When Americans speak with fond passion of our many freedoms, most overlook an absolutely stunning freedom more easily available in America than anywhere else in the world: the freedom to fly.
Most people associate flying with freedom. Most people also have no idea just how attainable the freedoms of flying are to them. Many people I meet are enamored with the idea of soaring effortlessly through the atmosphere, and the obvious freedom to move around the map quickly. But flying offers what I believe is the greatest freedom of all: freedom from, in the words of Antoine de St. Exupery, “the tyranny of petty things.”
Travel on the ground is controlled by roads and lanes, stop signs and traffic lights. As we cower in our automotive exoskeletons of metal and glass, buildings and billboards tower over us. A journey of only a few miles can take hours in heavy traffic.
Leave the ground, by only a few hundred feet, and the perspective changes. Individual people disappear. Tiny cars follow one another like ants along thin trails of pavement. The works of man, which dominate the life of the ground-dweller, fall into obscurity beside mighty rivers, soaring mountains, and the thick carpet of verdant forest.
Life in the sky is lived in the eternal, absolute, self-existant terms of wind, cloud, speed, and altitude. Here, at last, the mind, body, and soul of man are truly free from the tyranny of petty things.
According to the FAA, there are presently 5,180 public-use airports in the United States. Of those, only 587 are certificated for scheduled commercial airline use. If you’re going anywhere, chances are there’s a public-use airport closer to your home than the nearest commercial airport, and another one closer to your actual destination than any you can buy a ticket for. If your trip is less than 700 miles or so, even a modest personal airplane will get you door-to-door in less time than the airlines.
Because we are Americans, we can have this privilege cheaper and easier than anyone else in the world. For an initial investment of around $10,000, almost anyone can get a private pilot’s license. A mere $500 a month thereafter will keep you flying two or three Saturday mornings every month. You can even own, insure, maintain, and fly your own small airplane for less than many middle-class American households spend on car payments.
How is it, then, that as of 2008 only two tenths of one percent of Americans were active pilots?