It builds up, doesn't it? You make some airline flights and get treated like Grade Z beef cattle on the good ones. Then you have one where the experience is so rotten that you vow to use general aviation forevermore. And then the price of avgas goes up. Again. The TSA imposes yet another moronic rule making it tougher to get to your tiedown or the FBO where you rent an airplane. Your state wants background checks on general aviation pilots. On top of that it's announced that the geniuses who bankrupted the airlines are successfully putting pressure on the administration to impose user fees that will drive general aviation out of existence so as to force us to ride buses of the sky. (And you wonder how any self-respecting pilot can willingly operate an air vehicle called a "bus." Have they no shame at all?)
It just keeps building up and you begin to wonder why you ever in your life had any interest in rising up off the ground into the sky when doing so seems to incur the wrath of the remaining 99.99% of the population. (Pilots make up about one tenth of one percent of the U.S. population.) These people spend their sheltered, myopic lives beetling across the face of the earth, rarely looking up and only considering the sky when it is to do their utmost to ground those who have the imagination and determination to spend time above the face of the earth. You begin to wonder why you don't just shut off your brain, accept the shackles of gravity, disconnect your imagination, forget the stunning views from aloft and conform to the ways of those who are so jealous of you that they do what they can to strike you down.
Sadly, each year, too many of us do just that. Too many of us give up the struggle to fly and the freedom of the world aloft, and accept the chains of earth because it is just too hard to do otherwise.
All photos by Nigel Thompson
However, for many who regularly come to the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, our response to ongoing, crushingly unpleasant news is to take our lead from that American classic motion picture, Animal House. When the news is the worst, when the nay-sayers are roaring the loudest to place the greatest burdens on general aviation, we say, "Road Trip!" We listen to the bad news, nod solemnly and chose to spend a weekend absolutely ignoring it. We do our level best to have as much fun with little airplanes as we possibly can while telling the groundlings to collectively peddle their hypertension elsewhere.
Afterwards, the bad news and problems are still there, but we're recharged and ready to fight the fight once again, because we've just spent a weekend with the people we enjoy most, pilots and their families, doing what we enjoy most, flying little airplanes.
And once again the world seems bearable and the ground-bound are creatures to be pitied rather than despised. And the fight to keep flying is again worthwhile. Plus, we get recharged; the moles and surface skimmers don't.
How do we do it? OK, we'll tell you how we have done it over the years and what works for us. The recipe from the Pilot's Lounge is certainly not one-size-fits-all, but it might be something that can be adapted. It's a little like chicken soup: It can't hurt.
Step one is to find an aircraft or two that you want to fly, that can be rented or otherwise used legally and that is just different enough that when you invite a group of your friends to get together to fly it, they will be willing to bring their families to a weekend gathering that not only revolves around flying that airplane (or airplanes) but also has something for those who aren't flying to do.
Our approach began small. We got a little group together to fly a Piper J-3 Cub and a Super Cub on skis. It was something that few had done, but all had expressed an interest in doing. Northwoods Aviation in Cadillac, Mich., owned the airplanes and rented them out with an instructor. Northwoods was interested in the idea, as it meant the airplanes would be in pretty much constant use over a weekend, weather permitting.
That took care of the airplane as the draw for the pilots. Cadillac, Mich., is a resort town that has a great deal to do in the winter. The first year we chose a resort that had an indoor swimming pool, something that would appeal to the families of the pilots. Modest downhill skiing was available about 15 minutes away. There were numerous good shops in town for those who had the shopping gene and for those more seriously afflicted, Traverse City, with a great deal of shopping, was less than an hour away.
Northwoods agreed to block out the airplanes and instructors for the weekend. A block of rooms was reserved. We also got a separate room in the restaurant for Saturday evening so we could all get together for dinner and one person reserved a suite at the resort, so we could socialize there after dinner.
Invitations went out to friends.
The first year we did it, about a half dozen folks came. However, we had so much fun that we agreed we would return in the summer and fly those same airplanes on floats (Northwoods also provides seaplane instruction as well as tailwheel checkouts). The downside was that the resort we selected for the winter events was less than stellar. After discussions, we moved the winter operation to McGuire's Resort, which has worked out well for us ever since, especially because it has cross-country skiing, snow shoeing and a horse-drawn sleigh ride on site. That proved to be a wise decision and help draw more families.
The next summer we had probably 40 people in attendance when we sat down to dinner on Saturday night. Some 15 pilots came alone; others brought their spouses and families. A couple brought their boats. We based at a resort that was physically on Lake Cadillac, The Sands, where we could tie up the seaplanes at the dock, families could play on the beach and everyone could enjoy the summer weather and the lake, be it with a seaplane, boat, swimming, personal watercraft or in some other creative form. Picnic tables were pulled together to set up an informal lunch on Saturday and libations were contributed by all for those who were not flying or had finished for the day.
By setting up something that pilots wanted to do and that attracted the families, we found that pilots were more likely to set aside a weekend because they could get out of the house, go flying, socialize with other pilots around interesting airplanes, all the while spending time with their families. The kids got to have fun, winter or summer, and met other kids who are in families that fly, got rides in unique airplanes and saw that flying is something that people their age enjoyed. Yes, some of the kids in the families who have been coming to skiplane and seaplane weekends have learned to fly.
Spouses are not abandoned. They are with others with similar interests, are presented with something fun to do during the day and are together as a family in the evening. The pilots tend to hang out with the rest of the pilots during the day. In the winter, it's in front of the wood stove at Northwoods Aviation. In summer, it's with the entire group on the beach at The Sands, so they are with pilots and with their spouse and kids. It's a win-win situation.
We did find that the event had to be by invitation only, as it was necessary to keep the size under control and there were those who invited themselves, yet did not do anything to contribute to the gathering such as bring snacks or drinks and, as with any group, some simply didn't socialize well. Nothing is perfect.
The best part is that a bunch of pilots get to fly airplanes they might not otherwise fly. They would not willingly spend the money to go by themselves to Cadillac, Mich., to fly a Super Cub, be it on wheels, floats or skis. However, if they can take the family and make sure that there is something for them to do as well, they'll do it in a heartbeat.
How much money does the pilot spend actually flying? It varies. Weather in the winter means that each person may only get a little bit of time in the airplane. Probably about an hour of takeoffs and landings from frozen lakes is all. The cost is pretty minimal. In summer there is usually more time to fly for each pilot. We've set it up so that those who want to get seaplane ratings can come early or stick around after the weekend and do so. So each pilot flies about one to three hours over the course of the weekend. They get the bonus of spending the nonflying time with good people around interesting airplanes. Our group has been able to keep the cost of flying down because some of us are instructors and are approved to fly Northwoods' airplanes, and we donate our instruction time for the weekend.
It takes some organization to make it happen. The result is a heck of a lot cheaper than therapy, and a lot more fun.
We just completed the ninth annual skiplane weekend. The lakes were frozen solid, the weather cooperated and we flew all three days. I got the impression that everyone had a pleasant time, and the consensus was to do it again next year.
Some years we have made arrangements for special airplanes to be present. Twice we have had a two-seat P-51 Mustang. Yep, it was expensive as heck for a ride, but it flew all weekend. There is talk of organizing a weekend around glider flying. I'm wondering if we can do one associated with helicopters.
Who knows? We enjoy it. It might just work for you. Do some planning, check around, find something that interests you and set up a flying weekend for your friends and their families.
Hey, one of the best ways to deal with bad news is just to refuse to accept delivery for a little while and go out and have fun.
See you next month.
Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.