Flying and California go together like baseball and hot dogs; like politicians and hot air; like kittens and schmaltzy greeting cards. By every indicator California is the flying-est state in the union. This is attributable to a huge population base, a strong and diverse economy, months on end of CAVU flying weather, and a strong aviation heritage. What other state can brag of being home to flying machines as varied in mission yet as important to America's aviation legacy as the Douglas DC-3, the North American X-15, Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose, Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne, and the late Paul MacCready's human-powered Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross? At last count California has 65,867 licensed pilots. That's approximately 17,000 more than Florida, which holds second place in pilot population stats.
This means that more than 11 percent of all registered U.S. pilots live in California. More than 38,000 aircraft—again more than 11 percent of the total—are registered here. According to a July 2007 fact sheet issued by the Division of Aeronautics arm of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), California aviators flew more than 3 million hours in 2005. General aviation pilots accounted for 80 percent of those hours. That means that we, as a group, averaged 6,575 flight hours a day in every day of 2005. We're up flying all the time. Why is flying so popular here?
When non-flying friends ask me how fast my airplane is, I tell them that it's so fast that it permits me to better use the only thing I can't get more of—time. If I chose to join the hustle and bustle that's now part of driving the highways to my sister's house, it will take four hours and 25 minutes. I could do it faster by taking a more direct route but I usually choose to avoid the shorter route because this two-lane, east-to-west artery is commonly referred to as "Blood Alley" because of its higher than normal accident rate. Airplane travel cuts the travel time to one hour and 20 minutes. Again, the ability to fly up and back in less than three hours permits more time with family. Personal flying above the often congested and occasionally confrontational highways has proven to be much less stressful during California's typical CAVU flying weather.
California's flying attractions vary widely and no other state except Alaska can boast of more than 840 miles of ocean coastline, high mountain ranges, wide expanses of desert—based solely on rainfall totals, Alaska's interior would qualify as a desert—and thousands of acres of old growth forest. This state is a natural wonderland and many national park sites, such as Yosemite, are renowned the world over. More than one-third of California's magnificent coastline is protected under the state park system. This system also provides more than 18,000 campsites for outdoor enthusiasts.
Access to these wonders is made easy for pilots because of the state's 250 public-use airports. These airports range from the paved 7,000-foot-long runway at Mammoth Yosemite airport—which is the state's highest airport at 7,128 feet above sea level—to the 2,600-foot-long turf runway at Columbia—a favorite fly-in site featuring campgrounds within a few yards of the tie-down area. Furnace Creek airport in Death Valley is 210 feet below sea level.
The editors of AOPA Pilot have been writing "California Flying" articles every month since February 1999. Most of these articles are mini-destination pieces about California airports. In spite of being at this for more than eight years we have only managed to visit 95 airports. There are a lot of airports in California. For access to this archive of California flying adventures visit the Web site.
During research for one of these "California Flying" articles, the attractions in and near the town of Mendocino fit my family's needs so perfectly, that we recently returned from a memorable and relaxing fly-in, four-day visit. It took a little more than two hours of flight time to transport us from Paso Robles to a part of California we truly enjoyed seeing.
Airplane ownership also presents California pilots with quick access to the many attractions that are only available in the world-famous cities of the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin. Stage shows, world-class medical facilities, and professional sporting events are all readily accessible by airplane. Not too long ago a fellow baseball fan and I departed home at 9:30 a.m., flew up to Oakland International airport, took in a 12:35 p.m. game between the Oakland Athletics and the Detroit Tigers and were back home in time for our evening meal.
When attractions and services are separated by long distances it's no wonder so many Californians make the decision to invest their time and cash in flying.
If California were an independent country, its economy would rank somewhere between number seven and number 10 when compared to the sovereign countries of the world. California contributes 17 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States, yet has only 8 percent of the population. One reason for the tremendous general aviation presence here has been a booming economy since World War II. The well-diversified state economy revolves around electronics and computers, aerospace, film production, food processing, petroleum, tourism, and agriculture. This widespread prosperity affords many Californians the opportunity and the wherewithal to learn to fly, and to purchase and maintain an airplane.
The avalanche of aviation activity is reflected in the fact that 13 of the 50 busiest general aviation airports in the country are located in the state. Van Nuys, number 2, handled 378,000-plus general aviation operations in 2006. Other southern California airports ranked in the top 15 include Long Beach, Gillespie Field, John Wayne-Orange County, and Montgomery Field. Pilots who train in and learn to handle the demands of flying into and out of these busy airports are well prepared to fly anywhere in the national airspace system.
Flying Californians enjoy a unique access to the amazing variety of recreational, entertainment, and natural resources that abound in our beautiful state. I'm taking off in the morning to visit a new airport. I love flying in California.
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