From the archives: Dick Collins on airline vs. GA flying

Editor’s note: In our latest trip through the Air Facts archives, we discovered this gem from the April 1965 issue. Here, a young Richard Collins considers the advantages and disadvantages of traveling on the airlines versus flying oneself by light airplane. Is it really worth it to fly instead of ride? Nearly 50 years later, many pilots are still asking the question–Collins answers it definitively.

A month or so ago we were sitting in a big comfortable chair thinking about airplanes. A lovely young gal brought a bourbon or two along to lubricate our thoughts, and then she furnished a big steak to satisfy our hunger. After that we thought about airplanes some more over a cup of Sanka.

That big chair we were sitting in was attached to a jetliner―a TWA 727 to be exact. The airplane was enroute from Wichita to Kansas City to Newark. We had flown our own out to Wichita and there swapped it with the Editor for the return half of a Newark roundtrip ticket.

TWA 727
A pretty comfortable ride, especially in the back. Better than GA?

You might imagine our thoughts. The jet was big, comfortable, quiet and completely vibration free. A well-fed crew was up front worrying about such things as gas and weather. A Board of Directors somewhere was worrying about paying for the great silver whale as was evidenced by a plaque up on the crew door to the effect that a New York bank was interested in the airplane. All we had done was buy a ticket and get on―an entirely painless way to travel.

Going out, flying our own, there had been some bad weather to start with, and about an hour of IFR getting away from the Philadelphia/Washington area. Then there was good weather but a big headwind. Flying time ran on up to about 9:30 from Trenton to Wichita counting a detour. The jet brought us back in 3:40, including the stop at Kansas City.

It is enough to make you wonder. It especially made us wonder, as the last half-dozen or so trips we have made flying ourself involved a lot of sweaty weather or strong headwinds one way or the other. No matter how quiet and smooth and well equipped a small airplane is, it takes a lot of effort to make the necessary preparations and then fly it a long distance through a big piece of weather. True, it is challenging, and satisfying, but doing it alone still leaves a fellow pretty beat at the end of a day. Likewise, a 50 knot headwind can make the miles slow and the days very long.

Way Back When

The first time we rode on an airliner, in 1943, they didn’t go very fast, nor were they air-conditioned or pressurized. Even the best flights stopped quite often. Riding the airlines then wasn’t so very different from rolling your own. The family airplane at that time was a Culver which was only about 50 miles per hour slower than the best airliner, the DC-3. Now, though, when the big jets are compared to the small airplanes flying becomes two different worlds. They are 400 miles per hour faster for one thing. A Piper ad not long ago even said something to the effect that the jets are best for the really long hauls because of their great speed.

The last three times we have ridden on jets (we don’t ride them often―this was in the period of a year) the trips have been perfect―on time, smooth air, good chow, pleasant stewardi, and pilots who could get the things down without making us nervous. As mentioned, the last few trips made with ourself as captain haven’t been so relaxing.

Heresy

Piper Twin Comanche
The Twin Comanche is fun, but would the airlines be easier?

Faith in the Cause had even been lost to the point where consideration was given to a roundtrip to Arkansas on an airliner―even with the Twin Comanche available. That’s pretty unheard of, but with one wife and three children wanting to go along it would be crowded in the Twin Comanche, and with it crowded we would rather have good weather. In that the trip was to be made toward the end of February the outlook for good weather was bleak. It looked like American Airlines might offer the easy way out with its morning flight from Philadelphia to Little Rock.

It is hard to lose faith altogether, though, and it was finally decided to make the trip in the Twin Comanche―but on a good weather, no big headwinds basis only. If the weather didn’t look good or if headwinds were strong we would wait until another day. The decision to go wouldn’t be made until the morning of departure.

How About That?

The first day our schedule would allow us to leave came, and lo and behold, the weather map on TODAY that morning showed it clear all the way with the exception of a few snow showers in our area. The snow showers were around, too, but looking out the window we could see big patches of blue sky, and the tops looked low. The decision to go was made as soon as the weatherman told us the winds would be northerly in the Philadelphia/Washington area at rather high velocities, shifting to strong westerlies in eastern Tennessee and then diminishing rapidly on further westward. It looked as perfect as possible for February.

And it was perfect. It took 10,500 to top some clouds over the Shenandoah Valley, but on down into Tennessee the tops dwindled and finally the lower clouds went away. When we landed at Knoxville for gas and lunch it was a beautiful spring-like day.

From Knoxville to our destination, Fordyce, Arkansas, it would have been out of the way to follow airways and omnis as that would have involved a route over Nashville, which was north of a straight line between the two points.

On a pretty day like we had it seemed appropriate to try dead reckoning again anyway, and figure variation, deviation and wind drift and come up with a compass heading to fly, using the Mississippi River as “landfall.” It is almost 400 miles from Knoxville over to the point of proposed “landfall” on the river―a challenging enough distance for dead reckoning.

Like a Bird

Just as there is something stimulating about flying VFR in marginal weather, or about winding up an IFR flight with an approach to minimums; there is something relaxing and revitalizing about flying like a bird―i.e., with no outside diversions. No radios going, no nothing turned on. Just the air and the airplane.

The simple life is nice, and not to fly like a bird every now and then is a big mistake―just like it is a mistake for us to always write about the adventuresome flights and never mention the idyllic ones. That is not to say we want to pitch the radios and the autopilot overboard, for they are the things which make the airplane practical―but if they are always used it is easy to forget how unreachable and wonderfully independent you can feel in a little airplane when you shut everybody and everything off. It’s one of their greatest assets.

“Landfall”

Mississippi River
The next big waypoint – the Mississippi River, 400 miles away.

We hit the Mississippi reasonably close to where we thought we would―just north of Helena, Arkansas. From there the white smoke from International’s paper mill at Pine Bluff, 80 miles away, was visible and by aiming just to the left of that we knew Highway 79 would come up. Our destination, Fordyce International Airport (275 H14), was located close to that highway.

Long before Highway 79 was overheaded the smoke from the big Georgia-Pacific mill at Fordyce was visible and it provided the last little bit of homing needed for the trip.

Stimulation

There is something stimulating about making an airplane take you close to where you want to go. The stimulating thing about having one take you to Fordyce is the 1400 foot runway. To land there we have to lay the book aside and forget Vme and Vso and remember what we learned when we first started flying. The gear and the flaps go down and the props and mixtures go forward, and then the airplane is flown like a Cub―by feel. There’s not time to look at the airspeed indicator because the trees have to be watched too closely. It’s amazing how well it works, too. We were down and stopped in not much more than half the length of the runway. It is, incidentally, an airport with which we are very familiar―we wouldn’t take on a strange 1400 foot strip in anything very far removed from the Super Cub class.

After getting down and parked we stepped out and took a deep breath of real early springtime air. The end of a perfect flight. We also probably puffed our chest out a bit over how little runway had been used in making our entrance.

Then, two people properly deflated our ego.

First, a nice looking young fellow walked over from a Cessna 140 and asked if we would sign his logbook. He was a student pilot on cross-country. How many student pilots go to such small airports on cross-country? We will always wonder if this one came to Fordyce on purpose, or whether he landed there to read the name on the hangar and regroup. Whichever it was, the size of the airport hadn’t bothered him in the least. We would bet his instructor is a duster pilot, and a good one at that. The student was from cotton country where they are strong on short-field operations than navigation.

Second, an old friend who flies a 250 Comanche showed up. He’s an ex-Navy pilot so the size of the airport doesn’t bother him at all. What further deflated our ego, though, was him telling us that an Aero Commander uses the field regularly now; a twin Beech had been in a few days before; and the Piper dealer had been by demonstrating the 400 (some people say it’s hot) Comanche to him with the idea of trading them out of their 250. All this made us wonder why we had used up so much runway landing a Twin Comanche which was 500 pounds below gross weight.

New Faith

Our slight loss of faith in small airplanes came into clear focus and disappeared here. It is easy indeed to lose sight of the value of small airplanes if they are used like an airliner―to go long distances from one airline terminal to another. That’s what our last few trips had involved. We had been aping the big devils―but 400 miles per hour slower and without their brawn and sophisticated tools to deal with weather. When you get a small one out in the country at a place accessible otherwise only by car or bus, and a place located 160 miles from the nearest jetport and 70 miles from the nearest airline terminal of any consequence at all, then the character of the little birds comes out loud and clear.

The Aero Commander and twin Beech using this strip are examples of small airplanes at work. To the people who came in them they represented freedom from a long automobile ride, and a substantial saving in time. That 250 Comanche which is based there enables a small company in a small town to do business in several states without vast amounts of travel time. The student in the 140; what better way in the world could there be to get from Eudora to Fordyce, Arkansas?

Progress

There has been a lot of progress in small airplanes, too. The speed increase has been minor compared with that of the airlines, but the small airplane’s cards aren’t raw speed. The progress we are talking about has a lot to do with small airports. We used to have some of life’s most anxious moments flying forest fire patrol out of that same Fordyce airport twelve years ago. There is one pine tree off the south end of the field we have flown around many more times than we have flown over. This was in an airplane which wouldn’t set any speed records once it was up, too. Now we sail over that tree (with 12 years additional growth on it) with plenty of altitude and speed, and in an airplane that will fly half way across the country in five or six hours once it is up and running. All we have to do is take advantage of the weight flexibility built into the airplane and keep it light.

How Long is Long?

As a matter of fact, the airliners might be best for the long hops, but what is a long hop? Our trip portal to portal, Princeton Junction, N. J. to Fordyce, Ark., took one hour less than it would have taken had we used the through airline flight, which is an Electra but still quicker than taking a jet and changing planes. That on an 1,100 mile trip. The thing that made the small airplane valuable here was its ability to land on a pea patch, and the presence of that pea patch.

Again!

For our return trip a few days later we had the same weather minimums―clear with favorable winds.

Someone must have heard us the first time on this, and felt badly about the lousy weather we have been encountering lately, for when the day to return came the TODAY map on TV showed nothing but fair weather along the route. The position of the highs and lows on the map indicated a strong southwesterly flow as well, so the trip looked like it would be fast as well as pleasant.

It wasn’t long after take-off that we could tell we had another one of those storybook trips in the making. The visibility was unrestricted so there wasn’t much need for the radio except to ask Memphis for the winds aloft to satisfy our curiosity. They were right on our tail at 37 knots. Memphis, 160 miles after take-off, took only 40 minutes.

Two hours after take-off we were in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for lunch. Here we saw again how the small airplane thrives when you get away from cities and metropolitan areas. Bowling Green does have airline service, but only two flights a day. The small airplane is very important there; otherwise Charlie Bridges, the local Cessna dealer, wouldn’t be just putting the finishing touches on all-new office and hangar facilities, of which he is justifiably proud. Stop and buy some gas from him someday.

From Bowling Green we made a beeline in the direction of Charleston, West Virginia, on a route south of the airway and the omni stations. After passing Charleston, Elkins and Martinsburg came up and then, only 2:40 out of Bowling Green, we started letting down to land at Trenton, which we did 20 minutes later. It had been a very short and very nice trip. Five hours and a half after leaving the strip at Fordyce we pulled into our driveway in Princeton Junction.

After a string of trips with weather problems this one was really wonderful, and it reaffirmed and magnified our faith in the small airplane. Its world is an entirely different one from the jetliner and mass air transportation, and if the two are not separated it is sometimes hard to rationalize on the practical nature of our airplanes.

The big jet is hooked to strings running between selected cities. If you are going between two of these and the distance is great then the jet wins hands down. With the small airplane, though, there aren’t any strings―just a radius of action in which you fly and land anywhere there is an airport. And, you can do this as simply as you want―and at your own pleasure.

7 Comments

  • You can tell this was written a while ago! Steak, bourbon, big comfortable chair? I haven’t seen any of that in decades. It’s amazing that the comfort factor has switched completely around; I’d much rather sit in the front of a 172 or Cherokee than in the back of a commercial carrier. The views a heck of a lot better, and there’s no one in front of me reclining their seat.

  • This timeless piece is typical for Richard. With this in mind my Dad saved many Air Facts issues and he recently gave me a box of them – an early Xmas gift. Many topics apply today but emit the feeling of the glory days of GA. The ads alone are great fun. Here’s a quote from the April 1968 issue piece titled ‘The Simplest Fact’p.27 where Richard wrote: “Spins used to be required for all licenses, and when they were the stall/spin accident rate was bad. So it probably would not help to put the spin back into pilot license requirements. There might be a good argument that a pilot should at least see a spin at some point, with a pilot who is experienced in them and can explain what is going on.” I wholeheartedly agree with Richard on this. It is remarkable how few people today have spin (recovery) experience.

  • Nobody ever considers cost. Today I can fly my Cherokee from PA (KLHV) to FL (KCRG)in about 8 to 9 hours. At $70/hr….I defy you to find another rental plane for that…it would cost $630.00 one way. The airlines would cost half that for a round trip ticket.
    So apart from the aspect of freedom i.e. leaving when you want to and being on your own schedule and enjoying the view from the front office. It just doesn’t work out Where GA is better today, oh and I can enjoy that scotch and pretzels on the USAir flight. Just sayin’.

    • Yes, but for a family of 4, you’re way ahead to go by Cherokee. Of course driving would be cheapest, but with two or more people, the economics of GA travel improve immensely.

    • Yes, but Florida from anywhere is the cheapest ticket in the whole country. Try a trip direct to Boston from PA and compare the time and money of the airline vs GA. Usually airline is two or three stops and layovers and necessitates staying over night. GA both ways cheaper and faster…but presupposes the skill and investment to be able to pilot!

  • For business travel there is more to factor in than
    cost of the flight. For many trips my door-to-door time is many hours less than a commercial flight.
    When you consider the lost productivity due to
    security hassle, lost bags, etc. I’d much rather be
    flying myself. Due to the cold weather I’m stuck flying commercial November thru March. Just today a TSA lady tore thru my briefcase due to the
    X-ray machine showing a “pointy object with a handle.” She only found a pen. I pulled out my FAA license and explained I’ve been a commercially rated pilot for almost 40 years. Her expression was one of confusion, saying I should get TSA pre-check. TSA doesn’t recognize pilot certificates. I explained I’ll be flying myself if the weather ever gets warm again in the Upper Midwest to avoid this hassle.

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