A formative memory of my childhood is standing on the street in front of my house in Staten Island. It was summer. Late afternoon. I already had the overactive imagination that would come to serve me later as a screenwriter. Sometimes I think it was put to better use back then, as I didn’t understand what constraints or limitations were. Certainly none that you’d find in a POH.
I was a six-year-old playing alone on the sidewalk when I heard the sound of a jet overhead. It must have departed KJFK, as it was still low enough for me to recognize it as a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. I couldn’t make out which airline, but it was flying into the sunset. I stood and stared until it disappeared over the horizon. I remember being struck by the fact that there were people on it, and that they were all going somewhere. I had recently become aware that there were many other humans inhabiting the planet and that they all had stories of their own. In the same way an infant comes to understand object permanence, I had become aware of the fact that my life was not located at the center of the universe.
Just as exciting was the realization that the visible horizon from Staten Island was not the end of the world. There was more out there. A lot more… Scale was this other thing I was coming to understand, and the sheer size of the Earth was a great mystery I wanted to unravel. Most importantly, I understood that an airplane was the best tool for the task. I have never once looked at an ocean liner and had a similar thought.
Seeing that airplane sail overhead toward the sun and imagining all of the people on it and the myriad of ad-ventures they were embarking on sealed my aviation fate. I wanted not only to be on that airplane, but to sit up front and manipulate the controls. I wanted to point the nose wherever I felt like going, without parental consent or anyone’s help or permission. I didn’t just want to go on the adventure—I wanted to pilot it.
This freedom is a huge part of aviation for me, and as it turns out, it’s only accessible through GA. Commercial flights will get you to major cities but won’t access even a fraction of the 5,000 airports in this country. Not to mention, the airlines all fly IFR, which is great for safety but scores very low on navigational autonomy. My Bonanza, however, goes wherever she pleases.
A few months ago, my pilot buddy Neal told me about an airfield that reopened in the desert east of Santa Barbara. L88 is a privately-owned, public-use airport in New Cuyama, California. Originally built in the early 1950s by Atlantic Richfield Oil Company (ARCO) after oil was discovered in the Cuyama Valley, the field fell into disrepair once the oil ran out (private industry is fantastic at creating logistical solutions so long as incentives remain). The strip has been in ruins for many years and then closed permanently in 2015. With a large donation and a nonprofit currently running the airport, the field reopened last year, and she’s a beaut.
I love flying to a new field. I enjoy the planning, the flying, and the exploring. Time spent studying charts and routes does not feel like work or a poor use of time. It’s fun. Packing for the weekend, my co-pilot Lauren asked about not having wheels when we landed. A small price to pay is what I told her. We got a bagel and coffee, then took off toward the San Gabriel mountains. No Victor airways, no ATC, no itinerary. We just flew north. Freedom.
“Is that snow over there on that peak?”
“Let’s go find out,” I replied.
Bank left, add some rudder input and soar over. This is freedom no road trip on earth can achieve. Moving three-dimensionally through the sky like a bird, going wherever your eyes train themselves on.
The approach into Cuyama is benign. You clear the mountains and drop down into a wide-open valley. L88 is bare bones, so not even an ATIS. We did a low pass to check the windsock, then came around and landed. We then walked five minutes to another recently-restored landmark, this one a motel called Cuyama Buckhorn. This was a motel built in the ‘50s that, like the runway, also fell into disrepair. It has been restored dutifully with a pool and bocce ball court as well as a wonderful restaurant. It reminded me of a mid-century Palm Springs hotel.
Is it worth the drive? Sure. It’ll take you more than two hours from LA versus 28 minutes flying, but who’s counting? Flying somewhere just sweetens the pot by an order of magnitude. Walking from the airplane to the motel and telling the waiter we just flew in is an instant conversation starter. GA flying is still a wondrous miracle to most laypeople. And as I’ve written previously in these pages (“The Question,” February 2021), it is this absolute freedom everyone focuses on.
The waiter asked us, “Who did you have to tell you were coming?”
“No one,” I reply.
“But you had to make some kind of reservation, right?”
A few more questions until the realization settles in: GA pilots can go and do as we please with almost no constraints, no limits, no permissions. The waiter, still staring at us dumbfounded, has the same look of wonder as that boy on the street in Staten Island.
Sitting at the counter, having just finished a wonderful lunch, I turned to Lauren and asked if she wanted to go flying again. I still had an itch. She was game. We walked back to the airplane and started her up. No destination, no plan, no mission. We flew just to fly. Soaring low over the rain-nourished landscape, I turned to her.
“Still wish we had wheels?”
“Couldn’t care less,” she replied.
There is something about human flight that first pushes back against then unchains our imaginations. I’m now the one in that airplane, sitting in the left seat, flying into the sunset. I can’t help but wonder(pray) how many young boys/girls pick their heads up from their smartphones at the sound of that big-bore Continental and see that strange V-tail silhouette soaring across the sky, and wonder, ‘Who is flying that airplane? Where are they going?
This column first appeared in the June 2023/Issue 938 print edition of FLYING.