THE COMMUTE: In this column, we’ve discussed many different forms of commuting: subway, bus, car, taxi, ferries, biking, and even commercial airline travel. But one we have never mentioned is the private airplane. In rural parts of the country especially in Alaska, that’s how many commute. I’ve been in small four or six passenger planes twice before, once in Alaska, and once on an air ambulance when we were thrown off a cruise ship in the Caribbean because the crew was afraid that my mother’s chest pains were indicative of a heart attack. I also had flown in 17 and 33 passenger planes to visit car overhaul sites in Upstate New York while working for the MTA.
So when my friend and financial advisor from Wells Fargo Advisors, Alex Lerner, asked me if I wanted to accompany him in a four-passenger plane to Connecticut for lunch I agreed. Alex, who told me he has taken several flying lessons, asked me if I would be willing to be the flight instructor’s co- pilot and I accepted because I knew there wouldn’t be that much to it.
In Alaska, the pilot asked who wanted to be his co-pilot. I readily volunteered my sister because I thought he was just joking. I soon regretted my decision when I realized he was serious and instructed her to throw a bunch of levers and push some buttons that were not within his reach. Anyway, that flight, in 1986, went well. It was harrowing, nevertheless, when we flew through a mountain pass in a fog, appearing as if we only had a foot of clearance at the end of each wingtip.
I regretted not having prepared a will.
The other scary part was when the pilot decided to do a very steep descent so we could get a close-up look at some elk or moose. He wanted us to get our money’s worth. I pleaded that seeing them from afar would suffice. My stomach seemed to rise into my shoulders as we descended at what felt like a 75-degree angle and I promptly vomited after getting off the plane.
This flight had to be easier since there would be no mountain passes to negotiate or any wildlife to encounter. We drove to Republic Airport where we entered our Piper Cub after picking up the flight instructor. Alex then told me to sit in the left front seat. “Isn’t that where the pilot sits,” I asked. He responded, “Just sit down” and I did. Alex sat in the back and the flight instructor sat down next to me.
“I will show you how to take off and it is very easy to fly a plane,” he explained, telling me that I have absolutely nothing to worry about since there are dual controls and he could correct any mistake I might make. (It should be noted that several weeks later, a story appeared on television two people being killed in a small plane crash and how investigators were not able to determine who was piloting because of dual controls.) So, as we were taxiing down the runway, I turned what looked like a steering wheel to keep the plane on a straight course. I was then informed that you only use that control in the air. On the ground you steer with the heels of your feet. He also neglected to tell me there is a three second delay before the plane responds. I kept over-steering. It would appear to anyone on the ground that I was driving drunk as the plane meandered back and forth along the double yellow line. He then told me to pull back on the throttle and just wait. We didn’t seem to be going very fast when all of a sudden the plane took off.
We ascended to about 6,000 feet. The instructor believed that the ride was too turbulent at 3,000 feet. However, it did not feel any worse than the slight turbulence you would experience in a jet. At 6,000 feet, it felt just as if you were standing still. The instructor told me I needed to relax because I was holding the controls too tight. Then he said it was okay if I took my hands off the controls entirely and admired the scenery or took pictures or movies, which I did. Imagine doing that when driving a car.
“Flying is the only way to travel because there is no traffic or red lights,” the instructor joked. I asked him what do we do if we see another plane. He replied, “You communicate.” The flight took approximately 40 minutes. The car ride to the airport took about an hour. Driving all the way would have taken three hours. We looked down at East Haven where a small plane had just crashed five days earlier killing the two on board and two on the ground and spoke about that tragedy. I was hoping that history would not repeat itself. Now came the difficult part of landing, which really isn’t difficult when someone is making all the decisions for you, telling you when to turn and how fast to descend. I thought we were coming down too steep but he assured me that I was doing fine.
The instructor then asked me if I could see the airport, which I could not. He assured me I would be seeing it soon enough. Then it came into view… a single runway followed by my landing instructions, which started with these three questions, to which I replied, “yes” to each: “See the trees down there? Now you see the runway? Now do you see the water after the runway?” After I replied “yes” to the third question came the warning: “If you hit the trees or the water we die, so aim for the runway.” You can see my bumpy landing in the video.
If you look in the lower right hand corner you will see the instructor’s hands correcting my mistakes. But I did it. I safely landed a plane, with much help, of course. He then told me that many of his students start with a surprise lesson, as mine was, and that I did 90 percent of the work. Yeah, really. Then I asked him how to operate the brakes to bring the plane to a halt. He replied that using the brakes would not be necessary because the wind would stop the plane, which it did.
We sat down to a very nice lunch in East Haddam, Connecticut along the Connecticut River in a restaurant no more than 500 feet from the airport. There was only one other plane in the airport, a far cry from JFK. The instructor then asked me if I wanted to pilot back. I declined. Forty minutes flying was enough for me, so l let Alex fly back. He did an excellent job and landed much more smoothly than I did, since it wasn’t his first time. In fact, I was more nervous driving back with him on the Southern State Parkway as he tailgated other cars.
Back at Republic Airport, we saw a very nice entry-level private jet and spoke with its owner, probably a corporate executive, who does his commuting by flying. We got to see how the other half commutes.
We got into a little trouble with the air traffic controller who questioned some of our maneuvers on the ground and had to do some explaining on the phone as we were driving home. Then I wondered what if aggressive drivers had to explain to some authority each of their lane changes and why they were necessary after each trip? Wouldn’t that make driving safer?
Five days later, as I made a five-and-a-half-hour return drive home from Rhode Island through four separate roadwork areas in Connecticut traffic, delaying us by two hours, I reflected on the instructor’s comment of no traffic and no red lights and flying being the only way to commute.
Nah, I think I will stick to driving and the subways and buses until I get my jet pack. Now, when I drive too fast, I’m afraid my car might just start going up in the air.
The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA / NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).
Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.