"Except for the fact that it's expensive, flying is fairly egalitarian," says Charles Boss as we stand under cover watching the rain fall on the tarmac of Sanford-Lee County Airport. By "egalitarian," he means that general aviation—the term applied to private pilots and their small planes—remains loosely tethered to its barnstorming past.
We're waiting for the weather to clear outside the small brick building that passes for a terminal here. In contrast to large commercial airports, which even before Sept. 11 were grim, secure fortresses in which passengers scurry under the gaze of security, this small airport, one of a half-dozen such fields that ring the Triangle, seems to have less security than a bowling alley.
That's not to say that this strip, which is used by many Triangle-based flyers, wasn't affected by the terrorist attacks. Boss tells me that in the aftermath, a 10-mile no-fly buffer was decreed around nuclear power plants. "Two-thirds of the runway here," Boss says, "is within 10 miles of Shearon Harris," referring to the 22-year-old nuclear facility to the northeast—so near that the Sanford-Lee County Airport was temporarily closed in the aftermath of 9/11.
But today, almost eight years later, the skies seem as inviting, accessible and liberating as they must have to the likes of Amelia Earhart and Antoine de Saint Exupéry. Boss grew up around planes in his hometown of Hickory, N.C., but he only reclaimed the pastime 15 years ago. Now, as a retired professor of chemistry at N.C. State University, the Raleigh resident has time to devote to flying—and to embarking on cross-country trips with his wife. Not to mention the occasional courtesy flight for two journalists wanting a view of the region from the air.
We pile into his 1961 Navion Rangemaster, a four-seater with low wings and retractable landing gear, and taxi to the end of the runway, where we go through the preflight checklist. He announces our intentions to pilots operating in the vicinity, and then our plane, identified as "November-two-tree-fife-seven-tango," departs on Runway 21, which simply means the sole runway at the airport is oriented on a southwesterly, 210-degree axis (when taken the other direction, the strip is on a 30-degree heading, and is called Runway 3).
"Ready to rock and roll?" Boss asks jauntily, as we begin the takeoff roll. Actually, I remember thinking, a little smooth jazz would be nice.
We hit his plane's liftoff speed of 60 miles per hour as Boss narrates the final sequence: "Raise the nose a touch ... come on, get off the runway."
Then we're in the air. We climb to 600 feet up above the runway before we turn to the northeast, over U.S. 1 and toward Cary.
It's a strange element of single-engine, general aviation that most planes' ages seem to be measured in decades rather than years. But they tend to be owned by enthusiasts with a vested interest in the machines' safety, and furthermore, planes are operated far less frequently, and are subject to far less abuse, than automobiles. Fittingly, the interior of Boss' 48-year-old plane is as roomy as anything Detroit put on the road five decades ago. With the exception of a GPS device, his instrument panel, too, is composed almost entirely of 1950s technology, with the kinds of gyroscopes and analog dials, switches and gauges we associate with the sci-fi movies of the period. It's very cool, in other words, and it all works perfectly well.
Boss, however, isn't particularly sentimental about the old gear; he admits he's ready to upgrade to the all-digital, GPS-based navigation system, known in general aviation as the "glass cockpit." Boss says the contemporary technology is more user-friendly, but the main drawback to the glass cockpit, he says, is that it's dependent on electricity. "If the alternator or battery go dead, there will be problems," he says. "But it wouldn't be a problem for me. With an altimeter, airspeed indicator and compass, I can figure out how to get down."
As we level off at 2,000 feet, Shearon Harris comes into view to the right. The good part about having a nuclear plant next to his home airport, Boss says, is that when he's returning from a long trip, it's an unmissable reference point: He knows he's home.
I ask Boss if he can pinpoint where they actually work with the radioactive stuff. The familiar cooling tower with the mild head of steam, he says, is used to shed excess heat from the water. The real action, he says, occurs in the building that appears to be a cylinder with a dome on top. That's the nuclear reactor.
We fly between two of the Triangle's three large working lakes. Harris Lake, out of our right window, exists primarily to cool the things at Shearon Harris that need cooling, and isn't particularly impressive as a body of water. It looks like a dammed creek, which, of course, is exactly what it is.
Boss banks the plane 30 degrees to the left and Jordan Lake comes into view. It's a more attractive, and much larger and older, reservoir created by damming the Haw and New Hope rivers. Jordan Lake supplies Cary and Apex with 32 million gallons of water a day, and it also serves the boating, bird watching and bass-fishing needs of many others.
From 2,000 feet, one can't discern issues with groundwater pollution, the strains on the watershed created by overdevelopment, the unending arguments over the safety of nuclear power. What one is struck by is the extraordinary amount of space down there, the forests and water that fill so much of the vista. This same verdant space has been completely engineered by humans to support the population of this area. In fact, these two lakes—one for power and one for water—are the equivalents of vital organs for the complex creature that is the Triangle.
But in continuing this metaphor, I notice that we who receive sustenance from the landscape we have engineered to our purposes are compressed into extraordinarily cramped spaces. From our lofty vantage point over Chatham and Lee counties, these are the congested arteries of the organism: U.S. 1 running north and south, and U.S. 64 running east and west.
Later, during the high-speed drive home in late-afternoon traffic, I become even more keenly aware of the open spaces around the walls of our arteries of traffic: to the left and right and, of course, the vastness above.
Although flying is a notoriously expensive hobby, there are points of entry for budget-minded people. For example, a nonprofit flying club, Wings of Carolina, operates out of Sanford-Lee County Airport and offers training and plane rentals at affordable rates. Visit www.wingsofcarolina.org. Charles Boss says there's another way curious people can take a flight: "Sit in a lobby of an outlying airport such as [Sanford-Lee County Airport] and wait. We all love to take people up. It's our hobby."
Correction (May 22, 2009): This article has been amended. Regarding Jordan Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers began studying the issue in 1945; the project was authorized in 1963 and named for Everett Jordan in 1973. The dam was completed in 1974, but the impounding continued until 1983.