The Ecphorizer

Two Types of Flying
Barry Leff

Issue #36 (August 1984)

Gerbils CAN fly!

John Q. Public can tell you that flying in any aircraft that has propeller driven engines (especially one that seats less than 10 people and is flown by an amateur) is noisy, crowded, slow, the service is abominable, there are no potties on board, and what's more, small airplanes are frightfully dangerous.

Why, then, would anyone (especially a Mensa member) want to engage in such a ridiculous practice, except out of most dire necessity?

To experience flight and to experience adventure, that's why.

Airline flights are about as exciting as watching "I Love Lucy" reruns in your living room at home. The environment is sterile and designed so as to prevent the more timid passengers from having to be reminded that they are really flying. (Airlines no doubt dislike the FAA-mandated briefings on the use of life jackets and oxygen.) From 33,000 feet the world looks like a LandSat satellite picture: flat, indistinct, an interesting mosaic, but still a picture. From 6 miles up, even the magnificent Rocky Mountains or Grand Canyon is reduced to faraway squiggles.

In a Cessna at 3,000 feet you can really see the scenery. You can follow your path on the map, know exactly where you are, choose your own path. You can fly beneath the rim of canyons, enjoying a perspective shared only by eagles. Mountains come to life, as you carefully plan a path through the terrain that will take you over passes and between peaks.

The flexibility offered by private flying is a tremendous advantage. Last year we flew down to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, in a Cessna 182. Unfortunately, the conditions for SCUBA diving in Zihua were less than optimal. After a few days in Zihua, we were reluctantly headed north, filing a flight plan non-stop to Mazatlan for a final few days of shopping and loafing. As we flew over Puerto Vallarta, I noticed that the water was crystal clear: ideal conditions for a little SCUBA diving before going home. After a 30-second discussion with my passengers, I was calling Puerto Vallerta tower on the radio, notifying them that I had decided to modify my flight plan, and could we get a clearance to land at Puerto Vallerta? The diving was great. Try doing that the next time you fly Western Airlines.

Airline flying is OK if you have to go somewhere very far away in a hurry, such as on business. If you're on vacation, though, flying a small plane is somewhat analogous to life - what's important is the journey, not the destination. To show my point, I will compare two trips I made to Mexico City; one on Mexicana Airlines, one on "Giant Gerbil Airways," that is to say by Cessna.


Arrive at the airport about 45 minutes ahead of time. Ride a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal. Stand in line and check in. Stand in line and go through the security checkpoint. Stand in line to get on the plane. Once aboard, I buckle in and sit down with the newspaper. Briefly watch out a porthole of a window during takeoff (the only phase when you can really see anything). Go back to reading the paper. After a lengthy wait, the stewardess brings a beer. I spend a little while shuffling through papers and thinking about the upcoming meeting in Mexico City. Looking out the window on the approach into Mexico City is a waste of time because the pollution is so thick you can't see anything anyway. Four and a half hours after takeoff, I fight my way off the plane and struggle through customs.


We arrive at Scotts Valley Airport at 6 AM, about 15 minutes prior to departure. No shuttle bus is needed to get to the plane, as we are parked about 50 feet from the plane. After loading the plane and conducting a pre-flight inspection, we take off through a thin layer of fog, and within 3 minutes are enjoying a beautiful sunrise coming over the hills, the colors made all the more dramatic by the thin fog layer. Somewhere south of Salinas the fog dissipates, and we watch the California scenery roll by right outside the window. Three hours after takeoff, we land In Mexicali for a Mexican breakfast. Clearing customs consists of filling out a few forms; no lines, no waiting (no bribes either). We fill the tanks with fuel (which is quite inexpensive in Mexico) and head south over the desert of northern Mexico.

The area of northern Mexico between Mexicali and Guaymas is very desolate, isolated, and remote. From 7,500 feet, you can see for hundreds of square miles without seeing any signs of habitation; and you are low enough to know that if there were any signs of habitation, you would see them. North of Punta Penasco we fly over sand dunes that call up images of "Lawrence of Arabia." According to the airport guidebook, one of the airports we fly over, at Puerto Libertad, is in an area populated by the Desemboque Indians; renowned for headhunting and cannibalism. The book is quite reassuring that the natives are now friendly, but we decide to forgo the opportunity to find out up close. During World War II, there was a British spy site in the area.

As we get closer to Guaymas, the terrain becomes more interesting; hilly right down to the sea, with many little coves hiding small fishing villages that seem totally inaccessible and groups of shrimp boats. We drop down to 500-1000 feet in order to really appreciaate the view. On the way into Guaymas, we fly past "Catch-22" airport at San Carlos, which was the site for the movie of the same name. We're in Guaymas in plenty of time to get checked into a hotel, check out the town, and enjoy a fine dinner of Camarones al Mojo de Ajo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce) and Mexican beer. We consider diving in Guaymas, but since it was in December the water was still a little cold that far north, so we decide to head further south without delay.

An easy four hours of flying along the coast puts us in Puerto Vallarta. After a few days in P.V. we take off for Mexico City, at an altitude where we can see the mountains and jungles between the coast and the interior of Mexico; it's only a few hours for the flight, and the mountains are quite spectacular.

Airlines are OK if you have to go someplace more than 1000 miles away in a hurry. However, for travel, airlines can't compare with private flying. The only exciting airline flight I ever took was getting evacuated from Iran (but that's another story...). 

More Articles by Barry Leff

We have collected the essential data you need to easily include this page on your blog. Just click and copy!close
E-mail Print to PDF Blog
Return to Table of Contents for Issue #36