Editor’s note: This is the first article in a new series, where pilots share the single best hour of flying in their career. We hope to highlight the wide variety of experiences aviation has to offer, and hopefully send you rummaging through your logbooks to relive some fond memories. Want to share your best hour with us? Write an article and email us: [email protected].
“It was the best hour in my logbook.” So concluded a very experienced pilot I know, after telling the moving story of the last flight he took with his father, just weeks before his death. I thought it was a wonderful way to emphasize just how powerful this particular trip was: every hour has a story to tell, but some live forever in our memories.
I immediately began flipping through my own mental logbook to find my best hour. I haven’t been flying nearly as long as this pilot, but in 20 years of logbook entries there are plenty of memorable ones for me. It was easy to think of my 10 or 20 best hours, from great trips to Oshkosh to my first seaplane flight, but settling on just one proved surprisingly difficult.
That’s the point, though. There can only be one best – which flight is really above the rest? And why?
I finally settled on one of the shortest flights I’ve ever made – just 7 miles in fact. On a warm summer evening a few years ago, I took off from a small airport at Norris Lake, Tennessee (TN44), in a Robinson R44 helicopter. My passenger was my wife, a surprisingly rare treat, and we enjoyed a spectacular flight touring the rolling hills and mountain lakes of east Tennessee from 500 ft. Nothing can match the immersive experience of a low level helicopter flight; you truly feel like you’re out there in the air with the birds. To top off this great flight, we landed on a mountaintop helipad and enjoyed a spectacular dinner at a remote hotel.
You can watch a video clip from the flight below, but as usual, a GoPro doesn’t do it justice:
I won’t bore you with all the details of the flight, other than to say I have never felt so alive in my entire life. A truly memorable flight is like that – it’s an all-consuming, total body experience, where time seems to slow down and the rest of the world hardly exists. Concerns about work, the ever-present smartphone in my pocket, and even the weather fade away, whether you want them to or not. It’s intense, and yet relaxing.
Beyond the personal factors that made this flight such a wonderful memory for me, there were some common threads that make for a truly special flight. Anytime these come together in a single flight, it’s a great day to fly:
- It was shared with family. Aviation is simply too good not to share, so flying with a friend or family member is always more fun than flying alone. It’s also a validation of what we do as pilots when our family comes along. Who hasn’t swelled with pride (just a bit) when commanding a flight full of relatives? While I know how rewarding such family flying is, I don’t get to fly with my wife nearly as often as I’d like to. She’s a very happy co-pilot, but life simply gets in the way. On this day, though, we were flying with no time constraints and no “mission,” just the chance to have fun together. When flying brings people together, it’s a force for good.
- It offered absolute freedom. Any general aviation aircraft is a magic carpet, but in this case there was almost no other way to get where we wanted. Going from a relatively remote lakeside community to a mountaintop hotel was either a challenging two hour drive or a scenic three minute helicopter flight. Talk about freedom! It’s the same feeling you get when you touch down at a quiet island in the Bahamas, or you fly exactly the route you want on a clear VFR day. When flying unlocks new destinations, it invigorates us.
- It put me in touch with nature. You won’t see me leading the Earth Day Parade, but there is something incredibly powerful about Mother Nature in all her glory. It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring, a very powerful antidote to our overly digital lives. And the fact is, general aviation aircraft can show us nature like few other vehicles – certainly not an airliner at 36,000 feet. From hidden mountain lakes to rocky cliffs, this flight took me places I would likely never have seen otherwise. When flying refocuses our attention on the real world, it keeps our sense of wonder alive.
- It was a challenge. Most pilots aren’t adrenaline junkies, but we do like a good challenge, even if it’s just making a smooth crosswind landing. So many things in modern life have become easier, yet flying remains stubbornly difficult. We can either rise to that challenge or shrink from it; if we embrace it, the feeling of accomplishment makes the hard work worth it. On this flight, I was challenging myself with my first landing at a mountain heliport, and the reward was well worth it. When flying pushes us to learn new skills, it makes us stronger.
There are plenty of other factors that come into play, like the weather, where we’re going and the type of aircraft we fly, but we usually give these far too much credit. The actual logbook data blocks we fill out – total time, route of flight – do not define an epic flight. Who we share an experience with, and how it changes us, matters much more.
That suggests two things we can do to chase our next “best hour in my logbook” flight. First, we should all keep a pilot logbook that goes beyond the basic details. I now record everybody who was on board, including passengers, plus a brief narrative of what we did (restaurant reviews are a favorite). I also keep a photo or video from as many flights as I can, so there’s a visual reminder of the event. Using a logbook app on my iPad makes this easier.
More importantly, though, the pursuit of a new “best hour in my logbook” requires a change in mindset. Instead of focusing on what airplane we wish we were flying or what exotic location we wish we could fly to, we simply need to be open to new experiences. You can’t plan perfection and you can’t script special, but combining an open mind with a few of the elements above stacks the odds in your favor. In particular, I’m struck by how many memorable flights involve family or close friends.
So grab your spouse, son, daughter, father or uncle and go flying! Just remember to take pictures.
What’s your best hour? Write an article or add a comment below.
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Have to be two years ago flying my dad and son from Fullerton CA to Chicago in one day with stops at Durango (dad got stuck with $8.50 / gal bill for Av gas but it was the best choice with the weather – I still bust his chops about that one, he only recently started to laugh about it) and Lamar MO where the local cops come out to unlock the pump and take your money after hours.
Long time in a Cessna TR182 (11.5 hours door to door). We laughed the whole way.
Best hour was departing Durango and I was really proud of the airplane’s performance. My dad said ‘It’s as much the pilot as the plane.’ Nice compliment from a man who doesn’t give em out easily.
Three generations in one airplane – that’s a recipe for success! I bet your other passenger was impressed too, even if he didn’t admit it.
Nice story, nice touch; very descriptive, too. I will save this one for my future aviation students to read. In just a few years I will retire from airline flying, and sadly enough, I can’t recommend to anyone that he heads in that direction – flying for the airlines – unless he already knows for certain that that is what he was born to do. But I can and will recommend to all that they become involved in personal flying – GA. And your story will give impetus, a personal stimulus, to those recommendations.
Nice post! It is inspiring that such simple moments in time can be so satisfying. Though I think others might apply somewhat different criteria than you did in defining the most outstanding flight experience in one’s logbook.
Family sharing, for example, may be a big factor with some individuals and/or in some circumstances; but solo flights, or flights in company with non-family fellow pilots certainly can be outstanding too. There are potentially outstanding flight experiences that might not be all that family friendly – such as aerobatic flights, or flights undertaken in extreme environments that are not especially conducive to low risk flying. Different folks have different concepts in judging outstanding experiences in life, for sure.
I’ll think on this topic some, and perhaps I can write up a “best hour in the book” post myself for submission to Air Facts Journal one of these days. It WILL be difficult narrowing it down to one flight hour, though!
Great article. I’m going to have to take the challenge at a later date. 37 years of logbooks is going to take some time to review. It seems the most memorable flights were from early on. The Grand Canyon, the Bahamas, balloons over Albuquerque, and Oshkosh all stand out. Thanks for sharing.
Great article. For me it has to be last summer when I was visiting my mom in Vero beach Florida. I got my start flying there as a flight instructor many years ago and there has always been a restaurant there so I took my mom out for breakfast one morning and what was sitting on the ramp right in front of the restaurant was a sight I have never seen. At least not up close. It was the EAA’s Ford trimotor. They were there for two days giving rides. I wish I could have taken my mom along but she is 92 and couldn’t get up in the plane. Anyway I came back the next day and when I went to buy a ticket, the only seat left was the co pilots seat. My eyes lit up of course and I said “I’ll take it” I told the pilot that I was an airline pilot and as soon as the wheels were off the ground he gave it to me and I was flying the beast. Arm hanging out the window and having the time of my life. It was absolutely the best time I’ve had in an airplane ever. He didn’t let me land it off course but everything in between was mine. I will never forget it. 20,000 hours of flying hundreds of airpanes and that was absolutely the best! :-)
The line that says “PIC: 1.0 – Type: North American P-51D Mustang.”
Hi Bob Morrow, All,… 1975 found wife Mary and I winging to Oshkosh and the EAA Fly-in, from Ft. Lauderdale in our D-260 Sr. Aerosport two-holer. Once there we saw they were giving rides in the Tri-motor. Mary, a pp with maybe 2000 hrs in her log book wanted a ride in the old bird, and as luck would have it, she was offered the co-pilot seat with me in the back. Heck of a lot of fun, although she wasn’t ‘offered’ the controls. Could it be the same EAA Tri-motor you flew in at Vero Beach? Old and not-so-bold Jim, now from MLB. (Mary ‘went west’ April, 2012)
Oh, by the way, one memorable ‘hour’ for me was in an Army Reserve Hiller helicopter, around 1968 and I was offered a ride by a friend and to actually fly it, from take-off, hover, air work including an auto-rotation to 50 feet. then fly the pattern a few times and land. Of course he ‘talked me through everything’. It was a blast….especially when he told me that I flew it “like a 50 hour chopper-pilot”. Made my day! jim
This article got me thinking about the best hour of my flight life. It had to be on my second solo flight ever. I had maybe 20 hours in the air all in a Robinson R22. In each of those 20+ hours I usually rather terrified. What am I doing here? My instructor and I went to a small airport, sadly, no longer there. She got out of the helicopter. And told me to make three touch and goes, then land so she could get back in. The first time around, I was fixated on the gages and on making the pass perfect, hardly breathing. The second time I lifted off, I glanced briefly down out of the side window and saw a pair of ducks in a tiny little pond by the end of the runway. Hey, guys, look! I’m up here where you can go! It was the most exhilarating feeling. My heart soared along with the helicopter. Still frightened often as I learned to fly, but now I knew why I was learning to do this difficult rewarding thing.
Like you said, finding the unique best is hard. But my best 17 are very well marked: a week trip with three friends in two airplanes form Florida to DC, almost 7 years ago. I dream about repeating something like!