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.
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.
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.
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.