The Pilot's Lounge #91: To Fly; Perchance To Starve

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In the minds of many of the ''great unwashed,'' general aviation is the realm of the very rich. After looking into the cost of getting a Private Pilot certificate, some potential student pilots might tend to agree. AVweb's Rick Durden tries to bring those costs down in this month's column.

The Pilot's Lounge

I was in one of the big, tattered recliners in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, checking e-mail. It's the way many of the regulars at the Lounge keep in touch. I enjoy the give and take of our exchanges, and from time to time I get comments or questions that raise issues many of us face in aviation and deserve further exploration. Those are the times when I enjoy writing this column even more; it becomes a forum in which I can put the comment or question out to so very many sharp, thoughtful people who read AVweb. They invariably come up with good answers or approaches to the problem. In order to justify getting paid that princely sum that AVweb Editorial Director Paul Bertorelli sends my way (unfortunately, the bribes and kickbacks to him take nearly all of it), I also have to present some ideas of my own. I fully recognize that often my ideas are not nearly as good as what I'll see in the feedback section of AVweb in the days after the column appears.

I received the following email (slightly edited) from one Aaron Gold, who is obviously creative and determined and who wants to find a way to learn to fly without putting his family and himself in the poorhouse:

"Hey Rick --You (and other AVweb columnists) have often raised the issue of what it would take to get more people into the air. As a wannabe/armchair pilot (Flight Simulator), I thought I'd share my thoughts with you, but it all boils down to one thing: Money.

"I've got about 1.6 hours of time in my logbook. A friend of mine is a pilot with passion; he flew for a commuter airline for a while and has moved into the corporate pilot world. He's been my CFI for my first two real-world flights. I also have managed to get some time with him in a full-motion simulator, where I flew instrument approaches. (I did great 'till we broke out of cloud and could see the runway; then I promptly biffed.)

"Anyway, my friend has offered his services as a CFI for free; even so, with the rental fees we estimate it would cost around $5,000 to get my license. I am 33, have two kids and child-support payments, and as of next Saturday will be married for the second time. Life just ain't cheap, and much as I want to learn to fly, I just don't have the money to do it. Time factor is another issue; I know I can't get my license by flying once or twice a month. If plane rental was $40 or $50 per hour, that'd be much easier to swallow; $250 for a solid weekend of instruction is do-able. But at $90/hr it just can't happen. With high gas prices and intense maintenance costs, I understand why planes are so expensive to rent. I also understand why it takes highly skilled maintenance to keep these planes going. But until the costs of operating an airplane come down, it'll be hard for us wannabes to get our wings. And never mind owning ... I've read enough to know that there's a reason old, inexpensive planes are so inexpensive. Ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

"And even if I did learn to fly, when would I use the skills? Just read a column about flying vs. driving. I'm a die-hard car guy, but thinking about the drive from L.A. to Phoenix to see my parents, I can see that a flight would be much more desirable than the drive, particularly on the overcrowded I-10 corridor out of the L.A. area.

"So I'd love to be a GA pilot, but right now it still seems like I'd be standing on the doorstep of a rich man's world.

"Would love to do it more ... but for the costs."

Only For the Rich?

Therein lies the problem: Flying has never been cheap. Believe it or not, a lot of folks have done a great deal to keep the cost of flying down. In 1925, rental of the biplanes used for training ran about $60 per hour. Applying inflation, that comes to $649.82 in current dollars. The big drop in the cost of flying occurred in the 1930s with the development of the horizontally opposed or "pancake" engine, which was used in the Aeronca C-2, the C-3 and later in the Taylor and Piper Cubs; all of which, at 35 - 45 horsepower, had the weight and performance of today's ultralights, but which provided a massive reduction in the cost of flying.

I won't get into a discussion of the reasonableness of the costs of flying that could go on for months without a conclusion; suffice to say that it just isn't cheap and isn't going to be in the foreseeable future. (Plus, who can ever justify the cost of a recreational activity? Skiing? Golf? Boating?) The wonderful author Gordon Baxter said it as well as it can be said when it comes to the expense involved with flying: Upon being asked what it costs to learn to fly, he responded, "All you've got."

That being the case, it's time to be creative.

My overall suggestion is that the best time to learn to fly is in high school or college. A young person may be only able to get a minimum-wage job to pay for lessons, but the advantage is that he or she does not yet have the responsibilities and expenses that we accumulate with age. On top of that, we learn a heck of a lot faster when we are young, which makes it cheaper.

If you can't turn back the clock, what can you do if the desire is to learn to fly but there simply isn't enough money available to go out and pay the going rate for a Private Pilot rating?

Do Your Homework

Step one is to read. Gather as much information as you can before spending a cent on flight instruction. Do research on the Internet and read everything you can about learning to fly, flying in general and what sorts of aircraft there are to fly in your area. If you can't afford subscriptions to aviation magazines, go to the library and read everything there on the subject. The idea is to start getting a feel about general aviation and see what looks interesting.

Take some time to think about what attracts you to the sky. Do you have the desire to use an airplane to travel? Is your desire more to get into the air and enjoy the simple act of flight, of moving in the third dimension and looking at our planet from aloft? Does speed matter to you? Do you want to go to other places quickly, or is a leisurely traverse of the countryside acceptable? Speed costs money.

Determine that you are going to do most of your studying on your own. There are many commercial ground schools that will prepare you well for the written examination. If you can learn without being spoon fed, you can save the $400 to $600 that ground school can cost. There are numerous, very good flight training books that you can read on your own. You can buy them used on Ebay, or you may see them advertised on the bulletin board at the airport from a student who has finished and wants to recoup some of the costs.

Self-study pays off beyond the cost of ground school. In preparation for each lesson, your instructor should sit down with you to go over the flight operations that you will cover in the aircraft during that flight. If you have read and understand the material on those operations in advance, the ground portion of the lesson takes less time (and costs less) and you will learn faster and more effectively during the flight portion, saving yourself money.

There is no need to purchase the commercially available Private Pilot written test questions; they are available on the FAA's Web site. Surf the Internet: There is a lot of good information about flying out there that is free for the looking, such as AVweb.

Gliders, Ultralights and More

Do you really want or need a Private Pilot rating obtained in a Cessna 172 or Diamond Star? Do you plan to make trips in which you will be taking more than one passenger with some frequency? If not, the Recreational Pilot rating may be for you. While the FAA is still getting the Sport Pilot rating up and running, it may be ideal for what you want to do, and both the Recreational and Sport Pilot ratings are cheaper to obtain than a Private rating. If you desire to upgrade to a Private rating at a later date, the experience you have gained counts.

It may be that you would prefer to fly sailplanes. In general, they are cheaper to operate than powered aircraft, although they require assistance to get into the sky. The cost of tows to altitude during training often means that a glider rating is every bit as expensive as an airplane rating. However, once you get it, one tow aloft, planned correctly, is all it takes for several hours of flight and the cost per hour becomes most reasonable, especially if you do not succumb to the temptation to fly bigger and more expensive sailplanes.

Ultralights may be the answer for you. The cost is about as reasonable as it gets in aviation and they are one of the most pure expressions of flight known. Don't rule them out because they are small or look different than what you might consider to be an "airplane" -- the designs are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the performance of many exceeds the classics we revere in aviation, such as the Aeronca Champ and Piper Cub.

Take a look at powered parachutes; they fit in the ultralight niche but have their own cachet for those who fly them. You might find them a perfect way to do the kind of flying you wish to do at a reasonable cost.

Believe it or not, consider hot air balloons. The need to fly early in the morning or of an evening and to have a crew means that some coordination is required and it can be tough to do in an urban area. Many communities have hot air ballooning clubs and the rating is surprisingly inexpensive to obtain. The balloon itself is not terribly costly; the propane to fly it for an hour is relatively cheap, although the expense for traditional post-flight beer and champagne for the crew can be significant.

There are those in aviation who tend to look down their noses at those who fly other types of aircraft. Glider pilots lord it over pilots of powered airplanes; ultralights are sniffed at and everyone makes fun of helicopters. It's stupid and counter-productive; but no matter what we do, there is a nasty class-consciousness in our little aviation community. It doesn't do anyone any good (save aircraft salespeople who trade on snob appeal) and it really hurts someone who is learning to fly on a budget. He or she will hear that those "little airplanes" or "gliders" or "ultralights" (take your pick), aren't "real aircraft." The only appropriate response to such slander is an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable, uttered loudly. Anything that gets you up into the sky is real. It's not possible to get any more real than that. Be it balloon, glider, rocket, airplane, helicopter or some combination of those, if it leaves the planet and can stay aloft under control, it's as real as it gets.

Associations and Networking

Join the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). It doesn't cost very much per year and it gives you access to information, which is precisely what you need before you part with your money. Use the airport directory you get as a member to find out all of the airports within striking distance of where you live. Use the directory to find out the identities of the operators and call each one to get information. Some will treat you poorly and you'll discover that a heck of a lot of people in aviation are lousy business people. What's a little scary is that those operators may be the least expensive for flight training -- although you may find that you'll learn to fly in spite of the quality of their instruction, not because of it.

Check out the more rural airports if you can. Their lower cost of operation gets passed on to students. It's cheaper to fly at an airport that does not have a control tower because you tend to spend less airplane time idling on the ground waiting for clearance to take off.

Let your friends know that you want to learn to fly. Networking pays off. You will run across a small number of people who will have information you can use, and will prove to be helpful in your quest. They may be folks who are taking lessons or who fly general aviation airplanes for pleasure or business or are flight instructors. It's a good way to get information regarding the local flights schools and flying clubs. Ignore the half-wits who tell you it's not a good idea; if Wilbur and Orville had listened to the nay-sayers of the world, we'd all be walking today. The vast majority of people in the world are more than willing to tell you why you should not better yourself; why you should not reach for the sky. The tiny majority of people who refuse to listen to those who beetle across the surface of life, chained to a mundane, staid perspective on the world are called pilots.

Flying Clubs

Find out about area flying clubs. Often they are an economical method of learning to fly. They are almost invariably nonprofit organizations with members volunteering to handle the tasks associated with keeping track of airplanes and their health. One of the upsides is that club pilots are notorious for being unwilling to increase rental rates on their flying club airplanes, which makes rentals attractive. The downside is that it often means there is not enough money in the kitty when major maintenance, such as engine or propeller overhaul comes due and then there has to be a general assessment of the members for operating funds.

There is usually some sort of initiation fee, through which you buy some degree of equity in the club, or you may have to buy a share in the organization. It's usually possible to sell your share should you decide to depart, and the shares of good clubs tend to slowly grow in value, so while you'll have some money tied up for a period of time, you should be able to get it back. Flying clubs can be a very good thing, but make sure you see the books before you pay the initiation fee. Also, there may be someone who is moving and thus in a hurry to sell a share and you may be able to negotiate a good price for it.

Check out the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) for a chapter near you. Go to some meetings and get to know the people who build their own airplanes. It can prove to be an excellent source of information on where to learn to fly and you may pick up a mentor who will help you as you go through the flight training process. On top of that, the chances are good that you will make some excellent friends as you get to know those who fly.

There are folks who know an instructor who is willing to give instruction at some reduced rate. If the instructor has an airplane, great. If not, the challenge is finding a flight school, FBO or flying club that will allow the instructor to give dual in their airplanes, and then allow the student to fly them solo. By the time one pays for the instructor to fly for the FBO's chief pilot and get approved, any cost advantage may be lost. Nevertheless, it's worth checking. Don't rule it out, it may work. Consider trading services; if you are a carpenter, for instance, the instructor may need some remodeling ...

Own Your Own

Consider buying an older, two-seat airplane and using it to learn to fly. Depending on tie-down costs at your local airport, and figuring on about $1,500.00 per year for maintenance, it is possible that you can use it to learn to fly and then sell it for more than you paid for it. Airplanes are slowly appreciating in value. You then pay for insurance, fuel and an instructor. If you buy a Cessna 150 or some of the other two-seaters that have adequate instrumentation for the Private Pilot checkride, you may also be able to use autogas in it, and fuel it yourself, further cutting your costs. The downside is, of course, buying a lemon. Before going the buy-it-to-learn-to-fly route, do some homework on aircraft ownership and pay to have a good mechanic do a thorough pre-purchase inspection. It means tying up some money, or at least getting a loan, but because you can sell it after you learn to fly, it doesn't take much appreciation for the net effect to be that you flew for free for 100 hours.

A cautionary word on buying an aircraft when learning to fly: Even though I like them a great deal, I'm hesitant to recommend buying a 1940s- or '50s-era tailwheel airplane for the purpose of learning to fly. They may or may not have adequate instrumentation and radios for the requirements of a rating and it can be tough finding an instructor who is qualified to give dual in one or an examiner who can give a checkride in some of the classics. When I sent a student for a Private Pilot flight test in a Cessna 170 (tailwheel, four-place airplane from the '50s), it took some searching to find an examiner who could give the test in that airplane.

Computer- and Chair-Flying

Use a good flight simulator on your PC. They sure aren't perfect, but they do a very good job of simulating what a pilot sees on the instrument panel and the control inputs are accurate, although the feel is not necessarily realistic. It gives you a leg up for when you get into the airplane because the knowledge does transfer and it will probably help you get a rating in less time.

A flight simulator isn't necessary for success. In the 1920s there was a national radio program that provided what amounted to flying lessons. The props for those who listened and wanted to learn were simply a chair and a broom handle. The broom handle became the stick and the "student" imagined everything else. It works. You don't have to have fancy equipment to learn.

Between lessons, think about flying. It's amazing how important and valuable spending time thinking about flying is. My students who show up for lessons having spent time thinking about what they were going to do learned far, far more quickly than those who did not regularly think about flying between lessons.

The minimum flight time required to obtain a Private Pilot rating is 40 hours; the reality is that it will take more than that to become proficient in the flight operations. The minimum number of hours was set many, many years ago. Since that time the items that are required to be learned and demonstrated on the flight test have increased in number significantly, while the minimum time requirement was never increased. Few, if any, pilots are truly capable of passing an honestly administered Private Pilot practical test at 40 hours total flying time.

Money and Time

Where does one come up with the money? That's a family decision. Mom and dad may each have a certain sum of money each month that is purely their own to spend as they see fit (within reason). If that is the case, the traditional but almost forgotten value of delayed gratification can come into play: Bank it and save it until it gets to the sum needed for flight training. Use the time you are accumulating money to learn all that you can, to visit the EAA chapter, to read flight training materials, to get ready. That way, when the money is ready, you will make the most efficient use of it. Plus, you will value the experience even more, having had to work hard for it. (And, you can hint that a great birthday, Christmas, Hanukah, Arbor Day, Monday present is money toward flying time. You'll certainly value it more than socks, underwear or a tie.)

Where does one find the time? A friend of mine who wanted to learn to fly came up with the best approach I've seen. He and his wife discussed the time commitment he'd have to make to fly. He figured he'd be at the airport about six hours each week, either on the weekend or partially in the evenings during the summer months when the sun set later. She said that she wanted six hours to herself each week, as that was what it would take her to play two rounds of golf with her friends. They agreed that each could have that six hours and that it would be scheduled at least a week in advance. While he was flying, she would spend the time with the kids; when she was playing golf he would spend the time with the kids. They also agreed that they would schedule a certain number of hours that they would be together with the kids each week, giving the example that mom and dad valued time together with the kids and that mom and dad also had individual interests that were supported by the other. He now has a flight instructor rating and a very healthy marriage with two kids who take an active interest in the things their parents like.

Hmmm, flying could be a real family value.

And deferred gratification is certainly a positive value -- so if you can't do it now, promise yourself you will do it someday. A lot of people have learned to fly later in life; it's a gift they have given themselves for meeting those necessary responsibilities in life and the time finally became ripe.

Dream the Dream

What will you do with it after you get the rating you want? Enjoy. What you do with the new skill and knowledge-set you acquire cannot be predicted from this perspective. You may decide you don't like it and don't continue; however, you have exercised your brain and added value to your life. (And if medical folks are to be believed, the learning experience delays the onset of dementia). You may discover that you have found a recreation that is of great value to you, not just for the flying itself, but the overall experience and the people with whom you come into contact.

A friend I respect a great deal once pointed out to me that no educational experience is ever wasted. The fun part is that the result and reward may or may not be even close to what you expected when you started the endeavor.

And, while you are contemplating the costs of learning to fly, after all is said and done, think of how much it will cost you to forego your dream.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.