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.