March 22, 2000

Objects which are heavier than air remain on the ground of their own accord. Objects which are at rest tend to stay at rest. Nowhere are these laws observed more readily than at a small airport. It is seldom difficult to find airplanes that are covered with hangar dust, or are surrounded by a perimeter of obviously undisturbed grass. It takes time and effort to get out to the airport and prepare an airplane for flight, and it takes money to make flight happen.

It is not surprising then, that there is often a correlation between airplane size and the number of hours that it is flown per year. The bigger the plane, the harder it is to maneuver into and out of its parking spot, the more time it takes to prepare it for flight, and the greater the costs. A bigger plane requires a bigger reason to go flying.

The fundamental flaw of private aviation is that size and speed are popularly regarded as assets in an airplane. When people decide to buy an airplane, they too often buy the biggest and fastest plane that their money can buy, rather than buying the airplane that most suits the flying that they will actually do most of the time. In the merchandising of aviation, there has always been the subtle message that the higher the horsepower, the better the pilot.

The results have been an unrecognized disaster for private aviation. People have consistently bought more airplane than they are able to pull in and out of the hangar, more gadgets than they can afford to maintain, and more horses than they can feed. If they owned a Cessna 150, they might fly it 50 hours a year, but their Cherokee 180 languishes, waiting for three day trips that never quite get organized. Long trips aren't frequent enough, and short trips aren't worth the effort; after a few years, the plane is sold and the owner disappears.

My friend Wilbur doesn't fly much of an airplane, but he sure flies it a lot. Long ago retired, and with an aviation background that stretches back to the second world war, Wilbur has flown his 1946 Aeronca for 250 hours in each of the two years that I have known him. At first glance, 250 hours doesn't seem like much, but a little math reveals the consistency of Wilbur's determination.

Most of his flying is very local. With an 84 MPH cruise, his 65 horsepower airplane is no long- legged traveler, and it has none of the radio gadgets which start to become more relevant as one travels farther from home. He has made long trips in it, but with so many friends within a half hour, There's little need to travel farther.

If his typical flight is a bit more than an hour, that means that he makes about 200 flights per year. Some days though have multiple destinations, such as coffee in Cortland and then lunch in Waterloo before returning to Weedsport. In all, Wilbur and his Aeronca fly somewhere on more than 160 days per year. Of Central New York's 365 days per year, a good many are too cold, wet, or windy for flying to be enjoyable. Wilbur misses very few of the year's flyable days.

I once had a fellow tell me that he didn't want to monkey around with little airplanes, he wanted to be a real pilot, and speed down to the City to visit friends. I have come to know lots of pilots, and none are more real than Wilbur the Iron Man, who flies someplace on almost half the days of every Central New York year. Flying in and out of small grass strips in a little airplane is the elemental core of airmanship. Every hour spent flying airplanes that are bigger or faster makes you a bit more of a technician but a bit less of a bird.

There are lots of other folks out there that do a lot of recreational flying, some almost as much as fly almost as much as Wilbur, and they all have just as much fun as he does. It is aviation's misfortune that their adventures do not sell well in any of aviation's glossy- paper magazines.

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