Monday, July 24, 2017

Why I Don't Own an Airplane

Owning an airplane is a major commitment of time, energy, and money - and not something you can do part-time.

At one time, I was quite the airplane enthusiast.  We used to go to Oshkosh every year, as well as Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland Florida, to see all the airplanes.   And it was interesting in that you would see everything from commercially manufactured planes, to kit planes, homebuilts, ultralights, antiques, warbirds, and whatever.

And for a brief time, I thought about getting my pilot's license and maybe buying an airplane.   But I never did and it is not hard to understand why.   It is a major commitment of time, energy, and money, particularly the latter.  It is not something you can dabble in, part-time, and expect to live very long.  And if you decide you want to fly, well, it kind of has to be your life.  And if you do this, you have to live in an area where it is easy and inexpensive to fly.   You can't tie down your Piper Cub on the apron at National Airport.   You basically have to live in the country.

Flying lessons is the first hurdle.   Getting your private pilot's license is an expensive and time-consuming process that can cost thousands of dollars.  Not only do you have to hire an instructor, but you have to pay for use of the airplane and pay for fuel.  And you will have to take these lessons regularly, plus learn everything out of the book, before they will let you solo.   Oh, and you have to visit a doctor and get a medical certificate.

Once you solo, it isn't over.   You have to "stay current" by flying every so often, which means you have to make time in your schedule and fly, and if you don't own a plane, renting one.   Again, if you live in a big city, this is hard to do, as you may have to drive an hour or two to a rural airport, outside the restricted airspace of large cities.

And it doesn't end there.   So far, all you have is a "VFR" or "Visual Flight Rules" license that allows you to fly on nice clear days where you can see what is going on.   The problem is, of course, not every day is a nice clear day.   You may want to fly at night, or in overcast conditions.   Or worse, these conditions may occur when you are flying from point A to point B, and you may find yourself in a lot of trouble.  "Instrument Flight Rules" or IFR requires an entirely different skill set, and you can't fake it.   One of the largest cause of accidents in general aviation every year is VFR pilots flying into IFR.   "Spatial Disorientation" occurs, and they stall the plane and auger into the ground.

So, back to school for IFR lessons, and if you want to fly IFR, you need an IFR equipped airplane, which is going to cost more to buy, rent, or own a share of.   You see, VFR is fine and all, if all you want to do is drive out to a rural airstrip, rent a plane, and take it up to see the sights.   But that kind of gets boring after a while.   You want to go somewhere in your airplane, not just fly it in circles.  And while it is possible to fly to a neighboring town for the famous "$50 cheeseburger" (the actual cost, with plane  rental, fuel, etc.) this isn't the same as traveling by air.

Now, if all you want to do is fly in circles, there is a new form of license available called the "Light Sport Pilot" which is easier to get.   For the medical, all you need is a driver's license.  The training is less onerous and the requirements to "stay current" are less as well.   But again, this allows you basically to fly a small plane in circles around a rural airport, or perhaps to a nearby airport.   It really isn't meant to be used for people who want to fly cross-country.

And "staying current" is still important.  Inexperience or rusty skills also kill a lot of people every year.   So the idea you can get a license and fly once or twice a year is kind of flawed.   And yet a lot of people try to do it.   I am just not so sure I want to be one of them.

So far, we haven't even talked about buying a plane.  Now it gets really expensive.   Some folks tell me, "Well, Bob, you can find an older plane for about the price of a car!" and that is true, but often we are talking about pretty expensive cars.   And the problem is, unlike a car, you have to take your plane in for an "annual" inspection where the mechanic - who has zero incentive to not find something to fix, will often tell you that your plane needs a lot of work, perhaps an engine overhaul, and suddenly you are spending more on maintenance in one year than you paid for the airplane.

Again there are workarounds for this, as there are ultralights, homebuilts, kit planes, and Light Sport Aircraft that skirt some of these rules.   But again, many of these planes are not suitable for transportation but merely for flying around the pasture.

If you really want to travel by airplane, well, you'd better be ready to pony up a lot of dough for a fast airplane that is designed for travel.   And such planes are a lot harder to fly as they often have higher landing speeds and stall speeds.   You'll need to go back to school again to learn how to fly a high-speed, twin-engine, retractable gear aircraft.  And yes, multi-engine requires a new endorsement on your license.

So you see, this becomes a real commitment.   And even if you have the go-fast plane, you aren't going all the fast.  Because as you putz along at a couple hundred miles an hour, watching the cars below you travel at ant-like speeds, far above you is an airliner traveling twice as fast.  Maybe that's the ticket - a personal jet!

Few can afford the rarefied air of the personal jet.  And despite the promises of the past, it doesn't look like the low-cost personal jet will be a reality anytime soon, or at least one that will allow you to fly with "the big boys" at "the levels" and go coast-to-coast in a few hours.   And even if you could afford a jet, well, you guessed it, its back to school for a lot more difficult lessons.

The other problem with owning an airplane is that machinery doesn't like to sit.   Whether it is hobby cars, motorhomes, boats, or airplanes, often the worst thing for any piece of equipment is to have it sit idle.   An airplane parked on the ramp will fade in the sun and acid rain.   Fittings corrode, things degrade.  Insulating on wiring becomes brittle in the heat.  Tires dry-rot. Birds build nests in the engine compartment  - and wasps to as well.

Worst of all, in any internal combustion engine, when stopped, at least one cylinder has an open intake valve and another has an open exhaust valve.   So in moist, humid environments, rust can form on the cylinder wall.  Not a lot, but enough.  Iron oxide and aluminum oxide are incredibly abrasive - it is what they make sandpaper from.   Moisture in the crankcase (most small aircraft have crankcases vented to the atmosphere) can corrode the camshaft.  Yes, hangering your aircraft will help avoid some of these problems.  Running the engine regularly is the best preventative medicine.

We have a friend who kept an airplane in Michigan so they could fly to an island they had a cottage on.   It always disturbed me that he was flying (at well over 70 years of age) an airplane that sat in a hanger, unused, for six months of the year.   Trying to stay current with your license in that scenario is tough (eventually he lost his medical).  Trying to keep an airplane in good running condition with such intermittent use, is also difficult.

As with cars, you are paying a lot of money to own something that spends most of its time sitting.   Some folks, to cut the cost of flying will go into together on an airplane in a "flying club".   My Brother-in-Law does this and initially it was a good deal.   The older members had lost interest (a pattern we shall see later) and he got to fly this airplane a lot.   Of course, several of his flights were to neighboring airports to see mechanics for repairs and upgrades.  Some fun.

But he enjoyed flying the plane, although it was more just flying in circles than actually going anywhere.   Oh, and his wife wanted little to do with it.   If your wife doesn't want to fly with you, the deal is essentially off.   The most successful pilots in General Aviation have spouses that are as enthusiastic about flying as well.

So, given all this, why do people own planes or fly for recreational fun?   Well, that is the problem right there - fewer people are doing this today, even as the population has increased.   Owning your own plane and recreational flying is something that really came into being after World War II, when many returning GI's had learned to fly courtesy of Uncle Sam.   There were a lot of surplus aircraft to be had, and the factories that had churned out fighter planes now turned their hand to churning out General Aviation aircraft.  These were the golden years for Piper, Cessna, Grumman, Luscombe, Stinson, Champion, and a host of other smaller manufacturers.   And many of the planes flying today are from that era still.

By the 1960's, the market had been reduced to a few players.   Sales were still going strong, and many a small businessman would buy an airplane on the grounds they could use it for "business".   It was, of course, a luxury and having the business buy it made it a neat tax write-off.  But as time progressed, the cost of airplanes skyrocketed.   Litigation was partially to blame.   Like I said, many of the planes from the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's are still flying today.   Since planes are so expensive, they get rebuilt time and time again.   Every small plane that leaves the factory basically is kept flying until it crashes.  Few are "junked" as cars are.

And when a plane crashes, the widow sues the manufacturer, who built the plane a half-century before, claiming a "factory defect" in a plane that has been overhauled and rebuilt four times in its history.   Since every small plane's life will eventually end in a crash, the lawsuits are built-in.   And the plane manufacturers had to put the cost of the lawsuits into the cost of the planes.   Prices skyrocketed and many companies, such as Cessna, decided it wasn't worth it to make planes anymore.

A Statute of Repose was passed by Congress, limiting liability on new aircraft to a number of years.  Manufacturers were no longer liable for crashes of planes they made decades ago.   Cessna went back into production.

But crowded skies, urban living, and the high cost of training and staying current, as well as the high cost of aircraft, maintenance, and fuel, has kept a lot of people from getting into flying.   And let's not forget, the middle-class is shrinking today, leaving people with a lot less money to spend on things like airplanes and other hobbies.  More and more small airports are closing, leaving aviators with fewer places to learn to fly and to keep their plane.  It remains, for the most part, a rural hobby.

When I was living near Washington, DC, the nearest place I could fly a private plane  was in Manassas.  So I would have to drive at least an hour each way to go fly for a few hours.   Not only was this not practical, I was kind of busy at the time - starting my own law practice and buying and re-habbing rental properties.  It sort of took up most of my life.   In addition, I was tinkering with some old cars and had an RV.   There wasn't enough time in my life to do everything and flying an airplane is something you don't want to do half-assed.

As I explained to Mr. See, you can be Mr. Hobby Car, or Mr. Motorhome, or Mr. Recreational Boater, or Mr. Airplane.   But you can't be all of them - and indeed, to be even two of them is more than most people can handle.     Toys, when neglected, will bite you on the ass.   Like I said, machinery doesn't like to be left to sit.

When we bought our boat, I told Mark we had to sell the motorhome.  He couldn't understand why.  Can't we have a motorhome and a boat?   Yes, that would be nice, but the reality is, of course, that if you are spending each weekend on the boat, when do you use the motorhome?  There is such a thing has having too much, as I found out the hard way.

Today, I live in an area where a small airport is within walking distance of my house.   The guy who runs the airport, a Delta pilot for many years, has even offered to give me flying lessons.   I could probably afford to own a small plane and fly around the patch, or even a larger plane that might take me to Florida or the Carolinas.    And maybe someday, I will take him up on his offer.   But Mark isn't that keen on it, and spousal support is essential in any endeavor.

And besides, he wants to get a boat.  And you can't be Mr. Boat and Mr. Airplane, it just won't work.   Well, you could try to make it work, but it won't work out well, and a neglected airplane and neglected flying skills could kill you in short order.

If you live on a farm, ranch, or in some rural area, or maybe a fly-in community, it is a lot easier to commit to flying on a regular basis.   But for the vast majority of us, it just isn't a workable part of our lives, which is a shame, as flying in a small plane can be exhilarating in a way that jet travel is not.

You have to really be an enthusiast, I believe, to own an airplane.  You can't be a dilettante or a part-time pilot.   If you really want to learn to fly and spend a lot of time flying, then maybe get a job flying airplanes.   A friend of mine did just that.  He always wanted to fly airplanes, so he went to Embry-Riddle, learned how to fly airplanes, built up his time and is now flying freight for FedEx.   He gets paid to do this, and someone else has to deal with the cost of the airplane and maintaining the engines.   As he puts it, he gets paid to do something he would have done for free - or would have paid to do.

That's the best way to fly!