The dilemma arose when my sister announced a family reunion at her Spider Lake cabin in northern Wisconsin. I really wanted to attend this reunion and celebrate my dad´s 80th birthday, but I´d already agreed to give two speeches during that week. One was a Tuesday lunch speech in Albuquerque, the other a Wednesday breakfast speech in New Orleans.
How was I going to pull this off? The commercial airline options weren´t pretty. I was looking at Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday devoted to travel. That would be 60% of our five-day family reunion shot to hell.
The other option was private airplanes. One of the sponsors of my Albuquerque speech was Eclipse Aviation, which makes the world´s first very light jet, the Eclipse 500. Presto: Arrangements were made for me to fly the Eclipse 500 from an airstrip in Hayward, Wis. to Albuquerque. There I´d give my luncheon speech and then remount the Eclipse 500 for another flight to New Orleans.
I had flown the Eclipse 500 last year but only in low-altitude patterns around the Albuquerque airport. Now was my chance to see what the $ 2.15 million pocket jet could really do when it mattered.
The copilot and I departed Hayward at 8 a.m. The Eclipse 500 doesn´t need a copilot, but I do. I´m not jet rated and hadn´t previously flown any airplane above 18,000 feet. In the Eclipse 500 we quickly climbed to 40,000 feet, higher than commercial airliners usually fly. Once at cruising altitude, I dialed in an economy fuel setting of 53 gallons per hour at a true airspeed of 390mph. No business jet or turboprop can go as high and fast on so little fuel.
At 40,000 feet we enjoyed smooth air. As we flew over a thunderstorm near Omaha we heard airline pilots on the radio beseeching air traffic controllers for higher altitudes. Air was rough down at 34,000 feet. Poor buggers.
I landed at Albuquerque at 10:30 a.m., mountain daylight time, three and a half hours and 1,095 miles from Hayward. After my lunch speech to the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce we drove back to the airport and hopped into the Eclipse. Our afternoon flight to New Orleans would have a different goal: to go as fast as we could to get ahead of some nasty thunderstorms over eastern Texas.
The Eclipse 500 flies most efficiently at 41,000 feet. It flies fastest at 35,000 feet, where we elected to stay for the dash to New Orleans. I dialed in a maximum continuous power setting of 66 gallons per hour and got a true airspeed of 414mph. This is about 200mph slower than the fastest private jet, the Cessna Citation X, which burns $ 2,000 per hour more fuel.
From eastern Texas all the way down to New Orleans we picked our way through thunderstorms. The convective turbulence pummeled the little Eclipse 500, but the ride wasn´t too bad. I´ve experienced much worse in an airline regional turboprop. I eased the tiny jet over Lake Pontchartrain and made a feathery landing at Lakefront Airport, 8 miles and 20 minutes away from downtown New Orleans.
From Jets to Pistons
Following the next morning´s speech to the American Public Power Association, I departed the New Orleans Hilton at 10:15 a.m. and arrived at Lakefront Airport 15 minutes later. My ride was familiar: a Cirrus SR22 single-engine piston airplane, the new Cirrus Perspective. I own a Cirrus myself, a beautiful 2005 model. But this Cirrus Perspective was fresh from the factory and had a mere 11 hours on the flight meter.
The Cirrus Perspective features a stunning new avionics package from Garmin (nasdaq: GRMN - news - people ). The standout feature is synthetic vision--until now available only in $ 40 million Gulfstreams--which on a large screen depicts the moving airplane in relationship to its surrounding terrain. Synthetic vision offers the hope for improvements in safety for us poor folks. Small piston airplanes, to be blunt, have a lousy safety record--worse than automobiles, much worse than airliners and about the same as motorcycles. Once you rule out bad flying technique and irresponsible stunt flying, most small airplane fatalities are caused by pilot disorientation in the clouds or darkness. Synthetic vision could eliminate that problem.
We departed Lakefront Airport at 11 a.m. Our flight back to Hayward would be 1,105 miles and require a refueling stop in Missouri. After dodging some towering thunderclouds north of Lake Pontchartrain I set a cruising altitude of 11,000 feet. That´s about as high as anyone would care to fly in a nonpressurized airplane without snorting oxygen through a nasal cannula. Our cruising speed was 205mph on 18.5 gallons per hour. To save money, I fly my own Cirrus 10mph slower at a fuel setting of 14 gallons per hour, but Cirrus likes to break in its new airplanes at higher power settings. No argument from me! My goal was to hang fire and get back to Hayward for dinner.
After refueling in Sikeston, Mo.--and overeating at the famous Lambert´s Cafe--we climbed to 8,500 feet and canceled our instrument flight plan and thus our need to talk to controllers. We listened to rock music on XM Satellite Radio (nasdaq: XMSR - news - people ). Let me tell you, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin sound awfully nice on Bose headsets with the good old U.S.A. passing by serenely underneath you.
We landed at Hayward at 6:20 p.m. Twenty minutes later I was enjoying the company of my family on a porch overlooking Spider Lake.