the most of that one opportunity. Without the airplane, we probably would have stayed home, with them whiling the day away playing computer games and watching television — certainly not a recipe for memory making.

By late afternoon, we piled back into the airplane and headed home to the still-sunny skies — in time for them to get to cheerleading and pompom practice. Feeling a bit smug, I wondered how many of the other girls on the squads had been to the ocean for the day.

Aerial moments

Most such memorable moments occur in the airplane, and it matters not what type of airplane you are flying. Seared into my memory are images remembered from flights in exotic aircraft to exotic places, but just as many are rooted in everyday flying, piloting the most pedestrian of airplanes.

I can describe for you an image of the Arizona desert as seen out the wedge-shape windshield of a Learjet 31A from 51,000 feet. The remarkable blue of the sky is like no other blue I've ever seen.

I have an image of New York City's Central Park as seen from the left seat of the Fuji blimp. People stopped to gawk up at us as we strolled overhead, the guide ropes dangling out front. It was almost as if they could leap up, grab hold, and come along for a ride.

Siberia during its short summer night — twilight really — is a lonely sort of place when viewed from the cockpit of a general aviation airplane. One solitary light glows at some remote outpost fewer than 80 miles from the Mongolian border. We stopped for fuel hours ago and our next stop is hours ahead. Who lights that light and why?

But just as clearly, I can recall for you flying a tiny polished Ercoupe through the summer haze of North Carolina. I can still feel the breeze on my arm as it hangs out the open canopy while I drive the little airplane through the sky.

Calm and crisp fall mornings remind me of the flock of egrets pirouetting over a misty, slate-gray pond as I motor overhead in my Cessna 172. I'm in awe of their precision.

I can't look at a big orange rising moon without remembering a trip from Wichita to the East Coast. We're at Flight Level 250 in a Cessna Conquest on an early winter evening. It's dark to the east. Back toward the west, a bit of sunlight clings to this day, not wanting to let go. Ahead, a giant orange disk appears seemingly out of nowhere. Soon basking in the moonlight it's as if the entire East Coast has been hit with a nuclear holocaust. We turn the radios down a bit and sit in silence, attempting to absorb the vista. The enormous moon soon changes from fiery orange to ashen gray; its proportions slowly return to normal. Air traffic control calls out traffic sparkling just ahead and the moment — but not the memory — is gone.

I get to relive this one, although from a different perspective: It's been a long day of flying, interviewing, touring, and flying back home again. The fuel truck has gone — I'm his last customer tonight — and I'm about to push the Bonanza back into its home. The clock on the hangar wall shows 9:35 p.m. I see the trees on the ridge to the east picking up an orange glow and then the rim of the moon peeks through. Knowing I'm about to get a show, I turn the hangar light off and crawl up on the wing, sitting cross-legged in the dark. With the airport now deserted, I hear the engine ticking as it cools. The oil gurgles back down into the sump. The intensely orange moon emerges from behind the trees, taking up a third of the horizon. Within a few minutes, the show is over. Luna goes back to her usual size and color. Somewhat reluctantly, I slide off the wing and feel a little guilty assaulting the peace by firing up the tug to push the airplane into the hangar.

Those bills. They'll get paid. The a-ha moments, they're worth every penny.

Share your aha moments with the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines
Thomas B Haines
Contributor (former Editor in Chief)
Contributor and former 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.

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