Friday, July 30, 2010

Gummy Flight and the Practicality of General Aviation

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
  Jul 2010
5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - PCW (Port Clinton, OH) - AZO (Kalamazoo, MI)
4.0 844.2
Aug 2010
N21481 AZO - HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - 5G0 4.1 848.3

I recently participated in an on-line discussion about "selling" general aviation to the public.  The word "selling" always makes me cringe because "selling" in this context has always sounded to me like a euphemism for "convince via falsehood".  Perhaps a better way to express the point of the discussion is not so much "selling" but "demonstration of practical value".

This is an interesting notion to me.  When I began flying, I never tried to ascribe a practical value to my avocation.  For me, flying holds immense emotional value.  Quantifiable, practical value?  Not so much.

One commentator noted a specific scenario of a seven hour drive that could be replaced by a two hour flight in a piston powered single engine aircraft.  He went on to note that the airlines, while always an alternative, can be a logistic nightmare when the points of origin and destination are not near major airports srved by the airlines.  He concluded that general aviation actually delivers value in those particular scenarios.  I thought he made an excellent point.  To my surprise, most of the other pilots disagreed and nit-picked this suggestion.

Obviously, there are caveats.  Is flying a Cherokee or Skyhawk competitive with the airlines for coast to coast travel in the United States?  Absolutely not, neither in terms of time nor cost.  At some point, single engine fuel costs will exceed the ticket price for a too small seat on a typical Flying Greyhound.  Furthermore, whereas flying Delta across the country is transportation, flying a single engine airplane along the same route is an adventure.  And our airplanes are also limited in terms of weather.  Even if I were instrument rated, thunderstorms and icing conditions are still not to be trifled with.  Would I recommend the average non-pilot go out and train, become a private pilot, and buy a light aircraft solely as a means to facilitate travel?  Of course not.

But when the weather is good and the trip is of moderate length (say, six to eight hours by car), I would argue that a trip by single engine airplane is quite practical.  Cheaper than driving?  No, I don't mean to suggest financial practicality.  After all, there is still the cost of purchasing and maintaining an airplane to consider.  But if one has already committed that particular act of madness, the airplane becomes a viable alternative to driving or flying commercially.  On top of this, when there is a three year old riding in the back seat, exchanging nine hours in a car for three in Warrior 481 has tremendous value.  Quantifiable value?  Perhaps not, but value nonetheless.  Parents will understand.

This was reinforced for me on the weekend of July 30 - August 1.  We needed to be in southwest Michigan for a wedding on July 31.  A one way drive would require eight to nine hours in the car versus about three in Warrior 481.  Naturally, we planned to fly if the weather was good or drive if the weather looked poor.  When the forecasts suggested thunderstorms on our intended return date, I was amazed at the dismay Kristy and I both felt.  Perhaps we are spoiled.  The prospect of exchanging a six hour round trip flight for eighteen hours in the car with a tenuously potty-trained three year old was extremely unappealing.  Of course, the car still trumps (1) getting stranded somewhere or (2) taking unnecessary risks around thunderboomers.

When I experienced that dismay, I realized that I had proven my own point about the value of general aviation for short trips.  That value may not be quantifiable in simple units like dollars, but it is real.

The weather forecast for Friday was pristine, it was the chance of thunderstorms over Rochester during our return flight on Sunday that concerned me.  As I watched the forecasts over time, Sunday gradually improved.  The forecast was not perfect when we made the decision to fly, but we arranged a back up plan to get home by Monday morning should weather shut us out of flying back to Rochester.

Another interesting twist was President Obama's appearance at a Chrysler plant in Detroit that created a no-fly zone around southeast Michigan reaching almost as far south as Toledo and almost as far north as Flint.  The deviation to the north that this TFR (temporary flight restriction) would cause effectively nullified the advantage of flying directly across Canada.  So, for the first time since 2006, our flight to Michigan took us south of Lake Erie.

We followed the Lake Erie shoreline at 8500 feet.  Cleveland was cloaked in evening haze, but we were nonetheless able to spot Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the Great Lakes Science Center (above).

Downtown Cleveland photographed from 8500' in the haze.

We made a pit stop in Port Clinton, OH for The Bear to get a potty break.  En route to Port Clinton, we flew directly over Cedar Point.

This wooden mountain is the "Mean Streak".  I've said so in these pages before...I do not like roller coasters.  Intellectually, I have no issue with them.  But my stomach HATES them.

This dramatic arch is part of the "Millennium Force" roller coaster.  I do not think my stomach would enjoy this one, either.

Our flight for the evening concluded with Warrior 481 in the care of the terrific folks at Duncan Aviation in Kalamazoo, MI.  Dinner was at Erbelli's: Chicken Mushrella pizza and draft Oberon.  That pie really hit the spot; bland pizza is my greatest disappointment with the food in western New York.

In addition to the wedding, we spent time at the Air Zoo (The Bear loves the balloon ride) and fed the giraffes at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek.  We saw several of our favorite people, ate at our favorite restaurants (Erbelli's, Food Dance, and Bangkok Flavor - a Kalamazoo culinary trifecta), and drove past our previous house (Dude, there's an in-ground sprinkler system installed. Please use it).

The journey home still held some uncertainty.  Would thunderstorms actually develop over western New York?  Upon departure from Kalamazoo about 4:00 pm, radar showed light rain in the vicinity of Rochester.  Cloud cover varied, but ceilings were acceptable and the shorelines of Lakes Erie and Ontario were both clear.  We determined that we would follow the shoreline and get as close to home as we could.

After all, the key to VFR cross country flying is flexibility.

We stopped for fuel at Three Rivers, where I did my original flight training.  The fuel price was great, but the tableau was depressing.  The field was deserted, runway markings had faded into illegibility, and some rather substantial weeds had forced their way through cracks in all paved surfaces.  It was obvious that no one championed the airport any longer.  The final straw came when I pulled the trigger on the fuel nozzle and a fountain of 100LL erupted from the side of it, splashing across Warrior 481's wing.  That's fine, I thought to myself, I need to wax the wings anyway.  But I needed fuel in the tank, not on the wing, to get home.  Fortunately, I discovered that I could still use the nozzle provided that I ran it at an excruciatingly low flow rate.  Our refueling stop at my aeronautical home was thus unexpectedly lengthy as well as depressing.

At the wedding, all guests were provided with a small box of green gummy bears who seem to hold some meaning for the bride and groom.  Everyone was asked to include the gummy bears in their adventures and share photographs with the newlyweds.  Here's our first contribution.  I call it "Gummy Bear Over Cleveland" because I'm just so darn literal.

We stayed over Lake Erie within gliding distance of the shore.  At 9500', that's not hard to do.  A scattered cloud deck flowed past our wingtip between Erie, PA and Buffalo (above).  We maintained a listening watch on automated weather observations from airports ahead of us.  The way home proved to be clear and without much ado, we returned home.

There are always concerns when traveling cross country by light aircraft, weather being among the most significant.  But when conditions are right and the ability to be flexible exists, the airplane has become a wonderful tool for making quick trips of moderate distance.  In the last four years, it has enabled us to make day or weekend trips to places like Kalamazoo, Michigan; Clarkston, Michigan; Plymouth, New Hampshire; Knoxville, Tennessee; Luray, Virginia; Lake Placid, NY; Bridgewater, NJ; and several others.  Without the airplane, many of those trips would not have occurred.  The airplane has helped us introduce The Bear to some of her grandparents, has helped to keep us connected with friends and family, and even facilitated visits to friends in need.  And of course, there's the reason I bought it in the first place: the endlessly therapeutic joy of aviating.

I did not buy an airplane with the intent of making any practical use of it.  But having taken the plunge, the occasional trip has proven to be a wonderful -- dare I say valuable? -- side benefit.

No comments:

Post a Comment