San Juan Islands
8 min read

Bonanza N3255V, born in 1947, is the machine that allows us to enter a world that I still struggle to get my head around. It is a world of possible extreme juxtapositions. We climb into the aluminum tube, go up into the air, and whisk across the planet to land anywhere we choose and instantly enter a different world – not forgetting the experience along the way.

For those of us who travel a lot by air and travel randomly on occasion, we experience the sharp differences in culture, feel, flavor and people. When traveling internationally, the difference is even more extreme – although it can be almost as extreme even inside a given country. Cultures can be worlds apart even in short distances.

Example: A typical trip is for my wife and I to take off from the semi-industrial towered airport KTIW in Tacoma, Washington, and fly the approximately 100 miles to Orcas Island, Washington (KORS). The flight lasts only 40 minutes from takeoff to chocks. The route takes us northward “up” the Olympic Peninsula. The Olympic Mountains are on the left, Seattle is across the sound to the right. From the time we leave the airport environment, we are in a world of sky, clouds (or not), mountains, large expanses of Puget Sound and lessening population. At Port Townsend we cross part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Lopez Island.

San Juan Islands

In an airplane, a trip to the San Juan Islands is short, fun, and beautiful.

On our boat, we have to watch the heavy weather that comes in from the Pacific Ocean and surface fog and the trip takes five hours. In the plane, it is just minutes until we arrive at the southern edge of Lopez Island, where we begin our descent into KORS. If landing to the north, the approach is over the little town of Eastbound. Approaching from the north and landing to the south, you are on final over the sound and land on the airport at the shore’s edge.

Dropping out of the sky is entering into a different kind of life. Focusing on Orcas – which is not the subject of this article, but rather an example of what I am trying to explain – life is quiet during the winter, but busy in the summer. Regardless of the time of year, the maximum speed limit is 40 MPH (in a few places only). The roads are all two-lane unless narrower. The pace of life is country. Although nearby the sky is often clear or with high clouds, Tacoma/Seattle is cloudy and rainy. You can hear the birds, see the seals, and walk slowly.

Landing there, getting into our 20-year old “island” car and driving to our boat, which we keep moored on the island, is entry into something that feels and is so different that my law office 100 miles (40-minute flight and five-minute drive after landing) seems as if it exists in another dimension and time. The disconnection from our normal life is so complete that the experience seems unreal. But then again, that is one of the points of owning a plane – you can go to where you want and drop out of the sky on life on the planet wherever you choose.

Clearly, if your plane is a business tool, it is a different experience. I have been there in the back of the corporate jet going to business meeting after business meeting. It was exhausting and, for three days, the pilots lived in the plane. I am not talking about flying as a business tool.

My point is that personal small plane travel is as much dimension and reality shift as travel. For example, taking off from Tacoma and flying south, you climb above the Pacific Northwest clouds, and all of a sudden one is in a world of sunshine with a white fluffy floor. At 12,000 feet or so, the world is mostly empty. How strange in a world ever more populated. The voice of ATC becomes less frequent traveling out of the Seattle/Tacoma/Portland metroplex and there is ocean off to the west and increasingly higher mountains underneath. Life is in the air.

Flying south, after passing Mount Shasta, the mountains fall away and there is the flat land of Northern California. There the Redding summers are hot. The letdown begins over Sacramento for the gas/pee/lunch stop in Visalia or Bakersfield. A small truck meets us where ground control drops us off and we follow it to parking. A credit card later and we are in the loaner new pilot’s car on the way to lunch.

Palm Springs, California

Flying over Palm Springs, California, shows how rapidly the planet changes beneath you.

Taking off, fly south then over the mountains to Palm Springs and into/over the magnificent California/Arizona desert. The planet changes rapidly, not really enough time to appreciate it and by the time we have looked at everything and chatted with ATC and made sure we are not going to be run over by military training flights, we are descending into Tucson, aka “Cow Town,” where the landing is between the National Guard fighters, the commercial jets and the GA flights.

As though being in the sky were not strange enough, a new “trip” unfolds upon taxiing up to the jet-oriented FBO. A small red carpet, a philosophy exchange with the lineman, and we get a ride to the office. Peaches and cream – it seems that everyone assumes that if you arrive in your own plane you have good character… as long as your presumed character is backed up by a couple of cards, one that says “driver’s license” and one that says either Visa, Mastercard, or American Express. No one, not ATC people or anyone else, knows who we are other than N3255V or Mr. Acker of credit card fame. Yet, with just a few pen stokes, we drive off with a new car on the way to a place of our choosing. The Bonanza is on its way to shade parking and fueling.

In the “old days” people took letters of introduction with them, or perhaps sent a letter in advance. Money, or silver and gold, was carried. Not so with small plane travel. Just some aircraft registration numbers/letters and the air traffic world is yours and the aircraft receiving ground world is welcoming –  counting, of course, on the profit that world is planning to make from your drop out of the sky visit.

One of the things I like about small plane travel is the view of the magnificent planet we live on, from ice to tropical forests, to desert, plains and mountains… and immense oceans. But equally interesting and, in a way, as beautiful are the cultural/people changes. They can, of course, be very large – like the “culture” we encountered at the Port au Prince airport in Haiti. Those changes are in a sense expected; what fascinates me are the more subtle changes. People are very flexible and adapt to their own lives. The life of a city lawyer and all that goes with it – viewpoint, daily activities and interests (and especially the pace of life) – is so different from the small town or country life in pace of life that in a real sense (if you slow down enough) it is truly like living in a different world and a different time. When we land Monday morning to go to work, it seems more like we have landed on another planet rather than on Earth.

Bisbee, AZ

Bisbee, Arizona, is only 100 miles away from Tucson by airplane, but it is like visiting another planet.

Fairly recently we flew into Bisbee, Arizona. It is maybe 100 air miles or less from Tucson. Leaving Tucson and flying eastward, we encountered LOTS of turbulence. We flew slow, being bounced around the sky from winds ricocheting off the mountains, landed at Bisbee in a crosswind of 15 knots, and taxied into an airport with a few planes and not a living soul present. Not even a dog. There was no taxi service.

We stood on the side of the highway for 10 minutes before the first car passed, another passed, then Jesus, a Navajo, stopped with his work truck filled with construction equipment and life stuff. We crowded in and rode down the empty highway with tumbling weeds blowing across the pavement. He stopped at the giant open pit mine then took us into town. The old courthouse was there along with some tourist shops and restaurants and drop outs from the 1960s to the present. The few cars crawled through town. We visited an art gallery, ate some Mexican food (Mexico is almost a stone’s throw away) and found a taxi to take us back to the airport where we took off in a 30-knot crosswind. Free of the runway, I had to crab 30 degrees into the wind to not be blown into the power lines next to the highway.

Tucson approach sequenced us into the traffic, where we landed and parked at the jet center to pick up our Mustang convertible rental and return to the resort we were staying at, as though nothing had happened and it was just another day… but it wasn’t. It was a day of extreme turbulence, a touchy landing, hitchhiking and sharing life for about an hour with Jesus – who told us a bit about his life in the US and in Mexico and his work as a contractor – and a memorable takeoff and a climb into a sky where the sun had lost it brilliance as it sat lower in the west. Next we knew we were dining in an old Tucson restaurant that was at one time a stage coach stop and looking out the window at the tall cactus.

We call N3255V a plane, but it is really a time machine that also shifts dimensions.

Timothy Acker
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2 replies
  1. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    It’s particularly remarkable that your magic carpet was woven in 1947– 70 years ago– yet still as powerfully magical as most recently-built light aircraft.

  2. Eric Ziegler
    Eric Ziegler says:

    It’s good to imagine that for every too-cool-to-smile airplane driver on the ramp, there is a Timothy Acker who’s actually enjoying (and appreciating) being a PILOT. That magic carpet is no wet blanket.

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