One of the frequently asked questions that instructors and flight school administrators hear quite often from the primary student is: "Once I acquire the Private Pilot Certificate, what then? What can I do with it?" Most often, this student is training to become a pilot just "because" he or she doesn't have a specific occupational or business goal. Of course, there are as many answers to the question "what now?" as there are pilots. Here are a few ideas.
Beyond the $100 Hamburger?
One of the all-time favorite answers to the question is the famous $100.00 hamburger. You know the $2.00 burger and the $98.00 cost of transportation to get it. But beyond this there are a great many enjoyable activities available to the holder of a private pilot certificate.
Many years ago, the state of Ohio where I lived at the time had a landing strip in a recreation area in a state park located at a reservoir and I used to fly my wife and two small children there for swimming and a picnic. Sure beat driving. Those folks that I am pleased to refer to as "fair weather Sunday afternoon pilots" take their families and friends for joyrides in their airplanes (or rented airplanes). They do this for the sheer fun of it, and it is fun to show off one's hard-won skills to family and friends. There are also family trips to visit distant family members and far-away friends.
I have a close friend who owns an airplane. He really enjoys flying and he takes advantage of every possible excuse to fly whenever an opportunity presents itself. Occasionally his employer sends him on a business trip, and whenever possible he takes his own airplane rather than an air carrier. His airplane is a Cessna 310, and although it is an extravagance to do so, he frequently takes his daughter to her college in a distant state. At least once a year he flies well over 2,000 miles to visit a close friend. He goes to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh every year, by air of course. He has even flown to that warm-up for AirVenture down in Florida Sun 'n Fun.
A few months ago I flew in an air rally, sponsored by the Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, and I had a load of fun doing it. It was organized like a road rally with clues to each destination (some of the clues were quite obtuse and difficult). Each entrant was issued a list of clues to the first destination and a sealed envelope telling the pilot where to go if he/she couldn't figure it out from the clues. Of course, a lot of points were lost if the envelope had to be opened. Extra points were awarded for identifying landmarks along the way. At each stop, clues to the next destination were issued, and so on.
The event started at 10:00 a.m. and if a pilot wasn't back at the starting point by 5:00 p.m., he/she was instructed to give up and return. There were about twenty planes entered, from Cessna 150s to a Cessna 310. I flew in a Piper Cherokee with one of the members of the Greater Detroit Area Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, the organizing body for the event. Two of the graduates of my flight school, private pilots who fly just for fun, were entered.
If you're looking for something to do with your pilot certificate, I can recommend entering one of these air rallies. I guarantee a good time. The one in which I participated ended at the starting point with a spot landing contest, which added to the challenge and fun of the event.
The Dawn Patrol
A great many airports and/or operators sponsor so-called dawn patrols, or breakfast flights, usually with a pancake breakfast at the destination. Many state aeronautics commissions issue calendars specifying the dates and locations of these events. Somewhat similar but not the same thing are group fly-outs for breakfast. Less organized are the informal groups of friends who fly their airplanes to a common destination for one purpose or another. Members of the DC Pilots email list which is devoted to pilots based in and around the Washington, D.C. and Mid-Atlantic area of the U.S. try to do this once each month.
At the airport where I am based there are two large groups (a dozen to a score each) of pilots and friends who fly out every Sunday morning to one or another airport with a restaurant on the field. These breakfast flights are within 100 miles or so and are made solely for breakfast and companionship. These Sunday breakfast groups are made up of a wide diversity of people. One of the two groups is composed of members of a specific club, and the other is totally informal. On any given weekend the number and composition of the people who fly out for breakfast varies with the availability of those who participate.
One of the things I like about aviation is the fine bunch of people, on the whole, who participate. It is one place where a doctor or college professor and a ditchdigger have something in common, and they all treat each other as equals. In my flight school we have had students who bused tables in a fast food restaurant and we've had presidents, vice presidents, and owners of giant corporations as well as top-notch professionals and, because of their common interest in flying, they studied together and helped each other out. Universally, pilots are willing, even anxious, to share their knowledge and experiences with one another.
So help me, if this aviation "thing" ever quits being fun, I'll quit doing it!
What else can one do with a private certificate and an airplane, either owned or rented? He or she can donate his/her time and talent to any number of charitable activities. As an example of this, here in the area of the country where I am located there is an annual event called "Operation Good Cheer." In mid-December each year a huge drive is put on to collect presents for underprivileged kids. These donations come in by the truckload, and fill a large hangar to overflowing with everything from bicycles to board games. Then, on a weekend, dozens of pilots in owned or rented airplanes fly out with planeloads of gifts to various destinations all over the state. Since no money changes hands at any stage of the process, there is no danger of running afoul of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), as can sometimes happen when involved in charitable flying. By this I mean those unfortunate individuals who permit a charitable organization to pay for their fuel while donating their time, talent, and airplane to perhaps transport a medical case, only to have some overzealous FAA inspector decide that it is a commercial operation and charge the pilot with violating Part 135 of the FARs.
Aviation offers a great many other kinds of volunteer opportunities, particularly in the area of medical needs. Angel Flight and the Air Care Alliance are organizations that schedule volunteer flights to shuttle parents back and forth to visit hospitalized children. Another arranges for ferrying those who require regular treatment back and forth from their homes to the facility that offers the specialized treatment they require.
Handicap Air Races
I grew up in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, and in the late 1920s and, throughout the 1930s, I attended the National Air Races every year. I was privileged to see and meet all the greats of the era (my particular hero was Jimmy Doolittle.) Therefore, my concept of air racing has always been the fastest plane wins. A few years ago, however, I was introduced to a whole new ballgame the handicap air race. A former student at my flight school who owns a nice V-tail Bonanza asked me to join him in the Great Southern Air Race. He had been flying a portion of the racing circuit for several years, and he needed a co-pilot for that year's Bahamas race. Not having any idea what I was getting into, I readily agreed.
We arrived in Florida with passports in hand and spent a day establishing the handicap and getting briefed by the U.S. Coast Guard. We rented all the survival equipment (life raft, flares, life vests, etc.). The handicap was established by flying both ways over a measured distance with nothing in the airplane but one pilot and a race official. Everything else (including me) was removed from the airplane. Once the speed over that course was established, the airplane was impounded to prevent the pilots from making any changes. The next morning the race started. The fastest planes were launched first. After takeoff, each airplane would make a high-speed pass over the strip and go through the start gate. Spotters were located at each turn point (lighthouse, prominent point, etc.) and at each landing point. We overnighted on several of the Bahamas Islands, and there was a party almost every evening. As well as the cash prizes for the overall race, prizes were awarded for each leg and each day. Other than the cost of operating the airplane, the out-of-pocket cost of participating in the weeklong event was about $1,000.00 for food, lodging, etc., less any prize money earned. The whole affair was an extremely challenging and interesting experience.
The Challenge To Improve
Whether or not a pilot is seeking an additional certificate or rating, there is always the challenge to improve one's skills. This may take the form of additional formal training with an instructor, or the challenge of self-improvement in which the pilot is constantly striving for more and more precision in his or her flying. They tell the story of the old guy who came out to the airport every weekend and practiced landings. A stranger at that airport watched this for a while, then turned to a hanger-on (an APB Airport Bum) and asked, "Who is that guy and why does he do that every weekend?" The answer was, "Oh, that's Charles Lindbergh. He's just trying to stay sharp." If that great aviator can do this, we all can.
I don't know about you, but every time I fly, I am constantly striving for precision in altitude and holding a heading, and I'm always attempting to make every landing a "greaser." It's sort of a game I play with myself. To challenge yourself this way is not only fun, but also you get a good feeling when you are successful. I'll never forget the extreme feeling of satisfaction I felt when I made a really smooth landing after a trip of some 300 miles during which my altitude had not varied a foot and my heading hadn't been off a degree at any time. Even though the air had been extremely smooth that day, I still couldn't believe I had done that well. I'm normally just a tired old man who blunders around the airspace and if I'm lucky, I ultimately get where I'm going.
For a real adventure, you can do what I did last summer and fly one of the Australian Air Safaris offered by GOANA which stands for Great Outback Air Navigation Adventure and an adventure it certainly is! This company offers several different trips each year, ranging from five days to 30 days in duration. I went on the most popular trip 15 days and saw more of Australia than most Australians see in a lifetime. It would be impossible to accomplish what we did on my trip by car or tour bus in less than three and a half months.
The trips are organized as follows: Eight Skyhawks with two people in each fly approximately 350 n. m. per day. These eight airplanes are accompanied by a tour guide in a ninth airplane (with a toolbox and spares aboard). You stay in first-class accommodations, and all your meals are furnished at first-class restaurants. The modest price includes admission to all kinds of interesting museums, events, and sights of Australian culture. For example, among the places we visited were a Royal Flying Doctor Station and the QANTAS museum where the Australian Airline started. By the way, "QANTAS" stands for Queensland And Northern Territories Air Service. How's that for an interesting bit of trivia?
We also saw an amazing demonstration of Border Collies doing their trick working cattle, sheep, horses, and geese. I highly recommend any one of the GOANA excursions to all who hold pilot certificates, from private to ATP. And frankly, I don't know how the Shiptons (the couple who operate the GOANA tours) can afford to do it for the reasonable prices they charge for their tours.
Thus, it can readily be seen that there are a great many interesting and enjoyable things one can do with a pilot certificate. And, I haven't even scratched the surface here. (Please don't write and tell me all the things I left out. I know they exist, but space prohibits the inclusion of all kinds of activities one can enjoy with an airplane.)
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.