Getting Back Into Flying

I received an inspirational email from a reader the other day. I hope he won’t mind if I quote a bit of it here, because it brings up a topic which has been on my mind lately.

Even though I got a six-year head start on your ticket, and have even gotten a bit of action in the box (Citabria or Stearman driving), my 300 hours is nothing compared to your 3000! The demands of home ownership and $155/hr rates on 172s put a lot of dust on my logbook, and I let my currency lapse–a dangerous thing, I know, since many pilots never pick it up again once they hangar their medical for the first time.

But thanks to your witty and inspiring blog, I renewed my 3rd Class last week and just today finished my BFR! Yee haw…back in the saddle.

I’m glad I was able to inspire you to get back into flying! The magic never goes away, there’s always something new and exciting in aviation. The trick is just to find it.

Many people fall away from aviation because unless they’re pursuing a professional career as a pilot, once they have the core ratings and certificates, there’s not much of a reason to go fly. You can only eat so many $100 hamburgers before the “new” factor wears off and the cost/benefit ratio starts to tilt in the wrong direction. It’s especially hard if you own a home or have a family. The rising cost of fuel and insurance don’t help.

I’ve found several ways to keep aviation interesting. One was to fly for Angel Flight West. Let me just say it’s the most rewarding flying you’ll ever do; helping those in need while getting your aviation fix can almost be a guilty pleasure. And it will take you to airports you would not otherwise have had a reason to visit. Your horizons will expand in many ways. The direct expenses are also tax deductible.

Another great idea was aerobatics. It improved my experience and skill levels immensely, not to mention bringing me in touch with an amazing group of aviators. It’s also a humbling thing to watch the great aerobatic pilots fly. They aren’t just the Unlimited competitors either. There’s a guy who flies a stock Great Lakes in Intermediate and he’s as entertaining to watch as any airshow. And as you progress through the ranks, there’s always a new generation of pilots coming up behind which need mentoring and coaching.

Aerobatics is a quest for the perfect flight — something which is impossible. Yet we continue to strive for that perfect roll, flawless spin, constant-radius loop, etc. Side benefits include an ability to recover from unusual attitudes with speed, accuracy, and a cool head. This is a boon to overall flight safety.

Formation flying is another burgeoning genre. The stick-and-rudder skills are almost secondary to the sense of camaraderie which develops from trusting another pilot with your life, and having them do the same with you. In formation flying, you’ll often find highly experienced pilots, interesting experimental aircraft, and a higher level of discipline than you might encounter with an average group of aviators.

The cost of flying has been a tough nut to crack for a long time. And it’s not getting any easier. The only thing I can say for sure about the cost of flying is that it will be more expensive in the future than it is today. Ten years from now we’ll look back on what we’re paying today and wish it could be that cheap. Hard to believe, but it’s always been true in the past.

OK, so that doesn’t help you finance your fix. There are things you can do to fly “on the cheap”. One is own an aircraft in partnership. I’ve always been a fan of buying less than you can afford. This is important because you want to own the plane rather than have it (financially) own you. Having said that, a flying RV-3 can be had for ~$25-30,000. That’s a 200 mph aerobatic airplane, and with an Experimental-Homebuilt airworthiness certificate, you can do the maintenance yourself. Split it with another pilot and the indirect costs are cut in half. It’s a little more complicated than sole ownership, but it certainly costs less.

Of course, the cheapest way to fly is to get paid for it. Instruction, banner flying, skywriting, pipeline patrol, towing gliders. There are a lot of great full or part-time jobs out there. Even if you just tow gliders a couple of weekends a month, at least it’s something which keeps you in the cockpit and in touch with the vibrant aviation community.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to get off on a dissertation about flying. Well, ok, yes I did. It saddens me to see people leave the flying populace, so it’s a good day when someone writes to say they’re getting back into the game.

You worked hard for your ratings and certificates. You knew it would be a tough endeavor. What nobody told you is that it’s just as challenging to keep that spark going when you’re through. But in the end, it’s well worth it. You’ll see!

9 comments

  1. Great article Ron. I can think of at least one pilot who needs a little more “incentive”… Ok, in fairness, he just needs more time in the day.

    The timing of this is certainly fortunate since I’ve been thinking about taking things to the next step. Getting my commercial so I can start looking at some flying activities that might put some money in my pocket, or at least stop the flow overboard.

    Any thoughts on the best way to get prepared to get into glider towing?

  2. I absolutely agree. My flying almost fizzled out once I’d flown all my friends around the Bay and over the Golden Gate Bridge but aerobatics was exactly what I needed for all the reasons you state and more. I love the challenge, the rush, the camaraderie, and the amazing amount of coaching and critiquing I get from truly great acro pilots, legendary Great Lakes driver included. I wouldn’t have made it to a competition without other competition pilots.

    The short nature of most aerobatic hops also makes it slightly more affordable than I initially expected, but these things are relative. As you say, flying’s not going to get any cheaper.

  3. You’re spot on, as usual. I’m struggling with the same issues so your musings are timely and appreciated.

    This is the second time around for me… I learned to fly in 1977 out of SNA (even had its own VOR back then!) I was making about $10 an hour as an electronics tech and could rent a 172 for $12.50 an hour wet! But, life got in the way…fast forward to three years ago when I caught the bug again…

    Only now that same 172 (and I mean the SAME 1970s vintage 172) rents for over $100 an hour. Only I make well south of that after a college degree in engineering and a march up the corporate ladder.

    Here’s my point: as a lowly high school student with a part time job I was at near parity with the rental cost of a 172; now as an older professional I’m not even close. IMHO this is a very BIG reason for the decline in recreational GA flying. While flying has always been expensive, it is becoming more so in an exponential fashion.

  4. Mike: glider towing will almost certainly involve flying tailwheel airplanes, so I’d start with that. I know Lake Elsinore’s glider operation is in frequent need of tow pilots. However, they don’t pay anything, you just get free glider time in exchange for towing. Another local glider operation is Sailplane Enterprises at HMT. That’s where I got my commercial glider rating. They do pay towplane pilots, however they require (or should I say, their insurance company requires) tow pilots to have at least 500 hour of tailwheel time.

    Have you ever thought of instructing? I think you’d do well at it, and instructors are in demand right now. You can set your own schedule and your own rates.

  5. Yes, flying has gotten a lot more expensive, even since I started. In late 1998, a Skyhawk was about $65/hr at SNA. That same airplane today is more than twice the cost at the same FBO. The cost is being driven northward by high oil prices and insurance rates. Fuel was $2/gal, now it’s $6/gal.

  6. Thanks again, Ron, for the push back into the left seat. (Although, the Citabria doesn’t really have a left seat.) It’s been great this week, seeing the AOPA Pilot mag come in the mail and finally not feeling a soul-crushing sense of missed purpose in life!

    Formation flying sounds fun. What’s the best way for a typical GA pilot gain training for this, as I know it’s a dangerous idea to just…wing it. Is this something most CFIs can cover, or is it best to learn from military trained pilots?

  7. Formation flying is definitely fun. The regulations allow for formation flying without any training (just as there is no training requirement for aerobatics), but it’s a very bad idea for obvious reasons.

    Most CFIs don’t have formal formation training and experience, so you’ll want to go to one that does have those things. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be a CFI. But you do want to work with someone who really knows this stuff. There are a lot of people who *say* they know formation, but I’ve found that, like aerobatics, when you get in the air, your experience may, uh, vary somewhat. :)

    I recommend contacting a FFI (Formation Flying Inc) or FAST (Formation and Safety Team) organization. The FAA has blessed both those groups with the ability to provide the credentials necessary to fly formation in waivered airspace. In other words, airshows. So you know they’re both going to be good.

    FFI and FAST have very specific training, ability, and checkride standards which ensure you are properly equipped for the rigors of formation flying. They both use military training materials and procedures. I recommend them because they have a solid infrastructure and a good safety record.

    Try a Google search using the terms “formation” and “FFI” or “FAST”. You’ll find plenty of hits. Their groups tend to hold formation clinics throughout the year in various places. The one caveat is that they’re type-specific. For example, an RV group will want to train with RVs. They discourage dissimiliar aircraft formations because of the added complexity.

    Alternately, there are flight schools (Sunrise, for example) which have formation programs. Ours uses Decathlons and covers two ship basics. Station keeping, lead changes, cross unders, breaks and rejoins, etc.

    If you want to learn more, talk to Dan Checkoway. He can point you in the right direction.

  8. Hi Ron,

    As you know, time and expence have shelved my flying for now. I do intend on getting back into the cockpit, but it will be a while.

    For now I intend to start begging pilot buddies for rides, and I plan on taking some duel once a year to keep my hand in so to speak. Should the opportunity arise, I’ll look at saving enough money to go do my IFR and Commercial tickets in one big chunk, then see about bugging the local jump school for a slot pushing folks out of airplanes.

    I’ll see you in the skys eventualy.
    -Roy

  9. Hi Ron,

    Thank you for writing this post, and for your response on my blog! You’re right — there are ways to mitigate the costs and the impacts, and to find new and more meaningful reasons for going up. It is something we all struggle with, and many people are making it work on incomes less than mine.

    I’d been thinking about Angel Flight already; I’m going to look into that as soon as I get the instrument ticket.

    Thanks again — Mayank

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