Wings ‘n Things: A Passenger’s View to General Aviation Flying

View over the Rockies, from the Pilatus

This is a story about planes. Private planes, small planes.

I’m not a pilot. I’m not planning on becoming a pilot. At my core, I’m engineer and a science fangirl, and I love to constantly learn new things. I like to learn new things that are difficult, but I need to be interested in them. I’m not going to teach myself high-energy particle physics – not because it’s too hard, but because the details aren’t interesting enough for me to master. I’d rather watch, or read, about someone else’s discoveries.I got my creds, though. I’d have Brian Cox’s love child.

I’m having SERIOUS fun

My first boyfriend had his pilot’s license. I did not get in a plane with a 17-year-old with a new license, in case you are wondering. My dad, who served in the Air Force for over 20 years, had his private license and instrument rating, although he hasn’t flown in many years. I’ve worked for several companies that had planes to help manage travel. I’ve flown in small two-seaters and in Gulf Stream jets.

The cockpit of a Cirrus SR-22

I’ve been working in my Dream Job for several years. A while back, we (meaning the company) acquired a 2008 Pilatus PC-12-NG, a single-engine turbo prop that holds a pilot and nine passengers.  Our “mission” is cross-country trips to our field offices or remotely-located job sites. Since the plane is designed for a single pilot, I occasionally got to sit in the right-hand seat (the co-pilot) and began to learn the language, ask endless questions of the pilots, and sometimes operate the radio to check in with air traffic (“Houston Center, good afternoon, this is Alpha Bravo one-two-three, checking in at 22”). I had good teachers: our corporate pilot is a former Navy Jet pilot and flew jets off of and on to carriers (which prompts a lot of jokes about him only being able to land directly into the wind, with a tailhook to catch him). He also flew for a televangelist, which I will write about soon. I call him “Striker”. Our other primary pilot flew for American Airlines for over 20 years. They’ve got experience.

Recently, we traded this wonderful plane for a 2000 Lear 31, which is faster but much cheaper to buy. Alas, it requires two pilots, so I no longer can sit up front, but we get around faster. Since the plane is more expensive to operate on an hourly basis, we have to do the economics, depending on who needs to travel, whether it’s better to take this or commercial flights. On a personal basis, let’s just say the benefits of speed and not messing with lines and security outweigh the frequent flier points.

Cirrus SR-22 with CAPS deployed

A year ago, we got a late-model Cirrus SR-22. THIS is a seriously cool airplane. A single-engine plane, it has a kick-ass Avionics package and computer system – dual GPS, XM satellite uplink with constantly updating weather maps, everything slick and modern. That’s not even the cool part. This is the cool part:

I fly in this for business trips. Sometimes I push buttons.

The plane has a parachute. I don’t mean that you have a parachute that you can put on and jump out of the plane. I mean, the PLANE has a parachute. Here’s a video of the plane going into a spin, and the parachute being deployed. I’m told that no one has ever died in a Cirrus, if they have deployed the parachute under the design conditions, which essentially are – above 500 feet, and less than 135 mph. Lower than that, and the chute may not have time to fully deploy. Much faster than that, the chute can rip away from the plane. Having a parachute can’t make up for inexperience or poor judgement. I’ve got a check list and have been trained on how to pull back the throttle to slow the plane and kill the engine, and pull the chute. I know how to use the radio, and will eventually learn how to program in the flight plan. I also know how to turn off the autopilot: I talk using my hands, and sometimes have bumped the button on the co-pilot’s control stick. The pilot just rolls his eyes and resets everything.

The parachute is a good thing to have, not just for back-up safety, because this plane has been called the ‘doctor killer”. It’s the Ferrari of planes. When you learn how to fly, you learn on a simple plane, such as a Cessna 152, so that you can learn to fly. You have to learn the physics of flying, the technology, how to file flight plans and talk to the controllers, how to recognize weather, how to know your limitations and the limitations of the machine. The running joke is that some who has a lot of disposal income, and wants to fly, will go out and buy the biggest and baddest plane they can find, something flashy and prestigious. It’s too much plane for a beginner, and so they get into trouble and don’t have the experience to manage the situation. Hence, ‘doctor killer.’

FBO at Rock Springs, WY

FBO at Centennial Airport, Denver. Our pilots really like this one.

Another part of flying in private planes, away from the commercial airports, are the Fixed Based Operators, known as FBOs. These are the usually privately-owned centers that general aviation (i.e, noncommercial) pilots use to fuel and file flight plans, hangar or tie-down their planes, and other services. FBOs are a place where you would go to take flying lessons or rent a plane. Pilots, who are frequently contract or employees of company planes and have a bit of waiting-around time, will find lounges and sometimes beds. They are places that will arrange for a rental or loaner cars, have weather stations, mechanics, and other necessities. Some FBOs are rather rustic (Rock Springs, Wyoming),  but many of them are upscale (Centennial in Denver), including short-skirted women who roll out red carpets and drive the passengers to the terminal in golf carts.  The women’s lounges will often have hair driers and curling irons, lotions, soaps, fresh toothbrushes and mouthwash, and baskets of “women’s hygienic products”. Although I tend to fly into the same locations over and over, I always find it interesting to see what the FBOs are like.

West Texas oilfield from 4000 feet

I still don’t (yet) have a desire to get my license, but I constantly ask questions of the pilot – how does this work, what is this called, why do we do this. I don’t have to be asked twice if I want to go in the Cirrus rather than fly commercial. The seats and leg room in the plane exceed Business Class. I mean, flying in the peaceful sky, above the clouds, absorbing all the technology and protocol, and never going through TSA molestation? Cutting hours off my trips? Are you kidding me?

Categories: Travel, Work and Jobs

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65 replies

  1. Looks like fun! I love the aerial photographs.

  2. Love the pictures. Looks like you had so much fun! 🙂

  3. My dad had his private pilot’s license when I was growing up, and we spent many wonderful hours flying around in his Cessna. Thanks for your article!

  4. This is a great article. I too, have a love for flying but never been on a private plane like yourself. I do like to read about it a lot though. I’ll share with you an old war story that perhaps you will find interesting. I actually don’t remember much of the details, but just the important parts. This was back in World War II when 8 American fighter pilots were going in for the kill on this one single German pilot. In their own words, the American pilot would recalled that “every time we get behind him, he would do something fancy and get away” After a few minutes of dogfighting, the German pilot accidentally flew into the gun range of a waiting P51 Mustang while try to out maneuver the others that were going after him. As soon as the German ME-109 realized that there was a P-51 Mustang waiting for him, he pull back on the stick and began to climb hard, the P-51 followed. Knowing that his ME-109 did not have as much power as the American made P-51 Mustang and that he would be the first to stall, halfway through the climb, he cut his power completely and forced his aircraft into a premature stall which completely surprised the American pilot chasing him who couldn’t react in time. The first reaction from the Mustang pilot was being stunned as well as thinking it was too low for to recover from a stall. Surprisingly enough, the German pilot recover his aircraft recover from the stall just above the tree lines and flew away. I thought that was interesting, you probably don’t want to try that stunt going to work though 🙂

  5. Very nice high-flying post!

  6. Oh wow.

    My boyfriend occasionally breaks out into hives when we fly — literal hives — so I’m thinking the small(ish) plane may not be for us.

    But it does look like fun!


  7. What a great article, as a Private Pilot that has owned 2 planes I found your article as one of the best written about General Avaiation by a non-pilot. You are lucky to be able to take advantage of your company plane. Keep flying and think again about the possibility of you getting your own license.

  8. I used to work for Cirrus Design back in 2001-2005 and may have built part of your plane. They are great flying planes. It’s amazing all the detail that goes into one of those planes. I built many SR-20 and SR-22s. I left the company before they expanded. I wouldn’t mind working there again.

  9. SO COOL! My cousin had a flying lesson on a helicopter before. I want to take flying lessons!

  10. I want to have a job like yours when I grow up! I’ve actually always wondered where private planes land and take off. I defiantly learned a lot of new things from your post. Very nice!

  11. Cool pictures! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  12. My dad had his pilot’s license as well and I “grew up” in the co-pilot’s seat although I usually just held his maps. Every now and then, he’d let me take the wheel – I’m sure it’s not called that! But there wasn’t anything more thrilling! I would take private flight over “TSA molestation” any day! Great post!

    • Nowadays, you can load all the charts onto an iPad, and carry that. The GPS and avionics have backups (two complete stand alone GPS) but you still have to carry the maps with you. But having all the charts – approach plates, runways, etc, on the iPad makes it less cumbersome.

  13. Once I was on a two-seater prop plane, and got the controls and flew the plane on one beautiful area of this country, at the Columbia River Gorge. Great experience. But the “flying close to the ground” experience is good enough for me. That means riding my motorcycle. But I really like airplanes and spend quite a good amount of time as a regular passenger on commercial flights. You have a nice job and I will be checking your stories. Thanks for sharing.

  14. I taught quite a few people to fly in the late 90s and early 00s. It was a fantastic time of my life, a marvelous adventure, because I got to watch the love of flying come into new people’s eyes, again and again. It’s always fun to see the thing you love infect others. And it’s lovely to get a view of aviation through your eyes, too. Thanks!

  15. Great piece. As a former Air Force pilot and former private plane owner, there is nothing like the thrill of flying, and you are certainly getting a first class ride and introduction to it. Thanks for sharing

  16. I’ve been in aviation maintenance for over ten years and have never read anything from someone outside of aviation that was as insightful, accurate, and well-written about aviation as this. THANK YOU! (and congrats on being freshly pressed!)

    • Wow, thanks for the compliments! My best friend is the Cirrus pilot (and also my boss), so I get to ask a lot of questions, and sometimes, when we are at altitude and lined out, he’ll take it off autopilot and let me fly for a bit.

      • Do you attend COPA (Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association)? Every year, the tarmac in front of Cirrus Design is a long white streak of SR 20/22s owned by COPA members.

      • Well, not me. I don’t own the plane, but the pilot, who owns this plane, went last year.

      • Something to look into, if you’re interested. I believe they give tours of the plant so you can see the planes being put together in all the development phases. Not sure if they do tours anymore, but it’s worth the trip.

  17. This was a great blog about flying in a private plane. All of this was great. The photos, the writing, explaining it from basically a layman’s point of view. One of my closest friends is an Delta Airlines command pilot of thirty plus years. He retired at 60 (mandatory at the time, may still be). Today he is 75, and still misses flying with a passion. Thank you for sharing this with your WordPress family. I will be looking forward to returning many times to read more of your writing.

  18. Reblogged this on Actuaria's Blog and commented:
    Fab pics of the SR-22…need I say more?

  19. My boyfriend is a corporate pilot and man, reading your story you sound just as into it as he is, and trust me; there isn’t anything more important or interesting to my boyfriend than flying.

    Great blog. You should get your license 🙂


  20. Nice flying!! Do you maintain your logbook, just for fun? Great pic of the parachute system, we saw this at Arlington years ago, great product. My DH flies and we have lots of fun. I’ll have to show him your blog when he gets home from work today. I’m glad to hear that you have your dream job, and am envious of all your flying time! And I’ll just have to follow your blog, you seem to have a very interesting life!

  21. Lovely post. I just took up my first non- pilot passenger. It’s always interesting to see things from the right seats perspective:

  22. Really enjoyed your post. You did a superb job of describing your experiences in a way that’s interesting to a non-aviator rather than the “Ohmygodwealmostdied!” version that’s so often the case. You seem to have an intellectual curiosity about and interest in general aviation and certainly an appreciation for its benefits; I’m surprised you aren’t interested in getting your ticket. Hope you change your mind!

    Best regards ..

  23. I liked your post a lot.
    Maybe you have to try soaring. (I’m private pilot and fly gliders)

  24. Great article. I have a pilot’s license and have owned one airplane- a Piper Arrow IV, T’ Tail, single engine retractable with variable-pitch prop. I love to fly and (I promise) you will also. If you enjoy the sense of freedom an airplane gives you; being able to leave whenever you want and not having to depend upon airline flight schedules, you will definitely enjoy the experience. Also, no one will lose your bags but you. Several points of caution, as follows:
    • Take all of your lesson from an accredited FBO or flight instructor; i.e. one with a definite written and prepared program.
    • Review that program with one of the pilots you fly with. ( Ex-military types are the very best. )
    • Ask for references from pilots that have been through the experience with that same program and have gotten their “ticket”.
    • Always fly in conditions in which “you wish you were up there instead of up there wishing you were down here”. (Bad weather is no fun at all.)
    • Know how to use every instrument on the dash-even if you are not IFR rated. (I took my lessons in the spring, summer and early fall and never had the heater on until one freezing cold day in October. I was a popsicle before I figured it out. )
    • Make sure your instructor gives you some “night-time” flying experience—several hours. Trust me on this one, your surrounds look very different at night compared to daytime.
    • On cross-country trips, take a road map with you. You would be absolutely surprised how much they help.
    • Never ever ever ever ever be ashamed to call the tower or the center and ask for help. They are there for YOU and very willing to lend a hand when needed. They are never too busy to help pilot—even a nervous pilot.
    Get that “ticket”

    • Thanks for the comments. About half our managers are pilots, and half of those are IFR. We have the two professional pilots I mentioned in the article, and we contract out a small group of pilots to fly us when our company pilots are tied up. Several of them are also instructors, so I get a lot of ‘teaching’ when I’m flying with them.

      I have two sons in college, so it may be a while 🙂

  25. Looks like a lot of fun! I really want to get my license, but I doubt the money and time will ever happen.

  26. this is a very interesting post. my mom always wanted to get her pilot’s license but unfortunately she still hasnt had the opportunity. i would consider it but…just have a small phobia when i do not have la terra firma under my feet…baby steps. anyway great to live through this story, great post!

  27. I love planes! My boy is in the air cadets and he gets to go gliding for the first time at the end of the month. There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of floating in the air!

  28. This is a neat post! My husband takes lessons as he can to one day gain his private pilot’s license. 🙂

  29. I enjoy flying. great post! thanks for sharing.

  30. Do what ever you have to do to keep that job, it sounds like a dream come true.

  31. Loved your post about flying. You certainly sound like you enjoy it. Four years ago at the age of 48 I began pursuing a lifelong dream of learning to fly. It took me two year to complete with raising a family and working full-time but I got my private pilots certificate. I wouldn’t trade the experience of learning to fly for anything. Nothing beats the perspective from above.

  32. wicked cool man but shouldn’t we all have personal 4 seater Harrier Jump Jets by now? What’s the hold up? The Marines don’t need them all now…bet we could find a few in the suplus warehouse…then all we’ll need is someone to charge the fuel to…ejection seats are way more fun then a parachute for the plane but guaranteed if you have a coffee in your hands when you pop it will be gone. No one has ever successfully held on to a cup of coffee during ejection so having a flask of whiskey in a tight zippered pocket is the way to go…atleast that’s what I read in Popular Mechanics…if you find one first will you let me know? We could have one for parts and one for when the primary one is in the shop…I’m getting excited…we could land in Boston Common…actually they already did that last year…it was a blast in severa ways all at the same time…like quantum physics…kinda….

  33. ooooohh, shiny. My partner is a pilot and I like to pretend to be his co-pilot when I’m not crying in fear of the turbulence and falling to my premature death. I even blogged about it (twice!) with ample Top Gun references. Thanks for sharing!

  34. Good story, nice brisk pace! Nice pics.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed on WordPress!

    “May you always have wind beneath your wings,
    and the entire blue sky above…” (from the Pilot’s blessing)

    John Brian Shannon

  35. You are making me jealous now! I have always wanted to take flying lessons and wished for licence to fly but never managed to spare some time for that. I will definitely do it some day!

  36. great post!!

  37. Give me a small plane over a commercial jet any day. I love the feeling of flying and still dream of a personal jet pack. . .

  38. If you are a fan of science then flying a small plane can be a profound experience. As a scientist or engineer you are aware of Bernoulis Principle as well as Newtons four laws. When taking off in a small Cessna when conditions are just right you can feel, through the controls, when the wind “attaches” to the wing.
    I always felt the need to laugh with joy every time I experienced that.


  39. Sexy Cirrus R! Why not sit back and continue to enjoy the bliss of private aviation! Why get a license when you now have the best of both worlds. I would fly again if I could fly privately. Super blog, lots of info and interesting.

  40. Great post! You write well, and it’s nice to hear a non-pilot enthusing about General Aviation. It really is a whole different world from being stuffed into an aluminum tube with 200 strangers after an “assertive” patdown from our good friends in Homeland Security…and on top of that, it is really and truly a fun thing to go fly an airplane.

    You’re the perfect G.A. passenger; observant, smart, attentive to details. You’d be a good pilot if you ever decide to move from the right seat to the left.

    Congratulations on being “freshly pressed.” Good luck in all your pursuits!

  41. *subscribing to comments, forgot to check the box. Sorry.

  42. Reblogged this on Clear of Clouds and commented:
    Geek Goddess has written an insightful and well-spoken commentary about general aviation flying from the passenger’s perspective. It’s interesting to read how she perceives the world of G.A., both as a business traveler and as an insightful engineer. It’s well worth a look, so go check it out!


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