By Conor Makem
ROCHESTER — I’m what you’d call a semi-frequent traveler. I’ve flown on a fair number of commercial airlines in the past couple decades and the experience just seems to be getting less and less enjoyable.
For the uninitiated, let’s imagine a “coach fare” flight day as a shopping trip:
Contemplate waking before you’re really able to get to sleep, driving an hour on a highway packed with people who failed their driving test to wait in three checkout lanes at the same store the Saturday before Christmas, having an “associate” in a different room view you naked before you scavenge for a small spot for your stuff and sit nearly immobilized in the world’s least comfortable chair for several hours, while an unapologetic fellow sufferer in front of you reclines himself to within about eight inches of your nose, you’re forced to feign attention to the sales clerk as she tells you the rules of the store that you’ve heard about a thousand times before, a five-year old behind you kicks your seat, the baby 10 feet away cries, the intercom system consistently shakes you from a light slumber and the store manager tells you that you’ll be responsible for 150 deaths if you use your phone, with the possibility of having the store lose some of your valuables they charged you for when they took them from you… and then not taking responsibility for it. And a bag of pretzels.
Yep, that seems about right. Generally, the dread I experience when I wake up at 3 a.m. for “the cheap flights” is somewhere between my recurring dream of being sent back to high school, not remembering anything before the big test, and being pulled over by the police.
Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of flying and not because I’m afraid of it.
But the opportunity arose recently to experience a whole new way of travel — at least for me. I was invited to take a flight lesson at Skyhaven Airport in Rochester. Let me say, it was nothing like a commercial flight.
How did the two experiences compare? Well, let me tell you:
The day begins
The cheapest commercial flights tend to be somewhere around 6 a.m. That means an alarm clock set at about 2:30 a.m. to leave the house by 3:30 a.m. to drive Route 1 in Revere, Mass. and arrive at Boston’s Logan Airport by 4:45 a.m. In contrast, flight school tends to center around your schedule. My first flight was scheduled for 2 p.m., so I left the newspaper bureau at 1:50 p.m. and drove down Rochester Hill Road to Skyhaven. Advantage: flight school.
I almost always leave the vehicle at “Park, Shuttle and Fly,” on Route 1A — just past Honeydew Donuts. I pay them $16.50 a day with a coupon, tip the driver, and they bring me a couple miles away to the airport. For flight school, I parked 20 feet from the door and walked in. Advantage: flight school.
From there on the commercial flight, I wait in my first series of lines. This is usually about 15 minutes. I pay the airline about $35 to take my luggage, proceed to the security line, where I begin preparing for the ordeal: untying shoe laces, removing belt, checking for any liquid over 3 oz. Somewhere in the middle of that, I hand my license and ticket to a TSA agent and continue in the line. I put everything on the security conveyor belt except the clothes on my back and step into the body scanner, where my clothes are essentially rendered useless.
For flight school, I shake hands with Kelby Ferwerda, owner of Rochester Aviation, and we head out to the tarmac. Advantage: flight school.
Here’s where things take a bit of a turn. Kelby takes me to the plane we’re about to board and together, we check to make sure it’s flight worthy. There’s an extensive check list for both inside and outside the plane. Most of the safety features on board a Cessna are as basic as they get. Keeping it simple ensures there’s less that can go wrong.
For the commercial flight, I sit in a seat in the terminal for an hour or so, hit the convenience store for a bag of peanuts or if I’m coming home, the airport bar is a handy stop-off point. No bar at Skyhaven. Advantage: commercial.
As far as carry-ons go, the plane Kelby chose for my first flight allows for up to 1,600 pounds, which sounds impressive until he tells me that the weight limit includes the plane and us. You can bring some stuff, but not too much. No advantage.
Next, Kelby gives me my first flying lesson: steer with your feet, brake with your feet, check out the gauges. He has me taxi to the runway, we stop for another plane landing and then I pilot the plane into the air. Commercial planes tend to have professional pilots, so once again, even with the flight attendant’s repetitive safety talk, I’m going to have to say, Advantage: commercial.
Now that we’re flying, it becomes clear, I have both the window and the aisle seat on the Cessna. Advantage: flight school.
The view from a commercial plane is awe-inspiring as long as you’re over the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or New York City. At a much lower altitude, the Cessna makes Rochester, Somersworth and Dover resemble postcards. Advantage: flight school.
You can bring a bottle of water onto the Cessna and there’s no problem or you can use your phone if you like. Of course, when you’re flying the plane for the first time, you hardly take your mind off what you’re doing. On a commercial flight, they serve you six ounces of the finest sugary beverages and a small packet of pretzels. I don’t like pretzels, so Advantage: flight school.
Increasingly, it seems that if you want a commercial flight from Boston to New York, you need to make a connection in Chicago. It is nearing impossible to find a direct flight. Every flight — it would seem — emanating from Skyhaven is a direct flight. Advantage: flight school.
However, before we land, Kelby decides to demonstrate the fear-inducing “stall.” As it turns out, stalling has nothing to do with losing your engine. It has to do with the wing angle and the inability to maintain lift. I’ve never been on a commercial flight where the pilot decided to demonstrate a stall. As Kelby notes, it’s really not as scary as most people think and far less dangerous. It turns out that a plane is naturally inclined to avoid a stall. Still, Advantage: commercial.
There’s no way a first time pilot is going to be landing the plane. It’s without a doubt, the most difficult part. Kelby took control of the Cessna for approach and landing.
“Skyhaven has one runway and it’s numbered 33,” says I. “Why’s that?”
With a point to one of the gauges, Kelby gives me the answer. The runway lies at 33 degrees. You know when you’re told to land on runway 33 that your plane needs to have a heading of 33 degrees. Brilliant!
Landings can be bumpy in both commercial flights and private planes, so no advantage there. Kelby flew in for a perfect landing — as far as I can tell.
A shake of the hand and my first stint at piloting comes to an end. One of the things no regular flyer misses is the luggage carousel. You never really know just how much more damaged your luggage will come out, or if it will be missing altogether. No carousel at Skyhaven. Advantage: flight school.
I’ve received toiletry kits for lost luggage, free T-shirts for canceled flights and even a plastic pair of wings when I was younger. One thing I’ve never received with hundreds of thousands of miles under my belt is a pilot’s log. It’s something you can’t get when sticking to commercial planes, but Kelby issued me one shortly after touching down. Advantage: flight school.
Thinking about taking your first flying lesson?
Rochester Aviation was recently presented one of seven awards for Flight Training Excellence. They were chosen from more than 2,500 nominations nationally. This is the kind of honor that’s only possible with an owner as excited about flying as Kelby and a professional and energetic staff. Kelby and his fellow instructors have helped to develop a real community at Skyhaven.
Visit their school online at www.flyskyhaven.com or in person at Skyhaven Airport on Rochester Hill Road in Rochester. Oh yeah, and I should mention, being the pilot is pretty cool.