I had occasion to travel to Savannah on Tuesday for the unveiling of a brand new Gulfstream Business Jet … the G650. But this is not going to be about the not-yet-flown $64.5 million, mach 0.85 beauty that taxied under its own power to the cheers of some 7,000 Gulfstream employees Tuesday morning, it’s about the journey.
Among the things I do for a living these days is write and edit news for the online publication Aero-News.net, and Jim Campbell, the owner/EIC offered me the opportunity to accompany him to the roll-out in his Cirrus SR-22, a hot-rod 4-place turbocharged airplane, making the normally 2 hour trip to Savannah a 45 minute joy.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed sitting up front with a view forward, as opposed to back in steerage with a view (sometimes) out the side. We departed St. Augustine a little before 8:00, circling to stay clear of the clouds as we climbed above them and set up a course for Savannah. And it was here that I realized just how far aviation, and in particular navigation, has come since I took my first flying lesson back in 1976.
When I say “set up a course”, I mean two 10 inch LCD displays connected to probably as much computing power as I have in the laptop on which I’m writing this column showed us where we were going, how high, how fast, how much crosswind, where the restricted airspace was, how high we had to be to avoid that airspace, a satellite-delivered weather display that rivals what Tim Deegan shows us on TV … even the other aircraft in the area, their route of flight and how their altitude compared to ours, and that just scratches the surface. Jim explained to me that you fly about 10 minutes ahead of the plane, managing the systems. Once you set up the course and altitude, a touch of a button here and a twist of an knob there and you can change course, altitude, or destination. For most of the trip, he let the autopilot fly the airplane while he planned, about 10 minutes ahead each time, for what he wanted to have happen next.
Flying an airplane has always been a highly technical skill. Unlike driving a car, there’s that whole “up and down” aspect to flying that can come to an abrupt end if you’re not careful … and sometimes even when you are. Of course, driving a car can have similar consequences. But now, some of the kids who dreamed of becoming video game designers have been embraced by the avionics industry, and if you think the moving maps on your car GPS or iPhone are cool, go flying with a glass cockpit sometime. Next for the Cirrus is what’s called synthetic vision, which will show you the terrain and obstacles in a video-game looking display, sort of like your Microsoft Flight Sim … only better.
Beyond the sheer pleasure of the flight, though, was what it allowed us to accomplish today. As I said, a full day of driving to and from Savannah was boiled down to about an hour and a half of flying, which is what business aviation is all about. I was able to get home, have lunch, and still accomplish a full day’s work because I didn’t spend all day in the car. Business Aviation got a very bad rap when the Auto Execs showed up in Washington in their corporate jets, and while maybe that particular trip sent a mixed message, businesspeople use airplanes all the time to allow them to go places airlines don’t go, at least very effectively, when they need to go there, quickly and efficiently and often at less cost to the business than flying commercial. A business airplane is a tool. That it happens to sometimes be a lot of fun too is just an added bonus.
Our trip ended uneventfully, though on the way back from Savannah we did make a fairly low pass over the ocean for a view of the beach. A barely-felt touchdown back at St. Augustine, and we were done with the flying for the day.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to do a lot of things in my life that other people haven’t, and yet my bucket list remains long. Learning to fly an airplane was one of those things, and one for which I’ve never had a single regret. Tuesday, I got to see the First Coast from a perspective that has eluded me for the nearly 10 years I’ve been here.
I don’t plan to be a stranger.