Man About Town: City of Angels, that’s no angel above

Flight instructor Rob Williams, right, and student Mike Pinson check the wind direction before taking off from Santa Monica Airport.
Flight instructor Rob Williams, right, and student Mike Pinson check the wind direction before taking off from Santa Monica Airport.
(Katie Falkenberg / For the Los Angeles Times)

Here I go again, cooling the flames of anger through self-discovery. This time, I am piloting a little plane that’s not much bigger than a sofa bed, L.A. winking up at me, as if to say, “You’re really doing this?”

Yes, I’m really doing this. Come fly with me.

Here’s the thing you probably didn’t know about introductory flying lessons: They begin at around 100 bucks, about the price of a tank of gas these days.

Were I looking for a memorableFather’s Dayor birthday present, I’d consider gifting one of these lessons. Not only does it give you an angel’s view of L.A. life, it’s a great way to transfer your heart into your throat.


Because here’s another thing about small planes: The instructors can tell you all they want about system redundancy, about how the little engine uses a magneto instead of a battery, blah, blah, blah. Explaining the mechanics of aviation to me is like explaining sex to a poodle. I nod vigorously, but when it is over, I know not much more than when you began.

This I know: A small plane does not invite confidence. As my daughter so succinctly put it, “Wonder if you flew into a cloud and just exploded?”

That, I think, sums up our family’s view of taking chances. But seriously, one engine, four cylinders, 160 horsepower? My toothbrush generates more torque than this little plane.

“That mountain right there, you want to keep that on your horizon,” says instructor Rob Williams of Skyward Aviation.


We took off five minutes ago from Santa Monica and are puttering out over the Pacific when this nut case instructor, Williams, who comes off as the calmest, most sensible ex-banker sort, tells me I’ve got the wheel, which is technically called a yoke.

No yoking. But it’s hard to find much humor when you’re experiencing the same short little breaths you take when it’s 2 a.m. and you might hear an intruder in the house. Or worse, one of the kids has moved home.


Still, I kind of like this. I kind of like this a great deal.

The Santa Monica Airport is so wedged into this glamorous little city that it may qualify as cleavage.

It’s been around since 1919, when the city turned a barley field into a small airport. Now almost a century old, it has been as much a hub for controversy as for small jets and planes.

“This is the most respectful airport I’ve ever flown in; we have so many rules,” says Williams.

“There is next to no buffer zone from the end of the runway to the nearest houses … 220 feet,” counters Martin Rubin, director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution. “To put that into perspective, the leaf blower ordinance in L.A. requires 500 feet.”

But I’m not here to court controversy. I’m here to escape it, and as healthy escapism goes, it’s hard to beat a short flight over hillsides with a little Irish in the trees and mountaintops the color of castles.

All it really takes to fly a well-engineered plane, which this Piper Warrior evidently is, is to pinch the yoke between your thumb and forefinger — steady, steady, steady.


Truth is, I feel much safer up here than I did fighting my way through tangled Santa Monica traffic.

And what makes this an interesting venture, and a decent value in an otherwise overpriced city, is the swirling aerial tour. In a commercial jet, you rarely spy Los Angeles like this.

In this case, we soar up through the Palisades, bouncing a little through upper cuts of late morning winds.

We buzz the Valley, then head up over Bel-Air, the Hollywood Reservoir, Griffith Observatory, Silver Lake and then downtown.

That’s a lot of real estate in a 45-minute flight. By car, it would take roughly four weeks.

But like any worthy experience, it changes the way you look at things: our city, the storybook topography, even the prevailing ocean breezes.


A lot of us spend a lot of time in the air, much of it agonizing, much of it almost cruel.

This is quality time in the air, scary and life-affirming all at once, with even a faint whiff of glory.