Amber Nolan flew into Pierre on Saturday evening aboard a King Air charter jet from Sioux Falls. She didn’t have any checked luggage or hotel reservations – just her belongings and a tent to camp out in.
The 29-year-old travel journalist has spent the past year on aerial adventures – flying along the New York skyline at 1,500 feet, soaring next to wild horses in New Mexico and gliding over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
As of August, she’s flown more than 15,000 miles split between 77 different flights to 41 states – and not once did she pay for tickets or baggage fees.
The JetHiking Gypsy
South Dakota is the 41st state on Nolan’s quest to hitchhike the entire country via general aviation planes. Rather than riding on commercial airlines, her modes of transportation include homemade planes, here and there a Cessna, small private jets, seaplanes and even crop dusters.
Nolan calls it “JetHiking,” and she has fittingly earned the name of the JetHiking Gypsy. Before embarking on her nomadic quest, Nolan spent four years living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she first had the idea to hitchhike via plane.
“I wanted to see the U.S. from a unique perspective,” Nolan said. “I’ve been places all over the world, but I wanted to see my own country.”
Nolan told local pilots about her idea, and they told her it was one of the best they had ever heard. She received advice and tips, as well as information on the challenges general aviation has been facing since 9/11.
“It’s been very difficult to get people involved because the costs are rising, so part of the project became getting the word out about their challenges, too,” she said. “As older pilots are retiring, there’s that baby boomer gap, where my generation isn’t really getting involved as much because our student loans are through the roof. There’s a shortage of people who are flying just for fun and just want to go out and have that freedom.”
So Nolan embarked on two quests. One is to spread the word about general aviation and the other is her personal mission to travel the U.S.
“Early on, it was difficult figuring out how to get in touch with people,” she said. “But the more I learned about the industry, and once I committed to the whole subculture, I found more ways to get in touch with people and let them know what I was doing.”
Since her first flight on July 12, 2012, from Rochester, N.Y., to Nashville, Tenn., Nolan has been continuously traveling, with occasional stops when she ran out of money.
Those layovers led to opportunities working in hostels and restaurants in San Francisco, Las Vegas and Texas. In Florida, she worked at an AIDS healthcare foundation and as a deckhand on a sailboat.
Nolan said other briefer layovers are often caused by inclement weather – something that affects general aviation planes far more than commercial flights.
“A lot of the pilots have just a private pilot’s license, which means they can’t go through the clouds,” she said. “So it’s not so much a rainy day, it’s a cloudy day, too.”
Nolan said one misconception she’s found about the pilots and aviations clubs she has flown with is that they’re all rich hobbyists.
“People assume it’s just really wealthy individuals flying around in their private jets and really nice planes … but I’ve actually been flying with a lot of people that are just scraping together funds to keep their hobby going,” Nolan said. “They’re building their own airplanes in their garage and flying them because it’s cheaper.”
Kindness in communities
A pleasant surprise throughout Nolan’s journey has been witnessing how willing people are to help her out. In Pierre, the young traveler met a woman who gave her a ride to the airport and later offered her a place to stay for the night.
And it was only minutes after beginning a trek in Monday’s 95 degree weather that a driver asked her if she needed a ride.
“People are pretty willing to lend a hand, and it’s refreshing to know that people still do that,” Nolan said. “In the Midwest especially, there are just tons of really good, friendly people out here.”
Nolan said one of the most rewarding aspects of her trip thus far has been experiencing small communities off the beaten path – or air strip.
“That’s another cool thing – I’m landing in these small towns, a lot of times on grass strips. I would never think to go there,” Nolan said. “You get a feel for the U.S. outside of the major cities and hubs. Small towns are the heart and soul of the country. Everybody just takes you under their wing.”
Nolan departed for Rapid City Tuesday afternoon on an empty Mustang Aviation flight, and her next stop is Wyoming before heading up to Alaska. Her hope is to spend a few weeks there before the end of November. Hawaii will be a future challenge.
Following the conclusion of her trip, Nolan would like to get her pilot’s license, and perhaps start some sort of ride sharing program to cut costs. She also plans to write a book detailing her adventures and maybe even take her journey international to Canada or elsewhere.