Until al-qaeda operatives answered learn-to-fly ads and went shopping for crop dusters, most Americans knew private flying as a hobby pursued by rich lads in Piper Cubs. After September 11, media scrutiny brought general aviation-which is what we call flying that's neither military nor airline-into view. This normally happens only when there is a spectacular crash, such as JFK Jr.'s plunge into the water off Martha's Vineyard. But when, in early January, a 15-year-old student pilot flew his Cessna into a Tampa building with a note about Osama Bin Laden in his pocket, the whole sector came under scrutiny, even suspicion. A woman wrote to The New York Times suggesting that all U.S. flight schools be closed and that people forget about learning to fly unless they want to join the Air Force. Stories circulated that Congress would mandate psychological profiling of all potential pilots.
All this highlights an interesting fact: Military pilots are lionized (remember The Right Stuff?), airline pilots are regulated and scrutinized, and GA pilots have been basically ignored. If there is anything resembling true freedom in the flying world, it is found at the GA level.
Freedom, and challenge. Flying an automatic Airbus on a regular route has its challenges, but it could be argued that they pale in comparison to single-piloting a turbocharged, pressurized light twin through bad weather to an unfamiliar airport. Aboard the latter, you're dealing with a cockpit forest of throttle, mixture, prop, turbo, cabin-air and cowl-flap controls, dangerous handling qualities if one engine fails, and an analog autopilot, compared with the big airliner's two power levers, two pilots, and near-totally automated, computerized operation. Indeed, two things come as a surprise the first time you fly a big airplane: It's way more stable on the approach to a landing than is a little one, and its size is really only apparent to a pilot on the ground, taxiing through close quarters. In the air, you're aware only of the stable, automated cockpit, and this is why flight simulators work so well.
General aviation is largely inhabited by people who have labored mightily to learn their skill-certainly in comparison with what it takes to be licensed as, say, an operator of an SUV, an 18-wheeler, or a nuclear power plant. Light-plane pilots routinely multitask in ways that even a three-handed cellphone/Palm Pilot/GPS-system freeway driver couldn't handle. GA pilots operate totally on their own, without the emotional support generated by other small, cohesive groups such as infantry rifle squads, tennis doubles teams, racecar pit crews, or airline flight crews.