Monday, September 23, 2013

Pilot trying to visit every public airfield in Washington

PROSSER -- There's no keeping Bill Nelson's feet on the ground. The Prosser pilot has had his eye on the sky since the 1970s, when he first earned his pilot's license in California.

He has flown small planes, paragliders and gliders and was a glider instructor for five years. Most recently Nelson, 61, has been flying light sport aircraft.

They're a special category sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Light sport aircraft are real planes. They have an engine and are enclosed. And they're capable of going cross country," Nelson said. "However, they can't weigh over 1,320 pounds, carry more than two people or go over 10,000 feet. And you can't fly at night."

The appeal of light sport aircraft is they're less expensive to buy than a regular small plane like a Cessna, which can run $100,000 and up, he said. The average cost of a light sport aircraft is between $20,000 and $40,000.

"It also costs half as much to learn to fly one as it does a regular small plane and half as much to rent," Nelson said. "The safety issues remain the same. You have to know how to fly and how to do it safely."

Since January, Nelson has been working on one of the to-do's on his bucket list: visiting every public airfield in Washington. So far he's logged 98, mainly in Eastern Washington, and flown about 3,500 miles.

"I only have 20 to 30 to left to do, and they're concentrated on the West Side, mainly around Olympia and a couple in the northeast corner of the state," he said.

Many of his stops are touch-and-go. Nelson doesn't even stop the plane or get out. That's what he did at Seatac.

"People told me I was crazy wanting to go there, but I talked to a Seatac air traffic controller -- who thought I was crazy too -- and he told me exactly how to do it. It was strictly touch-and-go. They wouldn't let me stop. I came in behind one jet and there was another right behind me," he said.

Some of the airfields Nelson's visited have been little more than a cleared area with a dirt or grass runway.

"They've been interesting. Once, flying over Snoqualmie Pass, I did a touch-and-go in a clearing surrounded by tall, tall pines," he said.

What he forgot to factor in was when pilots do a touch-and-go, they use half the runway coming in and have the other half to accelerate and take off.

"As I began to climb I saw those trees coming up fast. I told myself to stay calm and aimed my plane at the lowest trees I could find," he said.

As he cleared them, Nelson found himself flying about 50 feet above the traffic on Interstate 90.

"That was kind of exciting," he said.

Nelson's not trying for any kind of a record. Logging visits to the airports, just like flying, is for his own personal satisfaction.

"When you see the beauty of the San Juans and the North Cascades ... it's amazing to see them from the air, from God's perspective. The rolling hills of the Palouse look like a giant's golf course," he said.

Monday through Wednesday Nelson works as a respiratory therapist at Kennewick General Hospital, which leaves him half the week for flying. He's also looking to the future and plans to take a course in repairing light sport aircraft.

"And I want to become a light sport aircraft instructor too," he said. "I'm coming up for retirement next year, and I'm not one for sitting around watching reruns on TV."

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