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…
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.
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.