Plane & Pilot
Saturday, March 1, 2008

Why Learn To Fly?

The payback can outstrip the cost by a factor of several thousand

x-country logPete 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.
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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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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