|by Jason Steele|
One of my qualifications for writing about travel is the fact that I am a pilot myself. Although I hold a commercial license and have flown passengers and cargo commercially, the vast majority of my experience has been as a general aviation pilot. For those of you who do not know, general aviation is pretty much everything that is not commercial or military. That means virtually all of those little piston powered, propeller driven aircraft you may see in the skies from time to time.
While most of my time is in rented aircraft, I actually did own my own airplane for just over a year. My goal was to fly it as much as possible, maximizing the number of hours I could accumulate in pursuit of a career as an airline pilot (a career I eventually declined, but that is another story). From my home in Denver, I flew my trusted Grumman Cheetah on adventures from Alaska to the Bahamas. Along the way, I had a considerable number of delays.
Keep in mind that when your commercial flight is delayed or canceled, you merely groan and try to find a seat on the next scheduled flight. When the airplane is unable to fly due to a mechanical breakdown, the worst case scenario is you have to wait until the airline can find a replacement aircraft.
Now imagine the plight of a general aviation pilot. While many envision the luxury of a private jet, the aircraft I fly have more in common with an original Volkswagen beetle in size and comfort. People asked me if it had a bathroom, and I would reply that it certainly did, right behind the bedroom. It took some a few moments to catch the joke. Although my longest non-stop flight was over seven hours, a leg of four to five hours was more common.
Comfort aside, there was also the issue of reliability. My particular aircraft was a 1976 model, and nearly every part had been replaced during the thirty years that preceded my ownership of it. When there was a mechanical problem, I had to find a mechanic to fix it. If that meant canceling the entire trip, that is what I had to do. Worse, it also meant that I paid for the parts and labor out of pocket as well.
Finally, there was the weather. A modern jet aircraft is equipped to handle almost any weather short of a thunderstorm or blizzard conditions. An entry level general aviation aircraft is far less forgiving. Few small aircraft have anti-ice equipment installed, so all moisture must be avoided anytime the air temperature is near or below freezing. If snow is in the forecast, I cannot fly. Even a thin layer of early morning frost on the wings required that I point the aircraft towards the sun and wait. I held an instrument rating, which allowed me to fly in the clouds, however I avoided even a modest storm that would not even delay a jet aircraft. Flying in or around the mountains was only done in ideal conditions, and never, ever at night.
While you have your choice of roughly 500 commercially served airports in the United States, we general aviation pilots have over 5,000 different airfields to choose from. That means that when I had to divert due to weather, I was just as likely to find myself in Lamar Colorado or Las Vegas, New Mexico rather than any airport that you ‘might have heard of. If the storm lasts a few days, we might get to know nearly everyone in town while we wait it out.
Ultimately, that might be what I miss most about traveling by general aviation, the sheer unpredictability of it. (The absence of the TSA is a close second). I came to relish the delays as an excuse to explore some place that, an hour earlier, I had never even heard of. I toured a fish hatchery in South Dakota, explored Sandusky, Ohio, and ate with the locals at cafes in many town’s who’s names I have since forgotten.
I am thinking of this now, as so many people’s travel plans have been snarled by snow bound cities though out the east coast. If you are one of these delayed travelers, take my advice: let go of your previous itineraries, leave the airport, and enjoy an extra day or two wherever they are. Home, work and family will still be waiting for you at your destination when the weather clears. Your airline will waive the change fees, allowing you to rebook your travel at your convenience, not theirs. Take in a museum, treat yourself to a unique meal, and have a drink with some of the people who live and work around you. If you are in a major city, avoid the roads and use the subways or other public transit. Most importantly, get out of the airport, and start to imagine how you will look back on the next few days of your life. There is no doubt you will remember it for a long time, so you might as well make some good memories, instead of just hanging out at the airport, waiting for the flights to resume.