A new aircraft – and a new dimension to air travel

In the late 1970s, I was flying for an air charter company in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. One morning a group of six people arrived in town on an airline flight from Ohio. They had rented a vacation house in Georgetown, Exuma, and hired us to fly them there because Georgetown had no airline service.

A lady, I guess in her 50s, was one of the passengers. When she saw our Cessna 402, she would not board because she was afraid of flying, particularly of small planes. Visibly shaken, she apologized to her friends and told them to go without her. Her friends tried to change her mind, but the conversation seemed hopeless.

Cessna 402
“Small” airplanes like the Cessna 402 are a way of life in the islands, but many non-pilots do not like them.

Stepping in, I suggested she just try sitting in the cockpit to see what it was like to be in a small plane. After some coaxing, she agreed, as long as it was not a trick to close the door and lock her in.

I promised, and she stepped up the airstair, sat in the copilot seat and stared intently through the large windshield. To everyone’s surprise and relief, she said, “I will try it, but only if we don’t fly too high.”

With her in the copilot seat, we loaded up the bags, got everyone onboard and took off heading east at 1000 feet.

Reaching Bimini, I went down to 500 feet flying over 75 miles of teal blue water over the Great Bahama Bank, where you can clearly see the bottom 25 feet below. She said not one word the whole trip. She just kept staring out the window at the water passing below.

Passing Andros Island, I pointed out blue holes, the barrier reef and the Tongue of the Ocean. Flying over the Exuma Island chain, she just kept looking down studying the many tiny islands with sandy beaches and giving no hint as to how she was doing with her fear.

At Georgetown, while I was unloading the baggage, she tapped me on the shoulder and shocked everyone by asking, “Where can I learn how to fly?”

I told her when she got back to Ohio to look in the Yellow Pages for flight schools, or just go out to her local airport and look for signs that say “Learn to Fly.”

Occasionally I would think about the lady from Ohio and how her fear seemed to evaporate during and after the flight.

Months later, our office handed me a phone message from some lady in Ohio thanking me for having her sit in the cockpit and to let me know that she had just soloed and looking forward to her getting private pilot certificate.

This experience stuck in my mind for years afterward. Every time I had the opportunity to fly a charter with a fearful passenger, I would experiment with placing them in the copilot seat. Invariably, fear was overcome by pleasure because of the view. The results were predictable, and I made a game of it, always winning. But certain conditions had to exist. The passenger must have a forward view through a large windshield with the plane flying at low altitude.

I did this for years not realizing the significance of what I was doing. I was learning why the vast majority of people fear flying and why a few love it and become pilots. I also learned that non-pilots are not afraid of flying, but conditioned through decades of exposure to airline travel in airliners with portholes that restrict their field of view to the extent of visual disorientation to the environment.

SkyMax airplane
An airplane made just for sightseeing – would it work?

One day it dawned on me that if the aviation industry would develop a large airplane that gives passengers a panoramic view, it would lay the foundation for a new dimension to air travel.

But engineering an airplane like that is nearly impossible given the purpose of commercial air travel which is to provide transportation, nothing else. The mission of an airplane designed for entertainment is completely different. So different a mission like this for commercial airplanes has never been recognized.

I envision fleets of slow and low flying airplanes like this carrying tourists over scenic flight paths that wind throughout the world with interesting destinations as stepping stones.

This is similar to what cruise ships, scenic trains and buses do. Only an airplane does not need roads, tracks or harbors. It only needs a runway.

Every form of commercial transportation has vessels specifically designed and operated to provide leisure transportation in the soft adventure travel market, except the aviation industry.

One day in 1993, I was sitting at a lunch counter unable to get this idea off my mind. I took a pencil and a napkin and made a rough design of a 30-passenger airplane I named “Skymax.” For years, and to no avail, I have been trying to get this idea into the mainstream aviation circles.

I have written numerous letters to big companies like Disney and Bombardier explaining the idea and trying to find someone interested in developing a plane like this. I received some replies, but no one really understands it because the paradigm for the utility of airplanes is so firmly imbedded in the mind of the public and in aviation people as well.

That paradigm is: Go Fast, Go High, Go Far, Carry Lots of People, Cargo and Weapons all while the pilots sit in front enjoying the view and passengers in back anxious to land and get off.

I have a short YouYube video made that illustrates my concept.

15 Comments

  • Very interesting idea. It strikes me that this might be the flying equivalent of the river cruises you can take in various countries. But it would not be restricted to the small area of a river’s course. Replace the river cruise ship with something like a slow-cruising dirigible (think staterooms, a bar, and a dining lounge) and it might just be viable. The disadvantage, of course, would be weather restrictions.

    • Thank you Phil. Earth is its own amusement park, a free attraction that stimulates the senses. A slow-cruising dirigible does offer comfort and excellent aerial views.

      Skymax, however, was conceived to satisfy our desire for comfort, visual stimulation and leisure travel. It is intended to operate within a travel network, balancing transportation with entertainment around the world.

  • As I know what FAA certification costs (directly, for jet engines, indirectly for airframes) you’d have to show a business model that would produce a profit. And I don’t see that happening.

  • I love it and it’s a great pitch. The amateur engineer in me gets excited to see unconventional layouts for aircraft. I know the convental layout works and is proven but we need differentiation to stir our imaginations.

    There are 2 type of aero enthusiasts, jaded and dreamers. Good to see the latter in the public space. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to your video render.

  • Love it. The Vista modified twin otters at scenic / Grand Canyon Airlines where I used to work are proof of this concept.

    • Exactly Bill! Many people enjoy the different view aerial sightseeing offers.

      The Skymax Aircraft concept takes this one step further envisioning a leisure travel “hop on / hop off” network made up of general aviation airports all over the world.

  • Here in the San Francisco Bay Area a blimp tried to make a go of this exact market. It lasted a couple of years before the airship was repossessed. Helicopter tours in tourist areas have had better success but far from a home run. Same holds for hot air balloon tours.Everyone taking these tours love them. The limiting factor has always been the cost. To be an unqualified success like the ocean cruise industry, cost per person must be brought WAY lower. A one hour tour for $100 might be a good goal. I do not see this idea taking off (pun intended) until an “impulse” price point can be hit.

    • Cost is indeed the problem!
      Sea cruises pack a few thousand people on a boat, whereas you only can put ca. ten of them in a blended wing with a sightseeing windscreen as leading edge, or a few tens in a more classical fuselage-and-wings plane with big windows… And if flying was cheap we would already know that, wouldn’t we?

    • Hi Ed, thank you for your thoughts. Price points are important and, in our experience, your recognition of an “impulse” price point resonates for those spur of the moment activities.

      Skymax is an idea for a Leisure Travel airplane that operates within its own Leisure Travel Network similar to the way a person on holiday might board a train for a railroad sightseeing trip. We intend to use, primarily, General Aviation airports around the world to connect leisure travelers to destinations. There may be some impulse purchases but most purchases will be well-planned as the journey is as important as the destination.

  • I think this is a great idea, and bravo to you for developing it. I agree with what the other commentator said about dreamers – we need more of them in aviation.

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