Danville Express

Cover Story - March 23, 2007

Flying high

Family finds fun soaring the friendly skies of Danville

by Natalie O'Neill

On a bright clear Tuesday - a close-to-perfect day for flying small planes in the East Bay - Danville's David Larsen adjusts his pilot's headset carefully.

"Oscar Foxtrot Romeo÷ " garbled flight code buzzes into the four-seat plane by radio, signaling he's clear to fly.

With the control board of a private single engine airplane as his backdrop, Larsen would look like he was lifted from a "Top Gun" sequel if it weren't for the casual polo shirt and baseball cap that give him away.

Behind the pilot's seat, his wife Kristen is double checking for traffic, other planes that might interfere with the takeoff.

The smell of gasoline wafts into the cabin, the engine blares loudly and the couple is ready to soar. Speeding down the runway, the air pressure pushes against the plane as it lifts off the ground, rising to 10 feet, 30 feet, 200 feet ... and up into the atmosphere.

To a novice flyer there is the looming feeling that the light plane could just stop in thin air - and drop like a rock at any second.

But to the Larsens, who fly as a family hobby with their son and daughters, this is just another outing to San Francisco - like an elaborate road trip.

"I don't want to say we're ever relaxed," Kristen says. "But the suspense is something you get used to."

It's a calculated risk, David explains.

There are hours of preparation and planning that go into flying and gaining a pilot's license. Extensive pre-flight checklists must be completed before take-off, ensuring plane parts are working and intact. Updates on weather must be constantly monitored by radio. And students learning to fly must put in at least 40 hours along with taking oral, written and practical tests.

It's not like a car; you don't just get in and go, the couple explains.

"For example, if your fuel gauge is broken you don't say, 'Well, I just filled it up.' You don't fly," David says.

Even with all of effort it takes to hone the expensive hobby David, Kristen, their 16-year-old son Mark and 20-year-old daughter Brynn have all earned their licenses to fly. They rent a 1977 Cessna through Sterling Aviation in Concord for a little over $100 an hour. Erika, 13, is already working on obtaining her license.

Some families golf together. Other families go for hikes. The Larsens spend time in the air.

They're not the only ones, either. As post Sept. 11 airport security becomes more and more of a time-consuming hassle, the trend of flying small planes is booming, says Chris Grcevich, general manager for Sterling Aviation.

"A lot more small business owners are using (single engine) planes to travel. They find out they can make a flight to L.A. in two hours and these days time is money," he says.

Business owners in the East Bay often hire a pilot for about $40 an hour instead of getting their license, he says. Adventurous couples and families are also finding that the Bay Area, with its breathtaking views of mountains and ocean, is a perfect place to fly.

Nationally, piloting planes has been in the spotlight increasingly more in the past few years, thanks in part to actress and American media obsession Angelina Jolie. The celebrity scored her single engine license back in 2004 so she could pilot in northern Cambodia with her son. Her adventures were written about in everything from trashy gossip columns to upscale magazines.

Here in Danville, flying has been an incredible confidence builder for the Larsen kids, Kristen says. Studying for flight tests has helped them learn how to prepare for big tests in school. And being behind the wheel has made it easier for them to learn how to cope with stress and responsibility.

As the Larsens approach 3,000 feet in the air, houses and trees become small square specks, like a plastic toy village below. Up here, it seems you could squash entire towns with your foot - crush them like an egg.

David points out Mount Diablo, which sends up air currents as they pass it, making the plane bounce with turbulence. As they glide over Danville they pinpoint Monte Vista High School, text messaging Mark who sits in class as they glide overhead.

The bird's-eye view is panoramic and vast from the front, not limited to one small side window like in large jets. Glistening aqua blue swimming pools and sprawling green tennis courts look like squares in the patchwork quilt of land below.

It's this change of perspective, the ability to see how the earth fits together from above, that made Kristen fall in love with flying.

"Look," she points out. "There's a multi-million dollar mansion and from up here it's tiny - it's nothing."

For Mark, who is 16 and already flies the planes by himself, flying is his passion because, in the air, he only has himself to rely on.

"It's all up to you. You really have to depend on yourself," he says.

Pinned to the Larsen's bathroom wall are lists of short code for the airplane radio communication along with aviation rules - part of the Sterling syllabus - that might as well be Greek to non-flyers. Learning and applying the terms and rules is part of an enjoyable struggle, David says.

For him, flying is all about the challenge and the feeling of freedom flying grants.

"It's a great feeling of accomplishment," he says, adding that they fly on their own schedules and go where they want, for as long as they want.

On this particular sunny Tuesday, David is calm and steady with his takeoff and landing. Kristen, who is in the back of the plane today, is quite a pilot herself.

She began flying planes as a teenager with her dad in Seattle, took about 20 years off to raise a family, and just recently got back into the swing of it. She and her father would take small planes to the Oregon coast or southeast to Utah, sometimes getting stuck in places for hours when bad weather would roll in.

"On the Oregon coast you are at the mercy of the weather - you just have to wait for it to clear," she said, recalling the rain and clouds.

On those trips she remembers it was always more about the journey than it was about how easily, quickly or comfortably they got there. It was a way of spending time with her dad and sharing a passion, she said. She laughs remembering that back then, without fancy piloting headsets, they had to yell over the sound of the engine to talk.

Fast forward about 25 years and Kristen is doing the same thing, only now she shares the cockpit with David. For their anniversary the couple took a small plane to Napa, which they admitted may not have been the most efficient way of getting there - just the most fun.

"It wasn't about going to Napa - it was about the process of getting there," Kristen says.

For other couples, flying a personal plane may seem nerve racking and dangerous, not exactly how they envision a pleasant anniversary getaway. But the Larsens point out this is the most incorrect perception people have about flying, that it's somehow dare-devilish and risky.

"The most common misconception is that it's dangerous," David says.

"I think people pay attention to bad news stories about flying," Kristen adds.

What typically makes the hobby dangerous is when people try to force a flight when weather conditions aren't up to par, or if they are hurrying to get somewhere. The hobby takes a lot of patience and planning, so if you are someone who is perpetually in a rush or have a tendency to push the limits you might want to take up a different hobby, they point out.

Knowing the territory you're flying beforehand is also crucial for avoiding a sticky situation, David says.

"It's not like a car - you can't pull over on the side of the road and check your map," Kristen says.

David holds an aviation map of the Bay Area on his lap that he occasionally glances at but for now the couple is miles from the airport and can just sit back and enjoy the landscape, the journey.

The shadow of the plane on the earth below looks like a bird, wings spread, gliding over those toy houses and million-dollar dots. On this bright Tuesday, the couple - not just the plane - is birdlike. They have the freedom to soar and land as they please.

Interested in a test flight?

Many flight schools offer drastically discounted introductory flights for first-timers who want to give flying a try. For tips on finding prices, flight schools and instructors, visit www.projectpilot.org or call 1-800-USA-AOPA. The Web site offers a database with more than 3,500 flight training facilities.


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