Photos: author

Meet Amber Nolan, aka the “Jethiking Gypsy.”

RIGHT NOW, this New York-born travel writer is staging a one-woman hitchhiking revolution, bumming flights across the US in everything from rinky-dink Cesnas to swanky private jets, light-weight experimental aircraft…even blimps. Her goal is to touch down in all 50 states (she’s hit 20 since July) and to garner fresh attention for the General Aviation world, while traveling on a backpacker’s budget.

Last month I met up with her in Taos, New Mexico, where over the course of 24 hours we stayed in an earthship, toured a 1,000-year-old pueblo, soaked in hidden hot springs, and chatted over champagne about what it’s like to hitchhike by plane in the 21st century. Since then, she’s continued to Shreveport, Louisiana, and flown in a Hawker (one of the world’s most technologically advanced business jets) to Austin, where I last touched base with her.

Suzanne: When I heard about what you’re doing, it hit me with a major case of “Why didn’t I think of this?!” envy. How’d you come up with this awesome idea?

Amber: As a travel writer, my passport’s full of stamps to other countries, but I realized I hadn’t seen much of my own. I started saving for a road trip, but wanted to do something different. The public transportation system in the US isn’t what it is in Europe, so Amtrak and Greyhound were out. I’d heard about people who had tried this kind of thing before, so I started researching on my own with the thought that business jets must fly a lot of empty legs.

Then, a local pilot I met with gave me loads of tips. His biggest suggestion: try General Aviation. I’d have a lot of fun, it would be a totally unique way to see the country, and the GA community is something most people aren’t even aware of. As the project developed, I decided to document my journey and try to show this “private” side of aviation to the public, from an outsider’s perspective. I’ve since stumbled upon a wonderful group of people that are sustaining that “romantic era” of flying we all thought went extinct with modern day commercial airlines.

But you can’t really just mosey on up to a runway and stick out your thumb. How do you go about bumming flights and figure out where you’re going next?

Most of it is networking, just telling people about my goals for the project. I search the web and post on different aviation forums, chat up staff and pilots at airports, and show people my website (I wear a green “JetHiking” T-shirt I designed with my URL on it a lot). Interestingly, there are only a few ride-sharing sites out there for planes, and they don’t seem to be all that popular. I visited AirVenture [a huge aviation expo held every year in Oshkosh, Wisconson] on July 22, so that helped get me started.

As far as schedule and planning, I more or less going where the pilots go. I try to have a general direction that makes sense based on weather and where I’ve already been. “Anyone going southeast? Anyone going to Idaho?” But it doesn’t always work that way. I was trying to go to California once and wound up in Montana. The few times I’ve tried to plan to get to a specific place at a certain time, it’s been difficult. When I’m completely flexible and open to wherever, things are much easier. Sometimes the pilots give me options like, “I can drop you at one of these fuel stops,” so that I can choose a little based on what I want to see, or if I have a place to stay. But, a big part of the fun is the randomness of it: landing in small towns that I would never have otherwise thought to visit.

How long do you spend in a place between flights? Where do you stay and what do you do while there?

I average about a week in each place. If I really like a place, sometimes I decide to stay longer. I’m not on a time schedule, which is a very freeing way to travel. The shortest time I stayed in a place was one night and the longest was a month. Plus, in order to officially “count” the state, I have to leave the airport and go do something – so I’m not counting touch and gos! Sometimes I stay with the pilots and their families, other times I camp, couchsurf, or stay in hostels. Only if I’m really stuck do I book a hotel. I prefer to stay with people though – hotels are boring when you travel alone. While in each place, I explore the area and meet up with local pilots. Since I don’t have an agenda, I just talk to people and see where it takes me.

How does flying in small, private planes make for a different, more personal travel experience than commercial airlines?

The view is 360 degrees — so you see everything. Plus, not only are you actually able to have a chummy conversation with the pilot over a bag of Chex Mix (whereas on a commercial jet, you’re separated by a locked door during flight), but they can point things out to you on the route, explain how the instruments work, and maybe even let you have a hand in steering. If there’s something you want to see better, they can fly closer to it and scope it out.

And since most small plane pilots avoid flying into the big international airports due to traffic and landing fees, you don’t have to deal with the hassles of large airports. As a passenger in a small plane, you can hear everything from the tower through the headset. There’s a sense of freedom with flying when you aren’t on a scheduled flight, too. It isn’t just about getting from point A to point B. I can actually sit back, relax and enjoy flying.

How many different types of planes have you bummed flights in so far?

It will be 25 when you publish this. I’ve been in five experimental aircraft and I really enjoy them. It’s really amazing that someone can build their own airplane and then have the rewarding experience of flying it as well. As I understand it, they’re also more cost-effective (for the most part) than purchasing a plane outright. My favorite plane was a 1940 WACO UPF7 with an open-air cockpit (an old-fashioned biplane).

What kind of reactions have you received from people?

“You can hitchhike on planes?” I’ve received so many letters of support and it helps me keep going when I have a difficult day. A lot of people say they have always dreamed of seeing the world, and some even tell me that I inspired them to finally go out and take that trip they’ve been thinking of. It’s such a wonderful feeling when I hear that. Many pilots write in letters like “What a fun adventure!” and “I love what you’re doing for General Aviation.” I always find when you surround yourself with positive energy, it brings positive results so all of their encouragement is helping.

What’s been the hardest part about your journey?

Getting around on the ground. The smaller airports are often further from the towns and there isn’t much public transport.

What about the most fun and surprising?

The most fun is the people I run into. This country is so diverse…it’s like 50 different countries but everywhere I go I encounter helpful people who have interesting stories of their own. The landscape of the US is stunning, particularly in the West.

The most surprising? How much fun flying in small airplanes can be! One flight in New Mexico stands out where wild horses were running below the plane and there were no roads in sight. I was also surprised to discover so many people who are returning to a lifestyle of sustainable living, from urban farms to solar homes and the eco-friendly efforts of the larger cities. I also really dug getting to try out the flight simulators at Dallas’s Aviation Training & Resource Center.

You’re full of stories and unique experiences by now. Tell me a few good ones.

I spent a day visiting a woman who has an alien watchtower and a man who owns an alligator farm in Colorado. I went off-roading in some sand dunes in Nantucket, spotted some wild big horn sheep in New Mexico, hiked to a glacier in Montana past some mountain goats (and a few distant bears), met someone riding their motorcycle to Alaska and back to Argentina, had a close encounter with a bear in Lake Tahoe, went to Burning Man, flew into Oshkosh and camped under the wing of the plane, spent Christmas on an urban farm, Thanksgiving in a celebrity mansion, one night in an earthship, and had my pedal break on a 10-mile bike ride to the Hoover Dam…uphill.

Your motto is “Quit Thumbing Around.” How many awesome things have you gotten to see and do sky-hitching that you wouldn’t have been able to road-hitching? In other words, what are the fundmental differences between your way and the highway?

Well, I’ve been able to learn how to fly. I’m not certified and have a long way to go, but little by little I’m learning it and can sometimes take over and fly a bit (I’m definitely planning on getting my license). You see things that you don’t see driving along a highway – you can dip lower to check out wildlife, or higher, skirting mountain peaks. I’ve flown over an archeological dig site, a crater, the coast of California, Lake Michigan… up the Hudson River at night just next to the skyline and the new World Trade Building. In a seaplane, you can land on water and get out and go explore the area, and many “taildraggers” can land on grass strips.

On one flight, we had some fighter jets fly by and we radioed the traffic control tower to see if they wanted to “practice” on us (although they didn’t). The main difference is you can fly anywhere. There’s an old saying: “A mile of road will take you a mile, but a mile of runway can take you anywhere.” It’s really true.

When there are no roads and the plane’s shadow is the only thing you see except for canyon walls, rivers, and wildlife you can really feel how vast and powerful our planet is. Another big difference is that the weather is much more of an issue. If a storm rolls in, we can’t fly. Lastly, and it’s a big one too, is that I am hitchhiking within a community and feel like a part of it. I’m not sure that you would get that by just sticking a thumb up on the side of the road.

Based on your experience, what do the two modes of transport have in common?

You’re still relying on the kindness of strangers. It’s the same adventurous spirit and need to see what’s outside your comfort zone. Flexibility is needed. Patience when it takes a while, and you need to be able to roll with what comes your way. You have to figure your journey out as you go and not plan ahead – which is difficult for some people.

Where are you heading next? How many states do you have left? Where are you most excited to fly?

I’m heading southeast at the moment, but that can change at any point. I have 31 states left. Alaska is definitely something I can’t wait to experience.

What are your ultimate goals with the project, present and future? Do you wanna go global?

My goals are to experience the US from a different perspective and promote General Aviation – especially to my generation. It’s not cheap to fly – but it’s not an impossible dream by any means. I want to show this to adventurous travelers. As much as my project is about experiencing unique cultures and places in America, flying with general aviation brings back the idea that the journey is just as much of the adventure as the destination. I think that gets lost in translation when we fly a commercial airline.

I’m planning on publishing a book for sure. Yes, I’d like to take it globally, but it would be very challenging. Many people come to the US to get their pilot’s license because of the number of instructors, the cost (which is significantly cheaper than most places), and because there is still a strong community here even if they are struggling in the current economy. That being said, I have received several offers from people in the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, and Europe that would like to help take my efforts internationally.

Why is it so important to get the word out about General Aviation?

I started this whole thing basically just to travel, and wasn’t expecting to find out what I did. Namely, that General Aviation’s membership numbers have been dropping like crazy in recent years, due to the economy (price of gas, etc.) and the fact that having your own plane or taking flying lessons makes for a very costly hobby. Plus, I also think it’s important to raise awareness about the humanitarian efforts so many pilots are involved in; there are many aviation organizations that give back to the wider community by promoting conservation (like South Wings) or giving patients in need of big surgeries free rides to fancy hospitals, whose work often goes unnoticed.

I’d love to develop a forum to help pilots and potential passengers work together to cut costs for everybody. I’m having so much fun with it, it would be a shame to see the community disappear.