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Hugh Irvin's vehicle gets 30 miles per gallon and goes 150 mph, without any concern of being pulled over by the highway patrol. However, he only saves about 10 minutes each way by flying, and his plane is about twice as expensive to use as a car.

 

K-State instructor's daily commute 2,500 feet above ground

Morning rush-hour traffic is not a concern, and he has a parking space close to his office.

By Mark Berry

 

 

Hugh Irvin and his plane
Photo provided by Hugh Irvin.

Hugh Irvin flies to work, weather permitting, in his VariEze plane.

 

It's a pre-dawn winter morning. Hugh Irvin climbs into his tiny airplane in the cold dark. He tosses his coat in the back seat. He cannot fit inside the cockpit while he is wearing it.

"Some people describe it as not getting in the airplane, but putting it on," Irvin said.

Soon after his plane starts buzzing through the sky, the sun begins to rise and set the horizon aglow, like it does every work day for Irvin.

This is a commute by air.

Irvin lives in Manhattan, Kan., and -- weather permitting -- flies to his job as a flight instructor at Kansas State University at Salina, home of the university's aviation department. Since the Salina campus has a runway, he is able to park his VariEze plane near his office.

His plane weighs 770 pounds and has a 100-horsepower engine. Most cars weigh at least 2,000 pounds. His plane looks more like an oversized model, but Irvin said the VariEze is fast, easy to fly, and economical for an airplane. The two-seater is called a "pusher," as it has a single propeller on the back, instead of the front like most planes. It was home-built by a dentist in Texas.

Ken Barnard, a professor in the aviation department, also flies to work every day at the Salina campus. So why would a person who flies all day choose to come to work via the sky?

"If it was just for economy, I'd be driving a car. Flying is a little quicker than driving and a lot more fun, especially when I'm going home and I'm tired. You get a bird's eye view of the Flint Hills during the day and it can be very serene on a nice, still, dark night," Irvin said. "And you don't have to worry as much about traffic."

Flying is in Irvin's blood. He sometimes flies to vacation. He is a volunteer pilot for Angel Flight, a group that provides free transportation to people with financial and medical needs. He does occasionally get weary of being airborne.

"If I've done a lot of flying all day with students and the flight home is hot and sweaty and bumpy from turbulence, I do get tired," Irvin said.

Irvin is a living testament to the idea that it is never too late to pursue your dreams. He has been fascinated with flight since age four, but assumed he did not have the right stuff for piloting. He became a computer programmer. He found that a co-worker was treasurer of the K-State Flying Club, and realized that it didn't take a superhero to fly an airplane.

At age 27, Irvin finally worked up the nerve to learn how to become a pilot. He joined the K-State Flying Club and was hooked. In 2000, at age 51 and after a 28-year career as a computer programmer, he switched careers and became a full-time flight instructor at K-State. The two jobs are completely different, he said, except that both require attention to detail.

Irvin struggles to explain his attraction to flying, because there is nothing that he knows of that compares to it. He has soared toward the top of a rainbow's arch. He has flown at night, with the interior lights turned off, in a silent starlit sky. He has flown over emerald waters above the Caribbean Sea.

"Hardly anybody flies who doesn't enjoy it. Learning to fly gives a great sense of accomplishment," Irvin said. "It's a great sense of freedom to get off the ground and be in control."

Fall 2002