Fly On the 4th of July

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Want to celebrate Independence Day in the U.S. in a special way? Go flying.

It’s the Fourth of July—go fly. On a basic level, it’s summer in the northern hemisphere so enjoy it in the air—if you’re in the southern hemisphere, it’s the dead of winter, you probably haven’t been flying enough, so go get some of the rust off. On another level, unapologetically, it’s my country’s Independence Day, and I think that one of the best ways to celebrate it is by going flying.

Today, there will be fly-ins and airshows— both good reasons to fly and share the celebration of the anniversary of our country’s painful birth with others who like to spend time aloft and around the machines that lift us above the planet.

To me, there’s more—looking at my country from the sky has given me a deeper appreciation for all that it is: its strengths and where it can be improved. I have been awed by the magnificence of things my countrymen and women have built and the majesties of what they have decided to leave untouched as well as saddened by areas where we have proven to be poor stewards of our nation’s riches.

There will be hundreds of thousands of gatherings today—from family members joining for barbeques on back porches of two-flats in Chicago to massive celebrations. I am glad that there will be solemn ceremonies of thanks for those who serve and served our country, and especially for those who were grievously injured or killed doing so. My country has a reputation for individualism, and my fellow citizens celebrate their love of this on this day in myriad ways of their choosing.

My method of celebrating— if I can make it happen and the weather cooperates—is to go flying on the 4th. I want to fly and appreciate the country away from the crowds, either by myself or with a few people that are close to me. On this date I have had wonderful flights—looking down on the emerald green of rolling miles of Iowa corn, the golden wheat fields of Kansas and the glittering blue of Lake Michigan—but the most memorable, unexpectedly so, have been the evenings when I had to fly home on the 4th of July because I had to work on the 5th.

The first time I it happened, I preflighted the airplane in a sour mood because I was not going to get to join the rest of my extended family and watch fireworks—and I like fireworks. I’m a guy—I like blowing stuff up. And, I’d lived in Wichita, Kansas in the early 1980s, where the city put on some of the best fireworks displays anywhere—complete with Army howitzers firing from the Douglas Avenue bridge downtown. I wanted to ooh and aah at the fireworks with my family that evening.

After takeoff, I climbed to what I recall as 7500 feet for the winds and airplane efficiency and, as darkness fell, I settled down to wait the three hours it would take for my home airport to show up. Before long, I noticed that the fireworks display had started at a small town a few miles away. At first, it seemed insignificant from 6000 feet above—just flashes less bright than a child’s sparkler—nothing like being there, and I was jealous of those that were.

A moment or two later I saw fireworks begin at another town, and then another. As the darkness deepened, more and more firework displays began. For the next hour I was never out of sight of at least one tiny dazzle of changing colors. I suddenly realized that I was the lucky one. I didn’t need to be near the fireworks to be awed by them—I had the best possible seat for the 4th of July imaginable. I was seeing one of the truths of the country I love—my countrymen and women have a deeply shared heritage and pride in who we are and we share it in communities gigantic and miniscule.

Since then, I made more flights home on the night of the 4th of July and have had the delightful opportunity to share the scene of Independence Day firework celebrations from aloft with those close to me.

So, as one who has the privilege and ability to rise from the ground and see the country while controlling a creation that originated in this country, why not celebrate this day by going flying? Take some time and allow yourself to soak in the wonder of red Georgia clay, the crags of the Rockies or the drama of Denali. Go to a fly-in or pack a picnic and land on a quiet grass strip and enjoy the solitude or a busy airport and watch airplanes as you munch on a sandwich.

Or go watch fireworks from high enough above that you can see the displays in several communities and feel the bond with each person watching from below. As an aside, commercial fireworks do their thing at anywhere from about 400 to 1000 feet AGL—so give them plenty of room as you enjoy. There is a crowd watching, that's an open air assembly of persons under Part 91.119, and the FAA may consider exploding fireworks an "obstacle," so you might want to fly at least 2,000 feet AGL. Another thought, a lot of firework displays include music, so if you're close enough that the sound of your airplane can be heard, you might not enhance the public's opinion of general aviation. 

I know this is shorter than AVweb’s usual Feature articles—that was on purpose—now you have extra time to go fly. Hey! Shut off your device and head for the airport.

Rick Durden is the Feature/News Editor of AVweb and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vol. I.