Riding high: Abel (left) and Quade negotiate the airspace over Orange County
Photographs by Holley Meister
Safety first: Before takeoff, Quade reviews the preflight inspection checklist
When we hit 50 mph, I pulled back on the yoke. Slowly, and a bit shakily, we took off, and soon reached our 1,300-foot cruising altitude. It was deafeningly loud in the plane (the heavily padded headphones seemed to help little), but Quade rattled on with a nonstop parade of information about the control panels, the difference between turning and banking (I’m still not entirely sure, but it seems that banking involves using the wing flaps to lean the airplane in one direction), and the Orange County airspace. At one point, before my first “bank to the left,” Quade announced that there were currently seven planes in our airspace. When I asked how he knew this — expecting to see the planes on a radar screen or something — I was shocked when he announced that he could tell by looking out the window. He went on to explain that Orange County Airport has no control tower (the airport in Dutchess County is bigger and does have one); the pilots “need to look around,” talk with the other pilots on the radio, and follow general aviation rules. This low-tech solution terrified me, but I had little time to think about it as we suddenly “banked to the left” and I was left completely disoriented; we could have been completely upside down for all I knew. “Try to look out the front, look at the nose, it will help,” Quade suggested. Little did he realize that I had secretly closed my eyes for a few minutes; I figured that, after all these years in the pilot’s seat, he wasn’t about to let this ship go down.
Once I opened my eyes again, I was finally able to start enjoying the view. The Hudson Valley is beautiful from any angle, but I now had a unique vantage point. There was West Point; in the distance I could spot the majestic Mohonk Mountain House; there were acres of hilly areas that I had never noticed before. All too soon, it was time to bring the plane down. I found the landing to be fairly instinctual (which is easy to say now, since the affable and obviously capable Quade was really at the helm) and twice as much fun as landing in a big jumbo jet. My legs were shaking after climbing out of the plane — it was a bit like the exhilarated, yet tired feeling you have after getting off a roller coaster. Overall, I felt great.
After my flight I did a little research on the different types of available pilot certificates and licenses. The traditional private pilot’s license requires approximately 40 hours of total flight time and costs, on average, almost $10,000. A recreational certificate requires 30 hours in the air, costs approximately $7,700 to achieve, and has certain restrictions (you can only have one passenger, for example, and you can’t fly at night). Introduced in 2004 and growing in popularity, a sport pilot certificate is reserved for those who only want to fly light sport aircraft — a specific type of one- or two-seat plane. Earning this type of certificate requires about 20 total flight hours and costs approximately $4,400. There are also restrictions on landings and where you can fly.
Okay, so flying wasn’t that expensive or that hard, but what about safety? “It’s a common misconception that small planes are dangerous,” says Dancy. “But small planes fly for exactly the same reason that a 747 flies; it is the exact same principle. It’s a very, very safe mode of transportation. Accidents have declined tremendously since we started keeping records. Most accidents cause far fewer fatalities than people think.”
And of course you don’t have to buy a spanking new plane once you have earned some type of pilot’s certificate. You can buy a used plane, share a plane with several people, or do what most people do: rent an aircraft when you need it. Usually, renters are charged for the amount of time that the motor is actually running, not by how far they fly. At Freedom Air, for instance, you can rent a four-seater Piper Cherokee, one of the most reliable and popular planes in the aviation world, for $83 an hour.
But you’ll never know until you try. “Everyone I’ve spoken to remembers exactly what it was like to take their first solo flight without an instructor,” says Dancy. “It is obviously not the life-changing experience that having a child is. But most people say that they remember every detail. They tell me: ‘I couldn’t stop smiling for a week.’ ”
Let’s Go Flying
49 Hangar Rd., Montgomery. 845-457-3595