The Aviation Bug—It's Contagious

Forget about SARS; Tom is talking about a different kind of bug, one that nearly every pilot has and that, Tom hopes, proves highly contagious.

benensonF

benensonF

It was a disparate group of musicians, artists, pilots and friends attending Craig Peyton's art exhibit called "Environmental Forms." As diverse as the members of the group were, they had one thing in common-their enthusiasm. It was contagious. The multimedia exhibit combined three of Craig's loves-music, photography and aviation-and was composed of six video segments of air-to-ground movies that Craig had originally photographed from his Mooney 201. There were also framed stills from the videos mounted on the walls. The video clips depicted stunning views of the world taken from above and gave the non-pilots in the audience an idea of the incredible sights that we pilots get to experience on every flight. For the pilots, it was a reminder of how lucky-and how privileged-we are to have a front row seat as the earth unrolls beneath us.

Gordon, a pilot who had met Craig at the Sky Acres airport, was at the exhibit with his non-pilot friend Dana. At 46, Gordon said, he had decided it was time to live his dream, so he bought a Grumman Traveler in which to learn to fly. Dana was one of the first people he took for a ride after he got his license. She was hooked. "I remember one time we watched the sun set twice. It was magic!" she enthused. After they had watched the "first" sunset from the ground, they took off in the Traveler and watched from their airborne perch as the sun dipped below the horizon for a second time. Though she's not yet a pilot, I think Dana has caught the aviation bug. And after watching Craig's footage, Gordon's enthusiasm has flared up again and he's decided it's time to do some long cross-country flights to see the country for himself.

Watching the way the non-pilots at the exhibit responded to the secondhand experience of viewing the earth's tapestry from a small airplane, I wondered how many people I've exposed to and infected with the aviation bug. If I don't count those who came into the FBO for introductory flights and went on to take lessons with me or other instructors at the flight school but only consider those I met and infected from casual contact, there aren't as many as I would have thought.

Let's see, there was Tami, a summer intern at Bell Labs when I worked there, who caught me sneaking out at lunchtime to go to Morristown Municipal Airport, where I was working on my commercial certificate. Once she learned what I was doing she was infected and began taking lessons. I don't know if she ever finished. I do know her aviation enthusiasm was dampened by an overzealous instructor and an unfortunate first solo to the practice area during which she got lost and was still trying to find her way home after dark. Had her instructor given her some basic instruction in navigation and radio work before signing her off for solo, that flight wouldn't have been quite as traumatic.

I will take credit for getting Clark, my ex-partner in the airplane, started in aviation. Over a dinner conversation while I was going on about a Cessna 150 I had seen for sale at Teterboro Airport, Clark revealed he had a long-held dream of learning to fly. By dessert, we had decided to become partners in an airplane. The relationship lasted more than 13 years and took us from a Cessna 150 to the Cardinal RG. Eventually, Clark and his wife moved to summer and winter homes on the water and his love for boating replaced his affection for aviation.

My record's not looking so good. Let's see, then there was Davison, Clark's nephew. I took Davison for an "introductory" ride. To make it more interesting, I showed him how neat it was to twist and turn along the meandering Kinderhook Creek. That was a mistake. I learned my lesson and he learned that air sickness isn't pleasant. I'm not proud of that one. After that there are a lot of "familiarization" flights in my logbook during which no one got queasy.

My experience with Davison reminds me of the time my friend Rich, who had heard about the fun and advantages of learning to fly from me, went for an introductory flight lesson. The instructor, "to see if he was serious about learning to fly," did some near aerobatic maneuvers. Rich is a big fellow who plays hockey for fun, so he isn't easily intimidated. And though he'd learned from me that pilot error is the major cause of accidents-and recognized the instructor he was with was making some serious errors-he smiled through the initiation. But he never went back to that instructor.

I did give my mother her first flight lesson at age 70, and she continues to be enthusiastic about flying. She proudly kept her logbook on the coffee table, but eventually, frustrated by not being able to successfully land the airplane on Microsoft's Flight Simulator program, she decided not to pursue lessons.

As pilots, it's our responsibility when non-pilots start showing the symptoms-slowing down when passing an airport, pausing to watch a small airplane cross a deep blue sky or mentioning they've always dreamed of learning to fly-to make sure their introduction is pleasurable and comfortable. Demonstrating a stall or making a first-time passenger airsick is not going to prove to be an effective technique to recruit new pilot prospects.

Thinking about the people I might have contaminated with flight fever, I'm reminded of some who were instrumental in influencing me to make aviation such a large part of my life. Major Frank Lovell, head of the Aviation Pathology Division of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) when I worked there during summers in high school, and Kathy Simms, the division secretary, were instrumental in encouraging my aviation and writing career. The gift of a dictionary at the end of the summer, with the note, "We know you won't be afraid to use this," and a summer spent perusing reports of military aviation accidents complete with ghastly photographs taught me a respect for the written word and an appreciation for what can happen when pilots make the wrong choices.

My uncle Hy pointed out that if I ever wanted to take out life insurance, I should take at least a couple of lessons before applying for the insurance. It seems in those days insurance companies could cancel life insurance if you began flight lessons after taking out the insurance. If you had taken lessons before taking out the insurance, you couldn't be bounced. I took two lessons in a Piper J-3 at Maryland's College Park Airport after working the summer at the AFIP.

Of course, my parents were also an important influence. Though neither was a pilot or had ever expressed an interest in learning to fly, they encouraged my interest. When my grandmother died and left a small amount of money for my brother and me to use for our education, my parents agreed that flight lessons would be a valid educational use of the money. I think that was pretty open-minded of them.

I'm embarrassed that unlike Typhoid Mary I haven't been a very successful carrier and haven't infected more people. I'll try harder. In the meantime, I'd like to think the incubation period can be a long one and many of the people with whom I've had contact will someday begin to show symptoms.

When the conversation turns to small airplanes I do know better than to get defensive; the argument shouldn't be to try to justify the use of a small airplane. Craig's videos do much more to promote general aviation than all the arguments about time savings and general aviation's value as a business tool. It's the fun of flying that I should be exposing others to. I should be stressing the good times and wonderful moments that await aloft, the pleasures that only members of our high society get to enjoy. For Dana it was the joy of sequential sunsets. But for pilots, climbing up through an overcast to clear skies above, breaking out at minimums on an approach with the runway right where it's supposed to be, the chirping of the landing gear when you squeak one on and the wonders of the view from above are the moments of satisfaction and pure pleasure that make flying what it is-priceless.

The idea of exposing others to aviation in order to infect them with the bug isn't new. The Experimental Aviation Association's Young Eagles program, introduced in 1992, is designed to increase the number of pilots-and people who appreciate the gifts that flight bestows-by giving one million young people a flight in a small airplane by the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight on December 17, 2003. During 2002, the program introduced 115,000 young people to general aviation, bringing the total number of Young Eagles to 875,000. At that rate, the EAA is well on its way to meeting its goal.

If you haven't passed on your passion to others there's still time. Fortunately, most people don't develop a resistance. And, although the incubation period can run a long time, once they've been exposed, most people will eventually succumb to a bad case of flight fever.