Eight Three Zero One Foxtrot – Part I

Piper Saratoga

The last time I flew with my husband was at least five years ago.  I’m talking teeny weeny planes.  My husband pilots single-engine planes, a past time that makes him happier than a Slinky  on an escalator.

“It’s not you — it’s me,” I sniffed.  I really tried to be a cooperative flight companion.  Gave it ten good years.  But I couldn’t do it anymore after the West Virginia incident.  More on that in Part II.

Our very first flight together should have afforded more than enough clues about my foray into the unpredictable world of general aviation.  Everything is really unforeseeable and very, very  small.  Those tiny tubes with wings, some seating four people, some seating eight or nine, with their cracked leather seats that pinched the backs of my thighs; the control panel that rose at least five inches above eye level, causing me to peer over it like a toddler gripping the bar of a play pen; and a typical pre-flight cockpit temperature of 3,000 degrees — just never met my personal comfort and safety needs.  The kicker on that first flight, though, was being strapped into the passenger seat, the dusty control panel inches from my face — with the “Spin Recovery” button set squarely in my sight line.  Really?  “Spin Recovery?”  Was I to discern that this aircraft has a propensity for inverting  like a giant spinning top, twirling toward earth, only to magically right itself when said button was depressed, sending passengers merrily on to their destination?  Or was this a kind of aviary placebo?

The vast differences between general aviation and commercial aviation became apparent to me rather quickly, of course.  This  handy reference comparison outlines the major distinctions.  “CA” refers to Commercial Aviation,  while “GA” refers to general aviation.

CA:  general physical comfort with pressurized cabin.  GA:  coffin-sized, non-pressured crawl space.

CA:  neutral, albeit dry air temperature throughout flight. GA:  cockpit temps may reach 6 bazillion degrees during pre-flight check; A/C can only be used while air borne; flop sweat accompanied by significant water weight loss (not an entirely bad thing)

CA:  trained flight crew of up to 6 people, at least 2 of whom manage take-off, actual flying of aircraft, and landing; cockpit crew only visible to passengers before take-off and after landing.  GA:  one trained pilot, seated, laterally, inches away from passenger, often smearing said passenger with forearm sweat.

CA:  aircraft designed to muffle engine sounds  GA:  head-compressing noise-cancellation head phones required for any semblance of communication; prevent potential hearing loss and bloody-throated shouting

CA:  ground crew pumps fuel and completes maintenance check  GA:  pilot and passenger check gas quality by squeezing a tiny portion from one of the wings and stating something like, “Looks pretty good to me.  What do you think?”  “Yeah, sure, what you said.”

CA:  ground crew tows plane to gate prior to take-off  GA:  pilot pulls plane from hangar with a long fish-hook instrument attached to teeny weeny plane’s nose gear

CA:  in good weather, relatively smooth movement of aircraft during flight, with typical bumps from air currents or clouds  GA:  every microscopic air current and bump sensed to the marrow of one’s bones

CA:  flight crew use very fancy GPS to locate destination airport; auto pilot mechanism lands most larger jets, with some minor maneuvering by pilots  GA:  pilot and passenger visually search for airport from cockpit windows; pilot typically states, “It should be coming up pretty soon,” or “We should be able to see it right about now.”

Now, my husband believed in me and gently brought me along on a journey of General Aviation Education.   We’d take off from Campbell Airport in Grayslake and fly over Lake Michigan and along downtown Chicago.  Other times we took jaunts to Lake Lawn, Racine, or Door County.  He taught me how to change the radio frequencies and familiarized me with many of the instruments.  It was alternately impressive and unsettling to watch him open and fold giant maps placed on his lap, communicate with the radio tower, and work with a hand-held GPS  throughout the flight.  I had to suppress the urge to say, “Shouldn’t you keep your eye on the road … er, sky, or something?”

Our two longest trips were to Omaha and Toronto, originating from Chicago.  These two flights we took in my husband’s favorite plane:  Eight Three Zero One Foxtrot, more familiarly known as a Piper Saratoga — or the “Sahrahtohgaaaaaah,” as he always uttered, with dreamy-eyed reverence.

My initial take on the Saratoga was that it was like going from a Motel 6 to an Omni Hotel.  It was a prettier plane, and I could maneuver inside it more easily, if you consider actually having your legs out in front of you and not wrapped behind your ears.  The bonus feature was the auto-pilot mechanism, a special favorite of my husband’s.  It was stunning the first time I watched as he took his hands off the control yoke, only to see it turn gently along the flight path, all by itself, as if maneuvered by an invisible magic pilot elf.

But that good impression wouldn’t last.  My reference point changed after the death of John Kennedy, Jr., who was flying the same kind of plane when he went down in the Atlantic several summers ago with his wife and sister-in-law.  I was never able to shake that image.

Yet I did go up a couple more times.

And then there was West Virginia.