Looking out across 100 different shades of blue, broken up by sandbars swirled like the inside of a marble, I banked the trusty Cessna 182 Skylane toward the pink-sand beaches of Eleuthera—one of the islands in The Bahamas. Soaring just a few hundred feet above the waves, we could make out a few palapas and the gleaming white cottage where we’d spend the week island- hopping in this tropical Eden. Only from the air could we see the outlines of shipwrecks and sea life around the island. Landing on a quiet airstrip, brushed with tradewinds in the setting sun, we’re greeted with warm smiles. What made this possible? A pilot’s license and a general aviation airplane.
People have dreamed about flying since the beginning of recorded history. That we’ve only been flying for a little over 100 years is miraculous considering how far aviation has come. Today, in the United States, a pilot can hop into a general aviation airplane and fly to whatever destination he or she desires with none of the hassle or cattle-car experiences of the airlines. “General aviation” refers to the world of small aircraft that allows the privilege of flying. From little two-seat trainers to eight-passenger, club-seated turboprops, there’s an entire world out there for the asking. And, the price is a few months of your time, some dedicated study and the cost of a season of golf, skiing or a nice vacation.
Any discussion about learning to fly should start with the elephant in the room: the cost. The media has come to portray aviation as something only the rich can do, which does a great disservice to all of us who work for a living and juggle flying with the demands of families, mortgages and car payments. The unadorned truth is that flying isn’t cheap like, say, bowling, but it’s nowhere near expensive as the public may think. In fact, a sport-pilot certificate can be had today for under $4,000. But, more on that later.
The second question on the minds of non-aviation folk is: How safe is flying? Because plane crashes inexplicably boost news ratings, the media clamors over aircraft accidents like sharks around chum. They often invent danger where there’s none. News reports are peppered with inaccurate and misleading descriptions of airplanes falling out of the sky and disturbing photos showing the aftermath of small airplane accidents.
Flying isn’t risk free. The best science available tells us that, at its worst, general aviation is about as risky as driving a motorcycle. If you eliminate the puzzling absurdity of running out of fuel because of carelessness or running into a mountain because of poor planning, aviation can be as safe as driving—often safer. To offer some raw statistics: 2013 saw 35,200 motorists die on America’s highways. During that same time period, 560 people died in recreational boating accidents, while general aviation saw 387 fatalities—the lowest since World War II. With proper training, flying can be an activity with minimal risk. There are plenty of aviators with tens of thousands of hours in their logbooks who are tangible proof of that. Risk, of course, is relative.
For the uninitiated, flying seems complex with many confusing paths to the cockpit, a strange jargon and a complicated array of ratings and certificates. What does it mean to be a pilot? And can the average person become one?
Paths To The Cockpit
It’s important to distinguish between two types of pilots: professional pilots and what we’ll call “private pilots.” Private pilots include all the categories of pilots who don’t get paid to fly. They do it for recreation, sport or transportation. This category includes three types of pilot certificates: the private, sport and recreational certificates.
Professional pilots include those who fly for the airlines, corporate flight departments, charter or cargo operations, banner towing or any type of flying for hire. A commercial pilot certificate is required to fly professionally, and it requires more time and money to earn than the private pilot certificate. There are additional ratings beyond that to become an airline captain. The path to each type of cockpit is different and the distinctions important.
Whether professional or private, there are three routes to the cockpit: The traditional path has always been to become a military pilot first and then transition to the airlines after the enlistment commitment. That’s no longer the case, as the military has shrunk its pilot force, budget cuts have curtailed aircraft and fuel allowances, and the overall military machine has shriveled to a fraction of what it once was. Today, being selected as a pilot candidate in the military is more competitive than ever, and the number of retiring pilots is only a trickle. Becoming a military pilot is still an option, but think of it as getting accepted to Juilliard or Yale. Actually, tougher.
The second route is the training academy. These are civilian flight training facilities that typically include bachelor’s or associate degree programs built into the flight curriculum. Graduates go from zero flight time to graduating as commercial pilots with an aviation degree—many with jet time under their belts. Some academies like ATP—the largest flight training academy in the United States—don’t include degree programs and concentrate only on getting pilots ready for regional airlines or other professional cockpits.
The third path is called the “FBO” route. FBO stands for “Fixed Base Operator” and means a local flight school that’s a privately operated business. There are some 3,330 public-use, federally funded small airports in the United States. There are an additional 16,000 airstrips, heliports, seaplane bases and miscellaneous landing facilities. Many of these general aviation airports host a flight school or two. Anybody can walk into one of these flight schools and begin training, from zero hours all the way to commercial ratings and beyond.
There are advantages to each. Flight training is expensive (costs approaching $80,000 for all ratings necessary to fly for regional airlines), and different options offer different costs and benefits, along with downsides. For example, the military route won’t cost you anything, and the quality of training is literally worth millions of dollars. But, there’s a 10-year service commitment in the Air Force, as well as constant relocation.
Academies will train you quickly, but four-year aviation universities like Embry-Riddle could cost you $200,000 or more over four years. Meanwhile, local FBOs could save you money and let you proceed at a relaxed pace, but you may be wrestling with maintenance delays or changing instructors frequently (instructor turnover at FBOs can sometimes be high). There’s no right path to the cockpit. In aviation, everybody’s journey is different.
Modern Flight Training Vs. Yesteryear
Anybody considering flight training wonders what that training is like. Thousands of YouTube channels have sprung up documenting individuals’ progress through “typical” flight training, and they’re a good firsthand view of what to expect. Modern technology has brought big changes to flight training, and if you think you knew what it was like before, you may want to look again.
Today’s fleet of trainers has moved far beyond Cessna 152s, 172s and Piper Cubs. Though you can still find those, today’s flight school is more likely to have a slew of light-sport aircraft (LSA). These are lightweight, fun and only carry two people. They typically rent for around $100/hour and represent a good bargain for students. They’re easy on fuel, and are maneuverable and easy to maintain.
Many trainers today have glass cockpits, meaning the old, round-dial instruments have been replaced by large LCD or LED displays that look like computer monitors and present comprehensive information to the pilot—rivaling what was available on airliners just a decade ago. Students learn to monitor and run these systems, and how to deal with vast amounts of information and automation.
Along with glass cockpits comes FADEC (full authority digital engine control), meaning one-lever performance adjustment with assistance from an onboard computer. The days of leaning mixture and using carburetor heat are starting to fade, being ushered out by these intelligent engine performance analyzers.
While your instructor may have followed a syllabus consisting of various maneuvers and performance standards, today’s flight instructor will use scenario-based training, which puts students into real-life flying situations. For example, instead of doing turns around a point, an instructor will tell the student they have to do pipeline patrol and scope out a specific section of pipe, learning to do the maneuver within the context of the scenario. Research shows this type of training better prepares students for real-world flying.
Modern trainer cockpits now carry GoPro or Garmin VIRB cameras to record student performance, and cockpit communications are recorded onto digital devices for review and critique. VORs and NDBs are disappearing as GPS navigation obliterates these antiquated land-based facilities. iPads have taken over in the cockpit, being used for everything from checklists to flight planning and weather.
|COMPARISON OF PILOT CERTIFICATES|
|The sport-pilot certificate was created to bring more people into aviation. Though it has some restrictions, the truth is it’s the perfect way to get into flying, especially if becoming a commercial pilot isn’t in your list of goals. The sport certificate was created for people who just want to fly for the thrill, beauty and experience. Meanwhile, The private pilot certificate remains the “gateway” certificate for all other ratings. It’s a must if flying might be your career. The private certificate allows you to carry more than one passenger and fly at night, in complex airspace and in heavier aircraft.|
The Cost Of Freedom
Flying can be as expensive—or inexpensive—as a person wants. While a private pilot certificate will cost $10,000-$14,000 depending on training location and your learning ability, the sport-pilot certificate can be earned for less than $4,000. The difference between the two is the number of passengers you can carry and the maximum performance of the airplane.
Many people who learn to fly don’t ever want to get paid for it. They fly for the pure love of flying, the experience and the almost meditative therapy it provides. It’s for these people that the sport-pilot certificate was introduced in 2005.
The sport certificate allows a pilot to fly alone or carry one passenger, in an aircraft that weighs 1,320 pounds or less, at altitudes under 10,000, during the day. Other privileges can be added with more training. The considerable benefit of this rating is that it can be earned in 20 hours of flight time—half of the private pilot certificate minimums. That also means it can be earned in weeks instead of months. If flying for the beauty of the experience is what you crave, the sport-pilot certificate is the way to go.
Ongoing costs can be manageable for either sport or private pilots. Aircraft are expensive, with LSAs selling for an average of $150,000 and fully certified, standard-category aircraft selling for $350,000 and up, brand new. Partnerships, flying clubs and used aircraft can bring that cost way down. For example, a nice, well-equipped, 1940s Cessna 140 in great condition can be had for $25,000. With a fuel burn of four gallons per hour, operating costs run $25-$50/hour. Insurance, maintenance and a hangar can be added to that to come up with a true cost of ownership. Multiple owners make that burden much lighter. It’s a great way to own an airplane.
Meanwhile, gyroplanes and motorgliders have taken Europe by storm and are turning heads here with purchase costs at $50,000 and under, ultra short-field takeoff and landing runs, trailerability and ease of maintenance from their proven, tank-like Rotax engines.
Ultimately, flying is fuel for the soul. The experiences and people aren’t like anything—or anyone—else. There are active pilots who are 100 years of age and are still flying, entranced by its transformative quality. Learning to fly will challenge you in ways you never thought possible and will reveal a different you than you ever thought existed. Only by flying by your own hand can you learn the secrets of the sky and the special, soul-filling language of the aviator.
|AVIAT’S REIMAGINED CESSNA TRAINERS|
AOPA and Aviat Aircraft (manufacturers of the Husky, Christen Eagle and Pitts biplane) have launched an innovative, new concept that’s both fascinating and ingenious: They’ve partnered to introduce a “reimagined” training aircraft based on the idea of a completely rebuilt Cessna 150 and Cessna 152.
AOPA wants to open new doors to aviation by exploring the concept that aircraft ownership can be made more accessible and affordable to partnerships, flying clubs and flight schools using older aircraft. Last year, they purchased some 12 Cessna 150 and 152 trainers and then took them to Aviat’s Afton, Wyo., plant to rebuild the aircraft from the ground up using Aviat’s highly skilled factory technicians.
The concept is that an older aircraft, when updated from spinner to tail, represents a great bargain, and a way to bring down the cost of aircraft ownership and operation. The goal is to bring more people into aviation by offering an aircraft that can be purchased for under $100,000 and operated for $65/hour or less. It appears the concept has been proven, as Aviat president, Stu Horn, tells us, “We’re currently sold out through June 2015.” The Reimagined 150 and 152 aircraft are available for purchase through Aviat.
The Cessna 150 and 152 were AOPA’s choice to test this concept because they’re dependable, simple to maintain, inexpensive to operate, widely available and fun to fly. Cessna built a total of 23,948 150s in their heyday, along with 7,585 of the more powerful 152s (with the Lycoming O-235 engine). “A lot of these have gone to the overseas market,” says Horn, “but there are some 30% of the fleet still available here.”
The refurbishing process was an almost ground-up rebuild of the aircraft, and included a complete overhaul of the engine to zero-time tolerances, total disassembly and inspection of the entire airframe, wings, seats, panel, wiring and everything else. All components were brought to new condition through manufacturing of brand-new parts, remanufacture, overhaul or rebuild. Plexiglas, seatbelts, hardware and upholstery were replaced, while panels were redone with new or overhauled instruments. The panel includes a Garmin Aera 550 (Aera 560 is optional), Garmin GTR 225 radio, Garmin GTX 327 transponder, PS Engineering PM3000 audio panel and options for additional analog gauges.
The whole airplane is finished off in a sharp yellow-and-black motif (recalling the classic Husky yellow and black), complete with a totally new interior, redesigned wheel pants and anti-collision lighting. It’s a good-looking airplane and is sure to be a hot rental for whichever FBO is smart enough to grab one before they’re gone.
The 150Reimagined base price is $89,900, with the 152Reimagined base price at $99,900. A flight school or flying club that operates one of these for 700 hours per year will see hourly costs of $65, which includes annuals, tie-down fees, insurance, 100-hour inspections, overhaul and maintenance reserves, and oil changes. It’s a turnkey trainer or spiffy hot rod for a small partnership or group.
“What we’re seeing are flight schools and groups purchasing these airplanes,” explained Horn. And if we had an economics guy running the business, they would be priced about $50,000 higher.” He explained that the concept of refurbishing a solid training platform to new standards is valid today. “The buyer gets a ‘real airplane’ that is established and has proven itself, with insurance and financing costs that are attractive. It makes sense in a lot of ways.”
AOPA has already been working with banks and insurance underwriters to confirm that the Reimagined Aircraft can be easily financed and insured. For example, partnerships have the option of a 10 or 15-year amortization, can put just 25% down and have payments ranging from $550 to $760 a month for the 150Reimagined or $632 to $846 for the 152Reimagined. Flying clubs can do even better. Insurance premium estimates for flying clubs range from $1,400 to $4,100 and from $1,000 to $1,500 for partnerships, depending on the number of people in the partnership. AOPA Insurance Services offers an annual premium to flight schools for $6,000 to $7,000.
For more information, visit Aviat Aircraft at www.aviataircraft.com/aviat_aircraft_reimagined.htm.
|PRIVATE PILOT GROUND SCHOOL COURSES|
|There are two components of learning to fly: first is the skill to be able to maneuver the aircraft as needed. The second is the knowledge necessary to fly an aircraft safely and plan flights. This includes study areas like meteorology, navigation, aerodynamics and aircraft systems. These study areas are often called ground school. Today, we have the luxury of doing our ground school study in the comfort of our own home. Available in both online (web browser or tablet) and DVD formats, these full-spectrum courses include everything you need to earn your private pilot certificate. Many of these ground school “kits” include the course itself, along with textbooks, sample written exams, study guides, maneuvers guides, navigation tools and even a basic flight bag. They’re a great bargain and allow a student to purchase a standardized course that includes everything they need to learn and to learn it at their own pace.
What To Look For
Online courses differ from DVD courses in that changes and updates are provided immediately. Always confirm your desired course is available in the format you want (for example, not all courses play on iPads).
Good ground school kits include everything the student pilot needs to earn his or her private certificate, so look for key items that should include:
• A good core textbook/manual
Look for differences in what “extras” you get with the course, such as a PTS booklet or E6-B computer.
Each brand is unique in feel and presentation. Some are more friendly and “folksy,” while others are more flashy and high-tech with their graphics approach. Since each individual’s learning style is different, there’s a starter kit out there for everyone. Take advantage of free trials, “sneak-peeks” and online demos to get a feel for each brand’s style before you buy. Remember that used courses are also a great buy (if they’re current) and can be found online at various sites.
Models And Manufacturers
King Schools Private Pilot Kit
Two-Day Weekend Ground Schools
In addition to home-study courses, a few companies offer an accelerated, two-day ground school to help you pass your written exam. These are intensive and throw a lot of information at you in a short amount of time. Think of these as “cram courses” that don’t give you a good foundation of knowledge, but help you pass the exam. In other words, they should be used on conjunction with a good, solid home study or on-site full ground school class.
|Aviation Seminars||Offered at locations across the country and on varying days and times.
|Aviation Ground Schools||Intensive two-day course held in hotels around the country.
|American Flyers||Weekend ground school at various American Flyers locations.
|Dauntless FAA Exam Prep||Online and mobile device courses. Free lifetime updates.
|Pilot Training Solutions||Online course only. Affordable and study at your own pace.
|Pro Aviation Trainers||Live, instructor-led online training. 10-week and two-day weekend course available.
|HEALTH AND DISABILITY|
|Probably the greatest misconception in aviation is that you have to have perfect health to fly. While you do have to be healthy from a medical standpoint (without debilitating chronic issues), many conditions or disabilities won’t keep you from flying.
One example is monocular vision (vision in only one eye). There are thousands of monocular pilots flying every day without issue. As with many medical conditions, a pilot with one eye or with vision loss equivalent to monocular may be considered for medical certification, any class, through the special issuance procedure. That involves some time requirements (six months since loss of vision), a complete evaluation by an eye specialist on FAA Form 8500-7, and a “medical flight test” where an examiner ensures the condition doesn’t cause safety issues and the pilot can fly normally.
Most people don’t know that extends to those with disabilities ranging from missing limbs to those who are paraplegic. Paraplegics don’t comply with the FAA medical certification requirements, but they can get a medical certificate with a Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA), just like monocular pilots.
During the SODA flight, the pilot must demonstrate his or her ability to reach and operate all the controls, and to perform relevant emergency procedures like steep turns, slow flight and stall recovery. If an applicant can fly the airplane safely to the practical test standards, there should be no problem in getting the SODA.
Since a paraplegic pilot can’t use both feet in the cockpit, they need a hand control to operate the rudder. Hand controls are available that can either be portable or will install in the airplane permanently. Permanent hand controls are installed under an approved supplemental type certificate (STC). Most portable controls bolt onto one of the rudder pedals. It’s a metal bar that extends up through the throttle quadrant. The pilot controls the rudder by moving the handle up and down, while a hand lever applies the brakes.
Today, the most recognized organization that helps disabled people earn their pilot certificate is Able Flight (www.ableflight.org). Able Flight’s mission is to offer people with disabilities a unique way to challenge themselves through flight training and, in doing so, to gain greater self-confidence and self-reliance. Able Flight was created by pilots who believe that learning to fly is a life-changing experience, and they offer several scholarships to enable people with disabilities to pursue that experience. Able Flight encourages people with a variety of physical disabilities to apply for one of their four different levels of scholarship.
Meanwhile, The FAA has an excellent website that describes disabling medical conditions, how to get medical waivers and evaluations, and a complete directory of medical examiners. The database of “frequently asked questions for pilots” is comprehensive. Visit www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/medical_certification/faq.