From 3500 feet up California is a glorious patchwork quilt of green and gold, textured by rippling mountains and shining water. Ahead of us we see the Carquinez Bridge and the Bay; behind us, the fingers of Lake Berryessa curl into the steep hills. Twenty minutes ago I stood barefoot in the soft grass on the bank of one of those narrow coves, many miles from any road. Twenty minutes from now I will be driving to Five Guys for lunch.
“Hey,” I think to myself, “even a flying car couldn’t do this.”
Last year I became a Valley cliché, took up pilot training, and wrote about the experience — and the decrease in pilots worldwide, and the looming pilot shortage — for TechCrunch. ICON Aircraft, the manufacturers of a radically new kind of light airplane, the amphibious ICON A5, saw that and invited me to come to their Vacaville headquarters to experience a few days of their training. (At no cost to me, I should disclose, aside from paying the TSA $110 because I am a suspicious Canadian.) I turned up fearing that since, for tedious reasons, my training has been on hiatus since last July, I’d be so rusty I could barely fly.
It turned out that wasn’t a problem at all. Maybe I wasn’t really rusty at all … or maybe I was, but the A5 is so easy to fly that it didn’t matter.
I ended last year’s piece with “I think flying seems like a very 20th-century activity in the popular imagination.” That obviously isn’t true of ultramodern commercial jets, but it is of general aviation. It’s not at all unusual to learn to fly in a “six pack” airplane whose instruments and controls have basically not changed in 50 years or more. Sometimes they are actually are 50 years old.
Even the more “modern” “glass cockpit” light aircraft have screens with weirdly complex, user-hostile dials-and-knobs controls rather than a simple touchscreen. Even the vintage-2000 Diamond aircraft with which I started my training “features” a starting procedure which involves combining the mixture and the throttle in just the right way; significant left-turning tendencies such that you sometimes have to perform high-speed differential braking just to take off in a straight line; manual fuel-tank management; etc.