It’s not as difficult or expensive as you may think.
Has the aviation bug gotten to you lately? Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the last year of social isolation, fear of a dream unfulfilled, or something a relative of yours has accomplished?
This article is the first of what I expect will be several others going into details about my own personal experience navigating the waters of learning to fly, obtaining my license, and my gradual ascent into additional ratings. Hopefully this article as well as the proceeding ones will bring about the reader with a clear understanding of the pros and cons of flying, and not only save them time and money learning to fly, but just as important not wasting time/money on a hobby that might not be compatible with their expectations as to the rewards.
What is ‘General Aviation’?
General Aviation, or simply GA as it’s typically referred to, basically means any civilian aircraft operation that is not used in a commercial capacity (carrying passengers, hauling cargo, etc), or in some sort of aerial work (banner towing, fire abatement). Simply put: aviation for the common person. Undoubtedly, many readers of this article have flown on a passenger jet, whether it be a smaller regional jet, a much larger Boeing 777, or anything in between. If you haven’t flown in a typical GA plane before, there will be considerable adjustments to make. First, they are much louder than your typical passenger jet. As such, headsets are utilized; not only to to spare one’s hearing, but also to effectively communicate to one another in the airplane, as well as to communicate with folks on the ground: ATC, tower controller, automated weather broadcasts, etc. Second, while there’s an advantage of being socially distant within your own close group of friends/relatives, the planes themselves are fairly tight in terms of roominess. Many of the planes you’ll be training in were built anywhere between the 60’s to 90’s, since the airframes themselves tend to be quite resilient to aging and in large part just need engine overhauls and other routine maintenance periodically.
The Right Stuff
What does it take to become a pilot? Perhaps not as much as you may think. Sure it’s a rather challenging road from a patience and knowledge accumulation standpoint, and like most things in life you will experience frustration, learning plateaus, and even the very real possibility that your ambitions are met with the harsh reality of time and money constraints. However, if you plan appropriately, are a decent saver, and charge past the various mental blocks, you will finish the journey and become the proud holder of a private pilot certificate. Perhaps even set your eyes on more advanced ratings that will take you into possibilities not considered before.
First, a few misconceptions out of the way: the majority of planes you will train and eventually fly in with your own passengers are termed “light training aircraft”. Simply put: they are small. Some seat only 2, some are a 2+2 (more on that in a bit). They have 200hp or less engines, and run pretty dirty relative to your average ground based vehicle. You will be enchanted with stories about how you can get from point A to point B much much quicker than a car stuck in traffic. While technically true, this applies with several caveats. First, unless you possess an advanced rating (ie instrument), you can only fly in fair weather conditions. This presents a real issue because there will be plenty of days where you will simply have to cancel that anticipated voyage or revert to car driving as Plan B.
Second, the pre-flight planning is time consuming. Fortunately, it’s done on the ground so you’re not really adding to the voyage time, but if you’re a sane and legal pilot, you are rarely presented with a situation where you just drive the airport, kick the tires and light the fires, then embark on a 100+ mile journey to the beach or mountains. Pre-flight planning has been made much easier with technology such as online aviation weather forecasts and flight planning tools.
Finally, yeah let’s talk about that ‘2+2 seater’ thing I mentioned earlier: technically, there are four available seats on some light trainer planes. In many cases, that doesn’t mean one gets to fit 4 full sized adults into said plane. The term weight and balance becomes a part of your flight planning religion, and in many cases you are dealt with trade-offs on how you takeoff. To the point: You can bring backseat passengers, full tanks, and luggage. Pick 2 (or perhaps in some airplanes, pick 1!). Here’s one story where the dangers of overloading a plane were met with tragic consequences. Also, as is all too often the case in these accidents: the deceased pilot was actually quite experienced.
Now the good news: Despite misconceptions, GA is very safe relative to what others in the non-aviation community have been told. Advancements in technology have armed the pilot with a plethora of useful information that was in the past much more elusive to them. YouTube is full of videos on how to be a better, safer pilot as well as containing numerous videos with accident case studies containing nuggets of valuable takeaways. Being a better pilot can also bring about an awakening in terms of how you perceive the rest of the world and how one goes about their day to day lives. For example: the complex set of decisions involved in planning and executing flights exercises your risk assessment and (purposeful) multitasking skills. You learn to appreciate the tall tales of aviation embedded within movies with a certain level of cynicism. For example: airplanes do not dive into the ground if their engine(s) fail! Airplanes glide down, albeit briskly (level of briskness dependent on things like wing shape as well as the aerodynamic profile), but they do indeed glide down. A well versed pilot who practices these simulated emergencies often finds it possible to not only glide to safety in some open field or road without so much as a minor injury or a few bruises, but even in some cases manage to preserve the plane sufficiently for it to fly another day!
In the next article, I’ll talk about my personal journey a bit and introduce the reader to various tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way that might make the journey a bit easier and perhaps less costly for folks looking to get into the hobby, without sacrificing safety.