The Noisy, Sweaty Hell of Small Planes

Flying over Cape Cod in a cramped cockpit, I wanted nothing more than to be down on the beach. Call me a heretic.

The author on a flying lesson, circa 1980.

I spent the better part of five years — from, roughly, autumn of 1985 through the late summer 1990 —  immersed in the world of general aviation, as it’s also called, slowly building time and collecting the various add-on licenses and ratings I’d need for an airline job. My logbook records almost 1,500 flight hours at the controls of various single-engine Cessnas, Beechcrafts and Pipers. No fewer than 1,100 of those hours were logged as an instructor, teaching dentists and software engineers to fly in exchange for a poverty-level salary.

When I think back to those years, my memories aren’t especially fond.  Frankly, as I see it, those are 1,500 hours — two full months aloft — that I’m never getting back.

I feel that way about a lot of things, I suppose, and don’t we all.  And it’s not that I don’t savor the thrill of flight.  Just maybe in a different way than some. I love my job and the places it takes me; I’m doing exactly what I dreamed about doing when I was a seventh grader.  But this is commercial, international flying.  There was much about general aviation flying that I did not enjoy: the miserable pay, the tiny cramped cockpits that were either scorching hot or numbingly cold, the dismal suburban airports.

That makes me a snob, or a heretic, in the eyes of many private pilots.  But that’s all right.

Summers were the worst. It would be some steaming day in July or August, and I’d be giving instruction in some tattered old 172 over the shoreline of Plum Island or Cape Cod.  I’d be up there at 2,000 feet in that claustrophobic cockpit, sweat dripping down, literally banging elbows with my student, bouncing around in the hot gusts, ears ringing, hoarse from trying to shout over the din of the unmuffled pistons.  And there, directly below, would be this gorgeous beach.  Looking at the people playing frisbee and splashing in the surf, I wanted nothing more than to be out of that blasted contraption and down there with them.  It was all I could do not to grab the controls and aim for a landing on the sand, fling open the Cessna’s flimsy door and run for the water, free at last!

Those were some depressing moments.

Ironically, I imagine that many of the people below were looking up at us, jealously.  What a beautiful day for flying, right?  How splendid it must be on a clear summer day, up there in the breeze.

What the hell did they know?  Most people who look longingly at a small plane have never been in one.  It’s hot, it’s cold, its very tight and it’s noisy as all hell. Worse even than Southwest.

For the record, I’ll note that I always was a fan of the low-wing Piper series over the high-wing Cessnas.  The cockpit of the Piper Warrior was a better design, ergonomically. The Cessna was boxy, and the position of the wing cut hazardously into one’s view.

I had a student, though, Fred Shelton, who owned a clean and well-equipped Cessna 182 that I was quite fond of.  He would let me borrow it in exchange for instruction towards his instrument rating.  N9401X was the plane’s registration.  I will always remember that number.  In fact that plane was the last private plane I ever piloted — to Nantucket one weekend in August, 1990, shortly before going off to ground school at my first airline job.  Here’s a shot of it, proud and resplendent (so much as a Cessna can be either of those things) on the apron at Hanscom Field, outside Boston.

Nantucket was my favorite destination, and I landed there in N9401X many times.  I would bring John or Ben or Graham or Samantha Simpson  — or which ever girl I was trying (and failing) to impress at the time.  But the real thrill wasn’t the flight down, it was swimming out at Nobadeer. We’d grab our stuff, lock up the plane, scale the six-foot perimeter fence, and hike to the beach.

Of course, on the other hand, it was the airplane — the privilege of flight — that made those memories possible.  One of my big laments is that people have taken the airplane out of the travel equation.  Flying, in most people’s eyes, is but an inconvenient means to an end.  That, to me, is a terrible shame.  Once upon a time, it took months in a sailing ship to reach far-away countries and cultures that today are reachable in a matter of hours.  How is that not exciting?

That is what I love about flying today (New York to Hong Kong in a 747), and, on a much smaller scale, it’s what I loved about it then (Hanscom Field to Nantucket in a four-seater).

Getting there was half the fun. Or, maybe, slightly less.


This story originally ran in the magazine Salon.

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15 Responses to “The Noisy, Sweaty Hell of Small Planes”
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  1. Jeff says:

    I have always loved flying, perhaps from being exposed to flying magazines when I was a kid (still subscribe – now 66) doing my business in the bathroom living the flying life. My dad was a B-25 pilot during the WWII so there was that influence as well.
    I got my license when I graduated college and my very first passenger (the day after I got my license) is my wife. She saw it as a form of transportation. So we had in informal agreement. Every summer weekend I rented out of Republic and flew to Nantucket for a day trip. I loved the flying – she loved the destination. Many fond memories.

  2. Awesome Piece of writing

  3. Enjoyed this post and the attraction to get your pilot’s license, buy and maintain a small plane is a strong one. Mt Dad was a tail gunner in a B-24 and have always thought about someday pursuing that small plane pilot dream.

  4. Brilliant Piece of writing

  5. Reece says:

    It’s said there are two types of flight instructors. One teaches for the love of flying, and the thrill of helping another learn to be a pilot. The other is merely building time until they can get “a REAL job” flying airliners I’ve flown with both types, and the second type make lousy instructors.

    Some years before 9/11, when cockpit visits were occasionally available, I was invited to visit the flight deck during a trans-Atlantic flight. I wanted to talk about what it was like flying airliners, but the crew was having none of that. The “real job” turns out to be hours of tedious boredom, locked in a rigid system of procedures and hierarchy.

    No, this crew of senior airline pilots wanted to talk about flying small planes like the ones I flew. They longed for the freedom. For the small airports, each with its local flavor. Everything this author seems to be glad to have left behind. They kept me on the flight deck peppering me with questions and exchanging stories until the senior flight attendant came up and insisted she had others who wanted a visit. Even then they seemed reluctant to let me go, as if they were losing the fun of flying all over again.

    • Patrick says:

      I never liked buzzing around in small planes. The last time I flew a small plane was in 1990, after logging over 1500 hours, about 1100 of which were as a flight instructor. I have no desire to fly a small plane again. But, in fact, if I may be so immodest, I think I was a pretty good instructor. I know what you mean about career-fixated instructors who are just putting their time in, but that’s not all of us. I cared about the job and I took it seriously, and I took pride when my students succeeded.

      As for your description of airline flying, I would never, ever define airline flying in those terms. There are stretches of boredom (and fatigue) to be sure. But all in all, my job as an airline pilot is more exciting, more challenging, more dynamic, and just all-around more fun, than anything I could imagine in the world of general aviation.

      And, it’s about a hundred times better-paying.

  6. Alex says:

    Totally agree on how people view flying as an inconvenience. Not me. I’ve loved it ever since I was a kid and still do.

    On any vacation that involves flying, I always view getting there as half the fun (or most of the fun in the case of a business trip). Even when I’m stuck back in coach, I still look forward to it every time.

  7. Shawn says:

    “…from autumn of 1985 through the late summer 1990′

    Great stuff Patrick. That was me on Crane’s Beach looking up at you. I was 10. I waved.

    SJP ’94

  8. Bill says:

    Wow – You had a mustache in 1980?!

  9. Jeff says:

    Flight instructing isn’t glamorous. You fly around in circles all day, rarely flying more than 20 miles from home base. Then there are the students – many of them are frustrating, annoying, and even a few smell really bad – think 2 week stale cigarettes, wet socks, and fast food french fries. On the other hand, you will occasionally have a student that is a pleasure to fly with, and it’s quite rewarding when someone you taught how to fly solos for the first time.

    To me instructing is a love/hate relationship – and I’m just glad that at the end of the day I still want to hop in my plane and go for a little joyride.

    I still update my resume every night. 292.8 to go. But when I earn that 1500th hour and start looking for a turbine job I will still have and fly my little 2 seat tin can Cessna 150.

  10. I’m with several of these comments, Patrick: your comments are, well, a little jaded. To many of us flying an airplane is what we do- but we do it vicariously, through you and your descriptions. Remember the little animal you saved, only to have it die, in Africa? or countless other romantic stories? That’s the thing. I will never have those experiences except as they are seen through your eyes.

    Thanks for your blog, and for your ability to write. As a long time correspondent, I offered unrequested advice, which is this: maybe a little ‘big picture’ thinking is in order?

    In the broadest sense, WE are YOU. Your readers are your readers because they identify with what you do. I know this as a seasoned columnist (in a far different field!). To diminish your experiences is to diminish us, your readers. Surely not intended, but there it is.

  11. Bruce Curtis says:

    Many years ago, I lost my best friend from high school. I lived in Long Beach, California; he lived in Salt Lake City. His widow needed me up there right away. I checked last-minute airfares, the best was $960, with two stops; 7 hours enroute. I facepalmed; what was I thinking? My tired Cessna 150, with its auto gas approved certificate, would get me there in just over five hours, for a measly $45 bucks in auto gas. I’ve done the kerosene queen and the puddle jumper, and when I’m not in the left seat of a corporate plane, (business is good, thanks to the way the airlines are alienating their highest paying passengers,) I’ll always fly myself. MAQuinonez is right, who wouldn’t rather drive their own car than ride the bus?

  12. Rod says:

    “Those were some of the most depressing moments.”

    The words of someone who has led a charmed life.

    “Of course, on the other hand, it was the airplane — the privilege of flight — that made those memories possible.”

    That’s better.
    For some of us, that’s all we’ll ever have. Of course, instruction is unpleasant for both parties, especially when endured on a hot day without headsets. But once you’re out on your own — especially if you have the privilege to live in the mountains — single-engine local flying is a marvelous world of ever-changing wonders.

  13. MAQuinonez says:

    Interesting article. However, some of us have had a much different experience with General Aviation than the author’s. After all, there is much more to it than his admittedly limited experience.

    The author does make some valid points. Teaching flying in a 2 seat Cessna or a Piper Cherokee is no one’s idea of a good time but it’s all part of the process. But that is such a small part of the world of General Aviation. There is much, much more that he, unfortunately, never got to experience.

    I guess it’s all in how you view aviation and what you want from it.

    I too started out to be an airline pilot but it was much earlier. Back in 1965,I was 19 and had never been in a small plane. I took my first lesson in a much-used Cessna 172. As the author said, it was cramped, noisy and confusing.

    However, about ten feet off the ground, I know that, somehow, aviation was my future and just assumed the ultimate goal was to be an airline pilot. After all, they were the one’s with the sharp uniforms and they got to fly those impressive airliners, weren’t they?

    Well, it’s many, many years later and I have over 12,000 hours as Pilot-in-Command, all in general aviation aircraft, but my experiences were much different than the author’s. I’ve flown many different type of aircraft, from crop-dusters to Learjets and many, many types in between.

    I really don’t like jets as, other than the takeoff and landing, you are sitting very high up, on autopilot, and it’s not much different than sitting in an airliner where you really can’t see much of anything. Boring.

    Back in those days, it was very difficult to get on with the airlines with only 1,500 hours as they were still well stocked with WWII pilots and those coming out of Korea and Vietnam. A flight instructor with 5 or 6 thousand hours could still be waiting years for an opening.

    After teaching for awhile, I got the required 1,500 hours and moved up to being a charter pilot. I thought that would be great as I could now be actually going somewhere instead of just droning around with students. Also, I was now flying twin-engine aircraft that were much more interesting, faster and comfortable than the basic trainers used for teaching.

    That was before I discovered that a charter pilot was no more that a flying chauffeur. Once you got to your destination, you just sat around in the airport lounge until your passengers were ready to go back. How I longed for the the promised “freedom of flight.”

    As I watched more senior pilots go off to the airlines, I waited for my chance but, after talking with them, I came to realize they were really just flying bus drivers. They had no control where they were going or when. They would fly from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and just turn around to come back. That held very little attraction for me so I began to look for alternatives.

    One thing led to another and, after several detours, including a job as a corporate pilot, I ended up in aircraft sales quite by accident. However, I soon discovered that here was the freedom I had longed for. I soon found myself flying all over the country buying and selling aircraft.

    It was easy to sell the airplanes, especially the corporate twins. One of our favorite methods was to fly a prospective customer on one of their normal business trips and, if they were to stay a few day, leave them to take the airlines back. We would usually get a call as soon as they returned.

    After all, as a passenger, would you rather take a limousine or a Greyhound bus?

    I soon thought nothing of going to the East Coast to pick up a twin-engine corporate plane and fly it back to the West Coast. These were usually 8-10 seaters with air conditioning and many were pressurized, some were turboprops. All were as well equipped as the airliners of those days. A far cry from the author’s 182.

    I would often take my wife with me and we would stop to see friends along the way. During summer, we would take our golf clubs and pick and choose our stops across the country to play our favorite courses. In the winter, we would stop in Aspen or Taos for a few days skiing. We picked our own stops and schedules. This was freedom!

    As time went on, I made a nice living selling aircraft and was able to purchase my own planes. I’ve owned about a dozen now and they gave me all the freedom I longed for. I’ve owned many different makes and models, from 2 seat experimentals to several twin-engine models.

    At one time, we lived in a fly-in community and kept our planes in our back yard with a taxiway up to the community runway. This was great. Anytime we wanted to go, we just walked out the back door and flew away. No airlines, no security nonsense, never lost a bag, and we always did it on our own schedule, no worries about flight availability.

    When we arrived at our destination, they would usually bring the rental car, pre-heated or pre-cooled, out to the airplane and we would just throw our bags in and drive away. Door to door, we could almost always beat the airliner’s time to our ultimate destination.

    We few all over the US, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, México, and as far down as South America. We went where we wanted and when we wanted. We mostly used the smaller airports that were closer to our destination than the crowded airports the airlines used. Those trips were priceless.

    I take nothing away from airline pilots, after all some of my best friends were airline drivers :). They are extremely well trained and I respect their ability. But I do smile when I listen to them complaining about fighting for bases, flights and seniority.

    Sometime, ride on a crew bus from the airport to the hotel if you want to hear some real bitching!

    So, you see. It’s all about what you want. I chose freedom and that has made all the difference. Flying in General Aviation has been very good to me.

    • Eirik says:

      Thanks for sharing! Great post!
      Although I would love to be an airline pilot, thats how I look at flying too; the freedom and doing what YOU love the most.