A View That Puts Window Seats to Shame
Crossing the US in an open-air, two-seat aeroplane afforded an extraordinary look at the world below.
I hung my leg out of the cockpit and let the wind cool my foot. It was 10 in the morning. Two thousand feet straight down, the lowest airport in the United States – Furnace Creek, in Death Valley – was coming into view. The air temperature at this altitude was a mild 64F. When we landed, 10 minutes later, it was a broiling 106.
After 35 years of travel writing, I was on one of the strangest adventures of my life. I was crossing the southwestern US in a small but powerful two-seater aeroplane called an AirCam. It looks like a double kayak with cloth-covered wings, two humongous engines and flimsy-looking landing wheels. It has no cockpit. The plane is controlled, up to its maximum altitude of 17,500ft, by a joystick.
At the joystick was Bob Webster, a droll and brilliant adventurer half-jokingly known as the “Bill Gates of Oklahoma”. A software developer and inventor, Webster created some of the Midwest’s tech infrastructure in the early 1980s. He's also a passionate pilot. In 2001, he and his brother Mike built this aeroplane from a $100,000 kit offered by Lockwood Aircraft.
I first met Webster in 2008, on a group trek to Everest Base Camp. One morning, I woke at dawn and found Webster drinking coffee in the dining area. A high peak loomed above our village, with a Buddhist monastery crowning the summit: the perfect goal for a day hike. I asked him if he’d like to join me.“ Just got back,” he giggled.
Over the years, we’d stayed in touch, and Webster had recently made me an irresistible offer. If I came to Oklahoma to visit his family, he’d fly me back to California in his AirCam. We’d spend a week or so heading west, refuelling and overnighting at some of the tiny general aviation airstrips along the way.
“And unlike with the TSA,” he wrote, referring to US Transportation Safety Administration procedures for passenger jets, “you won't have to take off your shoes to get into the plane, and can use your cell phone on takeoff.”
Webster’s AirCam was parked in an unmarked hangar at the Claremore Regional Airport, a few minutes outside of Pryor, Oklahoma. It was painted deep maroon with yellow highlights and a Jolly Roger flag on the tail. It looked spindly but capable. I clamoured into the open back seat and Webster showed me how to buckle in – not that buckles would do much good if there were a catastrophe. The rudder pedals were under my feet, and a back-up joystick poked up between my knees – “in case I fall asleep”, he deadpanned.
We taxied onto the runway, bouncing and rocking. The air was warm and humid. I felt naked without the fuselage. “Don’t worry,” Webster cackled through my headset. “If I’d taken off and landed this thing safely 99.99% of the time, I’d be dead now."
Then came the moment of truth. “Ready?!” he called. I shouted an affirmative. He turned onto the runway and pushed the throttle with his left hand. The engines roared and the AirCam sprang forward like a greyhound. I was pushed back into my seat, my headset clattering with static, the wind blubbering my lips. A sense of vertigo and weightlessness set in as I found myself suddenly airborne, the farms and barns and byways of northeast Oklahoma spreading out beneath me like a damp relief map.
That first day brought a series of revelations. Even at a few thousand feet, it was much colder than I’d expected – and a lot windier. But at an average speed of about 70mph, the AirCam afforded a view of the United States like no other.
We veered over the northern Oklahoma border and soared west over Kansas’ scattered farms and rolling hills – an all-American scene framed by trim country roads and high-tension lines. Some of the farms boasted a single oil derrick, pumping out a few barrels a day. “Not enough to live on,” Webster observed, “but a good extra income.”
The AirCam has a range of about 250 miles, so we stopped every few hours to refuel. Sometimes there’d be someone to help us; most times Webster would pop the caps on the wing and pump the petrol himself. When it got late in the day we’d pull out our smartphones and book a basic hotel, always close to the regional airport. It was fun to come back the next morning, wheeling our carry-ons, as the desk attendant asked what time our flight was.
“Don’t worry,” Webster chortled. “They won’t leave without us.”
A few days into the trip, we watched the Rockies swell into sight and crossed them at an altitude that dropped the air temperature to a frigid 42F. During our relatively short journey, we would land not only at the lowest airport in the US, but at the highest as well: Leadville, Colorado, at 9,927ft. Webster’s voice cut over the intercom: “Are you cold?”
"Of course I’m cold,” I said testily.
It was almost surreal to be so high and exposed, the thin silver clouds almost close enough to touch, a checkerboard of pastureland below.The sheer audacity of the endeavour – of flying in general – seemed painfully obvious.
One revelation of our trip was Great Sand Dunes National Park, near the Colorado-New Mexico border. From above, the dunes look like a wrinkled (and stained) beige carpet. But after landing in nearby Alamosa, we explored the park on foot. It was a magical landscape of wind-blown formations, some more than 700ft high.
The next day, we flew across the high desert, following sandstone canyons and circling tall hoodoos that could have been carved by Alberto Giacometti.
Most of us have been in jetliners and have watched the world pass by from 35,000ft. Many of us have even flown in single-engine planes or helicopters. But being in the AirCam is like being on a Harley – in the sky. And while take-offs can be nerve-wracking, landings – a dance with crosswinds, headwinds and sheers – are even worse.
But Webster is a seasoned pilot. “A friend once asked me if I’d ever done anything really crazy in one of my planes,” he recalled as we navigated between two rainstorms. “I said, ‘No.’” I believed him. In Colorado, he’d aborted our much-anticipated visit to Aspen when the winds picked up to a smidge beyond what he considered absolutely safe.
That didn’t mean our trip was without its dicey moments. As we prepared to land at Grand Canyon Airport, Webster scratched in on my headphones.
“Hear what air traffic just said?”
“No, I missed it.”
“Advisory: coyotes in vicinity of runway.”
“Must be windy,” he deadpanned.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the United States is home to about 600,000 licensed pilots and some 5,200 general aviation airports – those used only for non-scheduled air transport and flights. Some, like the one at Death Valley, are so small they don’t even have a toilet. Others offer free coffee and lemonade, wi-fi, home-baked cookies, even loaner cars that pilots can take into town to pick up a quick lunch. At the tiny Lone Pine Airport in California’s Inyo County, Webster and I borrowed clunker bikes and rode to Lee’s Frontier, a popular grocery and sandwich deli. The place was crowded with sightseers from all over the world – but not one of them, we reflected, would visit the outpost of America’s aviation subculture just a quarter mile away.
Sometimes, when the air was calm – or when Webster had to pull out his empty Diet Coke bottle for an urgent refilling – I took the joystick. Piloting an AirCam, I discovered, isn’t like driving a car. It’s like riding a spirited horse: a living thing that responds not only to your direction, but also to its own impulses. Though there was a steep learning curve, by the end of the week I could guide the aeroplane between points A and B without Webster having to seize the controls.
On our final morning, we took off from Mammoth Yosemite Airport and prepared to cross the Sierras and Yosemite Valley. Before long we were looking down on the elegant crest of Half Dome. The sun was up, and the light was crystalline. I could only imagine this scene at sunrise.
“Do you ever fly at dawn?” I asked through my mic.
“Not often,” Webster replied. “I can rarely stay up that late.”
A few friends were on hand to meet us as we landed in Hayward, California. In eight unforgettable days we had covered more than 2,000 miles, flown over seven states and visited – by land and/or air – nine of America’s most spectacular national parks. Webster would continue north to Seattle, but my own journey was over. Watching the AirCam disappear into the sky without me, I felt bereft – as if my wings had been clipped.
The question I’ve been asked most often since the trip was, “Weren’t you scared?” It may sound strange, but I never was. For most of the flight, my prevailing emotion was sheer wonder. And now that it was over, I felt I had truly fulfilled the most vital test of travel. I’d made it back home – and was seeing the landscape around me with new eyes.
Scroll down to see more views from Webster's Aircam.