The Benefits of Being a Private Pilot
By Steve Aughinbaugh (August 2001)
I have learned again the benefits of being a private pilot over the last few weeks. Of course the end of July is the time for our annual trip to aviation Mecca, Oshkosh or AirVenture as the EAA leadership likes it to be called. That trip itself while interesting was not what showed me the value of a private pilot’s license, it was what we did shortly before and after that. For the past few years we have flown to Indiana to visit family, but this year I was working on my instrument rating and I also wanted to see some of the fireworks here in the Dallas area. So we decided to stay put, or at least stay local.
Now local when you have your private pilot’s license is not that same as just having your driver’s license. On the 4th we decided to pile the 3 of us (Colin, our 6 foot 1, 195 LBS 16-year old, Cindy and me) into our Cherokee 180 and fly to grandma’s house in Tulsa for lunch. Cindy’s parents live in Tulsa, which is about 250 miles north of us. This is normally about a 5-hour car trip with a rest stop. For our airplane, N642RJ, it is a 1 hour and 45 minute flight. You add in the drive to the airport and pre-flight time and you have a two and half hour trip. Two of these flights in the same day is acceptable, but two 5-hour car trips in the same day is not as acceptable.
We had a nice flight with good weather and we landed at Tulsa International. Cindy’s parents met us at Mercury Air and we drove to the local Olive Garden. We had a nice meal and visit and were back at home by 4 PM. Colin had some had some other activities scheduled for that evening. Without my PPSEL (private pilot, single engine land) and an airplane (we own ours, but a rental would have worked just as well), this trip could not have been done. I guess we could have gotten on the road at 4 AM and had brunch instead, but that would not have been nearly as pleasant as the airplane trip was. That was our first flight of the month.
At about this same time I got an invitation to my North Manchester, IN High School class’ 25th-year reunion. It was scheduled for the Saturday during AirVenture. Our plan had been to leave for OSH on Sunday and return the following Monday. But hey, the reunion was only 2 hours away from OSH, so why not fly down for the reunion on Saturday. Good idea.
We fly to OSH with a friend ever year and we thought that we would need to fly back to OSH to get Mike. But Mike has a job flying the Fugi Film blimp. Mike had suggested that we might drop him off at DePage, IL to catch the blimp for his next assignment. But once we discussed it Mike decided to stay through Sunday at AirVenture and rent a car to get to DuPage. The only drawback to this is that we missed our blimp rides! Perhaps next time.
So, Sunday morning Cindy, Mike and I loaded our luggage into the airplane and by 5:45 AM we are climbing out over the prairie of north Texas with the sun just beginning to peek at us from the horizon. We stopped in Joplin, MO and Dubuque, IA and then on into OSH between a couple of rain showers. In fact we were the fourth airplane into the airport after it had been closed to landing because of the little thunderstorm that arrived just before us.
We spent another great week at AirVenture and bid Mike good-bye on Saturday morning to fly to Warsaw, IN (ASW). I had gotten my instrument rating on the Friday before we left for Oshkosh. The weather was marginal VFR but not bad, so I had purchased approach plates for Indiana before I left and I picked ASW over IWH (Wabash) because it had a precision ILS approach where IWH only had non-precision approaches. I had asked my mom to meet us there at noon. The weather from OSH to just past Meigs Field in Chicago was 4 to 6 miles of visibility but high ceilings of 5 to 6 thousand feet. We flew past the Chicago lakeshore out over the lake and turned toward Warsaw while still over the lake staying north of Gary, IN. Once we were past Gary the air cleared up a bit more and we could see 12 to 15 miles. I asked the Ft. Wayne approach controller for a practice ILS approach into ASW even though we were in the clear. I wanted to show Cindy what an ILS approach is like since this would be the first time that we had flown one together. At about 5 mile out on the ILS 27 approach, another Piper pilot reported that he was 5 mile south inbound for landing. We kept track of each other and as I arrived at the 200 foot AGL missed approach point, he went over us on a downwind entry for runway 18. I did a climbing left-hand 270 to follow him to 18.
We landed and a few minutes later we greeted my Mom and Ray. The high school reunion was fun and the visit with my family was enjoyable. Mom’s cooking and homemade ice cream is always a good thing!
On Monday, we started for home, but wait a minute. Cindy’s brother had just celebrated a birthday on Sunday and he lives near St. Louis. We had already planned on to stop at St. Loius Downtown Parks field (CPS). So, we called Jeff and asked if we could take him out to lunch for his birthday. He agreed to meet us at St. Louis Regional, which is about 6 miles from where he works and about 25 miles from where we originally had planned to stop. This is one of the great things about being a pilot. You have a great deal of flexibility on deciding when and where to fly. There was a bit of morning fog in Indiana and IFR conditions along my planned route, so I filed for an IFR flight. But by the time we actually left, it was good VFR weather. I still flew this leg on an IFR flight plan just to prove to myself that I can and to familiarize my “co-pilot” with the procedures. I had planned to fly at 6,000, but was initially cleared to 4,000. Once there, it was cool enough and there was a scattered to broken layer of clouds at this level, so I elected to just stay there and get the experience for me and Cindy flying into and out of the clouds. There was a bit of a bump almost every time we entered a cloud, but not bad. If it had been worse, we would have requested a higher altitude and forgone the experience.
Lunch with Cindy’s brother, Jeff, was enjoyable and once back at the airport, I looked at the weather picture again. The early morning forecast had been for clear weather all the way from Indiana to Texas. But Missouri has a way of producing bad weather in the blink of an eye! The last frame of the radar loop had two small storms pop up right in our planned route. I thought they were just scatter storms so we left St. Louis Regional to the south and stayed under the St. Louis airspace so that we could get a good view of the Arch. We passed the Arch and continued on around the south side of St. Louis. At this point I decided to get a better picture of the weather ahead. It was pretty cloudy and I could see some build-up ahead of us. I listened to the weather broadcast from the St. Louis VOR and was cautioned about a line of severe thunderstorms ahead of us. I then contacted Flight Watch and the weather briefer confirmed what I already thought and helped me to decide to head a bit north toward Columbia, MO and then turn southwest toward Springfield, MO to stay north and west behind the developing line of storms.
I guess this is one of the drawbacks of flying, but even with the detour is was still much faster than the drive would have been on raining, wet interstates. Besides, it is part of the adventure. Almost every active pilot that I know enjoys the journey as much as the destination. We were thinking that we would stop at Springfield, MO (SGF), but since we had spent the energy and time to climb to 8,500 feet at one point to get over some clouds and it was a lot cooler (about 60 degree, air normally cools about 4 degree per thousand feet), we elected to go on another hour to Muskogee, OK. Besides, we had never been there and SGF was old hat to us having been there about 4 times already. So we watched the storms building up 30 to 60 miles off our left wing and landed three and half hour after leaving St. Louis.
Three and half hours is a long time in a small airplane and we were glad to step out on the ramp at Davis Field (MKO) in Muskogee, OK even if it was 102 on the ground! The FBO manager filled the tanks with fuel and gave us the best deal on fuel that I have seen in awhile, $1.65/gal. I had paid $2.75 in St. Louis. They had a special price for aircraft going or coming from OSH like many FBOs have this time of year, but this was a particularly good deal!
Leaving MKO I pointed to a rain shower just ahead of us and just a Cindy turned to look a lightening bolt snaked down from the cloud. Oh! I better give it a bit more room. This was the first time that I had seen lightening from the airplane and while I was interested I still stay 25 to 35 miles away from it and in a short time we were landing at Aero Country (T31). Cindy and I had flown over 2,300 statue miles in the past 4 weeks. You would think we had had enough, not so.
The next weekend we decided to go to Ponca City, OK for two reasons, one to see Cindy’s nephew’s new baby boy and two, to eat at Enrique’s a famous Mexican restaurant in the airport terminal. And since the flight to Ponca was right at two hours and only 40 minute from Tulsa we decided to stop at Tulsa and relax at Cindy’s parents. We left Saturday morning and arrived at PNC for lunch. We had a nice visit with Cindy’s nephew and niece and Ashton Jeffery, all 8+ pounds of him! We left for Tulsa at 2:00 and due to the thermals generated by 100+ degree heat, it was one of the bumpiest flights that I have ever had! We were met at the airport and had barbequed steaks and homemade ice cream at the hospitality of Cindy’s parents that evening. We left at 11:00 AM the next morning to beat the thermals and we treated to smooth, if not exactly cool, air all the way back home to Aero Country.
We had completed our 2,890-mile journey and have seen dozens of friends and family along the way. We had a little adventure and some relaxation, but mostly just a great time all made possible because I have earned my private pilot’s license and took advantage of it. It is one thing to get your PPSEL and that in it self is an accomplishment, even if you do nothing else. But using your license to travel and visit family, friends, and places is the best benefit of what you have earned. Go out and fly somewhere!