American Futures Takes Off

By James Fallows
Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg

 

Greetings from Holland, Michigan, where our long-announced American Futures project is making its debut. 

That was the scene yesterday mid-afternoon at Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland (KGAI in aviation-talk), as we waited for the ceiling to get high enough for a comfortable albeit on-instruments departure.

To the right of the scene above, you see members of The Atlantic's industry-leading video-production team, recording the beginning of the process. To their left, in black shorts and shirt, you see one half of The Atlantic's traveling team for this project. The other half of the team was getting some food out of the car. Behind the people is the Cirrus SR-22 airplane in which we'll make the journey.

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And as background to the entire scene is the disappointingly non-blue sky. We had originally planned to leave around noon but waited until 3:30pm for takeoff on the three-hour flight to Holland, Michigan (KBIV), where I am right now. I didn't want to leave until the ceiling was well above 1000 feet at Gaithersburg, and until we knew that weather conditions were improving on the other end.

Although flying is an integral part of this project -- because of the countless number of small towns that are most easily accessible via their small airports, and because of the patterns in the American landscape you can see most easily and vividly from a low-altitude vantage point -- our very deliberate goal is to make the actual flying as routine, uneventful, and non-adventurous as possible as we go from one place to the next. 

The non-flying public imagines that small-plane pilots are oblivious to the statistical risks of flying. On the contrary. You think about it nonstop, or should. I'll save for later a more detailed description of how I think about risk and safety as regards this project. The practical implication for this first flight was that by the time we took off, above Gaithersburg there was a "scattered" cloud layer at 1,200 feet, and a "broken" layer at around 1,800 -- a comfortable situation, in that if for some reason you had to turn right around and land at the same airport you'd be able to do so in "visual" conditions. Three hours later, we broke out of the clouds on an ILS instrument-descent to Holland at around 2,200 feet, a very comfortable margin. At that point I could "cancel IFR" and just do an easy visual landing on a great big runway. Earlier in the day it would have been worse, with lower ceilings, and both ends, which is why we were happy to wait.

Updated maps and local reports shortly. Here is how the same plane and member of the reporting crew looked on the other end, on the ground in Holland, with all the gear we're traveling with for the next couple of weeks. (The skies directly over the Holland airport were almost clear.) Aviators will be glad to know that the plane -- with a full load of gas, two occupants, and the luggage shown here -- was still 80 pounds under the allowable takeoff weight.

 

Deb Fallows

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/08/american-futures-takes-off/278456/