Monday, October 5, 2015


A magical view if I've ever seen one
I was recently pondering my place in general aviation.  I got to thinking about how I knew I wanted to work in GA but had absolutely no clue in what capacity.  One thing I did know was that I did NOT want to be an airline pilot.  Don't get me wrong, it can be a good job, but I knew it wasn't for me.  I considered air traffic controller, corporate pilot, even flight school owner (I ended up deciding that was probably a venture better left for retirement), but I kind of wallowed through school knowing I didn't fit the career-track airline pilot mold and not much else.

I did, however, know that I sure loved grassroots flying in airplanes with the little wheel in the back.  As such, my summers were filled with hanging out at the Hartford Municipal Airport as I worked on my sport pilot CFI and later instructed part-time around another part-time job.  I had a heck of a lot of fun, and it turns out that staying true to what you love sometimes works out.  I got an internship at Dakota Cub Aircraft, manufacturers of the world's finest Cub parts, and then I ended up with a job offer at Wipaire before I had even started my final semester of college.  To say I am fortunate would be an understatement, and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had (they've been pretty awesome!).

It never gets old, even 3 minutes from home

Anyways, recent reflecting left me thinking about how today's reality differs from my perceptions of yesterday.  I feel pretty confident saying that if you had asked me where I'd be in aviation five years ago, I would have had no clue and would have admitted as such (five years ago, I had barely decided to double-major in marketing instead of economics).  There is no doubt, though, that I would not have guessed I'd be where I am today.  I would have expected that I'd be a full-fledged CFI with an instrument rating and commercial pilot's license to my credit, and maybe that I'd be flying for hire in some capacity.

Needless to say, that's not where I am.  I'm still a private pilot with a tailwheel endorsement and a sport pilot CFI certificate.  I momentarily felt ashamed when I realized that, thinking I would have made more progress.  Then I remembered a conversation I had with Len Buckle a few years back at Sentimental Journey.  If you don't know Len, you're missing out.  He decided he would stop flying his J3 from California to Pennsylvania at the round age of 80.

Len is a supporter of the Piper Aviation Museum and bought a brick that's on display in the entryway.  His brick proudly proclaims "Nothing but a Cub pilot."  I asked him about that once, and he explained he got in a disagreement with a friend once, who said "What would you know, you're nothing but a Cub pilot!"  Len paused a moment, then decided his friend was right.  He also decided that "nothing but a Cub pilot" was, in fact, a badge of honor.

With that in mind, I thought about Ed Rankin, who once proclaimed to me "You're a puddlejumper, just like me."  At the time, I was mildly offended.  Surely I could fly pointy-nosed fast things in the clouds if I wanted to!  Ed didn't disagree, just pointed out that I liked flying little airplanes that went slow.

I thought back to all of the incredible people and places I've encountered flying slow little airplanes.  I recently described buying a Cub as the price of admission to a unique and special community of people (although I suppose you could substitute a Luscombe, Taylorcraft, or even a Champ). The airplanes I have flown have opened up an incredible world of people and places.  I've watched the sun rise and set at 80 miles an hour and slowly paddled my way from South Dakota to Florida, Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, and Minnesota to Indiana and a few other places in between.  A different airplane would get me there faster and in more comfort. 

However, Cub flying isn't about "getting there."  It's about watching the world from a height where you can still smell manure in the pastures of the Midwest, the factories along rivers and lakes, and finding beauty in every place you go. 

The Mississippi River often loses out to its eastern neighbor, the St. Croix, in public perception of beauty.  The "muddy Mississippi," with its commercial barge traffic, apparently gets less love than its boat-riddled compatriot.  Watch a floatplane land on the Mississippi from above or watch a barge go by with the rocky bluffs in the background, though, and tell me there's not beauty in that. 

The thing is, a lot of people have perceptions about beauty.  They think the Midwest is boring, that the plains states are better forgotten, and that only regions with mountains or coasts are worthy of the term "beautiful."  I disagree.  There's a unique beauty in every place.  I've sat outside on a grass strip in South Dakota and listened to the corn rustle in a gentle breeze while the light softened as the sun retreated for the day.  I've flown down the lakefront of Chicago and looked up at offices in skyscrapers as the windows twinkled in the sunlight.  I've scooted across seemingly endless tree-covered ridges in Pennsylvania telling the Continental up front what a good little engine it was.  Much like opening your eyes to your immediate surroundings, puddlejumping is all about appreciating the here and now.  You might get weathered in someplace.  You don't necessarily know if there will be a courtesy car to go to town with, or if you will end up subsisting on the granola bars you packed.  You might find a spectacular FBO with 24-hour access, showers, and a car.  Then again, you might also find a deserted field with a horrifying pit toilet (or no bathroom access at all).  You need an intact sense of adventure to fly a slow, basic airplane across the country and enjoy it.

I'm a proud supporter of the chart industry.  It keeps me more engaged than following a line on a GPS or a tablet.  A chart might not always be my sole method of navigation, but it is a heck of a lot of fun.

A funny thing happens when you can do that, though.  If you can get your mind wrapped around embracing the uncertainty of weather and unfamiliar airports and have fun, all of a sudden you start having a lot more fun in general.  Things don't always go to plan flying an I Follow Roads airplane.  You learn to adapt.  Sometimes you do things you wish you hadn't.  Sometimes you sit on the ground and regret it.  Once you embrace the notion of not having a concrete schedule and route, you become more open to life in general.  I say that as someone who has historically been afraid of trying new things.  My family didn't do things like go skiing or play yard games or any variety of other things.  I have never liked not being good at things, but I realized a few years ago that there was only one way to get beyond that.  I learned to downhill ski (sort of), and I even learned to ride a motorcycle because I realized I could do it on my own.  Why not?

I guess all of this means I may never be anything but a Cub pilot, but that's a damn fine label if you ask me.  What a problem to have, to be having too much fun with a simple airplane to want to bother sticking your head into a panel and droning through the clouds!  Yes, life is good.  I'm more in love with my life every time I open the hangar door and see the Oklahoma Kid waiting for me.  Her theme song is Magic Carpet Ride, because she is the magic carpet that transports me to places most people can only imagine. 

There's a great big world out there, and I intend to explore it one puddlejump at a time.