As a travel writer, I've been all over the world, but before the summer of 2012, I had never taken the time to witness the different cultures and natural beauty my own country had to offer.
So that July, I embarked on an unusual quest to see the United States from a different perspective: by hitching rides to all 50 states in airplanes.
I was a newcomer to small planes, but while thumbing rides on more than 130 private aircraft, I discovered a hidden gem: general aviation. Worlds away from the robotic experience on commercial airplanes, a shrinking community of aviators knows that it’s not about the road less taken; it’s about taking the one that doesn't exist.
Amber Nolan climbing in the Memphis Belle, a B-17 Bomber — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
The Federal Aviation Administration states that there are more than 19,000 heliports, seaplane bases and other landing facilities in the United States and its territories, but fewer than 400 provide regular commercial air service. Even though some are private, that still leaves a lot of smaller public airports to experience the fun of flying – where the destination isn't as important.
When hitchhiking on planes, it’s nearly impossible to have a specific destination in mind, so I went wherever the pilots were heading. By “winging it,” I was able to uncover small towns across the country that I would have never dreamed of visiting, and I flew over areas that cannot be seen by train or automobile.
In New Mexico, we flew next to the Rio Grande as wild horses “raced” the shadow of the plane cast on the desert sands. In Colorado, we flew “halos” around mountain peaks and at the base, the fresh snowmobile tracks that appeared in the powdery snow like a single set of footprints on an empty beach.
Since I didn't often know where I was going until right before getting on the plane, I had to figure out logistics after we landed, such as where to stay (on a shoestring budget) and how to get around without a car in an unfamiliar area. My rule was that in order to count the state, I had to leave the airport (so fuel stops wouldn't earn a check mark). Almost always, I stayed at least a night in each area – sometimes several days or weeks – by camping out or staying with strangers.
Flying over Alaska's "magic bus" from the book "Into the Wild" — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
In a small plane, I could hear air traffic control, see everything that was going on and learn how to fly.
Of the planes I “thumbed” a ride on, most were single-engine prop planes, like Cessnas, Beechcraft and experimental aircraft (many people build their own planes from tested kits to save money), although I did also fly on a handful of private jets and even a WWII bomber. This meant we typically traveled between 100 and 150 mph at less than 5,000 feet, allowing the chance to see more than just clouds floating by.
Scenery above Sundance, Utah — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan
American icons, like the shimmering waters of Lake Tahoe, the sprawling Golden Gate Bridge and the Great Smoky Mountains took on a different dynamic from the air. In Mississippi, I took the controls to practice turns as we coasted past the Barnett Reservoir, while the setting sun’s reflection cast a hazy glow on the water.
Several times, I was aboard aerobatic planes that flew upside-down loops – a disorienting, but thrilling feeling. There were times when the weather was a set back – much more so than with commercial airlines – so I constantly had to expect last-minute changes to flight plans and even destination airports.
It takes 40 logged flight hours with a certified instructor (plus passing a check ride) to earn a private pilot’s license, but due to increased costs (among other reasons), the number of people with “wings” is declining. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in 1980, there were 827,000 active, certificated pilots in the United States, and by 2011, that number had dropped to 617,000.
Some of the people I met on my journey said general aviation is just going through a lull, but others said it was more than that. Are people still interested in the freedom of flying that fascinated mankind to begin with? Somewhere in the haze of long airport lines, baggage fees and our rush to get somewhere, the disconnect between the destination and the journey has widened.
Renowned travel writer and railroad enthusiast, Paul Theroux, once stated that “a train journey is travel; everything else – planes especially – is transfer, your journey beginning when the plane lands.”
As I approach the end of my air journey to 50 states on small planes (only Hawaii remains), I respectfully disagree.
Amber Nolan, after taking a flight lesson in the San Juan Islands — Photo courtesy of Amber Nolan