As I get ready to sit down for my Thanksgiving dinner, I’m reflecting on the things that I’m thankful for. While family and friends top that list, the freedom of flight is a close second. I still marvel at the fact that, at any time of the day or night, I can jump in an airplane and get the best view there is – the view from an airplane. I don’t have to pay any fees to use the system (other than the cost of the airplane), I am never forced to file a flight plan (though it is always a good idea to file), and in many cases I don’t have to talk to anyone (though it is always a good idea to communicate). Our aviation system provides full freedom.
This freedom has at times provided me with incredible unexpected experiences. One memory that stands out is when I randomly ran across Devils Tower in Wyoming – a prominent rock feature I had read about in climbing magazines years prior – on a vacation flight I took in my Cessna 170 a few years ago. Until that point, I didn’t even know where Devils Tower was located. Being able to descend down to explore this familiar feature was one of those truly special moments that I’ve only been able to experience while being in a general aviation airplane. But knowing it's a national park, I didn't get very close. The FAA recommends that pilots stay two to three miles away from Devils Tower depending on the time of the year.
While I know my love for flight is shared by many, whether they are already pilots or not, there is a lot of talk in the aviation community about the drop in the pilot population, a problem that AOPA hopes to solve through the newly announced Center to Advance the Pilot Community. We can do our part by introducing anyone who shows an interest in flying to the wonderful world of general aviation. And we have to voice our concerns to politicians about user fees to keep the cost of flight from rising.
The user fee fight doesn’t stop at the federal level. Cities can also impose landing fees at airports. Santa Monica Airport (SMO) is a prime example. The owner of each airplane that lands there can expect a bill to arrive in the mail. This was an effort on the part of the city to limit the amount of traffic going into SMO. So far the fee is only imposed on visitors. But the city wants to extend those fees to every airplane landing at the airport, a rule that would increase the cost of flying for the locals and make it very difficult for the local flight schools to survive.
We also have to keep fighting airport closures to maintain accessibility to general aviation. Los Angeles basin was once littered with airports. But, like in so many metropolitan areas, they’ve been pushed away by a group of people that have become known as NIMBYs (not in my back yard). This is also a major issue at SMO.
I will continue to stay involved in the fight to save this beautiful, historical landmark, a landmark that provides many people with jobs, provides a landing site for emergency services (related to medical services or disaster relief) and provides me with so much joy. City leaders must be educated about the benefits of having a local airport. Otherwise the only people they hear are the NIMBYs and we can expect our airports to close.
Another thing we can all do to protect our flying privileges is to make a commitment to fly safely. The fatal general aviation accident rate is much too high despite advances in avionics, which now provides data that helps us avoid terrain, weather and other airplanes. It appears that the only thing that will make us safer is if we all decide to fly smarter. Too often, pilots say: “I think it will be OK,” referring to weather conditions, the condition of the airplane they’re flying or the amount of fuel carried on the flight. Make sure that you make each flight as safe as it can possibly be and stay on the ground if you have any doubts.
The open skies of the United States provide opportunities for flight that are uncommon in any other country. In many countries you are often required to file a flight plan and stick to it. With higher fuel prices and user fees, in some cases for each approach, the cost limits flying to high-income earners. And the number of general aviation airports is very limited. It is not a coincidence that the U.S. houses more than half of the world’s licensed pilots, according to statistics published by IAOPA the international branch of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
So this Thanksgiving, while you may have some time away from work, go for a flight and be thankful for the freedom the American airspace system provides. Make sure that you know what’s going on the federal and local level to protect that privilege. And make a commitment to safety to reduce the fodder for the NIMBYs who are working to restrict that privilege.