Over the past few days I covered the entire round trip distance I plan to fly in the Student Prince in about 9 hours at 40,000 to 43,000 feet above sea level. Effortlessly blasting along in a business jet at 465 knots and 82 percent the speed of sound. I was comfortable in a blouse, the auto pilot did the majority of the flying, a computer navigated, I had a co captain, plenty of room to get up and stretch, a lavatory to use if needed, and a nice meal. We did not arrive at our destinations with stringy wind swept hair, grease and oil on our clothes, and we didn’t need to wear earplugs while flying. In fact, they would have been a ridiculous hindrance. Our flight path took us just north of the route I plan to use when I fly east in the Student Prince to Ohio next month, and I spent the bulk of the flight with my nose pressed against the cockpit glass, a VFR sectional in my lap with my finger following along. I was much more interested in gleaning every detail from the ground than I have ever been while flying in a jet. And even though I was several miles and thousands and thousands of feet higher than I will fly in the biplane, in my mind’s eye, I was zooming down to biplane level and following every pass, river, and highway that I could discern. It was exciting. I marveled at the beauty of the Americana countryside in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Cute little Norman Rockwellian towns with tidy green fields, picturesque lakes, winding rivers, water towers and lots of airports. I could almost smell the A & W burgers and fresh cut grass. And then the Dakotas, miles and miles of open dry country and small communities that were far and few between. I wondered if people there got lonely. I found myself feeling relieved that there was a nice east/west highway for me to follow with airports nearby within the Prince’s fuel range. And oh how lovely the majestic Yellowstone river twisting like a silver ribbon in the setting sun, plateaus and big sky in eastern Montana. And thank goodness, another road to follow with convenient airports. From 43,000 feet the pass through the Continental Divide didn’t look that daunting, but I know better and I would be lying if I said that those rugged mountains don’t get my attention when I consider taking the Prince over them. I will be following the highway in earnest for several reasons. The road is at a lower elevation than flying directly over peaks, it will help me navigate, there are airports along the way, and if need be a highway can be landed on. Mountain flying is not to be taken lightly, and I plan on reducing the risk as much as possible. Only going in good weather, following the highway and taking as much fuel as possible.
When we were over eastern Washington, it was like old home week, I know that country fairly well. And the pass through the Cascade mountain range to western Washington? A cake walk! Not really, but because it is such deeply familiar territory to me, it feels much less daunting.
All in all it was a great route survey from the jet, even though I suspect my co-captain was getting sick of me jabbering about passes, fuel stops, wind farms and other details that had zero relevance to our jet flight. And no, we didn’t land with messy hair, hearing loss, torn sectionals, or greasy jeans. But neither did we have complete strangers approaching us and our flying machine with excitement and wonderment. No one asked us in an awed voice where we were going and where we were from. No one even considered inviting two total strangers home to dinner. And even though the line personnel put a red carpet down at the bottom of the jet’s air stairs, no one told us that what we were doing made them want to do something they’ve only dreamed of. So yes, the jet and the Student Prince are both airplanes. They both fly in the same air and obey they same laws of aerodynamics. But the experiences of flying the two are so vastly different, that they do indeed seem like completely different machines. If I want to get from point A to point B as fast and comfortably as possible, the jet is my ride. But if what I’m after is a true experience of being alive, and creating lifelong memories to be taken out, smoothed, and recalled with misty eyes, then an antique open cockpit biplane is just the machine to deliver. A Student Prince to be exact.