Pete runs a dental practice and learned to fly so he could transport his family to and from their vacation retreat in Ogden, Utah, without all the hassles of airline travel. Andy is a relatively young entrepreneur who made it big in video games and learned to fly as one of his rewards. And Patty pursued an aviation career, flight instructed, flew charter and eventually climbed atop the aviation pyramid: She now flies Airbus 330s across the pond for US Airways.
Then there’s me. I learned to fly because I was an enthusiastic airport kid who knew airplanes would be part of my life, one way or another. Early on (very early on), I washed airplanes in Alaska in both summer and winter for the privilege of flying with their owners. I shagged parts, swept hangars and generally ran errands for access to the sky. Long before I was eligible to log my first hour, I knew the difference between an aileron and a longeron, an elevator and a stabilator, a locomotive engineer and a flight engineer.
When I began working on my private ticket in 1965, rental trainers, typically Piper Colts, cost about (wait for it)…$7 per hour and instructors charged $2 per hour. When I passed my private checkride six months later, my out-of-pocket expenses totaled a munificent $700.
Okay, I’m well aware that flight training is a lot more expensive today, typically by a factor of at least seven (and, no, the CPI probably hasn’t jumped sevenfold). Flying costs what it costs, and without going into a long financial analysis, I’ll neither defend nor decry the expense.
But I’ll tell you this: The $700 I spent back in 1966 was absolutely the best investment I’ve ever made, worth far more than my 10,000 shares of IBM (not). I wouldn’t consider trading the experiences I’ve had in the sky for anything.
Before I go any further in extolling the joys and virtues of learning to fly, I’m well aware I may be preaching to the choir. The majority of Plane & Pilot’s 250,000 readers are probably already pilots and don’t need to be told about the wonders of the sky.
A sizeable number of readers, however, may have been on the fence about flying for years, perhaps intimidated by the commitment of time and/or money necessary for the private pilot license and even more reluctant to calculate the cost of the instrument rating (a necessary add-on if you hope to use the license in nonperfect weather conditions).
Training time hasn’t changed much since the ’70s, but cost has. The combination of elevated fuel prices, rising insurance rates and other factors has driven aircraft prices (and therefore rental rates) up and up. Even if you economize wherever possible and rent old-dog, beat-up 150s from rural flight schools where overhead and rates are low, you’re unlikely to get by for less than $5,000.
If you understand a little about what flying can do for you, however, you can better appreciate the value of the private pilot certificate. A pilot’s license is one of the most valuable skills you can add to your personal résumé, regardless of whether it enhances your business prospects, improves your ability to attract the opposite sex or simply boosts your ego. There’s a certain synergy to flying that grants benefits greater than the sum of its parts.
Those on the outside looking in believe that general aviation is all about transportation, and for some people, that’s probably true. Private aircraft allow you to fly where you want, when you want and with whom you wish, and you’re guaranteed your luggage will arrive at the same time and place you do. Unless you live in the Midwest, can drive almost exclusively on the interstates and are able to avoid the county mounties, you’ll be lucky to average more than about 55 mph (47 knots) on a typical trip, even if you can blaze along in your BMW at 75 mph (65 knots) most of the time.
In contrast, many of the fixed-gear, personal aircraft can easily fly at three times that 47-knot average, plus flying usually allows you to navigate shorter, great-circle routes, avoiding almost invariably longer highways and surface roads. In a similar sense, there are no tailwinds on the highway. If the limit is 70 mph, you’d better watch your mirror as closely as the road ahead as you cruise along comfortably at 80 to 85 mph. For all those reasons, the actual speed advantage of flying over driving in many parts of the country may be more like quadruple rather than triple.
But we’ll give you credit for figuring that out on your own. You don’t have to be a pilot to understand that airplanes are nearly always faster than cars in practically all respects. An airplane’s speed is more a result than a reason. Flying’s almost hypnotic effect on pilots is related to more than mere travel efficiency.
Some aviators utilize airplanes to perform jobs that few other machines can manage. Ranchers herd cattle and sheep with them, farmers seed and spray crops with airplanes, bush pilots fly to places without runways, aerobatic pilots perform maneuvers that only the birds can duplicate. There was even a company in south Florida that rented a wide, comfortable, single-engine airplane to creative couples for inventive dates at 5,280 feet (you figure it out). In short, there are a myriad of tasks a private aircraft can accomplish that simply can’t be done nearly as efficiently (or sometimes not at all) in any other mode.
Flying is more than simply work or play, however. To many of us, it’s practically an end in itself, regardless of the type of airplane, number of engines or who we’re impressing with what obviously must be Superman talents. Just as the astronauts look down from low earth orbit and wish they could share the view with everyone on the planet, most pilots savor the experience of aviation and want everyone to enjoy the same thrill.
We hold the sky with the same reverence as sailors grant the sea. Yes, many of us do use our airplanes as tools for business, but we also regard the sheer act of flying—the simple joy of lifting off the ground and committing our lives to the laws of gravity, aerodynamics and the vagaries of wind and weather—as something far more sacred.
Even if we don’t fully understand Bernoulli’s principle, keep forgetting how to read a weather sequence or can’t recall the difference between Class D and E airspace, we’re all equally entitled to be enchanted by the sky. For many of us, flying is nearly a religion. It may not matter where we’re going or how long it will take to get there. The point is that we are there.
Senior Editor Bill Cox is a 14,000-hour student pilot who’s still learning to fly. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected]