Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are two of the world’s A-listers in the movie business. Morgan is also a pilot. The pair starred in the 2007 movie, Bucket List, an American phrase taking its inspiration from a very old, very British saying, ‘kicked the bucket’. It means a list of things to do before you die.
In Jack and Morgan’s case, they were playing a pair of terminally ill rogues who high-tailed it out of a cancer hospital ward to enjoy what was left of their lives.
My 10-point bucket list for aviators is a little less dramatic but no less worthy. These are flying experiences you should at least consider… no, that’s too mild. You should DO these, this year, soon, now.
1 Fly a floatplane
My floatplane initiation came in northern Italy on Lake Como with the Aero Club Como. The club not only runs floatplane training courses but you can do your entire Private Pilot’s Licence with them. On water, with an occasional land away on, er, land, to earn the full privileges of your licence.
Now, I understand that Lake Como conjures up images of sophisticated Italians and immense expense. Let me reassure you that the guys in the club, the instructors and club president, are ultra friendly and down to earth. They are very cool, as you’d expect of Italians, and meld in with their location very well. But it is just flying.
The training takes place in either a Piper Supercub (tandem seating) or Cessna 172s (side by side). On floats obviously. There’s also a classic Ciproni biplane and a Lake Amphibian but you need to have garnered a bit of experience before they’ll let you loose in these aircraft.
It seems unbelievable but you can land a floatplane almost anywhere in the Italian Lake District, though you’ll need the permission of the landowner to moor next to his lake-side villa. Landing back to Como means a dog-leg approach to avoid a mountain that’s inconveniently in the way, and you also have to keep a lookout for ferries and boats creating a wake, but once down, you have the glorious taxi across the lake back to the aero club’s prestigious location.
Italy not your scene? Try Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida, USA instead. It’s a million miles from Como’s sophistication but world-renowned for its training.
2 Fly a short takeoff and landing aircraft
There are some aircraft out there with extraordinary takeoff and landing abilities. I’m not talking about a couple of hundred metres… no, much less than that. Two aircraft that come to mind are the Aviat Husky and the Aeroprakt Foxbat A-22.
I flew the Husky in Cornwall on a beautiful hot summer’s day a few years ago. We based ourselves at Rosearrow, a golf course near Padstow with a grass airstrip. That description is generous, by the way.
Bob Pooler, UK agent for Aviat, turned up with the gorgeous brand new Husky, and gave a demonstration ultra-short take-off.
It was the usual short-field technique at first. Stand on the brakes, apply full power and release. The Husky is a taildragger and normally you’d push the stick forward once rolling to bring the tail up, accelerate to flying speed, then pull back on the stick to rotate. Bob didn’t do that. He just held the stick all the way back from the moment he released the brakes, and less than three seconds later was clawing his way into the air. I know, I was in the back seat staring at blue sky ahead and wondering if we were going to stall and come crashing down. No, is the answer.
Coming back into Rosearrow was much easier. Bob nailed the speed just 5kt above stall, added a tiny bit of power as we crossed a small stream just before the threshold to counter sink, and we touched down almost immediately. You have to be careful with a taildragger not to overdo the brakes and stand the aircraft on its nose, but even so we stopped within 100 metres.
The Foxbat flight was at the Shropshire airfield of Chirk, where the UK agent Ray Everitt is based. Chirk was once a full-size airfield but it has been chopped into less than half by Chirk’s ring road. It’s also on a steep hillside, rutted with tyre marks from weekend car boot sales. All in all, it’s a mess as an airfield.
Ray directed me to the start of the runway we were going to use. It wasn’t really there at all. Less than 20 metres of bumpy grass was in front of us, then huge ruts just waiting to rip a wheel off.
Full brakes, full power, straight back with the stick, off brakes and count to three… before the ruts we were airborne.
Now why would you want to do this? Well, if you’ve ever watched the movie Air America, which stars a Pilatus Porter as well as Mel Gibson, you’ll know just how much use you can make of a genuine very short field aircraft. You’ll never need a proper runway again.
3 Fly in America
Flying is on a different level in the US. The infrastructure is much more extensive, better organised and landings are usually free. Fuel is also much cheaper than Europe. Land for the night and often the airport or Fixed Based Operator (FBO) will lend you a car to get about, and book you into a hotel/motel at an air crew discount.
Hiring an aircraft will never be like hiring a car even in the US, but it’s much easier in the US. Most FBOs hiring aircraft will want you to clock at least three flying hours per day that you have the aircraft, but since the point of going is to fly, that’s OK.
What they will do is give you an extensive checkflight, mainly to make sure you’re safe in the aircraft but also to bring you up to speed on US regs and US radio comms. How difficult this is depends on where you are. Around Washington, the capital city, expect hell on earth. In Florida, there’s a little more leeway. In Los Angeles, they’ll want you to understand the air corridors to get around the monster that is Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
It takes a while to “get your ear in” to follow quick-fire radio on busy frequencies such as SoCal Approach. Don’t even think of starting with an “er” or “um”. You have to be on the case straight away. Speak like a British Airways Captain and you’ll be ok.
Escape the Los Angeles Class B airspace and you’re into a freedom of flight that never fails to delight. Cross LAX through its overhead on a dedicated VFR corridor, requiring no clearances, just accurate flying. Talk to controllers who are offering a service, not just requiring you to comply (except SoCal). Land and be asked “which FBO?” at the bigger airports. Taxi up to Signature Flight Support and enter a world of immaculate rest-rooms, happy smiling people, free coffee and fast internet for flightplanning.
Land at great specialist airports such as Half Moon Bay on the Pacific coastline just south of San Francisco. The runway squeezes into a sliver of land running north-south between cliffs and sea, completely at odds with the prevailing westerly wind. As I turned final in my rented C172, number two behind a Diamond Twin Star, the crosswind was intense. Concentrates the mind, however, and the landing was one of my best. After taxying to the apron, the tie-downs were steel chains rather than ropes.
Flying in the States is to experience aviation as it is meant to be. Efficient, fun, great facilities, fantastic scenery, helpful people. Don’t delay, just be proficient when you go and clock up some serious hours at a fraction of the cost of European flying.
To find great deals on hire aircraft, try the website Archer Bravo Aviation. Chris Archer has cleverly pulled together a database of FBOs and others all over the US with latest prices and special deals. For instance, you can hire a 1998 Cessna 172, with GPS and autopilot, for $104/hour from South Bay Aviation at Torrance Airport, California. If you want to fly the US West Coast, KTOA is a good place to start.
4 Fly in Middle Earth
Or New Zealand, as it used to be called. Since Kiwi Peter Jackson made his series of Lord of the Ring movies in the spectacular mountains and fjords of South Island, the region has been stuck with the label. But, you know, it doesn’t matter. New Zealand is different from the rest of the world. Some say it’s just like England was 60 years ago but with real mountains and better weather.
Flying around mountains demands respect and one of the best ways for flatlanders to enjoy the experience is with a guide instructor. Someone who knows the territory, the best places, the approaches to out of the way strips, and the vagaries of the weather.
You can arrange all this yourself or link up with Flyinn, a company which has been hosting pilots from Europe and the US for more than a decade. Flyinn is run by farmers Matt and Jo McCaughan at Geordie Hill, a 5,200-acre sheep and cattle station that’s been in their family since 1911.
Geordie Hill not only has its own airstrip but also cottages for guests to stay in. You don’t even have to think about food – Jo prepares evening meals to a very high standard.
Flyinn has two Cessna 172s for guest use. Both aircraft are fitted with more powerful 180hp engines to make use of short, rough strips. Both aircraft have long range tanks, GPS and a four-place intercom. Flyinn can arrange NZ validation for your licence – required if you want to fly as Pilot in Command. You’ll need an ICAO PPL(A) with current medical and certificate of experience (or BFR if you’re from the US).
You can work out your own flights or Flyinn has prepared some itineraries: the 8-day Fjordland Explorer, 11-day Mountain, Island and Ocean, or 19-day Long White Cloud, taking in both north and south islands. All sound fantastic!
5 Fly air combat
OK, so not real combat, not with live guns and missiles. But Air Combat USA takes you as close to the real thing as possible.
They fly Italian Siai Marchetti SF260 military training aircraft. They’re fast, agile and aerobatic. Air Combat equips them with laser sights and receivers so that if you get a “kill”, your “enemy” releases smoke as if hit.
The scenarios are close to WW2 skirmishes. You’re flying the SF260, tightly strapped in, scanning for “bogies”. You spot your opponent at 10 o’clock high, break hard, pull back and the chase is on. By using “lead” and “lag” techniques taught in the classroom before flight, you close to within shooting distance. Put the gunsight on the aircraft, squeeze the trigger and it’s a hit. Or maybe it’s the other way around where you’re being chased!
6 Fly a taildragger
These days the ‘conventional’ layout for landing gear is two mainwheels and a third nosewheel. But not so long ago, the third wheel used to be at the back, under the bottom of the rudder. The term ‘taildragger’ actually refers to aircraft which had a skid there, but has been expanded to include tailwheelers.
Most people agree that the parked attitude of a tailwheel/taildragger aircraft looks right. There something about having the nose pointing into the air, wings already at an angle of attack. But you have to learn the skills of handling a tailwheel aircraft on the ground, when taxying, takeoff and, of course, landing. In the air, a tailwheel aircraft flies just the same as a nosewheel although there’s less drag thanks to the lack of a nosewheel.
So what’s the difference? When wind hits the side of an aircraft, specifically the fin, it tries to turn the aircraft – ‘weathercock’ it into wind. A nosewheel aircraft controls this very easily, but a tailwheel aircraft can get away from you and go into a ‘ground loop’ where it spins around into wind.
It’s all about using your feet, on the rudder and also the brakes sometimes, to stop the swing before it has a chance to develop. You have to concentrate but also relax to feel the swing, then put in a bit of opposite rudder to keep the aircraft straight. On some aircraft, a quick dab of differential brake helps to keep things straight.
Takeoff is different too. You start the takeoff roll, then push the stick forwards a little to pick up the tail, then hold it steady as you accelerate. The rudder will have become active by now so use rudder to stay straight. Once you reach rotate speed, pull the stick back.
For landing, you have a choice of ‘three-pointing’ or ‘wheeling’. Three-pointing is when the main wheels and tailwheel touch down together. Wheeling is when the mains touch but the tail is kept in the air. Usually, you learn three-pointing first and you may opt to stay with this technique all the time.
7 Fly a classic biplane
What’s the big deal about biplanes? Well, twice as many main wings means lots of lift at low speed… and twice as much drag which builds up the faster you go. So what biplanes are good at is low and slow. Add in the typical traits of a classic (ie, old) aircraft and you’ll be developing handling skills and fine-tuning your reactions.
Plus, of course, most classic biplanes are open cockpit which is yet another experience. Noise, wind, temperature, smell, vibration… all your senses are being assaulted.
Two biplanes in particular stand out. The de Havilland Tiger Moth and Boeing Stearman Model 75. Both were developed as primary trainers for military pilots for WW2 and just before, and are capable of limited aerobatics. Both were produced in large numbers and many are still flying to this day, often in use by flying clubs.
Google the aircraft to find a flying club near you operating the aircraft or pitch up at either of two specialist events staged annually. Tiger Moth pilots and enthusiasts make a beeline for the annual de Havilland Moth Club International Rally.
Americans like to do things bigger, so the saying goes, and the National Stearman Fly-In is spread across a whole week. There are flying contests, technical seminars, fly-outs, awards and, of course, lots of Stearmans.
8 Fly a ski plane
Not just any ski plane, but one which is going to land on a glacier, 11,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps. The weather has to be perfect with clear blue skies, no cloud, little wind and cold so the snow is in good condition.
You’ll be flying with an instructor from the Vol Montagne section of the Geneva Aero Club, a dedicated unit which teaches the Mountain Rating required if you’re to fly as Pilot in Command. It’s quite a commitment to get the rating however, with at least 250 takeoffs and landings required in an assortment of conditions.
For most of us, a series of flights with an instructor in the club’s brightly coloured Breitling-sponsored Piper Supercub is enough. Takeoff will be from either Geneva Airport or Sion Airport in the heart of the Swiss Alps. There are various glaciers to choose from, all at around 11,000ft.
Before committing yourself to landing, you make a slow over-flight of the glacier to check its condition and the wind. In the thin air, the aircraft is slow to respond so gentle turns and attitude changes are required, as well as accuracy – the mountainsides come awfully close.
Once you’re happy with the glacier surface and picked an area to land, it’s time to set up an approach. You’re hugging the mountain and getting the speed just right but not descending. The glacier slope comes up to meet you and you keep the power on to ski the aircraft up the hill. Don’t ease off or you’ll slide backwards. At the top, spin the aircraft around and if it’s flat enough, you can park and get out for a walk. Takeoff is back down the same way, with the ground dropping away from you rather than the aircraft rotating up.
9 Fly Unusual Attitudes
Unusual Attitude Recovery training often goes hand in hand with aerobatic training. After all, you get yourself into some pretty odd positions with aeros and occasionally it all goes pear-shaped. Maybe a loop collapses through lack of speed at the 10 o’clock position, leaving you inverted in a flat-spin. Better to learn the recovery technique before attempting the loop.
But it’s not just for aeros pilots. All pilots benefit from this type of training. Not only will it increase your confidence but you’ll have the skills to make the correct inputs should you find yourself in an Unusual Position (UP).
There are several specialist firms around the world but one we visited was the UK’s Ultimate High. Based at Goodwood Aerodrome in Sussex, Ultimate High operates Extra 300 aerobatic aircraft and also some Scottish Aviation Bulldogs. UH’s pilots are ex-military with immense skills and that weird sense of humour most ex-servicemen seem to share.
UH’s Spin, Upset and Recovery course comprises of pre-flight briefings on the ground and two sorties in either the Extra 300 or Bulldog. Choose the Extra. It’s more expensive but what a fantastic aircraft! It’s almost as if the controls are extensions of your thought processes.
UH takes you through recovery from an incipient spin, a developed spin (believe me, they really let the spin develop through six or seven turns), inadvertent spins (both left and right), before moving on to even more extreme recoveries such as ballistic and inverted Unusual Positions. All the time, the UH instructor is talking you through what to do, while maintaining a close watch on you to see how you’re handling the upsets. That’s why two sorties are used – to let your brain and stomach recover in between.
The final UP is the most extreme. The aircraft is in straight up vertical flight with the power pulled back. Of course, it runs out of energy and stops climbing. At that point all the controls are neutral because you have no idea what’s going to happen next… in my case, it fell backwards into an inverted spiral. Amazingly, the training kicked in and we were upright and straight and level in no time…
10 Fly with an expert
If the chance to fly pops up with a multi-thousand hour pilot or ex-military pilot, or a competition aerobatics pilot, or any kind of super-experienced pilot, grab it. Set your brain and senses to maximum absorption and note every detail of what they do, how they prepare and how they react. Don’t ask questions at important moments – let them concentrate – but do ask later.
The most instructive flying possible is when you’re alongside one of these guys or girls. Simple things like having a logical flow to cockpit checks, or the lookouts they perform. Marvel at how they stay ahead of the flying by prioritising and preparing. Listen to the ease with which they talk to ATC. See how a steady hand knows instinctively how to settle the aircraft.
Working for aviation magazines means I’ve had the luck to fly with some highly accomplished pilots. Writer and airline pilot Bob Davy seems to be able to jump into any aircraft and make it sing. Helicopter ace Dennis Kenyon not only flies displays but is an amazing instructor too, teaching me the basics of rotary flying in less than an hour.
Former RAF Tornado pilot and current Cathay Pacific training captain Nick Heard can get into the very latest Dassault business jet and impress the company test pilot sitting next to him (photo above). UK Aviat agent Bob Pooler (see no2 above) can land and takeoff in the smallest of spaces, drama-free. Cessna Citation CJ4 demo pilot Brandy Althouse put the jet through its paces for us while fielding our requests, ATC calls and a torrent of questions.
We private pilots may never reach their standards of airmanship but, hey it’s worth striving for!