Urban Bush Pilot
wonder whatever happened to the “Bush Pilot” of yesteryear?
You know, that grizzled old fart in a tattered hat and denim jacket that
could land on a table-top and haul critical supplies into a box canyon
during a blizzard?
Well, I suppose those
guys are still around in the more remote regions of the globe, but for
the most part, the times, they are a changin’. GA airstrips are
much more prevalent in most states nowadays, and most of the planes I
see in my little part of the world don’t need those 24” tundra
tires for anything more than impressing other pilots. Many pilots have
never landed on anything other than pavement, and those who have, used
mostly manicured grass strips at private resorts and destinations.
another kind of Bush Pilot who still exists, and there are more of us
than you might think.
After all, what IS
a Bush Pilot? He’s not the kind of dapper dude you see strutting
around the major airports in tie and epuletts, to be sure. He’s
not the off-duty doctor with his brand new Mooney Ovation, either. I’m
talking about that guy who flies the beaters at the local rental strip
with the same level of skill and enthusiasm as he does that brand new
Glass Panel Skylane, and goes to unique destinations just for the pure
joy of going somewhere.
knows every strip with food available within a 200 mile radius,
and the best times to go there. He can tell you about hidden dips
in a small field runway he flew into five years ago, and what kind
of reception to expect when you get there. He knows the rental rates
for all the local fields, and what kinds of aircraft are available.
Furthermore, he’s made sure to get checked out at several
of them so that he can choose to rent a variety of planes from different
fields in case what he wants isn’t available when he needs
This guy loves
to take new people up for sightseeing flights, and show them special
things that they’d never see any other way. And make no mistake
about it, this guy is the leading champion of General Aviation and
class E/G airspace. I’ve known these guys to plan entire cross-country
outings around uncontrolled airspace, even when it meant adding
miles to their routes.
the Urban Bush Pilot would like to think most people see him
Bush Pilots (UBP’s) love to fly low and slow. They usually stay
below 5,000’, and as often as not stay around 1,000’.
They fly planes like Skyhawks, Skylanes and Cherokees. They drool
over Cubs and Huskies, but rarely can afford them for their own, and
these planes aren’t commonly rented at local FBO’s. The
Light Sport Aircraft movement was originally intended to appeal to
this group, but was soon commandeered by rich doctors and business
men who’d lost their medicals and could still afford the $90,000
and up price tags that these planes quickly escalated to. By far,
the most common planes of the UBP are the Cessna 172 and the Piper
Cherokee, with maybe 5 Skyhawks flying for every 1 Cherokee. I’ve
flown both many times, and they are both excellent urban bush planes.
I persoanally prefer the Cessnas, because of the high wing and double
doors. These make excellent sightseeing planes and land very lightly
on short strips.
most people ACTUALLY see him -- Gabbing endlessly
When I got into flying,
I was fortunate enough to study under one of these masters, and the training
that I received because of it made a tremendous difference in the way
that I still fly today.
I wanted to take the
traditional approach to flying, and during ground school I began looking
for a very particular type of CFI. I found what I was looking for at a
tiny little FBO on an island in Tampa Bay. I would learn in a Cessna 150,
with a CFI who had completely restored one from the ground up with his
own father, and had a serious flying tradition in his family. Tim could
make that tiny plane do anything he wanted, and the fact that he was only
about 5’6” tall made it possible for us to do so with full
tanks! Although Tim went on to fly chartered twins out of Nantucket later,
he clearly loved the little “Sparrowhawk” and was the very
embodiment of the UBP.
I learned slow flight
from Tim, as well as backward flight in a strong wind. I learned that
you can actually stop ON the numbers and not roll past them, and I learned
what very strong wind and thermals feel like in a tiny airplane that makes
an MG Midget feel roomy. I learned just how dark it really gets out over
the ocean on a moonless night, and that the star you see below you might
just be a shrimp boat! I learned about spins, bird strikes and engine-out
landings in the dark, and many other things that may not be required,
but you’ll sure wish you’d learned ‘em if it ever happens
to you later on.
Most of all, I learned
that you must always be aware of what the plane you are currently in is
actually capable of (both good and bad), and respect those limitations.
He showed me how to do a preflight so thoroughly that I’ve spotted
and identified risky situations many times that have even been missed
by mechanics, and have always been grateful for the training that he so
generously imparted to me. The techniques that Tim taught me have served
me well in situations that I think may have been truly dangerous without
them, and for these things I am eternally grateful.
When I was ready to
take my practical exam, I graduated to a 172, but that little 150 will
always hold a special place in my heart.
So when I got my ticket
and began flying others in GA aircraft, I made it a point to emulate those
admirable traits. I want to be perceived as a UBP myself, and feel it’s
important to champion the cause of the GA enthusiast in a way that makes
people who I come into contact with say “Man, those GA pilots are
allright!”. I like to visit out-of-the-way strips and enjoy seeing
views that are simply not accessible to anyone else.
invite those who I take up to go out on the flight-line with me before
the flight and point out interesting details that may help them understand
more about GA flying, or just my own love of this lifestyle. However,
I never let them carry on a conversation with me while performing the
preflight. This is my ritual and I don’t even let examiners shake
me up while performing it. Sometimes it makes them mad, but more often
then not they are mildly impressed with the thoroughness.
Many passengers get
off just as much as I do on being able to hop in a plane in Tampa, and
popping across to the middle of the state for breakfast in Sebring, then
being back in Tampa by 9:30 or 10:00 am.. They feel the thrill of coming
in for an island landing over water and industrial docks, etc., or in
spotting a tiny strip in the middle of hundreds of acres of orange groves
and dropping in for a picnic under the Oaks in Wauchula, popping down
to Key West for a day of shopping and being back by dinner. These are
things I can share with them that change their very perceptions of small
While it’s true
that the beach may look pretty from ground level, it never looks as good
as it does from 700’ up on a perfectly clear day. On one trip from
Venice to Peter O’ Knight in Tampa, I saw sharks, dolphin, manatee
and schools of tarpon all in the span of two hours!
On a more sober note,
it was GA aircraft and UBP’s who flew in the first medical supplies
to the hurricane victims during Florida’s most active hurricane
season in 2004, and UBP’s who documented the terrible devastation
in the Punta Gorda area and over Lake Wales. GA airstrips were utilized
by National Guardsmen (who were often UBP’s themselves) in Alabama,
Mississippi and Louisiana, too. GA pilots perform searches for lost people
and livestock, and provide many other valuable services for which they
are rarely recognized. But that’s OK too, because we don’t
do it for that. We do it for the love of all that is General Aviation,
and we are all Urban Bush Pilots at heart.
The next time someone
you know who flies regularly to cool destinations, and is passionate about
General Aviation offers to take you aloft, take them up on the offer and
see what all the fuss is about. You may just get the bug to get a pilot’s
And if that happens,
then your pilot will have accomplished the highest calling any UBP can
possibly hope for, and inspired your interest in GA flying. Your success
and enthusiasm is the highest honor and compliment you could ever bestow
Don’t just dream