There are a few locations in the world where, even in 2021, a personal airplane can offer unmatched ease and efficiency of travel. I have found one such place to be the Pacific Northwest. In 2019, my career in the Coast Guard planted me in the far reaches of western Washington. Located on the edge of the Olympic Mountain range, nestled at the foot of Mount Angeles and on the Strait of Juan de Fuca’s southern shores, lies the city of Port Angeles. Its remoteness offers both great natural beauty and a certain level of involuntary seclusion. The nearest large city with airline service is Seattle, which, if you guessed by the title, is a five-hour round-trip drive. It was here I found another reason, among many, why general aviation is indispensable to me.
In case you have never seen the city of Seattle, Washington, allow me to paint a mental picture for you. The city’s borders run up against the waters of the Puget Sound to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east. Seattle and its surrounding cities run non-stop over 63 miles north-south in what is a seemingly inescapable expanse of city. Traveling by car to Seattle from Port Angeles requires either taking a ferry or driving around the expansive waters of the sound and then north again through the congested cityscape. Both options also require driving 73 miles on slow two-lane roads with backed-up traffic to get to the place where you can make the decision to ferry or not to ferry.
“I truly am spoiled,” I thought as I was cruising home from Seattle one winter evening in December. My Coast Guard ship was being dry-docked in downtown Seattle, and I lived in a hotel about a mile from the dry dock for most of that winter. As an officer and engineer, I was putting in a lot of work, but at least I got to go home every other weekend. “Dad-Dave,” my unofficially adopted dad from Port Angeles, flew over to pick me up in his Cessna 172. I recall being an exhausted, over-caffeinated, nauseated mess until I got to the airplane. Suddenly, I’d never felt so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed! I remember looking at the cotton candy clouds over the Puget Sound and being filled with such a wondrous feeling. Dad-Dave and I made it to Port Angeles in 30 minutes versus the 2 hours and 45 minutes it would have taken me to drive through rush hour on Friday.
A Regular Thing
I’ve begun to lose count of how many trips to Seattle I’ve made by airplane, between two Cessna 172s, a Piper Cherokee, my old Cessna 150 and my current GlaStar. In most cases, including taxi and run-up time, I accumulate 1.1–1.5 hours at the end of each trip. Commuting by personal airplane has reaffirmed two things: 1) I hate driving to Seattle; 2) I will avoid it and go by air if at all reasonable.
The weather here is typically the biggest inhibitor, especially in the winter. With freezing levels hovering anywhere from the ground to 6000 feet msl, IFR conditions almost always present a possibility of ice. The Puget Sound also has an uncanny ability to coerce the cloud ceilings down to treetop level, making the days that are marginal VFR on both ends impassable in the middle. On these days, I must drive and get my humble reminder of how great flying truly is.
Another great feature of where I live is the San Juan Islands to the northeast. To drive to Friday Harbor would take me 4–5 hours one-way and entail hopping on two ferries. I can fly there in my airplane in 20 minutes, bustling along at a cruise speed of 118 knots on 8 gph.
In fact, a wild idea transpired from this one fall evening. I got the notion for an impromptu plane camping trip on a Sunday evening headed into Monday. With Orcas Island—on the far north of the San Juans—being a mere 25-minute flight away, I figured I could get up early and be back in plenty of time for work the next morning. So, on a whim (and after checking NOTAMs), I loaded up the GlaStar with my tent, a few supplies and my folding bike. I had a wonderful time and even met some new flying friends. I had just enough time in the morning to ride into town and get a breakfast bagel before loading up and flying home. I made it just in time for work. I don’t know if anyone ever figured out why I had such a tired but unwavering smile on my face all day.
In North Carolina, flying my Cessna 150, I could always figure on getting places in about half the time of driving, so long as there weren’t terrible headwinds. Since moving to the PNW, the remoteness and lack of roads (or excess of) have led to flying being up to 16 times faster in the case of the San Juan Islands and almost five times faster in the case of Seattle.
It truly opens up opportunities. In the times of COVID-19, when so many people have lost the ability to travel, I am among those making the best of it—pioneering maximum fun and practicality while social distancing. Let this message be a heartfelt, love-of-flying reminder of why we do what we do.
Photos: Amy White.