Recently I got the chance to talk with a good friend and Ambassador for General Aviation, Mike Jesch. Mike is an American Airlines Captain, pilot for Angel Flight, LightHawk, and Cessnas to OSH, FAAST speaker, CFII, board member of Fullerton Pilots Association, you get the drift.
He and his family are hosting some foreign exchange students from the Agricultural University of Beijing, China, for a two week US holiday. Mike secretly hoped that it would work out to take the kids for a short ride in his Cessna 182, and indeed was a question he asked of the exchange program coordinator: Would it be okay to take the kids for an airplane ride? He was very relieved to receive an affirmative answer. The three girls, Bonnie, Camille, and Laura, were all very enthusiastic about this idea.
The day dawned clear and bright, and as they approached the airport and the airplanes came into view, he could see the excitement level increase on each of the girls’ faces. He recalls, “When I opened the hangar door revealing my 1977 Cessna 182Q, the excitement reached a fever pitch. I walked them around the airplane, explaining my preflight inspection procedure, sampled the fuel, checked the oil, then showed them the cabin interior and gave them my passenger briefing. I reassured them that, at any point, if any of them were nervous, or scared, just let me know, and I’d land the airplane as soon as possible. They were still eager and willing, so we saddled up and started off.” As he lifted off the runway at Fullerton, CA [KFUL] and announced “…And, we’re flying!”, the pitch of their voices went up further still, and the smiles stretched from ear to ear! “ The plan was to fly around the LA area, showing them the downtown area, Dodger Stadium, Griffith Park, the Hollywood sign, Malibu, Santa Monica, through the Mini Route down to Redondo Beach, around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the Queen Mary, and back to Fullerton. From shortly after takeoff, their noses were pressed to the windows, and excited chatter passed back and forth, each pointing out one sight or another, and cameras clicking away.
The next day, Mike got a call from one of the other host parents of two freshman boys. Apparently, the girls had been communicating with their friends! The boys had expressed an interest in also going for an airplane ride. So, on that night, after dinner, he drove all the kids back over to the airport. He said, “The boys were amazed when they saw the airplane for the first time.” The usual pre-flight inspection and briefing ensued, and they were off. Kelvin and Owen (joined by Mike’s daughter, Karen) were audibly excited, too, as they defied gravity and launched into the night sky. Astounded by the beauty of all the lights of the LA area, they were instantly transfixed. Mike negotiated a transition through the Los Alamitos Army Air Base to the shoreline, then turned right to fly over the port of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Spectacularly lit up at night, the boys appreciated the sight of the world’s largest port complex, where most of the goods imported from China arrive and are unloaded and shipped all over the country.
Mike reflected on the differences between general aviation in the United States versus China. “All the kids were absolutely amazed that a private citizen such as myself could own an airplane, go and visit it at any time, take it up in the air whenever I want, even flying directly over the top of a local military base and weapons depot and the largest port complex in the world, at night, all without a mountain of paperwork and permission from the authorities. In all of China, there are not more than a couple hundred airplanes in private hands, yet here at my home base Fullerton Airport alone, we have over 200 airplanes. And we have hundreds of airports across this country that have even more.” He pondered this difference between our countries, and says he gained a new appreciation for the freedoms of the air that we enjoy in this country. Certainly we have issues to deal with, perhaps chief among them cost and regulation, but in spite of all the issues, the system of aviation we have here is still pretty darned good, and worth protecting. Worth celebrating. Worth using. And perhaps most importantly, worth sharing it, especially with those who live in a place where this is not possible. “I harbor no illusions that these young Chinese students will themselves have the opportunity to become pilots, or to own airplanes. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a conversation with some friends, perhaps even future leaders in China, and tell them about the time – you won’t believe this! – when they got to fly in a small private airplane in California, on a clear and beautiful winter evening” he says.