If you’re a student pilot, your lessons are probably consumed with trips to the practice area, planning cross countries and honing your pattern and landing skills – fun stuff. Even those of us with thousands of hours will stay sharp by going out on a sunny Sunday to practice turns around a point, slow flight, steep turns and the last way every flight is judged – landings.
But these are not the real reasons we learned to fly. We fly because an airplane is just the best way ever devised to get from point A to point B. No speed limits. No orange barrels. No idiots to stop at the end of the merge lane or not turn on lights when it’s raining or have forgotten their car is equipped with turn signals. But as a student pilot, where can you go? Who can you take? And lastly how can you afford it? One solution may be right under your nose when you learn what it means to be an Airport Bum.
As you hang around the airport before and after your lessons, you notice there is a group of pilots who are just as “ate up” with flying as you are. Among this group, you will find several who have their own airplane and fly often, but usually by themselves. I will tell you, from experience, fun is more fun when it is shared. As you see one of the regulars pre-flighting, ask for a ride. My bet is more often than not, they will be glad to take you along and will even let you fly for part of the flight. After a few of these excursions it will be time to execute your plan to actually get somewhere.
I had just started flying in 1975 at Bluegrass Field in Lexington, KY. After one of my lessons, I mentioned to my flight instructor I was going the following week to the Dixie National Livestock Show in Jackson Mississippi. Later that evening I got a call from him saying he had found me a ride with one of his friends. So rather than driving 700 miles, I got there in a less than 3 hours in a nice Cessna 210.
The owner was going by himself and was happy to have the company. The airplane had an autopilot so I didn’t get to fly, but I did help with the radios and learned a lot about how air traffic control worked on a long cross country. I also got to meet my first celebrity, Olivia Newton John, on the elevator at the hotel. I tried to say something cool to her but my tongue got wrapped around my eye tooth and I couldn’t see what I wanted to say. Rather than cool, I just looked foolish. Total cost for the trip? He didn’t want anything but finally let me buy him one beer at the Jackson Marriott ($1.50 + tip).
Eggs over Medium, Sausage, Bacon, Ham, Hash Browns, Biscuit, Pancakes, Juice and Coffee
Breakfast runs happen at almost every airport in the country, usually on the weekend and planned about one week in advance. All you have to do is be around when the plan is hatched because usually everybody is invited! On the trip, a well-timed “What is this thing like to fly?” is often all that is needed for the owner to relinquish the controls to your capable hands. If you are a student pilot, unless the pilot is a CFI, you can’t log the time, but you can benefit from the experience. Usually one offer to pay for breakfast is all it takes to get on the permanent “invited” list even after you get your license and can begin logging the time. Of course, an offer to help wash the airplane (especially cleaning the belly) is always sure-fire way to insure your invitation to future fly-outs.
Two bucket list destinations for nearly every pilot is to make the trip to Sun’ n Fun and Airventure. This represents opportunity for the savviest Airport Bums. On one of those breakfast runs with your favorite owner/pilot may casually bring up:
owner – “Have you ever been to Oshkosh (or Sun’ n Fun)?”
you – “No, but I have always wanted to go”
you – “I’ve heard there are hundreds of airplanes in the pattern, the controllers are demanding and there are all kinds of special procedures there. To tell you the truth, the whole thing kinda intimidates me!”
I have flown several trips to both these venues and it can seem daunting – but they are well worth the effort. Yes, there will be a LOT of airplanes, but usually the controllers are not only helpful, but will display extraordinary patience.
You can download the NOTAM for Sun N Fun after March 1 here and Airventure after June 1 here. Either print a copy or save it on your tablet to have in the airplane for reference. The NOTAMs will specify that aircraft fly a certain route at a designated altitude and airspeed. It is a GREAT idea to practice BEFORE you get there so you will KNOW the power setting required to perform this maneuver.
Once you near the venues, the aircraft’s owner will be happy to have additional eyes to scan the area for the numerous airplanes unable (or unwilling) to fly the prescribed route, altitude and airspeed. Spot landings are also required study before arrival as these airports may be landing multiple aircraft simultaneously on the same runway. Runway 36 / 18 at KOSH, for example, will have a series of large colored dots painted at various points. The tower will issue instructions to land on (or near) the appropriate dot.
While there, you will be able to see the latest from the factories and garages of homebuilders. It’s a great place to meet fellow aviators from around the country and the world. Both fly-ins have camping areas with rest rooms and showers so you can pitch your tent right by the airplane! Several Airport Bums make this trip every year for just the price of admission.
Be a Bum, Help a Bum
Many of us “seasoned” (that means old) pilots have received valuable advice and experience by being an Airport Bum. It is therefore incumbent upon those having received these blessings to bestow them on future generations of Bums. Remember that when 5, 10, 20 or more years from now a young student pilot is standing sheepishly near the corner of your hangar as you are conducting your pre-flight.