Celebrating America — from 2,500 Feet

Late yesterday, my friend Jason R. emailed me with an intriguing proposition. He’s a private pilot and he had time reserved in one of the Cessna 172 Skyhawk planes available for rent through the airport. So he invited me along for a ride. I eagerly accepted his kind offer, even knowing that I had to reveal my far-too-depressing weight so he could do his pre-flight math.

We took off from West Michigan Regional Airport (formerly known as Tulip City Airport) in Holland, Mich., around 2:45 p.m. today. We headed north, then east to Grand Rapids. After getting an up-close view of my hometown, we swung back east and kissed Lake Michigan just south of Muskegon, then hugged the shoreline until we were south of Holland, to return to the airport from the southwest.

With clear skies and calm winds, our hour-long trek remained quite peaceful — almost no bumps to speak of. I took some pictures with Jason’s camera (he wanted a photo of his house from the air; he lives just a couple of miles from the airport) but otherwise I just enjoyed my first time in a plane where I had the chance to look out the front window. And because we traveled at roughly 2,500 feet the whole time, we occupied the sweet zone where we were “high enough” but still low enough to clearly see the world below.

Some in-the-moment observations:

  • My friend makes it look easy. Flying a plane — even a single-engine piston plane like the Skyhawk — takes practice and concentration. He made it look as casually effortless as if he were tootling along in a moped with wings.
  • Fun fact: The propeller spins so fast that you literally cannot see it. The view from the windshield is completely clear. Jason tells me that if the sun glints just right and you’re oriented in a certain way, you can sometimes see ghosting of the prop. But while we were airborne, it was if the plane were being pushed by invisible flying monkeys. (I looked behind us, but couldn’t see my mom’s minions at work, hahaha.)
  • Our headsets allowed for clear conversation while minimizing engine noise. As an added bonus, I got to listen in on the fun air-traffic-control stuff, including Jason’s friendly conversation with Grand Rapids Approach.
  • West Michigan Regional Airport is a beautiful facility.
  • That little plane takes off in like five feet. And we had a smooth landing despite light crosswinds.

Two more-significant observations:

First, from 2,500 feet, America looks like America. Not “red vs. blue,” not “white vs. black,” not “rich vs. poor.” Just America. It’s pretty, really. You see cities, and farmland, and boats on the lake, and families on the beach. We often underestimate the vitality and the resilience of our Federal Republic. Yes, we have problems, and a bucolic trek into the clouds cannot and should not obscure them. We’ve always had our struggles and we always will. Yet when you see your community from the air — the roads you drive, the stores you shop, the churches you visit, the trails you walk — you realize that far more unites us than divides us. That, I think is the real lesson of Independence Day: No matter how much we squabble, America still represents the best hope for free peoples everywhere. And whether you love Trump or you hate him, or whether you see oppression lurking around every corner or are blinded to inequity by your privilege, we would do well sometimes to set aside the heated rhetoric and just celebrate the fact that we’re still, 240 years later, a nation dedicated to a proposition.

A proposition worth celebrating, I believe, even if we live that proposition imperfectly.

Second point. It’s long been a bucket-list item to get a private pilot’s license. Jason’s invitation reinvigorated that bug. I really enjoyed the flight, and from what he tells me, the time and expense of getting a pilot’s license aren’t really that onerous. The thought of taking off for a day to visit places for which driving would be prohibitive, strikes me as rather fun. In the Skyhawk, for example, you’re tooling along north of 110 mph or so, and you’re going in a reasonably straight line with no traffic snarls or signal lights. So the 2.5-hour drive to Traverse City becomes a 1-hour flight. Or my frequent trips to Chicago, which sometimes take five or six hours when traffic’s not favorable, is basically an hour between West Michigan Regional Airport and Chicago Executive Airport.

On my list for things to prioritize for 2018!

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1 comment

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the flight! I haven’t been able to take passengers along very often—airplane availability has been problematic for a while—but it’s always fun to have someone along that hasn’t ever ridden right seat before. There aren’t very many pilots who don’t enjoy showing someone else what it’s like to fly.

    If I made it look easy then the credit belongs as much to my instructors, Duane (who taught me to fly) and Barb (who keeps me sharp).

    Keeping with the theme of celebration, allow me to take a brief moment to point out just how unique the US is regarding civilian aviation. As you pointed out, the expense of becoming a private pilot in the US is much less prohibitive than many people think. Far from being the exclusive domain of the vastly wealthy, flying is enjoyed by people from all walks of life. But it’s when you contrast that with other countries that you really see how privileged we are. On my first visit to an airport in England I was amazed at the costs involved in flying there… not only for the tangible aspects (rentals, fuel, charts, etc.) but also the fees associated with just about everything you do in an airplane.

    Right now FAA appropriations bills are pending in Congress, and the House bill (HR 2997) includes a provision to privatize air traffic control. (The Senate bill currently has no such provision.) This has long been a goal of the airline industry, since it would effectively put them in charge of air traffic across the country. Yes, “general aviation” would be given a seat at the table, but with the rest of the table filled with representatives of airlines it’s not difficult to guess who would have their needs addressed and who would be pushed aside. With ATC governed by a private company, the day could very well come soon when I may deliberately avoid calling up Grand Rapids Approach to keep from being hit with an extra fee. And yes, the bill as currently written doesn’t go that far. But in every other country that has opened the door to ATC privatization, that has been the inevitable end result.

    There are certainly things about the current state of affairs that can be improved, but it’s important to point out that improvements are happening. The air traffic system in the US is already the safest in the world, and it’s getting better all the time. Completely changing the very nature of ATC and kicking off a decade of transition to an entirely unproven system is, if I may, a really bad idea. It’s a massively disruptive “solution” to a problem that doesn’t really exist…unless of course the problem is “the airlines aren’t in charge”.

    I’ve probably gone on way too long. There is a lot more information to be found on the AOPA or EAA websites. Voting in the House could come along shortly—maybe even next week—so if you’re so inclined you may wish to add your voice to those of us asking Congress to leave ATC alone and not hand it over to the airlines.

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