Everything looks better at 1,300 feet, and Pinellas County is no different.
Up here, in Doug Norman's single-engine AMD Zodiac plane, you can see the bright white sands of the Gulf's beaches, without the cigarette butts. I can gaze upon the towers of downtown St. Petersburg, minus the homeless people sleeping under them. An oak-tree canopy envelops Midtown, hiding its blight. Even the construction on the Belleair Causeway is mesmerizing.
And during those moments of high-altitude sightseeing, I completely forget how nervous I am to be in this tiny, all-aluminum plane that weighs less than a Ford Fiesta, bouncing along in the wind.
"Look — no hands!" exclaims Norman, releasing his grasp of the joystick that steers the plane. He must've seen my eyes widen, so he grabs the stick again.
"The airplane flies itself," he reassures me. "I just give it suggestions on what I'd like it to do for me."
With that, Norman instructs me to grab the joystick on my side of the cockpit. It's my turn to fly.
I'm not the only one learning to fly these days. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 65,675 people were issued their student pilot certificates last year, a 5 percent increase over 2006. Large portions of those new pilots come from Florida; just over 7,500 Floridians received their student pilot certificates last year, more than any other state except California.
The reasons for flying are as varied as the pilots: businesswomen who take multiple trips around the state each week; retirees with childhood dreams of flying; thrill-seeking teenagers and aviation enthusiasts who want to impress a date with a quick dinner in Key West. (A pilot can reach any Florida destination in less than three hours.)
This is good news for Florida flight schools. Although the industry has always been fickle, it took a nosedive after 9/11. (At least three of the terrorists trained in Fort Meyers.) Government regulations, requiring lengthy and expensive background checks, dissuaded the schools' main customers — foreign tourists. Dozens of Florida flight schools closed.
"As recently as two and a half years ago, there was nothing," says Randy Olmstead, flight school director for CAMS Flight Inc. located at the St. Pete/Clearwater Airport. "9/11 really hurt flight schools."
But recently, the schools' downward spiral has leveled off, due in part to the advent of a new FAA pilot certification category: light sport aircraft.
"This new category was created to give a person the chance to fly a smaller, simpler airplane," Olmstead says of the FAA's 2004 decision. "LSAs are more accessible. And fun."
The FAA defines light sport aircraft as single-engine planes with two seats (or less), weighing less than 1,320 pounds and flying no faster than 120 knots.
Obtaining a pilot certification for LSA requires less time and money, a combination that's motivating new pilots: Since 2004, light sport certifications have soared over 1,400 percent.
"The market is really exploding right now," Olmstead says.
And to prove how easy it is to fly these planes, Olmstead has cleared me — a mild-mannered reporter with absolutely no pilot experience and a distaste for rollercoasters — to fly the skies above Pinellas County. Doug Norman, an easygoing engineer and musician from Indian Rocks Beach, is my co-pilot (and owner of the Zodiac plane).
"Flying is like a drug," says Norman, 56, who piloted his first plane in 1971. "There's many stories of kids that will wash planes at a flight school to get enough money for an hour flight lesson. I was one of those kids."
After Norman gives me a short rundown on the basics of flying and the airport layout, he leads me to his AMD Zodiac.
Norman prefers LSAs because they "climb faster, go faster and stall slower." The Zodiac also has its own parachute, which I see as a plus.
After Norman completes a preflight safety check, we taxi down the runway, gain clearance from the airport and take off. The ascent is much smoother than I expected; there are no G-forces, just the feeling of weightlessness. Before I know it, we're 1,000 feet in the air, traveling just under 120 miles per hour, protected by only a thin layer of aluminum. We veer west to Indian Rocks Beach, and Norman follows the coast north. The blues and greens of the Gulf of Mexico shimmer below us.
After another short demonstration on flying, Norman motions to me. I grasp the control stick, steady my arm on my knee and gently move the stick left and right to steady the wings against the air. Norman keeps an eye out for other planes (or large birds, I assume) and I try not to make any sudden moves (the plane is quite sensitive).
"You're flying," Norman says encouragingly. And really, it's not that difficult. I press the right foot pedal to move the plane to the right, pull back on the stick to ascend slightly and then level off the plane again. I'm doing pretty well, until Norman asks me to take a left turn back toward the coast. As I lean into the left turn, I inadvertently push forward on the control stick, sending us nose first toward the water. Norman quickly corrects us. We continue north over Clearwater Beach.
"This gives us a chance to look at a different world," Norman says as we return to the airport for a smooth, applause-worthy landing. "To see our home from a different point of view. It's magical."