It sure is quiet at my airport

I started flying again 19 years ago. My parents had moved from the very small community of Gorman, Texas, to the almost as small Kerrville, also in Texas. This change turned an almost unbearable five-hour drive into a truly unbearable six-and-one-half-hour safari. A virtuous son ought to see his folks more often than once every three months but it was just so far…

Abandoned airport
Not much life at many smaller airports these days.

I had an old logbook with eight hours and two solos in it. From another time. That earlier attempt at my private certificate hadn’t failed, it had just faded away, pushed farther and farther into the background by concerns of career building and home building. The logbook was still with me though in a vinyl satchel with Piper emblazoned on the side. Two books, a student model E6-B, a small packet of flight plan forms, and two brochures for new 1978 Piper airplanes were also in the satchel. One was for a Warrior II, a PA-28-161. Suggested retail price was $22,360. The “Executive” option package weighed 84.6 pounds and cost another $4755. Among other things this bought you a vacuum pump, gyro instruments, deluxe carpet, and a cigar lighter. The colored picture on the last page showed a King-equipped panel with two KX-170s, two VOR heads (but no glideslope), an audio panel with marker beacon lights, and an ADF. There wasn’t any info anywhere in the paperwork about what the avionics would cost. My own guesstimate is that you could drive one off, IFR equipped, for probably $32,000–fairly big bucks in 1978.

Fast forward to 1995. I now lived in southeast New Mexico. The hours in the logbook still counted, and it appeared that I could magically turn that six-and-one-half-hour-drive into maybe 1+45 with a little airplane and a little training. Steve was my new flight instructor, a big fellow, not much older than my oldest son, building time and looking toward a big airplane to fly. He had a ready smile and an easygoing manner and we got along just fine.

The Trainer was a Cessna 150, a tired one at that, one radio, no anything else, painted in a gray and white military motif. I asked when we could start and Steve looked me over and said to come back in the morning, early. I am also a big fellow and our field elevation is 3660 feet. It turned out that we were over gross with any more than 12 gallons of gas and there wasn’t any climb rate without help from the cool morning air. He warned me as he dismounted for my first (or was that third?) solo that the little bird would fly like a real airplane, and it did. I was off the runway with over half of it left, and climbing, wow, four maybe 500 feet a minute. The lightness made the first flare interesting, more like a whoop-de-doo, but it finally stuck on the third rebound. Carb heat in, flaps up, and away we went, twice more before I called the tower and told them this one would be full stop. I climbed out with my shirt stuck to my back and long dark sweat stains down both sides and remembered how it was the first time…and the second time…and this time didn’t seem very much easier.

I noticed during that first couple of weeks that it sure was quiet at our airport. Steve told me he had six students that were taking instruction alongside me, but I never saw anyone and I hardly ever saw an airplane moving unless I was driving it. A couple of the old timers said I should have been there in 1978. All the hangars were full and long rows of airplanes were parked on the east ramp attached to tiedown cables.

Old hangar
Tired now, but “you should have seen it in the good old days.”

The tiedown cables are still there, but there haven’t been any airplanes attached in quite a while. The hangars are still there too, but these days there are more bass boats and RVs in them than there are airplanes. I did my cross countries to small towns in West Texas. Monahans comes to mind as typical. I landed there on a beautiful, crisp, windless Saturday afternoon and taxied up to the FBO. Not a creature stirring. One guy behind the counter. I asked if a courtesy car might be available to go get some lunch. He smiled and tossed me the keys, said it was out front but no one used it much and to come back and get him if it needed a jump. I returned about 45 minutes later and asked if it was always this quiet. He remarked that there wasn’t much going on but that the R/C model airplane guys had just been out on the south side of the field taking advantage of the no breeze. I paid for my gas and left, this time the only full-sized airplane moving.

I know that there are places where little airplanes are thriving. I spent ten days at David Wayne Hooks Memorial on the north side of Houston mid-summer a few years back. Went down for some instrument instruction. This is one of the prettiest airports that I ever saw. Pine trees, a lake just beside the main terminal building, and airplanes and people everywhere. Saturday afternoons here had folks with polishing rags in the shade of the hangar sheds. Some were working over the Cherokees and some were just lounging in lawn chairs with an ice chest handy. Diet Coke in those I’ll bet. The flight school, United Flight Systems, must have had ten instructors, all in white shirts and black ties and they were busy with students and airplanes coming and going like mad. Since I already had close to 30 hours of instrument training, the young fellow they assigned to me took me for an evaluation flight to Montgomery County 15 or so miles north of Hooks. We did a couple of approaches and some of that “under the hood” stuff and on the way home I asked him what he thought.

He replied that I flew beautifully, but that my radio procedures really sucked. In that active airspace the tower and ATC boys wanted brief, clear, and immediate responses to their machine gun instructions. All I could say was that where I came from things were a little more leisurely. When the tower would tell us to expect left traffic for three-zero they then had time to give updated basketball scores for the local high school team, complete with commentary on which players were in foul trouble.

The professional aviation writers have drafted numerous articles in the last couple of years about the resurgence, resurrection really, of general aviation. I wonder. Flying is still very expensive, not only in terms of dollars but also in commitment. Plenty of both are required to gain and maintain proficiency and noodling around the airport on a nice spring afternoon is just not sufficient justification for most people.

Airplanes are traveling machines, but the 100-mile trip has been taken away by 75 mph highways and air conditioned, cruise-controlled, CD-playered, 25-mile per gallon automobiles. I have seen statistics quoted somewhere, maybe by a manufacturer in support of their prices, that there are thousands (millions) of people who can afford to purchase new airplanes. These guys are not looking just for people who can afford the planes though. They are looking for people who can afford them, are willing to invest 100 hours in initial training, many additional hours in recurrent training, have 200 or more miles to go, and travel often enough for the whole effort to make sense. A lot of folks will meet one or two of the criteria but it is a pretty select group that will meet them all.

There may come a time when our joystick and keyboard kids can load up, type in a destination, and sit back to let advanced technology avionics do most of the work. Our futureplane will be all-weather capable, air traffic control will be fully automated, and the cost will be roughly equivalent to the family Buick. Until then we are likely to remain a pretty select group, airplane pilots–not airplane drivers–and our airports are likely to remain…quiet. If your place is a beehive drop me a note to let me know, I’d like to visit sometime, just for the change of pace.

22 Comments

  • Larry, this is a terrific article.

    Since 9/11 many non-pilots are scared of visiting their community airports out of fear of inviting scrutiny. As pilots we must all help open up airport culture to our neighbors so that they can come see, touch, smell and experience the beauty of aviation. Until we open and promote our community, we can’t expect people to make the commitment to train and fly.

    I’m based in Austin, Texas and often fly to Fredericksburg (t82), a facility that does a great job of promoting an airport “experience” – there’s a terrific diner onsite, a nice hotel, and static airport. “Thriving” might be a strong word to describe T82, but it’s busy compared to most small, community airstrips.

  • The concept of airplanes as traveling machines has been the focus of most marketing efforts; to the point of greatly overselling the need and capability. It made some sense in the days of 50 mph cars, two lane roads and DC-3’s, but not today. The real problem is that most people don’t need that much transportation; a few trips a year at most and those trips need to be done on a schedule. If airplanes were marketed (and built) more like boats or motorcycles then the activity level might be higher. The costs can be much lower once stigma of having to have all weather, go anytime capability is eliminated.

    It’s also true that just motoring around the airport doesn’t do it. Just like driving around the block on a motorcycle doesn’t do it. The local Harley dealer is constantly sending me notices of some event in which the motorcycle owner can participate. A motorcycle is at least as useless as an airplane, but there seems to be a lot of motorcycles on the road.

  • You should drop in to Wichita, KS sometime. Compared to your area it’s definitely a beehive, within 20 miles we have 8 airports and most are really active. Look up stearman 1k1, Augusta 3AU, Jabara AAO, and cook field. Stearman and cook both have houses built next to and connected with taxiways to the runway. It is really a sight to see, Wichita holds much of the “good ole days” of general aviation so many people talk about

  • This is a glass-half-full essay. Accurate, but only a spotlight on a small segment of personal aviation.

    I’ll disagree with you that light aircraft as traveling machines are not much better traveling machines than autos. Except, of course, for bad weather tolerance, flying always beats driving. If one can tolerate occasional weather delays, then the effective range, in terms of hours travelled and miles range for the typical 2-4 day weekend trip, a light aircraft makes for a lot more feasible destinations than a car can reach. Living in South Florida, a long weekend trip much beyond northeast Florida by car is not feasible. By light aircraft, with a cruising speed of 115-150 knots (typical for most four-place single engine birds), that weekend trip range (4-5 hours flying time) extends up to the Carolinas, north Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. A little more than a one-hour flight from Southwest Florida to the Keys compares to an 8-hour slog through heavy traffic via Miami-Dade County and the Overseas Highway.

    Besides, it’s just one heckuva lot more enjoyable to see the nation from the air than being stuck in heavy traffic dodging the idiots on a typical freeway. Flying beats driving, period.

    As for the current level of GA activity, of course it’s well down from the peak years of the 70s, when hundreds of thousands of WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam war vets, both ex-military pilots and others wanting to use their GI bill benefits to learn to fly, swelled the ranks of American personal aviation. That period was a one-time bulge in the pilot population – before WWII there were very few non-professional pilots, and very few models of pre-war transportation-capable light aircraft were available. But if you came of age in the 70s (as did I) then you can be forgiven for believing that that was a “normal” scenario for personal aviation.

    The liability lawsuit explosion of the 80s and the natural die-off of the older vets each had their progressively depressive effects on flying activity in the 80s, 90s, 00s, and now 10s. Plus, the light aircraft manufacturers that turned out hundreds of thousands of birds in the glory days of 50s, 60s, and 70s sort of worked themselves out of a market; that’s because of the strict FAA maintenance rules that caused their products continue flying on for many decades, depressing the demand for new aircraft.

    Outside of transportation flying, if you want to see lots of flying activity today, get involved with a local or state pilot association, a type club, or a recreational flying association. Or get into the EAA. You have all four types of associations available there in New Mexico.

  • Larry’s somewhat melancholy story could have been written by an airman based at most small airports in the midwest. Even the situation here in Indianapolis is sobering. There are seven uncontrolled GA airports in the immediate area, and none of them could be called “busy.” At the airport where my Chief is based, there have been many calm, sunny days when I worked all day in the hangar and heard maybe one airplane in operation. The busiest it gets is when the EAA chapter gathers 6 or 7 airplanes for a breakfast outing somewhere. I have been based at this airport for nearly 8 years, and the decrease in activity over that time has been striking. There are still lots of airplanes in the hangars, but most of them don’t fly much, and most of the ones that do are piloted by men over 50 (apologies to Judy B.!). Beyond question, GA at large continues in decline, for reasons that collectively make up a well-beaten dead horse. I am not the one with the answers.

  • Your story, Larry, sounds very familiar. I appreciated your analysis of who the target audience might be for aviation efforts. I have aged out of the active pilot population, but I ran out of a need for a traveling airplane long before that. I kept a Stinson in the air intermittently (thinking of it as a flying “bass boat”) until I retired. I then couldn’t justify the annual expenses for a fabric airplane to be flown a couple times a month, and I still hadn’t developed a specific need for a long-distance destination.
    The one thing you didn’t mention is the cost of transportation on arrival unless you are being met by family or friends. When you factor the rental fees in, the cost of the trip just took another jump.

    I also am surrounded by general aviation airports. Other than biz jets generated by the Behemoth of Bentonville and those dealing with them, the skies are strangely quiet. It appears they will remain so.

    I appreciated your writing. Keep it up.

  • My wife and I took at 3 day trip from Columbus, OH to NYC this week. We took an airline instead of my 182 because of a tight work schedule and the possibility of icing conditions this time of year. As it turned out, the weather was beautiful and I could have made the trip faster and at similar cost in my own plane.

    I flew to two work related conferences earlier this month (Chicago and Baltimore), and was glad to take my own plane.

    The heyday of GA may have come and gone, but for trips of 500 miles or less, outside of icing season, I think GA has considerable utility, plus — let’s just admit it — it’s more fun than dealing with airlines and the TSA.

  • $185.00 an hour rental fees for a Cessna 172 got me out of the left seat 3 years ago, after flying for 30 years. By the time ya get it into the air and taxi back you only get about 40 min of flying.

    Other pilots say, that’s not so bad I pay ….
    I am resigned to flying an Xplane on the computer now.
    Rock Mount NC

    • Chick, I hate that you decided (or money decided) that you had to religate your flying to a computer. However, those rates are outrageous. I’m a black CFII, from California, currently living in Memphis. The 172s at our flight school begin at $130 an hour. As you step up to more capable 172s (with glass cockpit) the rate escalates to $160 an hour. The instructor fee is $40 an hour. When I took my first flight I was 18, in the United States Air Force. I did not have a college degree at that time, I do now. Therefore, I rented a Cessna 150, at the base flying club for $12 an hour and the instructor earned $8 an hour. Can you imagine that? After returning to instructing after a 19 year absence, I almost fainted at the rental rates and instructor fees. I also mentor black youth and those that I instruct I cut their rates to $25 an hour in order to assist them in keeping the cost down. I have no control over the airplane, however. As matter of fact, I have 5 white students, 3 of them live in single family homes. Their mothers are their only guardians. I also chopped my hourly rate to $25 an hour for them. Regardless of my students skin color or gender I want to help them earn the Private license. I do not charge any of my students for ground school instructions. That saves them lots of money. I look at this my way of giving back to my community. With the current fuel prices decreasing greatly more students are entering the student pilot ranks. I wish you all the best.

      • Willie: When I started taking lessons in 1973 you could get a 10 hour block rate on our local flying club’s Cessna 150 for $11/hour. My first instructor was a local spray pilot who charged $4/hour and also didn’t charge for ground instruction. As the song says: “Those days are gone forever, over a long time ago…” I’m glad there is someone like you helping out the next generation. — Don.

    • My response, especially to Chick Nezas of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, is that living now in Southside, Virginia I am not too far away from you, and suffered the same lack of affordable nearby rentals. None are within an hours drive for me. Sure I can go to Danville, Va. or Lynchburg, or similar places in North Carolina, where I could rent, for double the money, a four place which I neither want nor need.

      The hourly cost automatically cuts in half the hours one can fly. Add to that, the insistence—especially 9-11 of first proving you can fly to an instructor, then having an up to date medical—a growing risk as one ages. plus a biennial check ride and the $4-500 spenmt blows the flying budget for awhile.

      Sure, drive twice as far to get to a “cheap” rental of a very tired C-150 at the New London, Va. airport. Then I have little energy (or gas money)left to fly more than an hour “around the patch” and then head home wondering why I blew all that money I could have used to buy some toy or tool to use for other hobbies!

      General Aviation will continue to shrink for economic reasons as government continues to shrink dollars and entertainment budgets for most of us, fewer affordable airplanes to rent or buy, an aging population caused by our low native birthrate, and the rising costs of just about everything.

      Our future lies in our past, as a fun thing in basic airplanes flown out of small public and private fields. (Most pilot/owners I know here in the gently rolling landscape of the Southern Virginia, Northern North Caroline, base their aircraft at home– yet another reason why public airports are so empty!)

      Solution? Find an ultralight or light sport you can afford—meaning a well used aircraft that fits the bill for a no-medical, no-biennial, no expensive annual inspection aircraft. For me, that meant someone else’s basket case LSA project. After over a year working on it, it and I are close to flying. I’ll let you know.

  • Larry, I have to agree with you, but there is also the very unfriendly atmosphere of community leaders that have no interest in GA. We had a midsize GA airport, (GA/commercial, public use,) anyone could walk on and get a reasonably priced flight, but the USAF closed down their huge S.A.C. base, so the county closed down their multi purpose airport everyone loved, and opened a now one at the former base, with the stated aim of getting only commercial flights. But, they did more. They closed the only local flight school/aircraft rental/pleasure flight facility in the area. Local community college went into a cooperative agreement with the area high school technical training center to develop an aeronautical institute, for training A&P’s. Moved it from its original destination, at the new airport, and put it on the (now closed) former airport.
    I can’t even get on that new airport, except for the new terminal for scheduled flights, (Allegiant, Spirit, and a 30 seat commuter flight.) Still have a few friends with planes there, but to get to them, I have to get them to escort me. Kids are not welcome, as they were at the old airport. It is an insane situation.

  • To Doyle,
    For the insane restrictions on access to the new commercial airport, you can thank jihadi terrorism and the pervasive state security apparatus set up in the wake of 9/11/01. Basing a private airplane at airports with scheduled airline service– even just a few flights a week– has become unduly burdensome and a great detriment to GA. We are very fortunate in central Indiana to have many alternative airports with much less burdensome security hoops. How long that will last is an open question.

  • Just got my private license in a small aerodrome in southern Alberta (Canada). We have 3 trainers to use as rentals – but they are circa 78 with a real worn out cockpit. I’m lucky to get one with a transponder. The only thing i truly don’t like is renting – those 1-2 hours of renting are fun but VERY limited.

    How do i break away from this and get into real flying. I ride my motorbike in the mountains because I can be gone/lost for days – but I OWN it.

    I’d LOVE to do a long trip in the air – but its just not an option and my 30 mpg dodge pickup keeps me locked down in payments. Ugh…i need to win the lottery.

  • Seems like we have a conversation about declining GA activity every time I’m at the airport chatting with other long-time CFIs. My tower-controlled (and state capital) field has a fraction of the based piston aircraft it did 30 years ago. Most tie-downs are filled with derelict airplanes that fly rarely; many may never fly again. Most of the owners of the aircraft in the hangar are over age 60. 100LL sales are pretty much inconsequential; as at many airports, all the money is in jet fuel, and the FBO wouldn’t sell 100LL at all if the city didn’t require it.

    The only ray of hope is that we’re a tourist destination, so we get some piston transient traffic, but it’s still a fraction of what it was in the past. The most frequent visitors are late-model Cirrus, Bonanza, and Cessnas with glass cockpits. Apparently, the owners of $400-$500,000 aircraft can also afford to use them, while the owners <$100,000 aircraft can't.

    Meanwhile, business jet and RJ airline traffic is strong and increasing. Visits by fractionals are common. The "jet center" FBO is busy with pilots and passengers. Price is no object to many of these folks, who have their 2nd or 3rd homes here and visit a few times a year in a jet that rents for $2500/hr.

    And, strangely enough, student starts and completions have been strong. We have an active LSA school, plus a school flying 40-year-old Cessnas. Both reported a good summer. But we find that about half the folks who get their licenses rarely or never fly again. It's as if they complete their goals, after spending $8000 each, then quit. Their curiosity is evidently satisfied. Or, more likely, they don't have another $5000-$10,000 to invest EACH YEAR on flying and staying current enough to be safe.

    All this confirms what many are saying: The MIDDLE CLASS are missing from aviation. The old adage that aviation is for the rich has become true, even if we deny it. There are just not THAT many people who have the money and time to commit to this expensive hobby.

    Meanwhile, cars now drive 80 mph and airfare is only $500 when the same trip would cost $1500 in a rented Cessna. And The Other Guy crashes his plane several times a week, making small airplanes, rather than their idiot pilots, look like a safety problem.

  • I also question how, when they only fly with a CFI once every two years, after having flown just 100 hours during those two years, middle class pilots can afford to be SAFE these days. My answer: They aren’t, at least for anything but local flights. Sorry folks, but I will not let my family and friends take trips with pilots who fly so seldom and can’t be bothered to get a few hours of recurrent training every year.

    The aviation industry thinks we need more pilots in order to justify our GA airports and aircraft. They like to say, “Anyone can learn to fly.” Well that’s just wrong. It’s very difficult, and consumes as much time as several college classes. Flying takes an enormous commitment of time and money and concentration…none of which most average folks have today.

    I’m thinking the answer is that, we DON’T need more pilots…we just need to sell airplanes to people who can afford to use them for their obvious utility advantages, and afford to hire the flying done. Someone who can afford $400/hr. for a Cirrus can also afford $60/hr. to hire a professional, instrument-rated pilot. EVERY airport in America has a commercial pilot or CFI who does something else for a living, but would love to take 15-30 trips a year in a Cirrus.

    The manufacturers need to concentrate on selling fractional shares in fully-equipped aircraft crewed by commercial pilots, and give up on the concept that flying is a “middle class” activity.

    • Marc, there is no way your “family” should be flying with those pilots. But, you are putting ALL pilots in the commercial realm, unlike me, the personal/pleasure pilot. But, to get to that level of aviation expertise, we need to fly, but it is getting more and more difficult, not just because of cost, but also ignorance on the part of some, (many,) people

    • I am continually amazed at people who expound that everyone should get a commercial pilot to do the flying. How do you get to being a Commercial pilot? By becoming a Private Pilot first, but that isn’t happening because the disposable income my late father had is not available to me. Sorry but it now seems like it is only the Dr.’s and lawyers who can afford the cost of flying. I do believe the flying club may save GA, but it will be years before I’m able to join one after retirement in 3 years maybe.

  • Come out to West Houston Airport “A friendly place to fly since 1962”
    Woody Lesikar the Airport Mgr/Owner welcomes all.
    Since you have been to David Wayne Hooks, its not far on the Westside.
    Old Hull Field, now Sugarland Municipal Airport @ Hwy 6 & Hwy 90 is busy indeed.

  • I started flying in 1966. A C-150 was $9.00 an hr wet.
    Aviation in this country was a beautiful thing!

    After fifty yrs. and more then a couple thousand hrs., about 4 months ago, I told my wife we’re done flying, these government dictators have beat me into the ground. Although very healthy, I decide I wouldn’t have to get that phony physical again, but the FAA just couldn’t “ged’der done”.
    After 911 all my wife’s and my plans in retirement, me with a almost complete A&P, we’re going to buy another Mooney but it was all ruined by the FAA grounding us and the private pilot slap down, a dictatorial Chicago Mayor, manipulated high fuel prices, frivolous lawsuits against aviation, etc.

    Not the same but luckily we still get ride our Harley.

    Thanks to Dick Collins for being my IFR mentor and passing his knowledge and experiences on.

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