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story.lead_photo.caption Karen Martin

Bicycling around the perimeter of Clinton National Airport on a recent Sunday morning, I noticed the sign for Central Flying Service and retrieved a long-lost memory. I suddenly recalled that, several decades ago, I had gone to ground school near there.

Ground school is classroom instruction in which aeronautical theory is studied in preparation for a student's written, oral, and flight pilot licensing examinations.

The decision to attend came when a guy I was dating at the time was taking flying lessons. His job required him to travel all over Arkansas, selling lubricants and chemicals to manufacturers and factories. It demanded hours and hours of driving every week, and he thought it would be easier to earn a VFR (visual flight rating) private pilot license, hop into a two-seater propeller plane, and head out.

How he was going to finance renting or buying a plane was never made clear (renting a single-engine plane by the hour nowadays usually runs between $150 and $500; buying one new is likely to cost $50,000 or more, and that doesn't include renting hangar space, gasoline, maintenance and repairs).

Another problem he faced was difficulty in figuring out how to get to where he wanted to go. Following the interstates wasn't the smartest way to get from Point A to Point B; flight plans ought to have better descriptions than "take I-40 to Brinkley and turn left."

So he suggested I go to ground school to figure out how to construct a route, as well as learn how to get weather briefings, determine the amount of fuel needed, figure out how much weight can be carried, and follow through on safety measures.

I don't remember details of the classes other than a chalkboard and a smart, good-natured instructor who refused to mess around with what-if questions from students and focused completely on information that would be on the test. Which I remember my always-game friend Tammy, who also attended, and I absolutely aced, scoring something like 98 out of 100.

But while there, I learned way too much about what could go wrong when flying a small plane--wing stalls, controlled flight into terrain (caused by poor visibility or inattention), losing fuel mid-flight, birds flying into engines, awkward landings, defective parts, ice buildup on wings, engine fires, and pilot error--causing me to rethink any plans to take off in a small plane with my pilot-in-training.

I also rethought my relationship with him, but that's another story.

You can participate in ground school online now; some instruction systems guarantee that by watching a series of videos and doing some required reading, you'll pass the test or get a full refund. That can't be anywhere near as fun as our class was.

Fun or not, considering the decline in flights that might be offered by commercial airlines in the future, it might not be such a bad idea to acquire a private pilot license.

According to a recent story by the Democrat-Gazette's Noel Oman, Clinton National saw its passenger traffic tumble to 562,043 travelers through the first eight months of 2020; 1,297,364 passengers went through the airport in the same period a year ago.

The drop in 735,321 passengers from last year at Clinton National cost the airlines an estimated $292 million.

Passenger traffic at Northwest Arkansas National through July from a year ago fell from 1,049,475 to 447,747. That decline cost the airlines an estimated $269 million.

In August, Clinton National averaged 23 flights daily, compared to the 41 flights the airport supported before the pandemic erased demand for airline travel.

Bryan Malinowski, Clinton's executive director, was quoted in late August as saying, "As we get into September and getting back to school, our leisure traffic will likely pull back a little bit, and we're seeing the airlines pull down some of their flights for September as well."

American Airlines will drop flights to 15 small U.S. cities in October--among them Greenville, N.C., Joplin, Mo., Stillwater, Okla., and Lake Charles, La.--when a federal requirement to serve those communities ends, according to the Associated Press. (Little Rock and northwest Arkansas are not among them. Yet.)

A pandemic-relief measure approved in March set aside up to $50 billion in cash and low-interest loans for the nation's passenger airlines.

In return for taxpayer dollars, airlines were barred from furloughing workers and were required in most cases to continue serving destinations they had before the pandemic. Both of those conditions expire Sept. 30.

A massive pandemic-relief measure approved in March set aside up to $50 billion in cash and low-interest loans for the nation's passenger airlines.

Oct. 1 will be a day of reckoning for the airline industry, according to The Washington Post. Airlines will then be free to start downsizing and laying off workers.

Air travel this fall may cost less, but it could be risky to book this far in advance, industry observers say. Flights around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's may be subject to disruption and cancellations.

Take comfort in knowing that if an airline cancels or reschedules your flight and you decide not to travel, it's likely you will be entitled to a free refund.

Which you might use to invest in learning how to fly a plane. If you hunt around, you might be able to find a 40-year-old Cessna 150 for around $20,000. Wheels up!

Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.

kmartin@arkansasonline.com

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