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Flying in Small Airplanes: A Passenger’s Perspective

The odds are against me being able to enjoy flying, and I feel lucky every time I strap into the seat of an airplane .
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Flying in Small Airplanes: A Passenger’s Perspective

I am not a pilot. But I am lucky enough to have a good friend who is. And a few times a month, I get to join him as he takes to the skies in a small, single engine Cessna. And every time I get to go flying, particularly in small airplanes, I’m struck by two things:

1 – Flying is not something I should be able to do.

2 – Flying appears, for such an incredible result, to be accomplished with a string of surprisingly small motions.

If you’ll allow, I’d like to expand a bit on these two thoughts. A couple of disclaimers first: as I’m not a pilot, some of what I say may be laughable to pilots. Please, post in the comments section below if you would like to laugh at and mock me. That’s (partly) what they’re there for. Second, I’ll be talking mostly about general aviation, defined as all aviation other than military and scheduled commercial airlines. This is because it’s what I have the most personal experience with.

I Shouldn’t Be Able to Fly

At the end of 2013, there were 617,128 active certificated pilots in the US. However, that number includes airline pilots and military pilots.  Of that number, only 180,214 were private pilots.  Now, the current population estimate for the United States is 320,206,000. Which means that roughly .056% (or about 1/20th of one percent) of the population has a private pilot’s license. Now, let’s says each of those pilots flies two or three times a month and brings along four passengers every time. That would mean that 901,070 people, roughly .28% (or a quarter of one percent) of the US population, get to experience flying in a small, private airplane on a regular basis. Even with those extremely generous numbers, that is still a tiny amount of people who get to have this incredible experience. Now, if you want to get a little crazier, let’s expand that to a worldwide reach. I haven’t been able to find a reliable estimate on the number of private pilots worldwide, but according to GAMA, there are an estimated 360,000 general aviation aircraft worldwide. Of those aircraft, 209,000, or 58%, reside in the United States. So, let’s boost the US private pilot numbers by 50%, which gives us 270,321, which is (hopefully) a somewhat accurate guess at the number of worldwide private pilots. Now, again, if each of those pilots takes up four passengers, we get 1,351,605 people worldwide who get to enjoy flying in small aircraft on a regular basis. So, what do we get if we match that against the most recent current estimate of a worldwide population of 7.2 billion people? .018%, or roughly one fiftieth of one percent of the population.

All of that is to say that the odds are (very) against me being able to enjoy flying, and I feel (very) lucky. This is to say nothing of the fact that every time I strap into the seat of an airplane and plunk on a headset, I also feel lucky to live in a time when we CAN fly. This has been one of humankind’s primary pursuits since ancient times. It’s not often that one gets to take part in something that was barely possible a century earlier, and a served as a driving force for thinkers, inventors, scientists, visionaries and daring pioneers for centuries before that. Airplanes, and flying, are the result of an incalculable, centuries-long effort from a list of people so vast we’ll never know all of them. We may be able to explain the actual mechanics of flight, but there is still something purely magical and exhilarating happening every time those little wheels mounted on thin, spindly struts leave the ground.

I Just Turn This Knob, Adjust That Lever, Flip Those Switches…

And for such a monumental achievement, I half expect there to be more visible effort involved. A crew of crusty old air dogs engaged in a variety of activities like trimming the sails, swabbing the deck, manning the crow’s nest, and making sure she flies true. And yet, the whole thing can be managed by one person. Flight, in all its power, majesty and euphoria can be achieved and controlled by one person. There’s the pre-flight inspection, run up and checklists to prepare yourself for flight. And though I know more effort is involved, especially on a mental level, flying the plane appears to involve only small adjustments and effort from the pilot once the plane is airborne. It’s fun, and a little hypnotic, to just focus on the movements of a pilot’s hands as they fly the airplane. They float from one area of the instrument panel to another, adjusting this, adding a little more of that, pulling back on those and then come to rest for a few moments.

And in the midst of all this, the headsets crackle to life from time to time, relaying radio messages from other pilots. “Truckee area traffic, this is Five Five Five Lima Golf. We’re about twelve miles south of the airfield, inbound to land runway 29, Truckee.” A safety precaution, yes, but with flying, it also seems more friendly, like a courtesy. This might be because every so often, after a radio call, the headset crackles to life again with a response. “Bill, is that you? How’s it going?” Being such a small group, pilots get to know each other, especially the longer they base out of a particular location.

Perhaps the intimacy of personal flight is what leads most private pilots to name their aircraft, and build a true, tangible bond with them. As Jim Hoddenbach once said of his Skywagon: “No one can tell me this airplane does not have a spirit.” As a passenger, I don’t feel the bond with the airplane the same way a pilot does. Really, how could I? But I am always grateful to the airplane after each and every time we touch down after a safe flight. Grateful that it got me back down safely, but also grateful it hoisted me into the sky on its back, and let me experience an hour or two of something I really shouldn’t be able to.

I put together a short video, viewable by clicking the “Play” button on the banner image at the top of the article, and it hopefully communicates at least a small measure of the joy of being able to take to the skies.

One Final Thought

Flying is fun. Somehow, aviators cherry picked all the best parts from other travel related activities, and combined them into one incredible package. Fast, direct routes? Check. Great views? Check. Craft that are way cooler than any car or boat could ever be? Check. Getting to talk on the radio? Check. A whole bunch of awesome, pilot specific jargon that you can spout off and feel cool when other people just give you a puzzled look? Check. Avoiding checking (and possibly losing) your luggage, security lines, chatty passengers, and worrying about if you’ll get a window seat? Check.

Oh, yeah, and getting to soar through the air faster and farther than a bird? Check.

15 Comments

  • I really enjoyed your article, Anders! I’m surrounded by so many friends that are pilots that I sometimes forget that there are very few people connected to aviation, especially general aviation. I enjoyed your insight on the fluidity of operating the controls, I never thought about it that way but it really is quite magical. Flight is such a wonderful thing!!! Your commentary about the camaraderie of pilots made me giggle & I really appreciate the light you’re shining on such a wonderful industry. Your video was very nice as well – loved when you focused in on the throttle! It was surprisingly artistic for such a mechanical endeavor. Great job!!!

    • Anders Clark says:

      Thank you very much, Chrissi! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and video, and I’m very appreciative of the kind words. And I also hope this helps draw more people into general aviation. The more people that get to experience the magic of flying, especially in such a personal way, the better.

  • Dan Dierking says:

    Great article but even better video. It captures the true joy of general aviation and why pilots and passengers enjoy all it offers. Well done.

    • Anders Clark says:

      Thank you, Dan. I’m very happy to hear you enjoyed the video, and that it captured that essence of general aviation for you. I was hoping that would come across. There are few things as amazing as being lifted into the air in small, single engine airplane.

  • jeffery.german@gmail.com says:

    Loved the article. I have been flying for 45 years, I have logged 13,500 hours plus. I am retired now but still actively flying. I have flown everything from a small Cessna 120 to a DC-3. I am type rated in the King Air 300/350 single pilot and a Cessna 500 small business jet to a Citation 7. A high performance swept wing business jet. I still relate to the small fun airplanes and after all these years still highly admire the person obtaining his private pilot rating.. I considered that my greatest accomplishment in my life even though I’m ATP multi engine, commercial pilot single engine land and sea. I salute my fellow pilots…

    • Anders Clark says:

      Wow! I’m more than a little jealous of the opportunity you’ve had to fly so many different aircraft, especially the DC-3. Of all the aircraft you’ve flown, was there one that was the most, for lack of a better word, fulfilling? One where the flying felt more natural? I guess I’m asking if there was one you felt more at home when you were behind the yoke.

  • Angelo says:

    So I guess the real question is, when are you going to get your pilots license?

    • Anders Clark says:

      That is a good question, Angelo. I’ve got some other things to take care of first, but maybe one day, I’ll be lucky enough to earn a pilot’s license.

  • Dan Winkelman says:

    Anders, great essay. The statistics are eye-opening. I knew we were a small part of the population, but I had no idea it was that small. I have always felt a sort of “social responsibility” to share flying with as many people as possible… knowing now how few ever get to experience this just makes it that much more of a priority!

    Light Sport is a wonderful way to break in to flying, if you can find a Light Sport plane and instructor. Some will pooh-pooh it, but those folks should be brushed off. It is a more affordable stepping stone into this very rare hobby, and you can have a LOT of fun flying low over the farmland on a sunny day in a Piper Cub with the door open. Once you’ve been bitten, if you want more than the fair weather scenic flight, you can then step up to getting a PPL. I think the affordability matters. It shows people that if you really want to, you can make the budgeting work, and there are ways you can do this for about the cost of a car payment per month.

    Anyway, great article, and a great reminder to those of us who fly how special it is to share that with others.

    • Anders Clark says:

      Dan,

      Thank you for the kind words. Also, of behalf of those who don’t have their PPL yet, thank you for feeling it necessary to share flying with as many lucky people as possible. That’s a very kind gesture on your part, and very much appreciated.

      And thanks for the advice on breaking in to flying. I agree that light sport seems like a great path into flying.

  • Dimitrios Myzithras says:

    I am sure you’ve seen this before (maybe too often), but I think it perfectly describes the spirit of an aviator…

    “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return”. – Leonardo da Vinci

    Great article!

    • Anders Clark says:

      Thank you! And though I have heard the quote before, it’s a great one, and always nice to refresh in your mind every so often.

  • Marcelle Roujade says:

    This is a great article. I am not a pilot but aviation is my passion. Flying is fun, I am trying to get young people to see the fun side of flying.
    Thanks for the great inside and statistic- It would be nice to know the ratio in the UK..I love the video – the music is perfect..

    • Anders Clark says:

      Marcelle,

      Thank you for the kinds words! I did some poking around, and it’s a little bit harder to find numbers on private pilots in the UK. But from what I was able to find, there are an estimated 28,000 people who hold private pilots licenses in the UK, and an additional 10,000 who hold certified glider licenses. And as of 2014, the UK census placed the total population at 65.5 million. So, that means about .042% (or a little less than one twentieth of one percent) of the UK population holds a private pilot’s license. If you include glider pilots in that figure, you get .058% (or a little more than one twentieth of one percent). So, if you hold a private pilot’s license and / or have the opportunity to fly as a small aircraft passenger in the UK, you’re definitely a lucky person!

  • Lorenzo says:

    Wonderful video, I just have to say 🙂 Thank you!

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