Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots

fifty-classic-destinations

Pilots tend to be Type A personalities, dedicated and goal-oriented. That’s a useful asset for a student, but once the check ride goal has been successfully achieved, the structured learning environment vanishes. Gone are the syllabus, instructor, and PTS. The fresh-faced aviator is released (or should that be “pushed”?) out of the nest like a baby bird being forced to fly. It can leave him or her wondering what comes next.

Sure, you’re free to go to the airport and take wing. But to where, and for what purpose? There’s always the 100 dollar hamburger, but you can only do that for so long. Advanced training is another possibility, whether that’s aerobatics, another rating, or an endorsement of some kind. But sooner or later, even the most ambitious and well-funded among us is going to leave the schoolhouse and enter the big bad world of self-directed flying. The transition is not always smooth or easy.

Some pilots have a surprisingly difficult time with this divergence in the proverbial road, unable to figure out what to do or how to use their skills in a way that keeps their own interest piqued for the long-term. Others never develop sufficient comfort with solo flying to spread their wings even after they earn them. These are prime candidates for dropping out, pilots who may slowly disappear from the aviation scene. I hate to see that.

One way to solve the problem is to expand your horizons by going places. Not only is it interesting, but it builds confidence for those who lack it. And that’s where a friend of mine comes in. Ney Grant and I go back about fifteen years. We were both active members of the Cessna Pilots Association and came up through the ranks together. Both of us owned Skylanes at roughly the same time, but I ended up taking the professional career route, whereas he moved up to a six-seat Centurion and passed the years doing exploring the western United States to a degree few other C-210 pilots can boast.

Ney recently asked me to take a look at a book he’s written which details his most notable destinations. I don’t normally expect much from self-published work. Anyone can put out a book these days, but the democratization of publishing does nothing to assure quality. Take a look at a random blog and tell me I’m wrong.

Thankfully, Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots was a pleasant surprise. I’ll put it this way: the book was pretty enough that I didn’t take it on the road. It was a little too nice to let it get creased and bent up in my already overstuffed computer bag. But I did read it after returning home and it’s much bigger and more professional looking than I was expecting.

I’ve traveled to quite a few places and was for many years a subscriber to Pilot Getaways, not to mention the countless aviation blogs and magazines that come across my desk. But Ney managed to hit on quite a few spots I’ve never been to, many of which are in my own back yard. Some I’ve never even heard of, while other destinations I know well. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been to Catalina, Las Vegas, or San Luis Obispo (my wife’s from SLO). It was fun comparing spots I’ve been to with his coverage of fresh destinations.

I enjoyed the mix of airports, too. Some are quite urban, others border on bush flying, so there’s something in there for just about everyone. And since Ney flies a Centurion rather than a Super Cub or other off-road-ish vehicle, the spots are accessible to most GA pilots. The Centurion has many wonderful qualities, STOL performance is not one of them.

If Fifty Classics was comprised purely of dry destination content, it wouldn’t stand out from the crowd, but it includes personal travel stories, off-beat encounters, lesson learned, and so on. On one adventure he describes getting sick in mid-flight and diverting to Reno. I think it was food poisoning — something I’ve had the bad fortune to experience while flying. In fact, I’m planning a post about that in the near future. These little stories help break up the travelogues and add a personal touch you don’t find in most books.

This is not a Photoshopped image.  But I assure you there's a simple and logical explanation in the book.

This is not a Photoshopped image. But I assure you there’s a simple and logical explanation in the book.

Travel and destination material aside, I enjoyed following his sometimes painful growth as an aviator. For example, he landed at the famous Chicken Strip, only to learn that it’s probably not a place he was comfortable with in the 210. Or another story where he took off the top of a tree while landing an a familiar but high density airfield. It also adds a sense of realism to what he’s doing. It’s not always sunshine and roses; there are risks to be considered! Speaking of which, I won’t spoil the ending for you, but one tale involves lashing kayaks to the top of each wing before taking off. Apparently that one has generated some feedback from the inter webs.

Ney’s photographs are not just of airplanes, airports or terrain, but also of family, pets, friends, volunteers, and so on. It speaks of a richer experience than just going somewhere for vacation or to climb a mountain (although he does plenty of that, too).

Finally, the quality of the writing and the way the volume is organized belies the self-published nature. The design looks and feels more like a book that’s had a professional editorial staff working on it. The color scheme, typography, and overall layout are excellent. Most of my experience publishing is web-based, where typos, photos, and layouts are easy to fix, but even I can see that Ney put tremendous time and effort into Fifty Classics.

Ney notes in the forward that he has flown more than 150 different adventures to date, so I assume he’s got material enough for at least one more edition. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with. If you are a pilot in need of ideas and inspiration, or know someone who is, I recommend this book.

Who’s the Best Pilot?

Actor.  Pilot.  Two guys with the right stuff.

One of the many iconic scenes (so much so that it recurs several times in the film) from The Right Stuff has astronaut Gordon Cooper asking his wife, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” before answering his own question: “You’re lookin’ at him!” Gordo was telling a joke, of course, but it got me thinking about what constitutes a truly great pilot in the real world.

Accident statistics show that when light GA pilots try to operate on a firmly fixed schedule — for example, around the holidays — the risk level increases. AOPA recently published an Air Safety Alert to that effect, noting “a cluster of GA accidents occurring in close succession”.

Some of this probably has to do with the fact that the holiday season occurs in the winter for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. While the hot months have their own set of challenges, they tend to consist of things which present equal hazard to all aircraft: thunderstorms, high density altitude, etc. But whereas large multi-engine turbojets are well-equipped for cold weather flying, single-engine recips typically operate with minimal anti- and de-icing equipment, if any.

Anyway, it occurs to me that this kind of flying is exactly what we do in the Part 135 world. We operate on someone else’s timetable, and rarely is that schedule created with weather, circadian rhythm, airport staffing hours, or other such operational concerns in mind. As you might expect, the 135 safety record — while far better than Part 91 — does not reach the rarefied heights of the scheduled airlines. Some people feel it should. There are plenty of folks who feel Part 91 should reach that strata as well.

I tend to disagree.

Part 135 has the flexibility to operate at random times and into a far wider variety of places than scheduled airlines. While we do everything possible to make the flights as safe as humanly possible, flexibility cannot help but exact a price. Flying worldwide charter, I don’t know if my next trip will take me to Liberia or Las Vegas. I have to be prepared to go anywhere.

If that sounds incredible, then light general aviation flying should really blow your mind! The non-commercial Part 91 aviating so many of us do for personal reasons takes that freedom and ramps it up a hundred fold. Not only can you go anywhere you want at any time it suits you, you can do it at night, in IMC, in formation, and fly some aerobatics or sight-see along the way. You can fly a weird experimental airplane that you built in your garage. You can tow banners. Drop things from your airplane, then cut them up as they fall to earth? Yes, that’s fine. Fly high… or low. You can change your destination in mid-flight without asking anyone’s permission.

Heck, you can even take off with no destination whatsoever; those are some of my most cherished flights. When I call the VFR clearance delivery frequency at John Wayne Airport and they ask where I’m headed, nothing says freedom quite like using William Shatner’s response from the first Star Trek film: “Out there. That-a-way!”

Wrapping your mind around having the liberty to do those things while not being able to install a radio in your panel without approval from a certification office somewhere in Oklahoma City could cause a migraine… but let’s leave that for another day.

The point is, with added freedom comes added risk. And responsibility. It’s ironic that we think of airline pilots as having the greatest weight on their shoulders when rules, procedures, and operational specifications dictate almost everything they do. I’m not saying their job is easy. It ain’t. But if you’re not in awe of the authority and self-determination placed on your own shoulders every time you launch, think about this: we could have the safety record of the major airlines. All we’d need are the same rules and requirements for flight that they use. Seems to me that would be an awful lot like asking Santa for a big, dirty lump of coal in your stocking.

If there’s a way to have the freedom to land on five hundred foot long strips on the side of a mountain, tackle water runways, engage in flight training, and — most of all — fly to that family Christmas in an airplane with just one reciprocating engine without significantly higher risk than you’ll find on a typical airliner, I’d be quite surprised. But one thing every pilot has in common is that risk management is a major part of the job.

So as you contemplate that cross country flight to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, remember that the best pilot isn’t the one who finds the cheapest fuel, stuffs the most presents into the baggage compartment, or makes the softest landing. It’s the one who best manages the risk inherent in that flight.

Right, Gordo?


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

The Real Problem with LAX

LAX terminal

Los Angeles International has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of airports. It gets no respect — and with good reason. Dated, overcrowded, and inefficient, LAX’s primary redeeming characteristic is the mild Southern California weather. When J.D. Power & Associates rated LAX as the third-worst airport in the U.S. in 2010, many Angelinos probably assumed there was a mistake. “Two airports lower are on the list?”

I’ve experienced LAX as a professional charter pilot and an ordinary passenger for more than a third of a century. And so I’ve squirreled away more than one LAX horror story. It’s not uncommon to fly my aircraft from Van Nuys (home to a huge general aviation airport) to LAX in five minutes—and then spend the next hour (or more) crawling those last few feet from the runway to the terminal in a long line of jets. Believe me, regardless of which side of the cockpit door you’re on, LAX is no fun.

The fact is most major airports — think La Guardia, Hartsfield, JFK, McCarran — seem like a cross between a run down bus station and an urban refugee camp, with masses of downtrodden travelers being herded to and from by security apparatchiks and airline employees who’ve “had it up to here”. So why is it so bad? LAX, and other major U.S. airports, look and feel so bad because they suffer from the same affliction: a national lack of runway capacity.

To grasp what’s truly behind the gridlock and delays that mark any authentic LAX experience, one must understand that airports are to airplanes as roads are to cars. Merely expanding the existing roads isn’t enough to make real change. That’s why all the usual fixes we see proposed for LAX—like adding a terminal or gates, or extending runways—won’t fix the airport any more than widening the 405 freeway through the Sepulveda Pass will alleviate West L.A. traffic jams.

Since we face a larger, more serious, and profoundly national infrastructure problem—a shortage of runways and airports—soliciting opinions on a solution for LAX is like asking how to fix a problematic train station when the entire system of tracks and switches is malformed.

Our airport is but one piece of an aviation infrastructure that has been allowed to shrink and decay most in the very areas where more capacity is needed. In other words, LAX is so overcrowded and sclerotic because no new airport capacity—here or elsewhere—is being developed. You wouldn’t expect to repair a clogged drain by allowing more water to back up in the sink, but for some reason we use that logic when it comes to airports.

The famous Theme Building harkens back to a simpler time at LAX. But fixing what ails our airport infrastructure will take a lot more than pretty new terminals with soaring roof lines.

The famous Theme Building harkens back to a simpler time at LAX. But fixing what ails our airport infrastructure will take a lot more than pretty new terminals with soaring roof lines.

Reliever airfields — airports that provide additional capacity to an area when the primary commercial airport is overburdened — have been shuttered throughout the L.A. area over a period of decades and now we’re seeing the result. Did you know that Inglewood, Huntington Park, Gardena, Culver City, and many other Los Angeles towns once hosted their own airports? Almost all of them are now gone, and those which remain have allowed residential and commercial development to encroach on the field to the point where any further expansion is impossible. Take a look at Santa Monica, Hawthorne, Compton, Whiteman, or virtually any other small airport in the Los Angeles area.

Long ago, when our population was a tiny fraction of what it is today, Los Angeles had a couple dozen active airports. But as the number of residents has risen, the airport count has fallen. It’s the exact opposite of what should be happening. Today, one of LAX’s primary relievers for general aviation traffic, Santa Monica Airport, is under threat of closure. If that happens, where do you suppose those airplanes will land?

Los Angeles is not alone. I live in Orange County, and our history includes fourteen distinct airports; today only three remain: two civilian and one military. In 2002, voters had the opportunity to turn the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into a commercial airport but declined to do so, allowing another much-needed series of runways to fall by the wayside. The same story is repeated across the country. While that’s democracy at work, nobody should be surprised that we’re experiencing gridlock as a result of these decisions.

Self-proclaimed experts will tell you that the problem with our infrastructure is thousands of feet above our heads, claiming the skies over America are so crowded that the current ground-based air traffic control system is to blame for our flying woes. That’s why the Federal government is spending billions of dollars to transition to a satellite-based system referred to as NextGen. But I’ve been flying for decades and it’s extremely rare to see another airplane at altitude. It’s only the condensation trail emanating from the engines that visually reveals them at all.

A third grader could tell you that the sky is large and it’s our airports that are small. That’s where the real crush of traffic happens. We don’t lack airspace — we lack pavement.

A Self-Evident Solution

floatplane

Times are tough for general aviation, and we need a solid partner and advocate in Washington now more than ever. Unfortunately, the FAA is proving to be the exact opposite — a lead weight — and it’s becoming a big problem.

Complaining about the FAA has been a popular spectator sport for decades. I feel for those who work at the agency because the most of the individuals I’ve interacted with there have been pleasant and professional. They often seem as hamstrung and frustrated with the status quo as those of us on the outside. In fact, I took my commercial glider checkride with an FAA examiner from the Riverside FSDO in 2004 and consider it a model of how practical tests should be run. So I’m not suggesting we toss the baby out with the bathwater.

But somewhere, somehow, as an organization, the inexplicable policy decisions, poor execution, and awful delays in performing even the most basic functions lead one to the conclusion that the agency is beset by a bureaucratic sclerosis which is grinding the gears of progress to a rusty halt on many fronts.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Opposite Direction Approaches Banned

If you’re not instrument-rated, the concept of flying an approach in the “wrong direction” probably seems… well, wrong. But it’s not. For decades, pilots have flown practice approaches in VFR conditions for training purposes without regard for the wind direction. There are many logical reason for doing so: variety, the availability of a specific approach type, to practice circling to a different runway for landing, and so on. John Ewing, a professional instructor based on California’s central coast, described this as “going up the down staircase”.

For reasons no one has been able to explain (and I’ve inquired with two separate FSDOs in my area), this practice is no longer allowed at towered fields. Here’s what John wrote about the change:

…the FAA has decided that opposite direction approaches into towered airports are no longer allowed. To the uninitiated, practice approaches to a runway when there’s opposite direction traffic may seem inherently dangerous, but it is something that’s been done safely at many airports for as long as anyone can remember. One example in Northern California is Sacramento Executive where all the instrument approaches are to runway 2 and 90% of the time runway 20 is in use.

At KSAC, the procedure for handling opposite direction approaches is simple and has worked well (and without incident, to my knowledge): The tower instructs the aircraft inbound on the approach to start their missed approach (usually a climbing left turn) prior to the runway threshold and any traffic departing the opposite direct turns in the other direction.

For areas like the California Central Coast, the restriction on opposite direction instrument approaches has been in place since I arrived in June and it has serious implications for instrument flight training since the ILS approaches for San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara are likely to be opposite direction 90% of the time. For a student to train to fly an ILS in a real aircraft, you need to fly quite a distance. Same goes for instrument rating practical tests that require an ILS because the aircraft is not equipped with WAAS GPS and/or there’s no RNAV approach available with LPV minima to a DA of 250 feet or lower.

The loss of opposite-direction approaches hurts efficiency and is going to increase the time and money required for initial and recurrent instrument training. As good as simulators are, there’s no substitute for the real world, especially when it comes to things like circling to land. Between the low altitude, slow airspeed, and division of attention between instruments and exterior references required for properly executing the maneuver, circling in low weather can be one of the most challenging and potentially hazardous aspects of instrument flying. If anything, we need more opportunities to practice this. Banning opposite-direction approaches only ensures we’ll do it less.

Example 2: The Third Class Medical

Eliminating the third class medical just makes sense. I’ve covered this before, but it certainly bears repeating: glider and LSA pilots have been operating without formal medical certification for decades and there is no evidence I’m aware of to suggest they are any more prone to medical incapacitation than those of us who fly around with that coveted slip of paper in our pocket.

AOPA and EAA petitioned the government on this issue two years and nine months ago. The delay has been so egregious that the FAA Administrator had to issue a formal apology. Obviously pilots are clamoring for this, but we’re not the only ones:

Congress is getting impatient as well. In late August, 32 members of the House General Aviation Caucus sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to expedite the review process and permit the FAA to proceed with its next step of issuing the proposal for public comment. Early in September 11 Senators, who were all co-sponsors of a bill to reform the medical process, also asked the Department of Transportation to speed up the process.

So where does the proposed rule change now? It is someplace in the maze of government. Officially it is at the Department of Transportation. Questions to DOT officials are met with no response, telling us to contact the FAA. FAA officials comment that “it is now under executive review at the DOT.”

The rule change must also be examined by the Office of Management and Budget.

When the DOT and OMB both approve the proposal — if they do — it will be returned to the FAA, which will then put it out for public comment. The length of time for comments will probably be several months.

After these comments are considered, the FAA may or may not issue a rule change.

It occurs to me that by the time this process is done, it may have taken nearly as long as our involvement in either world war. Even then, there’s no guarantee we’ll have an acceptable outcome.

Example 3: Hangar Policy

The common sense approach would dictate that as long as you’ve got an airplane in your hangar, you should be able to keep toolboxes, workbenches, American flags, a refrigerator, a golf cart or bicycle, or anything else you like in there. But the FAA once again takes something so simple a cave man could do it and mucks it up. The fact that the FAA actually considers any stage of building an airplane to be a non-aeronautical activity defies both logic and the English language. Building is the very essence of the definition. People who’ve never even been inside an airplane could tell you that. In my mind, this hangar policy is the ultimate example of how out of touch with reality the agency has become.

General aviation flight activity has been on a long steady decline.  Reversing the trend will require help from many areas -- including the FAA.

General aviation flight activity has been on a long steady decline. Reversing the trend will require help from many areas — including the FAA.

Example 4: Field Approvals

These have effectively been gone from aviation for the better part of a decade. It used to be that if you wanted to add a new WhizBang 3000 radio to your airplane, a mechanic could get it approved via a relatively simple, low-cost method called a field approval. For reasons nobody has even been able to explain (probably because there is no valid explanation), it became FAA policy to stop issuing these. If you want that new radio in your airplane, you’ll have to wait until there’s an STC for it which covers your aircraft. Of course, that takes a lot longer and costs a boatload of money, if it happens at all. But the FAA doesn’t care.

Homebuilts put whatever they want into their panels and you don’t see them falling out of the sky. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Example 5: RVSM Approvals

Just to show you that it’s not only the light GA segment that’s suffering, here’s a corporate aviation example. The ability to fly in RVSM airspace — the area between FL290 and FL410 — is very important. Being kept below FL290 is not only inefficient and bad for the environment, it also forces turbine aircraft into weather they would otherwise be able to avoid. The alternative is to fly at FL430 and above, which can mean leaving fuel and/or payload behind, or flying in a paperwork-induced coffin corner.

Unfortunately, RVSM approval requires a Letter of Authorization from the FAA. If the airplane is sold, the LOA is invalidated and the new owner has to go through the paperwork process with the FAA from step one. Even if the aircraft stays at the same airport, maintained by the same people, and flown by the same crew. If you so much as change the name of your company, the LOA is invalidated. If you sneeze or get a hangnail, they’re invalidated.

From AIN Online:

Early this year the FAA agreed to a streamlined process to handle RVSM LOA approvals, but for the operator of a Falcon 50 that is not the case. He told AIN that he has been waiting since April for an RVSM LOA.

Because the LOA hasn’t been approved, this operator can fly the Falcon 50 at FL290 or lower or at FL430 or above. On a hot day, a Falcon 50 struggles at FL430. “The other day ISA was +10,” he told AIN, “and we are just hanging there at 43,000 at about Mach 0.72. If we had turbulence we could have had an upset. We’re right there in the coffin corner. Somebody is going to get hurt.”

On another recent flight in the Falcon, “There was a line of storms in front of us. We’re at FL290. They couldn’t let us climb, and I was about to declare an emergency. I’m not going to run my airplane through a hailstorm. It’s turbulent and the passengers are wondering what’s going on.”

When forced to fly below FL290, the Falcon burns 60 percent more fuel, he said. The company’s three Hawkers have a maximum altitude of FL410, and LOA delays with those forced some flights to down to lower altitudes. “We had one trip in a Hawker before it received its RVSM LOA,” he added, “and they got the crap kicked out of them. Bobbing and weaving [to avoid thunderstorms] over Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the springtime, you’re going to get your [butt] kicked.” The Hawker burns about 1,600 pph at FL370, but below FL290 the flow climbs to more than 2,000 pph.

It’s bad for safety and the FAA knows it. If they were able to process paperwork quickly, it might not be such an issue, but many operators find that it takes many months — sometimes even a year or more — to get a scrap of paper which should take a few minutes at most.

Show Me the Money

So what’s behind the all this? Americans love to throw money at a problem, so is this a budget cut issue? Perhaps the FAA is a terribly cash-starved agency that simply isn’t given the resources to do the jobs we’re asking of it.

According to the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, that’s not the case. He testified before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure earlier this week that the FAA’s budget has been growing even as traffic declines:

The growth of the agency’s budget has been unchecked, despite the managerial failings and the changes in the marketplace. Between 1996 and 2012, the FAA’s total budget grew 95 percent, from $8.1 billion to $15.9 billion. During that same period, the agency’s air traffic operations dropped by a fifth. As a result, taxpayers are now paying the FAA nearly twice as much to do only 80 percent of the work they were doing in the 1990s.

Over that same 16-year span, the FAA’s personnel costs, including salary and benefits, skyrocketed from $3.7 billion to $7.3 billion — a 98 percent increase — even though the agency’s total number of full-time workers actually fell 4 percent during that time.

Self-Evident Solutions

Okay, we’ve all heard the litany of issues. From the inability to schedule a simple checkride to big problems with NextGen development or the ADS-B mandate, you’ve probably got your own list. The question is, how do we fix the problem?

I think the answer is already out there: less FAA oversight and more self-regulation. Look closely at GA and you’ll see that the segments which are furthest from FAA interference are the most successful. The Experimental Amateur-Built (E-AB) sector and the industry consensus standards of the Light Sport segment are two such examples. The certified world? Well many of them are still building the same airframes and engines they did 70 years ago, albeit at several times the cost.

Just as non-commercial aviation should be free of the requirement for onerous medical certification, so too should it be free of the crushing regulatory weight of the FAA. The agency would make a far better and more effective partner by limiting its focus to commercial aviation safety, promoting general aviation, and the protection and improvement of our infrastructure.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Teaching a Homeless Man to Fly

decathlon-inverted

Question: When you’re in a room with other people, how can you tell if one of them is a pilot?
Answer: Simple. He’ll tell you.

Aviators are a proud lot, and with good reason. Ours is quite an exclusive club. Despite that fact, I’ve long believed that learning to fly actually has wide appeal among the general public. From my earliest days in the industry, those who discovered I was a pilot would invariably show great interest in my aeronautical activities. More often than not, I would come away from the conversation with the feeling that they were envious of my ability to defy gravity and soar with the birds.

The question then is why more individuals don’t (as they say at Nike) “just do it”. For starters, it requires a lot of money. Then there’s the logistics, the time commitment, and the challenge inherent in weaving one’s way through the modern flight training maze. Changes in instructors, weather delays, antiquated tests and teaching techniques, and so on. Many look skyward, but few take the bull by the horns and see that dream through to completion.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s those who are the least well equipped to succeed who make it to the finish line. Ward Welvaert, a professional contract and ferry pilot, recently wrote about how he taught a homeless man to fly:

Something was different about Patrick but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I was young(ish) and struggling to make a living as most all flight instructors do. I didn’t feel like it was my place to decide who should be taking flight instruction or who should not – as long as the person is safety oriented and shows good judgment. I don’t remember who told me but someone pulled me aside in the lobby of the FBO and asked if I knew Patrick was spending the nights sleeping in his car out in the airport parking lot. Apparently people had noticed Patrick sleeping in his car and asked if he was OK. Patrick seemed to be more comfortable talking to the line men and he had confided in one of them, told them he lived out of his car, he’d spend a week at the airport and then go to work as a road construction laborer for a few weeks. Every time he’d go away to work he’d save his money and then come back to the airport to fly.

Ward’s post reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten: that I too once taught a homeless person to fly. In my case, the student was a fairly young man in his early 20s who already held a private pilot certificate. James ended up on my schedule because he wanted to fly acro. At our first meeting, there was no immediate indication that he was at all different from any other student at the FBO. His clothing and mannerisms were completely conventional. He was quite energetic about the aerobatic course and talked at length about how the ultimate goal for him in aviation was always the freedom and excitement of all-attitude flying.

As with any new student, the process started with a bit of paperwork. When the forms were handed to me, I noticed he had left the “contact” section completely blank. No phone number, e-mail, or address. I asked about that and James said he didn’t have any of those things. He was couch-surfing in order to conserve every dollar possible for flying. He didn’t even own a car. This guy biked to the airport and worked in the pilot shop to earn money. How’s that for single-minded dedication?

Couch-surfing is not illegal. Nor is riding a bike or lacking a cell phone. So eventually the training began, and as I recall, James was a pleasant and upbeat personality in the cockpit, not to mention a good stick. Every CFI craves students like that. You know, the ones that make you look brilliant without having to do too much work?

Anyway, he was making respectable progress through the 10-12 flight hour course when suddenly things came to a screeching halt. He completely disappeared off the schedule, and despite asking around, I couldn’t figure out what happened to him. The guy just vanished into thin air. I was truly disappointed. Had my instruction been inadequate, I wondered? Did he finally run out of cash? Was he popped for selling meth or something?

It wasn’t until a month or two later that someone informed me that he’d heard James was hit by a car one day while riding his bike to the airport. The only reason they knew that much was because James had taken the time to call the pilot shop and say he wouldn’t be able to make it in to work. Nobody had details, like which hospital he’d been taken to or how badly he’d been hurt. That was as close as I ever got to figuring out where he went.

I’ve known other itinerant people, souls like kites who were simply meant to travel in whichever direction the wind carried them, but given the resources and support required for successful flight training, I was impressed with James’s dedication to a very challenging goal. It never entered his mind that it was unachievable, nor did I ever hear him complain about the lack of creature comforts in his life. He was flying, it made him happy, and that was all there was to it.

In retrospect, his status may have been an advantage because James had no family or financial commitments to consume his resources or energy. He didn’t have much, but everything he did have was directed toward flying.

I’ve no idea whether he ever completed aerobatic training, but unless that car seriously and permanently disabled him, I can’t imagine the answer would be “no”. It just wasn’t in his character to be deterred. How can you not admire that in a person?

James, like all memorable students, wasn’t just a learner but a teacher as well. He taught me a valuable lesson about persistence and dedication, two very American qualities which have become the exception rather than the rule in our society. Whenever someone tells me they could never possibly find the time or money to pursue flying — or any dream for that matter — I always think about James, and I know the truth: if there’s a will, there’s always a way.