There was a time in America when almost anyone could take flying lessons and, unless hopelessly uncoordinated or prone to airsickness, become a pilot. It was an age in which one could rent an air machine, gain a few thousand feet of altitude, and view the world below in an entirely different way, riding the wind and challenging the highest-flying birds for mastery of the open skies.
It was a time in which aviation was open to everyone.
And it still is!
While descriptions of the freedom of flight seem more attuned to the roaring '20s and the age of barnstormers and daredevil airmail pilots, what we had in those more innocent days we still have -- in spades.
America, in aviation terms, is truly a unique land of endless opportunity. While most nations in the free world allow some private flying, many countries make it a difficult freedom to exercise, weeding out all but a few would-be private pilots with high costs and higher taxes, a scarcity of airports, and an abundance of oppressive rules and regulations about where a mere individual pilot can go.
Flying for the pure joy of it, in other words, tends to be primarily the province of North Americans (with Australia being a close second).
Most of us never think about how unique it is that the United States and Canada have literally thousands of public airports large and small open to any pilot with an airplane, many such fields providing rental aircraft, fuel, maintenance and flight instruction.
In fact, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, by 2005 the number of U.S. airports hit a staggering 19,300! Of those, 546 have scheduled commercial airline service, while approximately 5,000 are public facilities run and maintained by local and state government entities. Many more are private fields open in some degree to the public, and thousands are private runways often shared by a collection of local plane owners.
Using all those runways are a fleet of more than 210,000 aircraft, only 8,000 of which are commercial "air carrier" craft large and small. That means that approximately 200,000 actively registered private aircraft are buzzing in and out of nearly 20,000 airfields large and small, flown by more than 235,994 private pilots and 122,592 commercial pilots!
Even though the cost of earning a private pilot license can exceed $6,000 and the aircraft rental fees for a four-seat, single-engine, light aircraft range from $60 to $135 a flight hour, the fact is that if an American can pass the FAA physical and demonstrate competence and good judgment as well as skill in handling the controls of an airplane, he or she can fly.
You. Regardless of station of birth, sex, color, creed, etc.
America, in other words -- aeronautical style.
One of the contributors to this cornucopia of private flying was World War II, which taught tens of thousands of military men and women to fly (yes, the women were relegated to the ferry command, but they were there, and they were good pilots).