For most people traveling by airplane is a production. Driving to the airport, hauling luggage through the terminal, and then being patted down by a stranger who tells you can’t bring a full-size toothpaste in your carry-on. All of this, before I’ve had my first cup of coffee, is not the exciting and glamorous side of traveling. But, this is the usual routine most people expect.
Airline travel is like herding cattle. It’s a necessary evil to get to where you want to go. But, it’s not the only option. Being able to fly on a whim to Chattanooga is a privilege not many people are able to experience. I want to provide a peek behind the curtain of what it’s like to travel in a private aircraft for a quick trip to Chattanooga for breakfast.
This was actually a surprise Aaron planned for me while I was visiting him in Knoxville. He cleared his morning schedule to fly us to Chattanooga for breakfast. He knows the two ways to my heart are flying and breakfast food. The aircraft was reserved with his company’s flying club for the entire morning. Although we wouldn’t need to arrive two hours early for our departure, prep for flying your own airplane is more involved than showing up and turning the key.
The Start To Our Morning Adventure
Aaron checked the weather while I researched a breakfast spot. It may not seem like we divided the task evenly, but you’ve never seen Aaron angry after I’ve picked a place to eat only to find out I didn’t check the hours of operation. When the restaurant opens, Google star ratings, and menu options are just as important as checking the weather and getting there safely.
The morning’s weather was going to be crisp and mostly clear for our flight from Knoxville to Chattanooga. Slightly crisp, and therefore chilly, for me, means wearing a sweater and a jacket and trying not to shake violently to keep warm. This is the trade-off for not being accosted by TSA. Rather than sitting in a warm terminal building as your pilot walks in the slush, and ramp crew throw your oversized bag in the belly of the plane, flying yourself is much more hands-on. You prep the aircraft in whatever weather conditions have presented themselves for the day.
We woke up before the sun at 4:00 am. The warm blankets protecting me from the cool air surrounding the apartment. Like ripping off a bandaid, I pulled the covers off. Standing next to the bed, I momentarily filled my lungs with the chill of the morning air hoping it would spark the motivation to move my legs. I hadn’t gotten in my third full breath before I heard Aaron’s voice muffled under the pillows, “are you going to get ready or stand there all day?” If five years of a relationship has taught me anything, this is my warning that I’m taking too long to start my day.
A long sleeve shirt, sweater, and jacket; layered like an onion with a coffee in hand, we set out for the airport. In contrast to the midday chaos of loud rumbling of engines, the whine of jets taxing, and the cautionary beeps of fuel trucks backing away from airplanes, the early morning is an apocalyptic stillness. You can hear the small rustle of an armadillo rooting through the grass and my teeth chattering as we walked outside to find our plane. The ramp was lined with rows of jewel-colored airplanes, like gemstones in a jewelry store. Not knowing where the last pilot parked the aircraft, we had to look at each tail number until we found the plane. Imagine walking in a parking lot full of Toyota Camrys of all different colors, and the only way to locate your car is to read each number printed on the side of the car. We can’t walk around the ramp clicking an emergency button waiting for the alarm to go off. Jumping from airplane to airplane did help to warm me up. We also only had to search through half the planes on the line before we found ours.
Armed with our flashlights on our phones, we started to preflight the aircraft. Preflighting an aircraft reminds me of saddling a horse. The time spent preparing the horse for the ride is just as important as the ride. Brushing the hair down, checking their legs and hooves, talking out loud to get them comfortable with the sound of your voice is all a part of the process. I run my hands over the dew-drenched side of the airframe, the same way I would the body of a horse. Checking for any abnormalities, cuts, scraps, or rusty bolts. Checking the nose of the plane for debris. Like the nostrils of a racehorse, the intake needs uninhibited airflow to keep the engine cool during flight. Satisfied with our preflight, we climbed into the airplane and snapped the seat belts around our waist.
Feet on the brakes, master switch on, I turned the key to awaken our once sleeping plane. In the morning stillness, the eruption of the pistons coming to life echoes over the airfield. We cautiously wiggle from our parking spot taxing to the run-up area. Meticulously following the checklist line by line, we both give each other the thumbs up and call for our taxi instructions. The morning sun was just beginning to crack over the horizon, illuminating the in-trail cargo aircraft in the distance for their arrival to the airfield. As we sat at the end of the runway, an MD-11 was crossing over the threshold. Suddenly feeling insignificant in the tiny single-engine aircraft, we watched as the wings swept over and waited for the two puffs of smoke to rise from the tires.
Like an Olympic high diver waiting to jump from the platform, we were cleared to line up and wait on the numbers. The landing aircraft taxied off the runway, and we were cleared for takeoff. Feet off the brakes, airspeed alive, engine instruments in the green, and rotate. The white dashes of the centerline began to move faster and faster, like a treadmill gaining speed, and the earth began to fall from underneath us. Knoxville faded away as we leveled off into the soft orange morning sky.
A slight haze hung across the horizon, separating the mountains below and the uninhibited sky above. We were cutting through the air like a boat on a glassy lake. Aaron began to scroll through his music playlist while I sat enjoying my coffee and watching as the roads below started to fill up for the morning commute. Just as I was getting used to the hum of the engine, it was time to start descending into Chattanooga’s airport.
While our airplane wasn’t as eye-catching as the MD-11, Aaron’s landing was just as smooth as the graceful giants landing before us. He knowingly looked over at me and grinned. “Like butter,” he said as we taxied to the FBO. I just smiled and shook my head; unable to disagree. I wasn’t sure when we actually touched down; he made it look easy.
Welcome to Chattanooga
For those who haven’t flown in a general aviation airplane, most of the time you’ll park at a Fixed-Based Operator, more commonly referred to as an FBO. They’re like a roadside refuge for the restroom, lounge, fuel, and maintenance if needed. Like gas stations on the interstate, not all FBOs are created equal, some have more accommodations than others. Aaron frequented this airport for work and knew they offered a crew car for pilots to take into town for a few hours. When I was in pilot training, students knew the make and model of the crew cars at our most frequented FBOs. Tallahassee was the most extravagant with a fleet of Mercedes. While a little airport just over the Florida-Georgia line tossed me the keys to a 1987 Ford F-150 with questionable brakes. It’s all a part of the adventure.
Where To Eat
Aaron and I’s first road trip was to Chattanooga to visit his aunt when we first started dating. It’s a charming southern city rich with history and scenic walking bridges. Before we explored the town, we made our way to Bluegrass Grill for our breakfast. Walking through the doors of the old red brick building we were greeted the moment we stepped in. “Sit wherever y’all like,” said one of the waitresses as she was clearing a table. The inside of Bluegrass Grill was just as homey as I’d hoped. A mural of the mountains lined the back wall by the kitchen. The remainder of the room was exposed brick that met with the original and well-loved hardwood floor.
As we got comfortable in our seats, we ordered coffee and a giant cinnamon bun to split. The pictures online of the homemade cinnamon buns are what sold us on coming here. Moments later, two missed matched mugs of coffee and a plate covered rim to rim with a gooey cinnamon bun was placed in the center of the table. It was just as good as I imagined it would be. Before we were able to devour the entire cinnamon bun, our breakfast had arrived at the table. Two very Southern breakfasts sat before us. Aaron ordered a veggie omelet with homefries and half of a tomato. I had a bowl of grits with a side of fruit. Ordering grits can be a gamble, even in the south. They have to have plenty of butter and cheese to make them editable. If not, they will be a tasteless bowl of mush. These grits did not lack in the flavor department. In fact, not only did they have the proper butter-to-cheese ratio, they were topped with at least three strips of crumbled bacon. I honestly wish I had a bigger bowl.
We sat and enjoyed our meal, watching locals come in and out for their morning coffee. Cinnamon buns seemed to be floating around the room, making their way to each table. After such a chaotic few weeks, it was nice to sit and have a moment of stillness.
Places To See
After breakfast, we had a few hours before we needed to be back in Knoxville. We decided to drive down to the river and walk along the iconic Walnut Street Bridge. The sun was beginning to warm the air as we walked on the bridge. Other than a few people exercising, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. The blue arches of the bridge seemed to glow brighter as the sun rose further into the sky. We also walked up the Williams Stairway, which doesn’t have any stairs. Instead, it’s a ramp with a series of hairpin turns leading up to the American Art Museum. Aaron protested the entire walk. Citing the ridiculous amount of time we could save by not walking back and forth to the top; his brain is all about practicality. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it. I felt like I was walking through a labyrinth, enjoying the journey to the top of the hill.
We weaved through the streets, passing the aquarium and many outdoor art installations. Slowly we found our way back to the car. Arriving back at the FBO, we returned the keys, and I grabbed a fresh sugar cookie on our way out to the ramp. Preflighting the airplane is much easier the second time around. The sun was brightly shining, and the faint whisper of a breeze kept us cool as we closed the doors to the plane. The line guy waved us goodbye as we taxied off the ramp. The tower frequency was quiet as we made our way to the runway. With no other aircraft between Knoxville and us, we were cleared for takeoff. Leaving Chattanooga trailing behind.
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