I have wanted to fly for as long as I can remember. The dream that is personal aviation—the freedom it bestows upon you, the emotional connection you feel towards it, the mental and mechanical challenges it entails—has never faded, and I still get butterflies every time I see an aircraft or plan a flight. About a year after my girlfriend first bought me an introductory lesson, I recall hoping that such passion for flight would never subside. Still the novice, I had enough journeys in mind to fill at least my first logbook’s worth of entries. On a spring day in Morristown, New Jersey, I endeavored to strike one off the list with a flight down the coast to see shoreline retreats that filled the memories of my youth—this time, from above.
The concerns of money, time, and even mortality that plague potential general aviation passengers in “adult” life were altogether absent on my college campus. In lieu of Friday’s classes, my proposal was to fly south under Newark’s airspace, turn due east to intercept the coastline around Asbury Park, and follow it at low level towards Ocean City visually. After burning some daylight on the beach, we could continue to Cape May for a fresh seafood dinner, having reached the southern extremity of our state. Not surprisingly I met little resistance in this persuasion and had soon enlisted two friends to my cause.
The sun had beaten us out the door and was well above the horizon by the time we arrived at the tie downs. It was a balmy morning in late April, with a gentle breeze from the west and clear skies overhead. Diffuse morning light soaked the tarmac such that the Cessna 172’s sleek aluminum skin looked almost wet to the touch. As we began to load our bags and inspect it, I was struck by the same elated thought that hits me most days I’m about to fly: “Is this really happening?”
Given the images they had conjured upon seeing the small plane for the first time, it didn’t take much in the way of a methodical approach to impress my fledgling passengers. Eager to play the tutor, I gladly explained the different procedures and instrumentation as we taxied out—“we steer with our feet… this is a magneto… our heading is shown here…” I felt completely at ease in my environment and ready for the fun part. Takeoff roll was smooth and soon the Earth began to gradually fall away like a picture receding from view. Each person and thing below seemed motionless relative to our craft’s ascent, and it appeared as though the world simply paused while we slipped the bonds of our grounded lives. It was around this time that the confines of the aluminum airframe seemed to disappear.
New Jersey’s incredibly dense population presents a great case for travel by small aircraft; what could easily be a three-hour drive with traffic was budgeted for one hour aloft, and we began to cruise smoothly over the New Jersey Turnpike and central suburbs towards the rising sun, reaching the Atlantic minutes later. A view of the Jersey shore from 1,500 feet does not fit its stereotype. Devoid of visiting masses in what was still the pre-season, the coastline stretched to the horizon in a bright line that abruptly divided tightly-packed beach communities to the right and a seemingly infinite ocean to the left.
Turquoise sea foam slid lazily along sand that became finer and whiter as we plotted south, with rocky piers and boardwalks slowly giving way to driftwood fences and back roads, until finally the Barnegat Bay drove a wedge into the mainland and formed the barrier outcrops of Island Beach State Park. Describing flight, Wilbur Wright remarked, “More than anything else the sensation is one of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost, if you can conceive of such a combination.” As we sat in silent awe—engine thrumming along, plane crabbing level into the wind, gazing down for the first time upon beach locales known since childhood—it became clear that in the 110 years since its debut, the inexplicable thrill that the airplane can offer to man had not waned.
The casinos of Atlantic City passed under our right wing and we turned inland, first descending over the bay, then a row of summer homes before settling down on a narrow strip of asphalt in a light crosswind. Few things are more satisfying than a well-executed, cross-controlled touchdown; the upwind gear planted nicely, control surfaces visibly deflected and brakes applied, prompting a natural passenger reaction: “Just like a real airplane!”
We were met by cool salty air as we disembarked, and the fact that we’d been transported to such a different place in so short period of time was hard to reconcile with the senses. Ocean City is a municipal field with a small briefing terminal, a couple of hangars, and an on-site diner—one of thousands like it supporting general aviation in the U.S., built in the era when a runway represented a link from growing communities to distant points on an ever-shrinking globe. Utility notwithstanding, pilots still know these as magical places of camaraderie, portals to another side of life. And so it was for us as we tied down and walked to the beach just a few blocks away, sampling what we had admired from the sky just moments earlier in our first trip south of the season.
Boardwalk pizza, caramel covered popcorn, saltwater taffy—we ate our fill and brought what extra was left back to the field. Cargo secured, we continued south, crossing the lower extremity of New Jersey’s peninsula to the Delaware Bay at low altitude. We floated freely over the southernmost marshlands of the state, far from the limits of the Pine Barrens and over untouched terrain that could just as easily have characterized a more remote river delta. Rejoining the western coast, we circled Cape May and approached what was once Naval Air Station Wildwood. A WWII hangar, a Coast Guard outpost, and a local brewery were worthy distractions (a sole passenger complaint had concerned the lack of an in-flight beverage service), but we eventually found the fried seafood we sought at a famous Garden State lobster house.
The day was growing old as we returned to the field and once again began to load the spoils of our layover. As the sun fell below the horizon, a light purple gradient enveloped the sky and flight line, prompting our departure. Once more I advanced the throttle to full power, pressing us back into the seats with what had become familiar exhilaration. Effortlessly leaving sea level in the flatlands, the sun came briefly back into view off the left wing as we continued the climb towards an impending night’s first stars. It had become dark below, but our ascent proved just fast enough to outpace the rays as they raced westward across the landscape, painting a brilliant water color in their final act before retreating from view.
The return leg was serenity defined; a dark blue night sky filled our view, underscored by the soft glow of cabin gauges and strings of light on the terrain below. Absent any thermals, we coasted forth as if on rails, with no sensation of movement save gentle banks to hold a steady course back towards home. New York City’s lights, coupled with increasingly congested radio traffic in the vicinity of its airspace, signaled our return to the greater metropolitan area. Blue taxiway lights and a green airport beacon came into sharp focus, and the motion of cars and citizens below become apparent.
It was as if the world we left took no notice of our day’s foray to the airborne realm, and we were now slipping back to reality under the cover of darkness. The entirety of the trip is summarized in the context of my overall flight career with a single logbook entry: MMU-26N-WWD-MMU. There is always a vague melancholy to the conclusion of a fine day’s flying, dashed only by the promising sight of a fuel truck. The plane will fly another day, and so too will we silently vow to revisit our new home aloft. We’ll go about telling others of how great our day was with a smile—knowing full well that words have fallen short of the true tale.