I am flying westward
over the Angeles Crest Mountains, the morning sun shining down over the
San Fernando Valley as it spreads out below me and we bank south. The
Cessna 152, aptly named "the Commuter," cruises at just over 3,500 feet
as we travel from the Agua Dulce Airpark toward Santa Monica Airport -- a
47-mile trip that will put me just two miles from my office in Culver
Exhilaration rushes through me as the plane reaches optimal
speed, or "trues out," at about 95 knots, the propeller spinning in a
blur. The pilot, Michael Gold, checks in with air traffic control,
effortlessly communicating a long string of flight information
consisting of letters and numbers. I may be on my way to work, but this
is definitely not an ordinary workday.
I don't usually commute by
small plane. Other than the Lakers' Kobe Bryant -- who famously
helicopters from Newport Beach to Staples Center -- who does? Since I
started my job a year ago, in fact, I've been commuting almost 70 miles
round-trip each day on L.A.'s jam-packed streets, spending, on average,
three hours (or more) stuck in traffic on the 405.
Like so many
Angelenos, I've become numb to the frustration of fighting the gridlock
every morning at the dreaded interchange of the 101 and the 405. Mere
mention of the words "Skirball" or "Getty Center" is enough to keep me
in my office until well past 8 p.m. When it's just too much and I'm
completely stopped on the highway, needing to pee so badly, my numbness
turns to desperation: Screaming inside and crying proverbial tears of
blood, I tell myself that there must be a better way!
But the thought remained just that -- a cry for help more than a plan for action -- until I met Michael Gold.
is in his second year of flight training, working toward his commercial
license. A recent college graduate and studio musician, he has been
obsessed with airplanes since childhood.
After our brief
introduction at a friend's barbecue, it was only a few seconds before
the conversation turned to traffic. I launched into my usual complaints,
only to be stopped short when he casually mentioned that, by air, the
same trip would take about nine minutes. Nine minutes? I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
Was there really hope? A way around the traffic? Some sort of salvation? I had to try this!
But could I really fly to work?
"For me, flying is a
way to understand the world. It helps you figure out where you actually
are, physically speaking, but it also humbles you when you realize how
small you actually are comparatively," Gold tells me as we map out our
flight plan a few weeks later. With the help of CP Aviation in Santa
Paula, he enthusiastically agreed to help me, saying, "Any excuse to get
more time in the air is good enough for me."
We planned a Monday
morning trip. I would drive the 14 miles from my house to Agua Dulce.
From there, we would take off for Santa Monica, where a friend had
agreed to meet me and whisk me away to my office.
But first, of
course, there are a few inevitable challenges. When I arrive, the gate
to the small airfield is locked, a problem unexpectedly solved by a
quick trip to the local hardware store, where the clerk, who seems all
too familiar with people being locked out of the airport, happily tells
me the combination. (Agua Dulce's small-town vibe, suffice it to say, is
nothing like the high security at LAX -- and I'm not sure whether to be
grateful or wary.)
Next, I find myself getting anxious when Gold
relays info over the radio as he reviews our flight plan, including the
fact that our plane is red.
"Why do you need to tell them it's red?" I ask.
if you go down, they wanna know what color your plane is," he says,
matter-of-factly. I gulp as I brace myself for lift-off.
Up next: How did it go?
turns out to be totally smooth and entirely pleasant. From the time I
board to when I disembark, I'm in the plane for just 18 minutes and in
flight only 13 minutes. Even with the added time preparing for takeoff,
and despite the irony that there seemed to be very little traffic that
day, it was by far a new record for me.
More importantly, it was
liberating. I had never seen the city from that angle before, and never
approached my commute with such a perspective. Could getting to work be
something different from drudgery? Could it feel like, well, flying?
I wanted -- maybe needed -- to do this more. But was it feasible? And was it irresponsible, environmentally?
numbers surprised me. The average economy car getting 25 miles per
gallon uses 16 gallons of gas to travel 400 miles. In a Cessna 152 going
about 110 mph, that trip would take 21 gallons. Not bad.
were serious about flying to work, Gold says, the best plan would be a
Skyhawk 172, which usually rents for about $115 an hour. "It holds four
people, including the pilot, so in terms of renting the plane for
commuting, you would be splitting that cost three ways," he says. "But
the trip only takes 20 minutes, so you have to think of money in terms
of time saved not being stuck on the roadways." That equals $38.33 for each person per hour, or a reasonable $12.78 per 20-minute trip.
problem at that point is that you can't rent an airplane for a fraction
of an hour," he adds helpfully -- saving me from picking up the phone
right then and reserving a small aircraft for the next two weeks. Plus, I
realize, I'd also have to pay the pilot -- and that's where things could
However, a small company that owned several
commuter aircraft could potentially coordinate daily routes, shuttling
workers to and from any number of the dozens of small airports in the
Southland -- a big happy carpool in the sky.
One such company,
Channel Islands Aviation, actually uses "Time Is Money" as its charter
service slogan. The advantage to flying, it advertises, is that you can
"have a full day's work done and be home for dinner." Sign me up!
I haven't flown to work since my glorious day up in the sky with Michael Gold. But I think about it. A lot.
these days, as I sit in the daily gridlock, trying not to grit my
teeth, I find myself looking up. Just knowing that it's possible to soar
over this mess -- knowing that, thanks to Gold and CP Aviation, I did
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fly over this mess -- somehow makes me feel a little better. It may not
be practical to fly to work just yet, but I have this hopeful feeling
that maybe we're getting close.