AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines pilots a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 for business and pleasure — and first flights.
I've lost track of the number of introductory flights I've given over the past 30 years, but one thing I have learned is that low-level flying over the neighborhood is probably the worst way to introduce someone to the joys of general aviation flying. Flying at low altitude in the turbulence so the passenger can see his house while you do 45-degree banks above the treetops is a sure way to bring on the need for a sick-sack. Trust me on this.
Those who experience GA this way must come away thinking we're either crazy or of some high level of intestinal fortitude. What else do they know if their only impression of light airplanes is based on this one flight?
These days my recipe for a successful introduction includes a short cross-country trip to show the fun and utility of GA aircraft flying. While comfortably cruising in the smoother, cooler air at altitude, I can point out the sights along the way. If that goes well, we return to the airport via a brief fly by of their house or, better yet, schedule another flight where we can do some local flying.
During a recent flight a question from my oldest daughter reminded me that although my children have experienced GA from the time they were infants, they are not completely jaded about flying with me. We were cruising over the Chesapeake Bay when she asked me whether we might see another submarine. A few months earlier while flying down the East Coast to Florida, we had spied a sub on the surface departing the base just north of Jacksonville's Craig Airport. I had just pointed out to the kids the low-altitude prohibited area depicted on the Garmin GNS 530 and then pointed out the window at the sub base beneath the airspace. I told them to watch carefully because I had once — nearly 20 years earlier — seen a sub departing the base and heading out to sea. This was mostly just me babbling on to pass the time — not really expecting we would see something interesting. But a few seconds later I in fact saw a submarine headed down the channel. I made a couple of gentle turns so the entire family could see the big ship plowing through the water, headed for deeper seas.
I hadn't thought much more about the experience until Lauren, my 14-year-old daughter, wondered aloud from the back of the airplane whether we'd see a submarine in the Chesapeake. I assured her it would be unlikely, but noted to myself that occasionally we do make an impression that perhaps resonates at least as well as whatever text messages they may get at any moment and who has posted what on their MySpace account.
The trip across the Chesapeake was one of those productive introductory flights. Also on board were three of Lauren's friends, Beth, Zack, and Devin. Beth was a veteran of one previous flight with me, but this was Zack's first GA flight and Devin's first flight ever. The pending flight from Frederick to Ocean City, Maryland, had been the talk of the group all summer. It's a four-hour drive or about a one-hour flight. Given the distance, it's not practical to drive to the beach for the day, but it's very doable via GA airplane. Ocean City Municipal Airport is only a five-minute cab ride from the beach. You can be on the beach 15 minutes after landing if you call ahead for a cab.
The appointed August day arrived with bright sunny skies, moderate temperatures, and a light breeze — perfect for flying and the beach. After a safety briefing about the nuances of the Beechcraft Bonanza A36, Devin and the girls climbed in the back. Zack joined me up front. Air traffic control helpfully allowed us to fly right over Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) while Baltimore's famous Inner Harbor passed off the left side. From our smooth cruising altitude of 5,000 feet, I pointed out the Naval Academy in Annapolis to Zack. A huge freighter was plowing its way up the bay near the impressive Bay Bridge. A thousand small sailboats decorated the bay like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Once clear of the pesky Washington air defense identification zone, I handed the controls over to Zack who skillfully piloted the airplane toward the Atlantic Ocean. A few minutes later I was making the turn from base to final at Ocean City. Minutes after that we were in the cab headed for the boardwalk.
Throughout the day, the kids actually invited geeky old dad to hang out with them. I had planned on leaving around 6 p.m., but they were still going strong so we extended the day — something easily done when you know the flight won't leave without you. We finally lifted off into the night a little before 9 p.m., this time with Devin up front. Because of the darkness and a little haze, I decided it wasn't fair to make that his leg to fly, so he has a rain check for another flight where he can take the controls.
On the way home we got to see the sights in reverse, with a string of cars lighting the Bay Bridge. BWI was a sea of blue taxi lights. The city lights clearly defined the arcing of the Inner Harbor shoreline.
We touched down in Frederick 55 minutes after leaving Ocean City, the kids still chattering as much as they were 12 hours earlier when we left. I'm convinced GA made a positive impression that day — mostly because the kids got to experience the utility of general aviation flying. Driving to Ocean City will forever be compared with the thrill — and convenience — they experienced of flying there.
Introductory flights can be rewarding for the pilot — and they needn't consume an entire day. A short flight to another airport for breakfast or lunch, a golf outing, or a ski trip are good ways to show someone the fun and utility of GA flying. Pick a smooth, good weather day — or a good time of day, which probably means morning or evening — and climb to a comfortable altitude. Leave the low-level maneuvering for another time.
And if you have someone who is truly interested in learning to fly, volunteer to mentor them through AOPA's Project Pilot program (www.aopa.org/projectpilot). Few things in life are more rewarding than helping someone else discover the joy of flight.
For many pilots, discovering the joy of flight comes while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a flight instructor in a small airplane. For me, that person in the right seat was John Julian, a flight instructor legend in the northwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio region. Few people have had the impact on my life that he had — and who would know that such a quiet, unassuming guy could touch so many in such a positive way? Hundreds turned out for his memorial service at Pennsylvania's Greenville Municipal Airport on August 12, but even then it was only a small fraction of the number of students he has soloed and the number of pilots he has recommended for one certificate or rating or another.
A gaping hangar door welcomed the crowd who had come to share a few minutes with others whose lives were enriched through their association with John. As I stood outside the hangar looking across the grass runway, I couldn't help but reflect on the 30 years since I had soloed there. In fact, it was August 11, 1977 — almost 30 years to the day — when John, wearing his signature blue jump suit and baseball cap, extracted himself from the tiny Cessna 150 and sent me off to fly a few circuits from the grass for the first time by myself. We had used both the paved runway and the grass runway throughout my training, so it
was no big deal from an operational standpoint for me to make the flight from the grass. But the flight itself was certainly a big deal to me. I won't bore you with the unremarkable details of the flight. Thanks to his patience in teaching me landings and his quiet encouragement, the event went off without a hitch. The tail of my green and yellow striped T-shirt was clipped and signed and hung in the terminal for years before the building was remodeled. The rest of the shirt hangs here in my home office where I write this today, a constant reminder of that important day.
As I wrote in these pages in the July 2001 issue, the community named the road leading to the airport after John and his wife, Bernice. For the locals, Julian Way is still the path to the airport. For those of us who learned to fly under John's tutelage, the Julian Way is a way of flying.
E-mail the author at [email protected].