Should I learn how to fly?
September 21, 2012 12:46 AM   Subscribe

I took an introductory flight lesson and liked it a lot. Now what? Learning to fly an airplane seems expensive, time consuming, and mostly pointless. Yet I liked it.

I live in Los Angeles, where flying airplanes is expensive (rental-wise) and complicated (lots of big airports around, lots of controlled airspace). Assuming I manage to get a private pilot certificate after some number of months, what will I do with it?

- fly to San Diego or Santa Barbara at $400+ for a round-trip?
- visit non-existent friends in Palm Springs?
- spend a week and thousands of dollars in rental and gas fees trying to fly my way up the coast to visit actual friends in SF or even further north in Oregon?
- fly circles around LA looking at landmarks I kind of already know exist
- to Catalina and back

So, I guess my question is, why do people learn how to fly an airplane (non-professionaly)? Travel by little general aviation planes seems way more expensive than travel by any other means of transportation, and less predictable in timing and duration assuming visual flight rules only. Is there anything else to it? Can anyone explain what I'm missing and how I can help make a decision on whether to embark on this training or not?

(for the record, I'm pretty excited about the _idea_ of flying an airplane, and have been reading books and flying simulators to get better. so if I seem negative on the idea above, it's only because I am trying to be more rational for a change)
posted by haykinson to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I know three people who got private plane licences. Two of them did so because (1) they love flying and (2) they have to fly often for work, and so although flying themselves didn't work out cheaper or easier, it meant they could pursue a well-loved hobby for cheap (since work reimbursed them for some of the cost on work-related trips).

The other two, like you, enjoyed flying, but had no reason to fly often. She got her licence, found it expensive to keep up the flight hours, and eventually lost it through lack of flying.
posted by lollusc at 1:00 AM on September 21, 2012

Sorry, that second paragraph should read "the other one".
posted by lollusc at 1:00 AM on September 21, 2012

You know, I can buy a new knit hat for $10 from 32 stores nearby, or pick up a used one in a charity shop for $1 or $2. But I still knit my own, taking many hours and spending $20 or $30 on awesome wool, to create a very expensive, time-consuming thing that pleases nobody but me.

It's okay to do things that are not practical for the pleasure and satisfaction of doing them.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:13 AM on September 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

For my late uncle, flying was his life. He was kicked out of the RAF after 'borrowing' a plane, then went on to pilot 747s, and later on gained some importance in developing pilot training programmes. He spent his retirement tinkering with a small plane that he put together himself. For him, it was just the thing he did, much as other people gravitate to cooking, working with animals, or doing stuff with computers. Some people find a way to make a career from it (aerial photography, charter flights, crop-spraying) and for others it's purely recreational.

This might be a time to ignore your practical, rational side. Why, after all, do most people go diving or skiing? Because it's fun.
posted by pipeski at 1:13 AM on September 21, 2012

My dad had a private license for about 25 years, beginning about 1960. It was a great hobby for him and great fun for the family. In the summer he would often rent a plane and take the family for a one hour joy ride and IIRC he flew Mom to Peoria/Indianapolis (?) a few times for dinner at a nice restaurant. He even built a little one-seater in the garage (moved it to the local airport when it was time to attach the wings) and later rebuilt a slightly larger plane with a couple of friends. As kids, my brother and I got to hang out at the airport and we attended a few EEA "fly-ins". Dad continued to go to Oshkosh every year until he died.

This was in a small town in eastern Illinois. I don't believe the flying culture has changed a whole lot in my home town, but I don't know how this plays in urban areas.
posted by she's not there at 1:35 AM on September 21, 2012

Consider gliding (aka soaring). Not cheap either but probably cheaper than power flying. You have some legendary soaring sites reasonably near by. Best bit is, there are badges and awards, internationally recognised, for achievements. Like you I love the idea of flying but could never justify the cost of getting a PPL. I've done a couple of trial glider flights and enjoyed them very much. And it's quiet!
posted by Logophiliac at 1:40 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't want to fly into Catalina without a heap of flight hours - that's one dangerous airport.

You CAN fly into this landing strip on the edge of Death Valley fo the most sublime crepes on Earth (havarti and date are my fav!)

I feel like gliding is something you should take up AFTER you become an experienced pilot.

Let's see... I believe the airport you want to consider in LA is Van Nuys.

In short, you've got the bug. It might not go away. You might have to pursue that license!

It's not a game, though. Take flying seriously. For example, no flying into Catalina until you have years of experience.

My dad spent a lot of time on his computer practicing on flight simulators until he was finally able to get his license. My old roommate spent lots of time with charts mapping routes until she finally achieved her license.

BTW, you start this whole process off by signing up for Ground School. No. I don't reccomend doing it online unless you don't plan to ever solo. You're not learning French, y'know? You want to be in a room with an experienced pilot asking questions in a hands-on learning experience, IMHO.

Enjoy. Stay safe.
posted by jbenben at 2:04 AM on September 21, 2012

Seems that if you like it and can afford it, then there's no reason you shouldn't do it, unless you are concerned about the potential indirect financial impact and the non-financial risks of flying. Specifically, it's my understanding that life insurance companies consider aviation to be one of the "dangerous hobbies" that increase premiums. So apparently you would face higher life insurance premiums and would be exposing yourself to some safety risk.
posted by Dansaman at 2:06 AM on September 21, 2012

Have you thought of microlighting? Much cheaper than regular flying and much more failsafe than gliding.
posted by BadMiker at 2:06 AM on September 21, 2012

+1 on checking out microlighting. The key to it is less red tape and beaurocracy than light aviation in most countries.

Then get into a syndicate that has a cheap online booking system and well organised with costs. I suggest having maintenance budgeted in from the start.

It can be as cheap as driving but more fun, less useful and more dangerous.
posted by jago25_98 at 3:07 AM on September 21, 2012

Flying is like rock climbing. It has its dangers, tech, complexity and rewards, the rewards being rather unique.

Doing it confers improved competence in physics, map reading and math, self-control, planning, risk avoidance, self-protection, responsibility. It's unlike many other pursuits if you are looking for a hobby.

In the history of humanity, we have had only the briefest of times to relish prolonged three-dimensional movement in this manner, and powered flight has a lot more complexity than gliding, though gliding has its benefits.

Risky points in the process come when confidence exceeds ability, and if you study the numbers, you will find out when it's wise to stop. People die more frequently at certain hour levels. It's not like a car, where your oversights and cockiness are tolerated more by the physics involved. One little oversight and you're dead. The consequences are more significant and not offset by lower risk, as in flying commercially.

If nothing else, doing it gives you perspective and appreciation that is hard to get many other ways. It's almost a right of passage with engineers. A lot of them take up sailing or flying since they are soooooo similar in many ways.

It's hardly practical for any but the most peculiar transportation, for instance if you routinely traverse distances common in the west or Alaska, etc., but as a learning challenge and self-improvement exercise, it's really good.

Doing it to get a private pilot's license has a defined cost (more or less), a certain schedule, a specific goal, the thrill of soloing, the independence of navigation to a destination, the tech smarts of what's involved when you fly Delta or whatever, and like rock climbing, when it's done well it's zen... nothing but you and the rock or you and the air. If you can afford it, I think it's as good as spending 10-20k on something with no residual aspects. I would not recommend it, personally, as anything other than a transient hobby, which is how I approached it. Been there, done that. Carrying on beyond the simplest license to either instrument ratings or commercial licensing seems less worthwhile unless it is in your blood.

Check your insurance, too. One prior employer had all sorts of clauses that excluded piloting, and other statistically riskier fun things. OTOH, I worked once for Raytheon who owned Beech Aircraft at the time, and they encouraged business use of personal aircraft, going so far as to reimburse you like you were using your car to travel to a distant meeting.

What else can you do between birth and death? Could be fun. LAX ain't the place I'd choose, though.
posted by FauxScot at 3:51 AM on September 21, 2012

I had to look twice to check I hadn't asked this question - I just moved closer to a small UK airfield partly for this reason and now it's coming to taking the plunge with ground school I have the same worries as you.

I don't honestly think I can justify the cost in any practical sense, but on the other hand I've been saving with the PPL in mind for five years, I live modestly and I don't have that money earmarked for anything else (house savings are separate). I'm not yet certain that I need or want to go the whole hog but I'm going to sign up for some initial hours and see how I get on.

It's such a natural, primal instinct - to gaze at the skies and want to soar. We are so lucky to be alive at a point in history where we can access the means to fly relatively safely.

Some things you do just because you can.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:08 AM on September 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I got my pilot's license at age 49. It was for no practical reason, other than the adventure and the challenge. Yes, it is expensive. But some of the best days of my life have been spent in that little airplane seeing the world from 5000 ft.

Work hard to solo as quickly as it is safe. That reduces the cost of having the flight instructor with you all the time.

Find a flying club. It is the cheapest way to get flight time. Plus, you'll have a group of mentors cheering you on.

If you'd like some websites with forums for student pilots, just ask. They were very helpful to me.
posted by Jandasmo at 4:26 AM on September 21, 2012

Back in the ancient days of yore (50's? 60's?) people had a lot more free time and much more work stability - Faced with this problem, they used to build their own airplanes, and the Experimental Aircraft Association was born to support homebuilt aircraft.

Building your own aircraft requires a LOT of time, but (in the long run) saves you a lot of money - Not the least of which is because - since you built it - you also are allowed to maintain it, which cuts maintenance fees way down.

But you need to have a LOT of free time, or be really good at managing the time you have, in order to have a working plane while you're still young enough to pass the medicals to fly it.(*)

(* - If your age is seriously causing you considerations, take a look at the LSA catagory of aircraft and pilot's licence.)
posted by Orb2069 at 4:30 AM on September 21, 2012

I have a friend who has gone the "just for fun" route. We went up with him once and aside from the whole barfing thing, OH HEY THERMALS it was pretty cool. We're in an area with some pretty great scenery, so it was a beautiful way to spend a fall morning.

He belongs to a co-op that keeps a few older four-seaters in a hangar on the private side of our airport. It's great because he can work his way up to larger and more complicated planes without shelling out. He's done things like taking his partner up to a small town on the Mississippi -- otherwise about three hours away -- just to have dinner. Because they can.

Go for it! Your friends will all go "oooooh!"
posted by Madamina at 5:14 AM on September 21, 2012

I know a few licensed pilots - one is a commercial pilot for SWA, most are are not though. One guy I know decided to learn to fly helicopters, and one of my customers soars in gliders. Like a lot of hobbies, you do it for the process and not necessarily for the end result alone. Flying, beekeeping, knitting, and so on - all have a learning curve, and mastering that curve is a big part of the draw.
posted by jquinby at 6:05 AM on September 21, 2012

A friend of mine worked for years to get his license. He mostly flies for fun, just going up for an hour or 2, taking off and landing at the same local airport. He's done an occassional "practical" trip to attend meetings, or pick up family members to visit from hundreds of miles away. He does not own a plane, but pays for flight time.

A couple years ago, he got his certification to become a flight instructor, and has had several paying students, which helps offset his expenses.

I have no idea what this hobby/pursuit/passion costs him, but he is by no means wealthy, just a middle-class class with a wife and 4 kids who has found out a way to make it work.
posted by The Deej at 6:27 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

why do people learn how to fly an airplane (non-professionaly)?

I can tell you why I learned to fly - it's a lot of fun! There's a lot of satisfaction in being able to master a skill, and flying is something that tickles that part of the brain for me. There's really nothing better than greasing a landing, especially when you have passengers that can exclaim, "Wait, we're on the ground? When did that happen?" Plus, there are ALL THESE CERTIFICATIONS you can get, which is pretty cool if you want to brag that you can fly floatplanes with banners attached and land them in the fog.

But I digress. Here's what I do with my license:
-Practice practice practice. I try for an hour a week, it's usually less than that.
-Visit my parents. It's nominally a 2.5 hour drive, but because of traffic and construction it's usually more like 3-4. I can fly there in just over an hour, and I don't need to feel like I have to stay all weekend.
-Sightseeing. Sometimes I'll bring friends, usually I go alone.
-"$100 Hamburger". The other week I took friends from our homes near Boston out to the Cape for lunch. It would have taken about three or four hours to drive, but it only took forty minutes by air. Had lunch, walked on the beach, and we were home by dinner.

And really, depending on how you run the number flying your own aircraft can often be cheaper than the alternatives. We could have taken the ferry out to the Cape and it would have taken about the same amount of time, but it costs almost $70/person. With four people in the airplane, on a per-person basis it cost less and we had the flexibility of when we wanted to arrive and leave.

Renting from a flight school is, hour-wise, the most expensive way to fly. You can cut hourly costs after you get your license by joining a co-op or (if you fly a lot and have the spare coin) buying your own airplane. There certainly are options and if you pick up a copy of Flying or AOPA Magazine there are always articles about how to keep costs down.

I'm happy to answer any other questions you have - I've been flying since I was 15 and I've been involved in the industry in one way or another basically since I had my first summer job. In many ways it's a hobby like any other and the same justifications can be made for buying a boat, extended ski trips, or any other typically middle-class pursuits.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:32 AM on September 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Several years ago a friend of mine was sick with cancer and had to go to a hospital three times a week that was a few hours away if you did the drive/ferry/drive routine but about 13 minutes away by plane. There was a wonderful team of volunteers working with Angel Flight that flew us back and forth. So, yes getting your license is expensive and time-consuming and etc, but you could also ultimately do some good with it.
posted by kate blank at 6:34 AM on September 21, 2012

Oh, and I should also say that I go through times of thinking exactly as you do - it's expensive and impractical, it's bad for the environment, etc. I still don't have an answer for the environmental impact, but if you're serious about going through with this - put it in your monthly budget! If you don't have a budget, make one and add a line item for your flying. That is probably the single biggest thing I did to rationalize the cost.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:37 AM on September 21, 2012

I think there are two kinds of mindsets toward hobbies- the one where people do things they enjoy in order to (nominally at least) make side money, and then the one where people just do things for the love alone. The former is a sort of workaholic mindset, where they feel slightly guilty spending money and effort on something without even the chance of a payoff. These are the people who, for example, do photography as a hobby, and shoot a couple of weddings a year to pay for the equipment. Or they fix people's cars in their garage to pay for their own hot rod.

It sounds like you might be in this category? Don't fret; you can still do this a little bit. Conventional wisdom is that it is very hard and expensive to get a private license, but it really isn't. It's 40 hours of flight time and 40 hours of ground school, if memory serves. You need more time to get a drivers' license in some states now! Spread that across a year, and it probably doesn't cost much more than an expensive golf habit. After that, getting an instrument rating and then getting a commercial license isn't all that bad either. Once you have a commercial license, you can fly for hire. Ah! and what The Deej says- getting an instructor's permit is like the second or third thing you do on the "ladder" of certifications. I forget the math, but I think you get to count some of the instruction time as your own flight time, while the student pays for the plane.

Also, I think living in an area with a large airport is actually a good thing for being a pilot. If you learned at a small airport in the middle of Montana, you'd never really feel comfortable flying into a larger airport. Learning at a larger airport might have a steeper initial learning curve, but you'll benefit from the experience of having someone to hold your hand a little bit.

"In the summer he would often rent a plane and take the family for a one hour joy ride and IIRC he flew Mom to Peoria/Indianapolis (?) a few times for dinner at a nice restaurant. [...] This was in a small town in eastern Illinois."

I wonder if this is a Great Lakes thing? Flying to Indianapolis or Green Bay or Grand Rapids for a patty melt?
posted by gjc at 6:39 AM on September 21, 2012

...and, if the public service angle appeals to you, there's also the Civil Air Patrol.
posted by jquinby at 6:39 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

re: the environment.

Yeah, this is a concern, but you can make that part of your "hobby mission". You can, for example, figure out how to work on getting newer types of engines certified. Work in the experimental arena to develop fuel efficient engines. Etc.

And, not for nothing, mowing your lawn puts more pollution in the air than driving a car for an hour. A plane is going to be somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the car. They make low-lead avgas, so insist on only renting planes that can take that.
posted by gjc at 6:44 AM on September 21, 2012

My dad has his private pilot's license and owns a small plane, a little two-seater Citabria. He looooooves it, and loves flying. He's retired now, and has a group of buddies that he'll fly with to breakfast on the weekends, that sort of thing. He does it largely for the same reason I whitewater kayak. Sure, they're both modes of transportation, and can be used as such, but it's his hobby and he likes doing it and that's good enough.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:18 AM on September 21, 2012

My brother got his license by befriending a pilot who ran a small delivery service. He would accompany him on flights, keeping company and helping out. On clear days he might pilot, but I believe he got some hourly credits simply for sitting beside the pilot, and receiving instruction.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:18 AM on September 21, 2012

I got to ride in a personal plane this summer, visiting a friend whose mom flied recreationally. Best experience of my life. The thrill was just unbelievable. I don't mind flying commercially, but it's not particularly enjoyable. It's a dream of mine to learn to fly little planes, but I won't be able to for years, I'm sure. Practical? Possibly -- I'm studying Geology and could potentially tie this into my career. But it doesn't matter, because it made me feel so fricking alive -- and that feeling of ZOMG ALIIIIVE is just worth it.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:38 AM on September 21, 2012

...why do people learn how to fly an airplane (non-professionaly)?

I learned to fly to overcome a fear of flying commercially. Along the way I learned a lot about physics and mechanics and navigation and regulations and weather in addition to the physical act of controlling an airplane. So yes, it's a expensive hobby and you'd never learn to fly to cut back on travel expenses--but it's hugely gratifying in terms of the intellectual challenge and the emotional thrill you feel when you first solo and when you get your license. It doesn't have to be a purely rational decision.
posted by bassomatic at 7:42 AM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder if this is a Great Lakes thing? Flying to Indianapolis or Green Bay or Grand Rapids for a patty melt?

I don't know if it's limited to the Great Lakes but there certainly are a fair number of small airports close enough together. The local airport cafe has a fly-in clientele [datapoint] -- one reason being that you have a good view of the airport operations as you eat.
posted by dhartung at 10:17 AM on September 21, 2012

I've done the sample lesson as well.

Why learn to fly? This. Come on! That's one gorgeous little jet. Who wouldn't want to fly anywhere in one of those? I will get my license and certifications just to get into the left seat of that baby.

I think I'm about 18 months away from starting that little project
posted by trinity8-director at 11:56 AM on September 21, 2012

A family member of mine loved flying and got his private and commercial pilot's license for fun. Then he bought a small plane, hired a pilot or two, and ran a small side business doing chartered flights. He had the plane to fly around and take on vacations when he wanted to, but otherwise, he managed to turn it into income. Of course, this was the 1980s, so I have no idea how feasible something like this would be these days.
posted by inertia at 12:06 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's expensive, time-consuming and mostly pointless. And I love it. I started flying in '94, and go a couple of times a week, and I own an airplane. (Even more expensive, time-consuming, etc.) I use it to fly to other airports, where I fly gliders. (Still more pointless.)

If you're looking for a reason to learn to fly, there isn't one. (I assume you have no interest in an airline career... if you do, you're crazy.) I love to fly, and I fly a couple of times a week. California is spectacularly beautiful from the air, and I never tire of it.

But the best part of flying is flying. I mean, think about it, FLYING!  How cool is that? Forget reason and rationality. If flying excites you (and you can afford it) -- do it.

(By the way, if you get your certificate [the FAA does not call it a license], you never lose it, even if you stop flying for a while -- all you have to do is spend a few hours with in instructor doing what's called a flight review and you're good to go.)
posted by phliar at 2:45 PM on September 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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