Flying Over the Hudson Valley With Bob Berman

(Several weeks ago, I posted an essay about my first small plane flight over the Catskills, so I enjoyed this article by Bob Berman, a veteran pilot, that ran in Hudson Valley magazine in June 1998. Bob has kindly updated the piece.)

Flights of Fancy

By Bob Berman

Flying in a small plane over the Hudson Valley is not really about transportation. It’s not about sports or high technology, and it’s nothing like being strapped into a seat in a commercial jet In fact, flying in a small aircraft is like no other human experience.

Flying is a thrill, an education, and a revelation. It also touches some deeply alien chord; it was not until this century, after all, that people managed to get themselves airborne in controlled machines.

Perhaps the biggest surprise lies in how revelatory, how eye-opening, a Hudson Valley flight can be. From the ground, our world can seem dominated by the handiwork of humans. That’s because our daily lives revolve around automobiles, which follow roads. Roads, in turn, are the centers around which our towns and commercial enterprises are built So from our car-oriented perspective, the view is dominated by houses and gas stations, concrete and asphalt, with stretches of natural beauty and greenery providing occasional relief.

But all this changes dramatically the minute you’re airborne. From the sky, the truth reveals itself:our world is actually green! Forests and farms predominate. Nature’s canopy occupies most of the field of view; the roads and the accompanying towns form tiny, negligible intrusions on what is still largely unspoiled landscape. It is breathtaking, surprising–and also reassuring.

But there’s more. The freedom to turn left or right, deciding on impulse to skim over a mountain peak to explore the valley beyond, to follow a meandering creek to the wide Hudson, to feel the strange sensation of soaring, makes it surprising that everyone hasn’t at some point given flying a try.

Some people are simply apprehensive. But if you’re one of the scaredy-cats, soaring over the Hudson might be the cure. If you’ve already got the bug, well, there’s no place on Earth where the small plane experience is easier or more beautiful.

Take off from Sky Acres Airport in Dutchess County, whose hilly taxiways and slanted runway are funhouse-unusual, and cruise up the blue, sailboat-dotted Hudson. Sweep through Catskill Mountain valleys whose spring green is straight out of a fairy tale, and touch down for lunch at the idyllic Columbia County airport The allure is obvious: if this isn’t magic, what is?

The experience doesn’t even cost an arm and a leg: a leisurely ride will be only $40 each for you and two companions. Of course, if you choose to own your own plane, as I do, that changes everything: now you have a machine that can take you anywhere anytime; in return, it merely asks for every last dime you possess or ever hope to earn.

I’ve had the bug since 1971, when I took flying lessons in India at a government flying school, where the attitudes of the instructors made it very clear that they believed in reincarnation. When I moved to the Valley in 1972, I eventually resumed lessons at the Kingston-Ulster airport. I got my flying license in 1985, and I’ve cruised the Valley ever since. (I’m that guy who wakes you up at 8:30 a.m. with a flying lawn mower.)

Like dining, movie-going or relationships, the experience of flying spans a spectrum of sensations — it’s rarely the same. And, to be honest, it’s not always pleasant. Find yourself in a small plane over berserkly busy New York City during the helicopter rush hour, and you’ll need a sedative for the next five years to quiet your nerves. Pilot a tiny two-seater in howling winds over the Catskills, and your stomach will forever remember the meaning of turbulence. Fly on a hazy summer day when the sun bleaches everything into harsh flatness, and the much-touted bird’s-eye view seems greatly overrated. Skim beneath dark clouds in hot weather, when air currents speedily rise and fall, and the jolts will give your adrenal glands a healthy workout. Go up with a juvenile pilot determined to treat you to his favorite aerobatic maneuvers, and you may never again want to leave terra firma. No, flying is not always fun.

But you can easily predict when it will be amazing — and silky smooth. Take off with an experienced pilot, someone with a love of Nature and a passion for flying. Take your ride early or late in the day, when the low orange sun casts stark shadows over every village and farmhouse. Then, the patchwork quilt of umber, green and golden fields cry out with ineffable beauty, and the mountains radiate enchantment. Go up when the wind is calm, within a few hours of sunrise or sunset, and the ride will be serene. Glide past, New York City at night, gawking at a million glowing gemstones.

On a still day, take to the hills — the Taconics or the Catskills. Stay down low, a mere thousand feet over the ground, to drink in the intoxicating dimensionality of our undulating terrain. See your home and neighborhood from the air; it alters your perspective forever. You can live in the same area until you’re a hundred, but a single flight suddenly changes everything: you’ll see how roads cut into your village or town, how much open space surrounds the landmarks you’re so familiar with.

And one’s suppressed voyeurism isn’t neglected, either. There are no secrets from the air. Mansions that hide behind guarded gates surrender their mysteries at a glance. The detail is endless and endlessly enlightening.

And when the flying itself has left you sated, giddy and addicted forever, then come down to Earth by visiting the airports themselves.

No two are alike. There are the bustling ones, like Stewart and Albany and Westchester County. I’ve flown into all three many dozens of times, and it’s fun to be sequenced behind a big commercial jetliner—it makes you feel important by association. But once on the ground, there’s no real place to hang out; instead, you feel a busy, restless sense of purpose. If you’re there, you’ve come for a reason, as part of a mission of travel and motion. There’s nothing romantic about the experience.

Then there are the intermediate airports, like Dutchess County. They’re big enough to have a tower, but small enough to boast a friendly, low-key attitude. Here you might drop in and stroll to Richmor Aviation’s pilot shop to pick up a bumper sticker with a message that will alienate your environmentalist friends: “I love airplane noise.”

But the Valley’s real jewels are its small airports, the country strips that seem unchanged since the ’30s, the places that time forgot, where a true understanding of Amelia Earhart’s passion comes wafting like incense smoke the moment you stop the propeller.

These are “uncontrolled,” like most of the country’s 7,00O airports. Uncontrolled means there’s no tower — the government won’t go through the expense unless there’s a critical number of takeoffs and landings each year. Here, the pilot announces his or her position on a particular frequency and everybody keeps their ears and eyes open. If this seems nerve-wracking, it isn’t: last year,, there were only 18 midair collisions out of 38 million hours flown in U.S. aviation. So, while colliding with another aircraft can ruin your entire day, the chances of doing so are just about one in a million.

Which brings up a sensitive subject: is flying safe? Tooling around in a small plane is less safe than traveling on commercial, jets, but more prudent than barroom brawling or marrying on impulse: it can’t honestly be called risky. According to the latest, just-released statistics for 2010, you’ve got one chance in 80,000 of getting yourself killed for every hour you fly in a small plane. That factors in all kinds of flying, and if you eliminate dumb, preventable accidents — flying in bad weather, low-level aerobatics, running out of fuel — the odds are even better.

So now you can accurately answer anyone who thinks you’re nuts for getting into a tiny, four-seat machine held up by an engine only slightly larger than your family car’s.

Are you convinced yet? If so, start by cruising up the Hudson from New York City. The government has snipped out a parcel of Big Apple airspace to keep small planes separated from the big jets approaching the metropolitan area’s three major airports. Their rule is that you’re fine if you stay below 1,100 feet and remain over the river. You can overfly
the city with permission, and even land at La Guardia if you’re willing to fork over the $135 landing fee. But if you just want to see the skyscrapers, then you can avoid contacting Air Traffic Control by simply staying low.

Fly alongside the World Trade Center, with its boxy roofs higher than you are, and continue north with Central Park to your right, then fly directly over Riverside Park. Soon you’ll be skimming just a few hundred feet over the George Washington Bridge, which is breathtaking and exciting, especially at night.

You’ll see how the Hudson River becomes suddenly wide where it’s spanned by the Tappan Zee Bridge. Continue north, following the narrowing, curving river, buzz the Bear Mountain Bridge, and flyby West Point to where the river straightens out and opens up near Newburgh. You could land at Stewart, but if you’re hungry, touch down instead at Orange County Airport — they have a restaurant.

Pilots often joke about the famous $100 hamburger at their favorite country-airport eatery. The menu is actually reasonably priced; it’s just that it costs most pilots $65 an hour or more to get to the hamburger. The food itself is just an excuse, a destination, a lame justification for their having mortgaged their lives to this strange passion of flying.

If you want to meet these pilots, or just wonder what a $100 sandwich tastes like, there are a few places to check out. Though several airport restaurants have closed in the last five years, the best have happily survived, making a visit a worthwhile jaunt.

Orange County’s luncheonette-style atmosphere disguises solid if standard cuisine. The airport at Wallkill, in the mid-Hudson Valley, boasts (for lunch and dinner) a truly gourmet experience at CAVU, a restaurant that certainly offers the finest airport dining in New York State. In fact, it’s worth driving there; it’s that good.

And then there’s Sky Acres, near Millbrook. With its silo, rolling hills and mountain views, this airport may be the prettiest one in the Valley. Its restaurant is open weekends from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

By now you’re probably hooked: you want to be one of these penniless people who cross time zones for a snack, who bop over to the Vineyard on a whim. You want to be a pilot.

You’ll need weeks of ground school, about 60 hours of flying, some with an instructor, some solo under his or her guidance, then two tests, one of them in-the-air by an FAA-authorized examiner. At a lesson a week, it will take you a year or so and may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It isn’t cheap, either. Figure about $7,000 altogether, though the pay-as-you-go policy makes it hurt less. Then, after you have your license, you don’t really need your own plane: a few airports will rent you one.

Not all airports provide flight instruction. In the Valley, you can learn to fly at Orange County, Dutchess County, Albany, Westchester County (but its busy there, and you’ll spend money waiting on the ground, like a taxicab meter in traffic, for take-off clearances). Many prefer learning at the smaller, quieter airports, in which case you’ll want to go to places like Great Barrington. Figure about $130 an hour for the 25 hours you’ll be up with your instructor, plus another $100 an hour for the 35 hours you’ll be soloing.

Why do this? Well, the trite answer is for the challenge, although there are a lot of challenging activities (getting your assessor to lower your taxes, for example) that cost a lot less. It really boils down to: The Bug. Do you have it?

The way to find out is to phone your nearest airport and arrange a ride or an inexpensive sample lesson. While you’re up there, keep an eye out for other planes, and if you see me in my little blue Cherokee 180, wave — and I’ll follow you down to that $100 burger.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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