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Original Issue


The people who fly just for the fun of it thrill to many pleasant vistas, none any more uplifting than the sight of bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging the highways far below or the lengthy queues at the big commercial airports (opposite). Never mind that the sky happens to be crowded here and there, too. Private-plane enthusiasts insist that under the right circumstances, the life aloft can be as uncluttered as it is swift. One simply picks out some remote and idyllic destination, climbs into his trusty machine and carves out a slice of sky.

Flight of fancy? Well, not for the man who has a sizable bankroll, can choose agreeable weather and possesses a certain amount of skill. Somebody truly imbued with a passion for flight, a Stuart MacPherson, say, might even get by without the bankroll. MacPherson, a 23-year-old dental student at the University of Nebraska, makes do with a hoary single-engine plane called a Luscombe, a cramped two-seater that was built the same year he was born and drones through the sky at 95 mph. MacPherson bought it secondhand for $2,200 from his earnings as a Good Humor man and other odd jobs. It's no beauty, but it had enough get-up-and-go to transport MacPherson and his girl on a circuitous 7,500-mile trip last summer across the U.S. and Canada.

Along the way MacPherson and friend enjoyed the land as well as the sky. On occasion they dined on lake trout they hooked themselves, and when the weather allowed, they camped under the wing of the plane. For MacPherson it was a happy respite from textbooks and dental labs. "That airplane is my escape to reality," he says. "I feel like what I do when I'm not flying is unreal."

A man who flies higher, but with no less zest, is Jim Hershberger, an oil-rich Wichita sportsman whose personal Lear-jet, a 500-mph craft with a plush, white-carpeted interior, comes in handy for business as well as pleasure trips. In his case, business trips are a pleasure. "I wanted my plane to be something extra," says Hershberger. "It had to be comfortable and it had to get me places fast." Himself a licensed pilot with a multi-engine rating, Hershberger leaves the controls of his $839,000 jet to two full-time pilots who chauffeur him to Puerto Rico for parasailing, Minnesota for snowmobiling and just about everywhere to recruit prospective track stars for his alma mater, the University of Kansas.

MacPherson and Hershberger are at opposite ends of a widening spectrum of sports-minded private-plane owners who go places shunned by the commercial airliners and do so on schedules of their own making. The number of Americans who fly has increased from 360,000 a decade ago to 700,000 today and is expected to reach 1.4 million by 1980. The vast majority operate in what is called general aviation, a term encompassing all flying except that done by commercial airlines and the military. General aviation embraces flight instruction, commuter and air-taxi services, corporate aircraft and, of course, personal flying. The fact that the same plane is often used for both work and play makes estimates difficult, but a good guess is that 25% of all general aviation flying is devoted to recreation and sport.

The growth of pleasure flying owes much to the presence of a remarkable variety of sturdily built private planes that are, mercifully, more comfortable than a 1947 Luscombe and quite a bit easier on the pocketbook than a Lear-jet. Nor is it only daring young men who are drawn to those flying machines. There are 10,000 woman pilots in the U.S. today, some who learned to fly for no other reason than to be able to take over the controls from their husbands in case of an emergency.

The term "safety" being a relative one, it is difficult to offer any conclusive judgment on private flying. There were 1,388 fatalities in general aviation last year. That toll will not deter people from flying nor, unhappily, will an awareness of it necessarily curb those few who insist on taking senseless risks. Still, for the pilot aware of his—and his plane's—capabilities flying need be little riskier than many routine activities, a point underscored by the Federal Aviation Agency aide who advises families driving to the airport to always go in separate cars.

The automobile, in fact, has come to be the favorite metaphor of private-plane enthusiasts. The small-plane industry has its own Big Three—Cessna, Beech and Piper—and it has further emulated Detroit by suffering through a business downturn in recent months. The venerable Piper Cub J-3, the spunky little two-seater that was discontinued in 1947, is sometimes referred to as the Model T of the sky. The ubiquitous two-seater Cessna 150, whose low cost ($8,350) and simple design have attracted 9,000 owners, naturally brings to mind the Volkswagen. Something roomier? Among single-engine craft, the Mooney Ranger ($19,000), a four-place bird that sails along at 168 mph, is a nice family sedan, while the Beechcraft Bonanza ($39,000), a 203-mph craft with space for six, has been called the Cadillac of light planes. If the bigger twin-engines and turboprops belong in the limousine class, then such practical workhorses as short takeoff and landing (STOL) planes and seaplanes must be likened to jeeps and dune buggies.

There was even heady talk during the private-plane boom that followed World War II of "an airplane in every garage." While that vision seems no closer to fulfillment today, it has literally been realized by a lucky few. In California there is a sort of skyburb called Cameron Park (pages 52-53), where homes with garage-like hangars are being built and where the residents taxi their planes along out-sized streets—traffic signs are waist-high to allow the wings to pass over them—linked to a communal landing strip.

Nowhere does flying have a greater impact on life-styles than in the spacious West. Gerald Joseph, an Albuquerque, N. Mex. businessman, thinks nothing of flying a twin-engined Piper Aztec to Conchas Lake, 160 miles away, for some early-morning waterskiing before work. With similar ease, Dr. Neil Hamel, a surgeon in Sylmar, Calif., has flown his turbo-charged Cessna 210 to drop off his son Ian, 20, and friends on camping trips high in the Sierra Nevadas, then returned a day or so later to pick them up—much as another parent might take the kids to a movie.

For many, the destination matters less than the three-dimensional experience of flight itself, the chance to behold what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator and author, called "the true face of the earth." One pilot absorbed in every dimple and frown is Desiree Stuart-Alexander, a government geologist in Menlo Park, Calif., for whom an outing in her single-engine Cessna 172 is something of a busman's holiday. "We had a ball," said Desiree after ferrying three colleagues on a camping trip to Mexico last fall. "On the way we flew low and studied the sag ponds and depressions along the San Andreas fault."

One phenomenon Desiree and her fellow private pilots seldom see is other aircraft. The problem of crowded skies, and there is a problem, no mistake about it, is pretty much confined to the densely traveled commercial airline routes linking the big cities, especially the traffic patterns near such metropolitan airports as Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles' International and New York's Kennedy and La Guardia. Most of the name-calling on the subject embroils the major airlines and general aviation's commercial segment: the corporate aircraft, air-taxi services and commuter carriers which claim their right to use the same crowded airspace as the airliners. The pleasure pilot generally keeps out of the hassle except when he joins the crowd at a major sports event like the Super Bowl, Indianapolis 500 or Kentucky Derby.

One fact often cited by the private-plane set is this: if the entire civilian fleet of 125,000 planes flew over Arizona at the same altitude, each would have almost a square mile to itself. It is also true that there are some 10,500 airports in the U.S. (one for every 12 planes), and only 600 of them are served by commercial airlines. Even in metropolitan areas there are many relatively uncongested secondary airports used primarily for general aviation—e.g., 24 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 17 around Chicago, 16 ringing New York City.

The airport, brags an American Airlines radio commercial, "has come a long way." Some have, some haven't. A great many rural airports are grassy strips straight out of Smilin' Jack. At the small airport in North Adams, Mass. it is possible to land and take off without delay, even during the autumn pheasant season, when dozens of planes touch down in a single day, delivering hunters, guns and dogs.

It is not quite so easy, however, to become a competent pilot, no matter what some boosters seem to imply. "Flying isn't for everybody," says Charlie Ward, a flight instructor in Danbury, Conn. "It's a lot like playing a musical instrument. Most people can learn to do it mechanically all right, but it's something you've got to feel, too."

For anyone determined to try, the test will come quickly enough. Under ordinary circumstances the beginner actually handles the plane by dual controls on the very first lesson, and the instructor may well have him experiencing the twitchy excitement of that first solo after as few as six or eight hours of flight time. Federal regulations require at least 35 hours of flight to qualify for a private license, which is necessary before one may take up passengers. In fact, however, most students usually wind up logging close to 60 hours before applying for a license—at a cost of roughly $1,000 for the instruction fees.

If the rookie Rickenbacker decides at some point to buy a plane, the expense can be eased by going partners or, as with Stuart MacPherson and his Luscombe, by combing the secondhand market for bargains. As for buying a new plane, the aircraft manufacturers, very helpful in such matters, point out that because an airplane generally lasts longer and depreciates slower, financing is often easier to arrange than it is with—here we go again—an automobile. There is no such thing as a typical example, but two years ago Jack Elliott, a New York public-relations man, paid $24,000 for a single-engine Piper Cherokee Arrow, a snappy four-seater. The price included $7,000 in radio gear. Elliott threw in an older plane as down payment and arranged to pay $345 a month.

Even after the payments end, Elliott will still have the Piper to pay. His insurance comes to $790 a year, his hangar rental at the Morristown, N.J. airport is $480 and the required annual safety inspection sets him back another $225. In view of fixed costs like that, a plane obviously makes more sense the more it is used. Last year Elliott flew his Cherokee 150 hours, including expeditions for skiing in Vermont and sail-fishing in Acapulco. His operating costs, with gas and oil, came to around $2,400, or close to lip a mile. Not cheap, certainly, yet compared with a you-know-what, not all that dear either.

To hold down costs airplane owners can, ordinarily, claim as income-tax deductions the interest and local taxes they pay on their planes. For the businessman who uses his plane in pursuit of profits as well as pleasure, the tax breaks can be far greater. To explore such opportunities, the aviation magazine Flying arranged a group discussion among several private-plane owners. One was a Texan who habitually flew a twin-engine Beechcraft Travel Air between his men's clothing store in Dallas and a branch in Bryan, Texas, 150 miles away, which he had opened partly to justify a tax write-off for the plane. "If you own a plane," one conferee said, "you just accidentally make more money than if you don't."

Somebody like Arnold Palmer, whose tournament winnings have ebbed since he began leasing his personal Learjet two years ago, might dispute that statement. As a matter of fact, golf is one sport that has had difficulty adjusting to the airplane even though many golfers, thinking that the greens might be grassier somewhere else, have taken up flying as a way of trying out different courses around the country. To accommodate them, dozens of country clubs now have landing strips adjacent to their courses.

The trouble is, nothing distracts a golfer more than a low-flying plane. A showdown of sorts involved the fellow at the Las Positas Golf Course near Livermore, Calif. who lofted a six-iron shot into the air on the first fairway just as a small plane was coming in to land at the club's airstrip. The ball sailed through the plane's window and hit the pilot. He suffered only a small bruise, but one assumes that both he and the golfer will exercise greater care in making their approaches from now on.