I always wondered who fly tiny planes. Rich people? People who crave freedom? Big sky lovers? Where do they go? With that said, it was never in my cards learn to fly or ask for a ride. The assumption is that I don’t really care for it, like how I don’t really entertain the thought of tattoos even though I admire some that are well done. But, I’ll never turn down any opportunity to do something different, and fortune smiles upon me. I was invited to fly in a Cessna 172, a tiny 4 seater plane, to get breakfast in Cape May. Clear Skies ahead!
Delaware is the only state in the union without a commercial airport. The last and only airport, New Castle County Airport, ceased to provide flights a few years back. There is still some life left as it continues to serve private flights. We arrived at the terminal at 8:30 and walk through another door towards the runway. There are neither pat downs nor TSA, a very casual affair, and reminded me of the experience at a bus terminal. After passing a couple of larger 20 seater planes, we close in on a small lot with 3 planes, a red, a blue and a yellow-ish plane.
“Alright, choose the crappiest plane. We will fly that,” He said.
I looked at the three planes. They are all equally old, but the yellow-ish plane probably looked white 30 years ago. I assume that’s our flight. Bingo.
We did a rundown on the rental plane before takeoff. This is probably the same procedure on all commercial planes when passengers wait in the terminal complaining about delays. Similar to the walk around on a rental car, we are looking for loose screws and anything out of place, but for completely different reasons. Hertz wants to charge you money on dinks to make a profit of you; here, a missing bolt might lead to a water landing, and we want to avoid crash landing at all cost. The plane seems decent. Two gas tanks are located on the wings of the plane, both feeding into the engine by gravity. By dipping a straw in the tank, we can measure the level of the gas. Very primitive.
The sky is gray, the airport is dead. We hop onto the plane while he checks more knobs. Federal regulations requires the pilots to brief all passengers on flight safety, so I am told about how to put on seatbelts (same as a commercial flight), where the exits are (literally the two doors on both side of the plane) and more exits (through the windows and cargo). Finally, we are ready to go into the skies. The control tower gives us the okay, he fires up the engine, and we are in the air. The takeoff is no different from that of a commercial flight, although I do get to see the entire runway.
Our flight path consist of crossing the Delaware River, towards a few other airstrips and finally landing in Cape May. All these are for safety reasons, but technically one could fly wherever they feel like. Total flight time is about 30 minutes at ground speed of about 130mph, neither in-flight entertainment nor beverages are served. The usual drive to the same destination will take over 2 hours with lots of screaming at stupid drivers. There are few planes around us, but we will continue to be monitoring other planes by radio. To prevent collisions, eastward flights have to be at 3500ft or 5500ft, while westward flights fly at 4500ft or 6500 ft. The higher we go, the faster the plane travels, but we have to watch out for larger aircrafts, especially those landing at Philadelphia International Airport, so we opted for 3500ft altitude.
The flight is rather smooth, just like sitting in a car cruising on the highway. There is occasional bumps when we fly through tiny clouds, but the view is mostly unobstructed and great from up here. Unlike commercial planes with compressed air, we control the temperature in the cabin by opening a vent. There isn’t much to do except to look into the horizon while listen carefully to the radio for incoming planes. As soon as we are over New Jersey and straight towards Cape May, he offers me to pilot the plane.
I have never flew a plane. Heck, I have never sat in the front row on a plane. This seems like the best opportunity to ever pilot a plane, albeit a small one. After going through the controls (basically the same as a car, but pushing the steering wheel down makes the plane nose dive, pulling it towards me allows the plane to ascend), he pass over the control. I hold onto the controls as steady as possible, while he adjusted the speed of the plane by injecting more gas mixture into the engine, exactly what the car computer does for us when we press the gas pedal. It is really fun, but frightening at the same time, because small tilts makes the plane swing violently in that direction. As I concentrate on going forward, he stares at the radar map on his iPad for other planes. My overall flying experience can be sum up as surprising fun and easy, but I much rather leave it to an expert to fly me.
He takes over the control as we approach the descend into Cape May Airport. A plane landed about 10 minutes before us, and the next plane is about 5 minutes away. We follow standard FAA procedures landing at an automated no-human control tower by doing a 360 around the airport, but everyone else skips that by landing directly at the airport. The slow descend is okay until the final mile to the runway. Unlike a jet liner that could pull all the breaks once it touch down, we reduce our speed significantly before approaching the runway, causing the crosswinds to sway the plane in the horizontal direction. Even when we are directly over the runway, it takes additional time to slow the plane before achieving touchdown, probably to prevent the very light plane from bouncing. It is nerve wrecking.
Our plan at Cape May is to eat at the diner at the airport, which serves very cheap food. Rumor is that pilots spend their hard earned cash on jet related expenses so they are cheapskate when it comes to food. The prices here are so low that general public visits these restaurants that are meant to serve pilots. We lock the plane (with a simple door key), open the heavily barb wired door and walk right into the Flight Deck, a restaurant at Cape May Airport “terminal”. None of the patrons here look like pilots. We got a seat and order rather quickly as the crowd grew larger over the course of the meal. I order the Bi-Wing 222, with eggs, very tasty hot dogs and pancakes. It even comes with toast, all for $6, but I am so stuffed to attempt them.
Before we embark on our journey back to New Castle, he did another inspection around the plane. As we sit in the plane, he recites the FAA regulations regarding seatbelts and exits, “even though nothing has changed since we landed.” We are 2nd on the runway, but the plane takes off as soon as we park right behind him. With the final preparation, we shout into the radio tower about our intent to leave, and takes off. This time, we fly north towards Ocean city, noticing lots of activities by the coast, then west back to New Castle. The forest is rather dense in southern NJ, surrounding bright blue lakes in abandoned quarries. I even spotted a crop circle! The radio continue to buzz with other pilots talking to each other about their positions, but I’m unable to spot all but one on the way back. It turns out it is very hard to find small white things that could be anywhere around you.
We fly right by the Delaware Memorial Bridge that connects New Jersey and Delaware. It is almost noon and the traffic is heavy in both directions. I’m glad we are skipping all that by flying over them. We are doing a longer descend into the airport, which is scary but probably safer than the fast version. The airport is still dead. The air temperature has risen dramatically compare to the morning, and starting to feel hot. The plane rolls into its parking spot, where we tie it down with ropes. It was an amusing trip and a great way to spend Saturday morning. I’m still not a convert, but if I ever move out West and have some pocket change to spare, I can see myself learning to fly out to places too far to drive. For now, I’ll stay grounded.
Visited: August 18, 2018 at 9am.