Land of the (Unknowingly) Free

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?

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Pilot in Command

I’m going to get this blog rolling again by telling some stories from important flights I’ve had in the last few years. By “important” I just mean the flight taught me something about flying or life in general. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few of these aerial “ah-ha” moments, especially recently.

This past Thanksgiving we were visiting my wife’s side of the family in the Salt Lake Valley. The weather was pretty good, and I somehow managed to talk them all into thinking it would be fun if I got checked out in an old rental 172 and took everybody for rides. Tuesday I did the rental checkout, and afterwards went for a quick spin with my wife, and then with her parents.

Thursday, in addition to being Turkey Day, was my nephew’s thirteenth birthday. I’d arranged with his parents to take him and my wife’s brother for an airplane ride to celebrate. My plan was to fly from South Valley (U42) to Spanish Fork, on the south side of Provo.

On Wednesday night, as I thought about the flight the next day, a nagging voice came to my mind with startling clarity. “What gives you the right?” it said. “Are you out of your mind, Dave? You’re expecting your sister-in-law to trust you to take her oldest son up in that little deathtrap? You hardly ever fly those things. You don’t know what you’re doing. You could get killed, or worse, get him killed! Then what would you say?”

It didn’t take me long to answer the irrational doubt, but in the process I had to say some things I needed to hear. “Of course we’re not going to get killed,” I said. “I am a professional pilot. I may not get as much experience as I’d like in this particular model of aircraft, but it doesn’t matter. I am a pilot, and the Cessna is a machine. It will do whatever I tell it to do. I have trained myself for this. I am the Pilot in Command.”

I spent a good deal of time that night poring over charts and satellite images, until I was certain I could find my way to the Spanish Fork airport and back without any help. I planned the altitudes at which I would fly to avoid the invisible upside-down wedding cake of controlled airspace surrounding Salt Lake International Airport. I planned the point at which I would call the control tower at the airport in Provo to ask permission to fly through its airspace. I called the Spanish Fork airport to ask if there were any unpublished notices I needed to be aware of. There would be no surprises. Even though I had never flown to the Spanish Fork airport, it would be familiar enough to me when I got there.

The flight went exactly as planned. I knew how the aircraft would perform, and together we flew precisely the route I decided the night before. Had the engine stopped at any point during the flight, we would have been able to land safely because I knew what to do and I was always ready for it.

My passengers’ trust in me was not misplaced. The little airplane did not fly fifty miles to a foreign airport and return safely by chance. I flew it. I ignored the nagging voice of doubt, warning of unknowable danger, because it was wrong. It said, simply, “Stay home. Flying is too dangerous, especially with someone else’s kid on board.” I said again to the doubt, as I clicked off the master switch and listened to the gyros in the instrument panel spinning down, “See? If I had listened to you, I would never have known what it felt like today to glide down a final approach and stroke my wheels like paint brushes on this runway.”

Flying is not nearly so dangerous to the soul as a life of cowardice, wallowing in the security of the familiar ground.

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The Slacker Returns

After a long hiatus, I think I’m going to give this a try again.

Life in the last few years has taken a few interesting turns. I’ll try to bring in some stories to fill the gap, but I think it’s best to start back up again with some more recent events.

Here’s where I’m at now: I fly MH-60S helicopters. I live in Virginia Beach, and I have a baby girl. Those are the biggest changes since I last wrote, and should probably help make sense of the posts I hope will follow this one.

Thanks for stopping by. Watch this space!

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