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).
Democracy in the Sky
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).
In addition, the war caused the construction of an amazing number of airfields around the nation, the majority of them located in the Southwest and run by the (then) Army Air Corps Training Command. After the war, many of those newly abandoned or partially used rural airfields became municipal airports for nearby communities, and around that core of public airports grew what might be thought of as the stereotypical "local" airport, an entity principally differentiated by the presence of a paved runway and at least one business featuring a gas pump and hangar and known esoterically as an FBO (fixed base operation).
With military airfields converted to civilian use and thousands of additional single-runway airfields created, by the late '50s and early '60s private aircraft small and multi-engine were increasingly moving around the nation, supplementing commercial airline services and doing everything from flying paper checks between banks at night to simply providing a place for private pilots to alight.
Locally-owned private aircraft proliferated at such small airfields, their owners needing to be close to fuel pumps and certified mechanics. And as Cessna Aircraft Corporation in Wichita (among others) began cranking out new airplanes by the dozens to meet the growing demand, a generation of former military pilots and their sons and daughters bought such planes as the venerable, four-seat Cessna 172, secure in the knowledge that most anywhere they wanted to go, there would be at least one suitable airport nearby.
And that's where the public interest in having enough private airports to use in breeding pilots comes into play.
There are two types of pilots, by the way. The vast majority are Type 1: a male or female desperately in love with flying and characterized by an incapability of reaching a state of boredom when talking about flying or committing any premeditated act of aviation.
Type 2s, by contrast, view flying as merely an interesting challenge -- much as a corporate golfer might view the game as an interesting but occasional means of spending time with clients or the boss. But it is we Type 1s who have propelled the freedom to fly and seen it through decades of misunderstanding and even the increased national security required in the post-9/11 world.
Type 1s born in the postwar years share a tight bond with their local airport and one-hangar flight school. It was the tiny local FBOs on rural airports that gave so many Type 1s their first aviation job, pumping gas, sweeping hangars, and otherwise doing anything legal to be close to real flying machines and the daring souls that flew them.
Type 1s learned early how to sit quietly in the grass at the end of a rural runway, their heads cradled in their hands, watching rental pilots run through before takeoff checks a few yards away and hoping against hope for the pilot to cave, open the door, and wave the kid over for a ride. Those employed at FBOs routinely traded paychecks for flight lessons, and between such thrills spent too much time inhaling the scent of hangared Cessnas, Pipers or Beech aircraft.
There were, you see, so many little fields around the country that an almost endless array of starstruck, would-be aviators could be accommodated in their endless quest for the next flight. And the beauty of all this is that we're not talking nostalgia: most of that system is still in place and kicking at your friendly local one-runway airport.
True, the price for aviation fuel these days is vastly higher, as are the aircraft rental rates, but there are still jobs for line boys and line girls, and there are still plots of grass near the end of the runways for safely sitting while begging silently for a ride.
And it's we more-mature Type 1s who now fly you around on airline flights, pilot military craft all over the world, and skipper private jets on their appointed rounds. In other words, America's unique ability to maintain a healthy nationwide network of local airports continues to inspire the creation of aviators in love with flying, giving us a true renewable resource of eager, capable young pilots forever dreaming of a future behind the controls.
That's a freedom we mustn't take for granted.