The subject of this column was suggested by a reader, a former gofer at the flight school I operated. (We always had an ambitious young person who did “grunt work” on a trade deal in exchange for flight instruction.) Larry was one such, and now he is a graduate electrical engineer and part-time flight instructor. His comments were inspired by my column on the subject, “Eye of Experience #42: Some People (Just Don’t Belong in the Air).”
There are many misconceptions about flying and owning a plane, and about how “anyone” can (or should) pilot an aircraft is just wrong [sic]. Another subject I would like to see some honesty on is the idea that after a person achieves his/her private pilot certificate they will use the plane like they use the family van. Realistically the weather, aircraft performance, and pilot ability will limit flying much more than people are led to believe.
This concept is particularly true of the seaplane rating. The state of Michigan is dotted with hundreds of lakes, almost all of which are suitable for seaplane operations, yet to my knowledge at this time, there is only one seaplane base in the state. Many Michiganders, including pilots, have a cottage “on the lake” someplace distant from their homes. This idea of owning a vacation home on a lake “up north” is very popular in Michigan. Over the years, several pilots have come to me for a seaplane rating, “So I can fly up to my cabin in an hour instead of driving three and a half hours each way most weekends throughout the summer.” This is a very impractical concept. Unless one owns or shares ownership in a seaplane, it is next to impossible to get the use of one. Literally no one will rent a seaplane, even to a qualified pilot, and if shared ownership is involved, all the owners will want to use it on weekends. And if it is a floatplane rather than an amphibian, there is always the joy of lugging several jerrycans of avgas to fuel the beast, unless, of course, one has an autogas STC. Although it is lots of fun to splash around on the water with a seaplane, as a practical means of transportation, seaplane flying offers little more than soaring (with a glider) or ballooning. It is simply not practical, but it sure is fun.
Then, of course there was the concept of the “roadable airplane,” one of which enjoyed a modicum of success, largely because it was promoted by a popular movie actor. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, it was every man’s dream to have a car/plane in his garage with which he could commute to work above the road traffic. This same concept prompted the introduction and sale of several gyrocopters. Take off from your backyard and land in the parking lot of your office building, again commuting above the road traffic. None of these ideas proved practical, but that didn’t stop some people from wasting money on them. And when the ultralights were first introduced, some folks thought this was the solution. They were advertised as simple, easily built (assembled), operated without any regulatory restrictions, with zero training, and no licensing was required. Again, that didn’t work out, and today the ultralight industry is pretty much regulated. It has become a sport thing with no real practical application. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this if that’s your cup of tea.
Anyone Can Do It
In response to a previous column of mine, a reader, Sid Knox, wrote:
I remember a Cessna poster that hung on the walls of FBOs in the ’60s. It showed a sort of hillbilly-looking guy in overalls with a silly grin, and the caption went something like, ‘If I can fly, anyone can fly.’ Yes, and I have known people who have no business behind the wheel of a car. They can start it and aim it towards where they want to go, and usually, because everything goes well, nothing untoward occurs … but just as in an airplane, we train and hope to be competent when the unexpected rears up and grabs us around the neck…
If I remember correctly, the guy in the poster (which also ran as an ad in general-circulation popular magazines) had a straw hanging from between the large gaps in his teeth. This poster no doubt lured some people to undertake flight instruction, resulting in an inordinate number of dropouts when they realized the amount of work involved in flight training. And, of course, there were the ads by the Engineering and Research Company (ERCO), the manufacturer of the Ercoupe, that proclaimed that if you could drive a car, you could fly a ‘Coupe. These ads were run in many magazines of general interest, the purpose of which was to entice the average person to buy an Ercoupe and use it much as one would use the family automobile. This didn’t work either, but it certainly did convey a false impression. And even today, some of the light-plane manufacturers run ads showing a family having a picnic with one of their products in the background and a caption extolling the freedom of getting much farther away from home in an airplane than in the family automobile.
Sell the Product
Of course, the object of the manufacturer is to sell the product it makes. That’s why the light-plane manufacturers practically force their dealers to operate flight schools using their bottom-of-the-line trainer, the idea being that if you train in a model built by that company, you will buy a model made by that company. This system has enjoyed quite a bit of success. If the student trains in a Cessna 150/152, he is likely to buy a Skyhawk (C172) or a Skylane (C182), and ultimately to move up to a Cessna twin. Likewise, if he trains in a Piper Tomahawk or Warrior, he is more likely to buy an Archer or an Arrow, and then a Seneca, than something else. And so it is with Beech. If the dealer (or manufacturer) can get the student to start in a Skipper or Sundowner, he is more likely to buy a Bonanza or Baron than something else. This technique has proven quite successful.
Personally, running a flight school not affiliated with a specific manufacturer, I have always felt that the flight school has a duty to train its students to fly airplanes, not an airplane. Consequently, most of my students, by the time they go for their practical test, are endorsed for solo in a C172, a Warrior, and a Grumman-American trainer. By blending the training in the different makes and models, along with the required training, it can add as much as $60 or $70 to a $3000 to $4000 investment. And what’s the first thing a new private pilot does after training in a C150/C152 and acquiring his certificate? He rushes right out and checks out in a C172! How much better to have accomplished this along the way?
In the case of many regulated activities or organizations, as soon as one meets the requirements and becomes a member, he lobbies for making the entrance requirements more stringent. This doesn’t seem to be the case with aviation. Most pilots act as recruiters, urging their friends to take up flying. Almost everyone who takes a friend for an airplane ride attempts to get the friend interested in learning to fly. And I think this is a good thing. Because we are a relatively small group, few in numbers, we are virtually without power. Gun owners, pet lovers, and other such large groups wield enormous power in terms of dealing with the government regulatory agencies. We, on the other hand, are comparatively weak. We lack clout with the Congress. If there were a lot more of us it might be different, and perhaps the FAA, which has been said to enjoy a cult of non-accountability, would become accountable for its actions. Consequently, misconceptions aside, it behooves all of us to encourage everyone to learn to fly, even though there are some people who just don’t belong in the air.
Since man first took to the air, there has been a mystique surrounding aviation. Most people have no understanding of what holds that thing up in the air, defying the law of gravity. The whole idea of lift is foreign, and this makes it seem like magic. Then there’s that superman – the pilot. Look what he can do! He can actually take that thing off the ground and bring it safely back to mother earth. Unfortunately, many of us encourage this misconception of the prowess of the pilot. It is nice to have people believe we are special, when in reality the whole thing is rather prosaic: The flying machines all respond to immutable laws of nature, and we who operate them simply have learned how to make them do so. They do, however, operate in an unnatural environment. Man was meant to travel on the surface of the earth, and although we can swim in the water, we cannot flap our wings and fly in the air as do the birds.
Many pilots who enjoy flying and want to share it with their friends are guilty of misleading the very people they are trying to interest in aviation by oversimplifying the ease with which one can become a pilot. They preach the misconceptions as though they are the gospel, thus perpetuating the myths. In effect, we go overboard in our attempt to recruit friends and family into the ranks of aviators. We take someone for an airplane ride, hand ’em the yoke, and say, “Here, you take control. See how simple it is?” And although in reality it is fairly simple, it does take a lot of training and practice to make it so.
Once the newly minted pilot has his or her certificate, more misleading occurs. The new pilot is barraged with enticements to buy an airplane. And the virtues of ownership are again oversimplified and the victim is again misled. The prospective owner frequently has no idea what he or she is getting into. Routine maintenance, annuals, avionic upgrades, etc., are likely to stretch the budget beyond its limit. Storage (hangar or tie-down) and insurance invariably cost more than anticipated. And how about the cost of operation? It is a lot more than merely putting fuel in the beast. In fact, even at today’s prices, putting gas in the tanks is the cheapest thing one can do to an airplane. And let’s not forget engine reserve. Under bare-bones Part 91 operations, the TBO (Time Between Overhauls) is merely a recommendation, and not mandatory, but unless the airplane is flown regularly and often, the engine probably won’t make it to TBO. (On the other hand, if flown regularly and often, and the oil changed regularly and often, it well may exceed the recommended TBO by hundreds of hours.) These are all things that should be considered and usually aren’t when contemplating the purchase of an airplane.
I’m sure there are a great many more subtle misconceptions regarding becoming a pilot and/or owning an airplane, but the above come to mind right off the top.
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