Dear aviation, are you OK? You’re getting up there in years now, and travelers are taking you for granted.
Almost 112 years ago, when you were first hangin’ out with the Wright Brothers, you were practically a miracle. Now — for a lot of folks — you’re nothing more than a cramped seat from L.A. to New York.
In the U.S., nearly 850 million passengers flew last year during the safest period in aviation history — that’s an increase of 2.6% from the year before. Worldwide, more than 3.3 billion flew. That’s a record.
Hey, aviation, that’s kind of impressive. You deserve some respect. Somebody should throw you a damn party. The country needs to give you a day all to yourself.
Forget about National Whiner Day and National Cheeseball Day. This Wednesday, August 19, is National Aviation Day, thanks to a presidential proclamation made in 1939.
There are plenty of reasons to celebrate. Air travel has improved life for countless tourists, shoppers and business people.
It’s fast. Only 90 years ago, the fastest passenger ticket took travelers from New York to Los Angeles by train in 72 hours. Now, we can fly it in six.
It’s relatively comfortable. (The first airline seats were made of wicker).
For a lot of people, flying is just plain fun. (Pun intended.) Think personal in-flight entertainment systems. Think about the thrill of soaring high in the sky.
Of course, like a lot of things, it ain’t perfect. Complaints about airlines soared by 20% during the first half of this year.
But while there’s plenty of room for improvement, the future looks bright. Some very cool, technologically sophisticated airliners are already on their way to serving travelers around the world.
So — warts and all — let’s celebrate you, aviation — just for one day.
Here are five ideas on how to enjoy and appreciate the wonder of human flight.
1. See the plane that eradicated vomiting
Travel to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum companion facility outside Washington to pay homage to one of history’s groundbreaking airliners.
The Clipper Flying Cloud is the world’s last surviving Boeing 307 Stratoliner — the first successful commercial airliner with a pressurized cabin.
The plane’s pressurized cabin virtually “eradicated” passenger airsickness, said Bob van der Linden, a Smithsonian curator. For the first time, the Stratoliner could fly airline passengers high above bad weather, where the ride is smoother.
“Anytime you travel anywhere, you should tip your hat to 307 because that airplane allows you to get there with a lot more comfort and without throwing up all over the place,” van der Linden said with a chuckle. Flying on the Stratoliner was expensive — limited to high-roller passengers, the Concorde-fliers of their day.
Its interior “is just gorgeous,” he said, including 33 big, comfortable, reclining seats and cabin walls decorated with beautiful maps of the world.
First flying in 1938, only 10 of these airplanes were made, due to the outbreak of World War II. The Clipper Flying Cloud sits inside the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
2. Fly the world’s only ‘Connie’ that takes passengers
Here’s a very rare bird — a half-century-old icon that you can still fly on.
It’s Lockheed’s L-1049 Super Constellation. Fans call it the “Connie.”
“Almost all aviators talk about the Super Constellation as the most beautiful airliner ever built,” says veteran Swissair 747 pilot Ernst Frei.
As a boy, Frei fell in love with the Connie’s unusual curved lines, high-landing gear, dolphin-shaped nose and distinctive triple tail. He told his mother he dreamed of flying one someday. Eventually his dream came true. Eleven years ago, Frei became chief pilot of the last flying Super Constellation that still takes passengers.
If your dream is to fly on the Connie, beware: It could punch a hole in your wallet.
All passengers must first join the Super Constellation Flyers Association for around $120, and then purchase tickets for flights starting at $230. The memberships and airfares support the plane’s $1.1 million budget, along with a sponsorship from watchmaker Breitling.
From May through the fall, the plane hosts pleasure flights to European destinations in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and elsewhere. Connie lovers travel from around the world for the experience. Frei recommends that trans-Atlantic travelers fly to Zurich and take an hourlong train ride to Basel, where the plane is based.
3. Fly like the Wright brothers
Want to experience flying the way the Wright brothers did? Travel to Dayton, Ohio, and climb aboard a lookalike of the Wright brothers’ first factory-built plane: the Wright “B” Flyer.
For the price of a $100 membership, you can experience the wind-in-your-hair sensation of pioneer flight aboard the two-seater plane, nicknamed the “Brown Bird.”
It’s not the most efficient way to travel. The plane burns 20 gallons of fuel an hour. As you might expect, this thing flies slow and low. It takes 10 minutes to reach just 500 feet of altitude. Top speed: 50 mph. Maximum altitude: 3,000 feet. Flying aboard the Brown Bird must be like riding a 3,400-pound bicycle with wings.
Owners of the Brown Bird hope to resurrect the Wrights’ original airplane factory to produce modern versions of the B Flyer, which would meet modern airworthiness standards.
4. Engines? We don’t need no stinking engines
Sensational. Spectacular. Breathtaking. Those are words people often use when they talk about their first glider flights.
Part of the thrill, says Eric Bick of the Soaring Society of America, is that you’re sitting in a cockpit almost totally surrounded by a transparent canopy.
“Your view is huge, from horizon to horizon,” Bick says. “The only thing between you and the sky is this little eighth-inch of plexiglass.” First-timers notice the silence. You hear the sound of the wind, but there’s no engine noise.
The whole experience almost gives you a feeling like you, yourself, are actually flying — without an airplane.
You also might find yourself flying with eagles.
“This really knocks the socks off of people,” Bick says. “Sometimes eagles or hawks will accept the glider as being a compatriot up there,” and other times they’ll attack, he said with a chuckle. “It’s astounding.”
For pilots, soaring is “sort of the equivalent of a Formula One race car,” Bick says. “You’re not going 150-200 mph around a track, but you’re going into a snug little cockpit and you’ve got an instrument panel in front of you. One thing about soaring is you’re always thinking about what you’re going to be doing next.”
Gliderports — where you can slap down about $100 and experience your first flight — are easy to find.
Check out Minden, Nevada; Elmira, New York; Clermont, Florida; and the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii.
The SSA website www.ssa.org has a handy locator map. Don’t forget to call ahead.
5. DIY: Take a flying lesson
For the hard-core aviation enthusiast, there’s a do-it-yourself experience: take a flying lesson. Research local flight schools and sign up for an hourlong introductory flight in a small plane with a certified flight instructor.
Watch out, you might get hooked.
The annual number of active pilots in the U.S. with FAA student certificates has been rising for four years. Last year, there were more than 120,500, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Thousands of new student pilots are strapping into the cockpit every year. The FAA issued about 49,500 student pilot certificates in 2013, according to AOPA.
You don’t need a student certificate to fly with an instructor, but you will need one if you eventually fly solo.
Getting a pilot’s license — officially known as a pilot certificate — may be easier than you think. A 2004 FAA rule allows wannabe fliers to earn pilot certificates in less time — albeit with more limitations.
The Sport Pilot Rule is “a great way to get in the cockpit and get flying and be able to take a passenger and go somewhere,” says AOPA’s Katie Pribyl.
So, here’s to you, aviation. Enjoy your day. Thanks for making it possible for humans to spread their wings and experience the miracle of flight.