Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: for a flight of the imagination, choose a small plane

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay savours the pleasures of small planes.

The middle-aged gentleman buckling up behind me looked as pale as someone who had just drawn England in a World Cup sweepstake. His knuckles whitened around the straps of his seatbelt as the three propellers of the Britten-Norman Trislander whirred into noisy life. Thin white needles danced in the dials of the plane’s dashboard as we accelerated down the runway of Southampton Airport.

A few moments later we were up, airborne, looking down from the windows of a hollow aluminium tube at the toy-like vessels plying the Solent and the fields of the Isle of Wight. Half an hour into the short flight to Alderney in the Channel Islands the plane flew into a dark cumulus cloud; rain strafed the cockpit with ferocity as the captain checked his altimeter, his magnetic compass, and a half-dozen other instruments winking green, yellow and red.

Planes, trains and automobiles

We rode the change in air pressure, bumping up and down, a sensation that caused nervous laughter from the back, and a few frank murmurs of unease. But a minute or two later we were through it, descending from the underbelly of the sky toward our final destination. Grasping their hand luggage with moistened palms after landing, some people were glad to get off that plane as fast as possible; me, I would have stayed aboard for the return flight if not for prior commitments. I’ve always loved light aircraft more than any other form of transport.

A view of a tropical island from the window of a light aircraft © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet Does flying in a small plane leave you exhilarated or terrified? © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

Train travel has its charms – is there anything more conducive to contemplation than staring from the window of a train at an unknown landscape scrolling past? And travelling by ship offers a unique perspective on the world and a sense of its true scale absent from faster forms of transport. Perhaps my bias stems from the simple fact that light aircraft tend to ply routes to unusual or isolated places – generally speaking, the ones that interest me the most. But I think there’s a bit more to it than that.

Size versus sensation

People who ride motorbikes often compare the experience favourably with a road trip in a car because they claim a sense of engagement with their environment that those travelling in a four-wheel metal box do not. You can say something similar about a small plane versus a big one. I find it perverse that, even as it opens up new horizons for mass tourism, the sophistication of modern aircraft – the astounding level of comfort offered by, say, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner or an Airbus A380 – serves to divorce us from the physical sensation of travelling at all.

Once that cabin door is sealed, travelling in a jumbo jet is like teleportation without the time-saving. You step on in country A, and step off in country B; I couldn’t tell you what happens in between, save for the kind of stuff I can do equally well at home: reading a book, watching a movie, consuming a glorified ready-meal. No. Keep it. Those big birds might be marvels of engineering, but I’d rather clamber into the cramped fuselage of a Cessna Skyhawk, a Piper Cherokee, a de Havilland Canada Otter; names to conjure with, and planes that transport not just the body, but also the mind.