Who wouldn’t want two more days of vacation? It’s all about asking the right questions.
The much-anticipated spring break came late this year the week after Easter. The spring ritual has become a must-travel week in my household to stave a week of boredom that’s sure to come for my daughters during time away from school. Just as important to family bliss is the promised escape from the cold, colorless Midwest winter. And to be rejuvenated by the salt air and sun that beckons along the Gulf. I want to go back!
When my wife and I began planning our trip this year to the beautiful Alabama coast, the next most important question to consider was the mode of transportation. Thankfully, in my family, there’s usually an easy answer with little debate – by air.
Yes, I’m spoiled and therefore, my family is equally spoiled, by being a part of the aviation community and having access to light aircraft for personal travel. While our daughters are still learning to appreciate the unique benefits of a pilot in the family, they do understand the difference between a couple of days cooped up in a car versus building sand castles on the beach.
Beginning with something tangible and understood, the question posed for my daughters’ careful consideration of our transportation options was simply whether they wanted two more days of vacation. Was that fair? Honest? Absolutely!
General aviation (GA) created two more days of vacation, relaxation and memories. In my opinion, the only option for making the 600+ mile journey feasible in a week’s time was by air. Yes, GA can be a realistic, cost-effective travel tool and I live it. It begins with a good plan and the right expectations.
You have to be flexible. My rule of thumb is to give yourself a flex day on both ends of your trip to make modification as needed for weather while traveling by light aircraft. Yes, if you do the math and had to depart a day late and come back a day early, you’ve cannibalized your extra two days gained by avoiding the car, but bear in mind this rule of thumb is for planning purposes only. And the likelihood of having to spend both of your extra days is minimal and you could even end up with an extra day.
Establish the right expectations. Better than a car? Absolutely. Same as airline travel? Not exactly.
If you’re flying with passengers that haven’t flown by light aircraft, a long-distance flight shouldn’t be the first experience. Begin with a local flight on preferably, a smooth morning and give yourself plenty of time to explain the aircraft and provide a safety briefing. This will be one less task to accomplish the morning of a big trip and allow your novice passengers to get acclimated to the environment.
Plan, plan, plan. As you would with any flight, do your homework on your airports of intended use, services, FBO amenities, etc. And don’t forget to arrange for ground transportation at your destinations (you don’t have your car remember). Follow your normal flight planning and weather analysis routine obtaining a big picture view of the anticipated weather days in advance and then whittling down to the details a few days prior. While ideally, you’ll complete your flight as intended, some quality alternates along the way with clean, modern facilities will create lasting fans of GA travel.
Passenger comfort. Passenger comfort is likely not an item that was emphasized in your flight training, but there are numerous steps a pilot can take to enhance the experience. After all, it’s to your benefit to have passengers anticipating (not dreading) the next trip. An early morning flight will typically bring a smoother ride. While obstructions, fuel burn and winds should all factor into altitude selection, spend some time determining what altitudes may also favor smooth air.
Invite your passengers to bring personal affects and entertainment to help pass the time. Depending on your chosen altitude, also consider supplemental oxygen. It’s difficult to predict how altitude will affect one person to the next, but youth and the elderly will generally be more susceptible to ill effects. While we’re on the topic, a sick sack should always be readily available.
Be a good host. This may sound obvious, but if a key outcome of your trip for your passengers to have an enjoyable experience with a desire to come along for the next trip, you have to be an ambassador for GA and go the extra mile to ensure a pleasurable trip. Some cold drinks and snacks would be a nice touch. Play the role of tour guide and be sure to point out the sites. Invite everyone to participate in the flight by helping to navigate and spotting other traffic. Who knows, you may end up with another pilot in the family.
The flight. Despite our 30-knot headwind at all altitudes en route from Cincinnati to Gulf Shores, AL, the flight was relatively smooth. Aside from a few side steps to avoid the puffy cumulus and associated bumps, we were able to fly VFR direct. We’ve made this trip nearly every year for the past nine since my in-laws chose to reside full time in the area. It’s easy to understand why. The Alabama coast has an allure.
Maybe it’s the white sandy beaches, warm gulf currents, fresh seafood or all of the above that could be filed under the category of southern charm. A trip down the street to the Pensacola Naval Air Station to watch the Blue Angels practice was an extra special treat. The weather? Simply perfect.
GA turned a 12-hour stressful drive with Griswold-like excursions lurking at every turn into a delightful four-hour flight with breathtaking views of America. The return flight was just as enjoyable. I did tap into that flex day to extend the trip by a day only because we were having a great time.
Heeding the advice above, I decidedly was never in hurry. Sit back, relax and make those memories to last a lifetime – only in aviation.