Note: I’ve moved my blog! You can find this post here.
I remember I had a toy plane when I was young. It wasn’t remote controlled and it wasn’t fancy; it was a Fisher-Price-style toy where you could put little people inside it. But those are the best for the imagination. Flying was pretty darn cool! You could go wherever you wanted and didn’t need railroad tracks or roads to get somewhere. You could fly over land or water. Flying was more limitless than any other mode of transportation.
When I was 9, back in 1996, the Nintendo 64 console was released. My brother and I raked leaves around the block, did chores, and saved birthday money to buy the console and some games. One of the games we bought was Pilotwings 64. In the game you could fly a gyrocopter, a hang glider, or a dude with a jetpack. There was a free-for-all mode in the game where you could fly around a somewhat accurate rendition of the United States. There were so many landmarks built in, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and the Space Shuttle taking off from Cape Canaveral. Some of my best memories of the game were flying around the “United States” in the gyrocopter and exploring ghost towns, forests, mountains, cities, and coastlines. You had limited fuel, but there were a few hidden “fuel stations” where you could land and fill up, making it possible to fly around and explore for hours. I learned a lot about both flying and US geography and landmarks from that game–they don’t seem to make games like they used to.
Maybe a year later we got the game SimCopter for PC. The goal of the game is to fly around in your helicopter and break up traffic, put out fires, rescue people on sinking ships, shine your spotlight on fleeing criminals, and medivac patients to the hospital. You collect money for each mission and upgrade your helicopter to be faster and to have more seating and fuel capacity. The best part of the game was the radio in your helicopter. Your missions would come in over the radio from “dispatch,” and the game had different radio stations (I liked the rock and classical) and advertisements for fake products which came on between songs (I remember an ad for cat food).
In (I’m guessing) 2000, I saw Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 in the store with a special promotion. The software was $20, but it came with a $20 mail-in rebate. I thought “so, this is free!” I bought it and spent a lot of time at the controls of different planes. I loved flying the Concorde because it was designed to fly at supersonic speeds. I think the recommended rating was cruising at around Mach 1.3, but the speed demon in me pushed the plane full throttle and got it to Mach 2.2 before the plan started vigorously shaking! I tried to fly the helicopters as well, but couldn’t figure it out and would usually crash after about 30 seconds…
There were other games and adventures like Starfox 64 and Star Wars: Rogue Squadron that continued my fascination with aviation. I got to virtually fly planes, helicopters, passenger jets, experimental aircraft, and even spaceships. Flying was cool!
Fast-forward to February 2013. I have a coworker named Matt who studied and trained for his private pilot certification about a year prior. He has a very interesting personality: we call him “wildcard” because you never know what he’ll do in a given situation. He would always ask others about going flying with him, and the usual response was “You’re the last person I’d fly with” in a humorous light. I think a lot of people feel that small aircraft are scary or somewhat unsafe. When he asked me if I’d want to fly with him, my response was “OK! This Saturday?” We planned several times, but the winter of 2012-2013 was unforgiving and each time we had to cancel.
In October 2013, we made plans again to go flying together. It was a perfectly clear albeit windy day. We drove out to Linden Airport (KLDJ) and, after a thorough pre-flight check of the aircraft, I got into N6338F (a Cessna 172) with Matt and his buddy Jordan.
Me, MacGyver-style in front of the airplane
Matt and Jordan in the front seats
There were strong crosswinds that day and Matt took that opportunity to do some pattern work and crosswind landings.
The area around KLDJ
His last of 3 landings was silky smooth and we decided to take off again for a sightseeing flight. Jordan helped him with radioing to Newark and we entered the Bravo airspace and headed towards the Verazzano.
Flying North past the Verazzano Bridge
From there we were handed off to LaGuardia and proceeded to head towards the south end of Manhattan.
Flying past the World Trade Center. Who would have thought you can just hop in a plane and do a tour like this?
We flew up the east river, over the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges. When we hit around 70th St, LaGuardia instructed us to turn left across Manhattan.
From there we made another left, and flew south over the Hudson river.
Empire State Building
The airspace over the Hudson is very crowded. There were helicopter tours operating only 500 feet below us. And you thought sidewalks in the city were crowded–it’s amazing how busy even the airspace in New York is!
We took one more look at the sights before heading back to KLDJ for a nice landing.
World Trade Center from the west side
Another pic of Matt taking in the sights
Statue of Liberty
After landing and stepping out of the airplane, I thought “why haven’t I learned to fly an airplane yet?”
The flight was amazing and completely different from any commercial flight. You got to hear radio communications and see the pilot in action. When there are only 3 people in an airplane, you’re always aware of what is going on and even feel involved. You can witness firsthand how sturdy an aircraft is, while at the same time how fragile it is. You can appreciate the engineering involved to build an aircraft, as well as the rigorous testing, standards, and maintenance an aircraft goes through in order to be deemed safe to fly. Not to mention the regulations around aircraft and air safety, and how a pilot in command of an aircraft has to know, understand, and be able to utilize all of this knowledge. Driving a car is peanuts in comparison.
The amazing thing about that flight was that it was peaceful. There was the noise of the propeller, but there weren’t crying babies, flight attendants telling me to buckle my seatbelt and ask me if I want Coke or water, or overweight passengers spilling into your seat and asking for a seatbelt extension (I never knew there was such a thing).
I had a near 360-degree view of my surroundings in this plane. Now when I think about commercial airliners, I can see how limited your vision and awareness is as a passenger. Your window is nothing more than a peephole on commercial flights. Being in a small plane, you are able to have an astoundingly greater sense of spatial perception. Seeing the way that clouds cast shadows on the earth or how quickly or slowly different objects appear to move at different altitudes is an unmatched educational experience. There were some moments I would have thought I was in space.
Matt told me he spent about $10-13K total to get his private pilot license. For some reason I had always thought that it would take over $100K to learn to fly planes. While it’s by no means cheap, it isn’t unattainable and it’s certainly possible with a lifestyle of careful spending and frugal living.
This flight finally confirmed everything I’ve always felt in my gut but until then never knew for certain about flying–that it was fascinating, freeing, and fun.