Flying the Cooperative Skies

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta through the plane’s window


Ah, flying. Going up in the air at the controls of your own small plane. Such a perfect image of independence, of individuality. Just you, alone in the sky, going where you please on your schedule.

Another myth bites the dust.

My sweetheart, who has his pilot’s license, flew us from Oakland to Portland and back last week. We hadn’t been in the air long before it dawned on me just how many people it took to get us there and to make sure our trip went smoothly.

For starters, the plane we were flying – a Cessna 172 – doesn’t belong to my sweetheart. (We don’t have that kind of money.) He belongs to the Alameda Aero Club and we were in one of the club planes.

So to begin with there’s a whole organization that makes it possible for us to go flying. The club has a mechanic and a reservation system and people you can call if there’s a problem.

Then there are the people you call in the various regional centers to get a weather briefing before you fly. This is necessary in planning your route. And, by the way, there are services that provide maps and books containing lists of airports, along with their radio frequencies and other information, so that you can keep up with where you’re headed.

Most obviously, there’s air traffic control, the people in the tower who keep planes from running into each other when they’re taking off and landing. There’s also ground control, plus the various regional centers that keep track of who’s in the air and alert you to other traffic around you when you’re not at an airport. You can file a flight plan and ask for flight following, so that someone is keeping an eye out for you.

Then there are all the small airports out there. Some of them have towers and an air traffic controller, though the tiny ones only have a radio frequency over which you announce that you’re landing or taking off. Most of them sell gas. Some have restaurants and maybe a mechanic nearby.

All those people make your travel easier, especially if it’s a long one. We spent five hours in the air, so we needed to stop a couple of times. The plane only goes so far on a tank of gas and there are no bathrooms in a four-seater Cessna.

That’s just the people involved in making it possible for you to fly somewhere if you have a license and a plane to go up in. Before you get to that point there are flight instructors and licensing examiners and the people who build airplanes, not to mention all the regulators who have come up with an international system under which everyone is following the same rules and doing things in a similar manner so that there will be a minimum of confusion.

Watching it in action, I decided it was both a cooperative system – the pilots and the staff and other people on the ground working together to make sure everybody in the air was safe – and a great example of the kind of thing governments do better than any private companies.

Competition might be good for building planes, but it’s the last thing you want in air traffic control. And you really don’t want confusion over which runway a plane should use when it’s landing.

Near as I can tell, the regulations are heavy on working well with others, with systems based on the best way to fly airplanes safely. Pilots don’t seem to complain much about the rules. They’d like to change some of them, of course – people can always come up with new ideas on how to operate things – but nobody seems to want to jettison them. In fact, the pilots I’ve listened to seem to appreciate the help.

As we started to leave for home, we discovered that the engine wasn’t running quite right. Since there’s no such thing as pulling over to the side of the road when you’re in the air, we decided to get it looked at. Fortunately, the Troutdale (a smaller general aviation airport near Portland) had a good mechanic operating on the grounds – a private, small operation where the guy knew how to fix the magneto on a Cessna.

We took off hours late and spent an extra day on the trip, but because there was a good mechanic available, we weren’t in any danger of the plane going wonky on us. And the flying club picked up the tab, because it owns the plane.

In all, the whole trip was a lesson in how a well-designed system and cooperation among the users makes air travel pleasant, possible, and safe.

I found myself wishing we had as good a system for cars and roads.



Flying the Cooperative Skies — 2 Comments

  1. I hadn’t even thought about air traffic (emphasis on traffic) until the 727 I was in had a close call with another one over the mountains of Santa Clarita on the way to San Francisco. All of a sudden we tipped to a steep slant, as the captain said cheerfully, “On your right you’ll see a 727 on its way to LA.” We were all “Shit! That thing is CLOSE.” When I mentioned it in a group among whom was an airline steward, we heard a lot about just how much traffic there is. And that was in 1972.

    • It’s usually busy at Oakland and even at some of the small airports to our east. And there are lots of rules about San Francisco air space. But up around the California/Oregon border we went about an hour without hearing from anyone.