I'd Rather Be Flying (Myself)
Business owners have always been more likely than most people to be private pilots, and now they have new reasons to leave commercial flight behind. Here's what the new pilots are in for.
The "company plane" has long been part of the entrepreneurial dream of how a successful CEO's life might go. But what about piloting your own way around the country? Company builders, more than the typical salaryman, often have the flexibility, resources, and decision-making authority to make private piloting possible. They often have good practical reasons for flying privately, too -- including the need to get to places that big planes can't go or, at least, can't get to conveniently. Now, after the events of last September, many business owners have decided that piloting a plane may be a better option than ever. (See Private Flight, Post-September," below.) But are practical considerations the real reason so many CEOs are looking into taking over the controls? Phaedra Hise doesn't think so. An author, a pilot, and the wife of an entrepreneur, Hise says that flying a plane is about the stark miracle of doing something that only birds were designed to do and that could kill you -- something that demands a kind of concentration that, at least for a time, puts the rest of your cares entirely out of mind. What does it feel like to fly your own plane? We asked Hise, in words, to take us up.
It looks sturdy and ready to fly. The plane's tires are full, and the wings are level and smooth, with no holes or dents anywhere. But this isn't Delta Air Lines, where a crew of mechanics has already carefully examined each flight system. No, this little propeller-driven six-seater is your plane, and you're the one who has to check it out -- intimately. Once you're 8,000 feet up in the air, you can't pull over if something goes wrong.
Here's the thing about flying your own airplane: It requires a little work. There's nobody scheduling the departure time, checking the bags, filing the flight plan. No Bloody Marys on board, no in-flight movie. Just you, buddy. You and the big sky. There's always a little bit of a question about whether or not you can pull it off, and that's what makes it interesting.
"An hour ago business was going to hell. But you can handle it. If you can make this screaming monster fly, you can do anything."
SO: THE PREFLIGHT. Here's one inspection you'd better get right. Run your hands over the wings and the propeller, feeling the smoothness of the metal surfaces. Smell the 100 low-lead gasoline in the tanks to verify that it doesn't have the kerosene stink of damaging Jet A fuel. Click the stall-warning vane on the wing, and listen for the cockpit horn. At this point you've forgotten about the investor meeting that went so badly an hour ago. And about the partner who keeps griping about expansion. All that stuff fades as you focus on the machine that will keep you alive for the next hour. Finger the spark plugs to make sure they're seated. Is everything OK? One last glance.
Climb into the cramped cockpit. "Why can't they make these things at least the size of a Honda Civic?" you ask yourself. Once you get the headset on, you're nearly bumping your head on the ceiling.
Last year, at the beginning of flight training, the cockpit panel was a technical-looking jumble of dials and digital numbers. None of it made sense, which was terrifying because your life depended on the instruments. But now, after logging 100 hours in this cockpit, you run practiced eyes over flight gauges with complicated names like Manifold Pressure, Attitude Indicator, and VHF Omnidirectional Rangefinder. You can easily translate the words, ferreting out the mysteries of the airplane's engine, flight systems, and navigation. Gently adjust the levers for the fuel mixture and pitch of the propeller. Scan the stack of fuel and oil gauges, and feel the tiny round circuit breakers to see if any have popped. Click the four-point harness closed, and hold the brakes.
"Clear prop!" is the standard holler out the cockpit window. It means, "I'm about to fire up this big propeller on the front of my plane. Get out of the way."
Crank the engine, and the propeller wakes up, turning into a circular blur on the nose. The oil and fuel gauges spark to life, solid in their green arcs. Everything's go.
But it's not time to fly yet. First you have to talk to a bunch of people. Talk to them fast over the radio in that jargon-filled technical lingo that only pilots and air-traffic controllers can translate: "Departure Bonanza Eight Three One Eight November VFR to Delta Kilo X-ray at 8,000 with Mike." You're looking for clearance to Knoxville, Tenn., and you have the most recent weather update. (Mike is the code word for weather information.)
The controller speaks the same language, and you actually understand him when he fires back, "Roger One Eight November fly heading two six zero, squawk four zero tree [aviation lingo for three] niner." He wants you to fly a 260-degree heading on departure and tune your transponder radio to 4039, so air-traffic-control radar can track your plane. The radio chatter always makes you look good to passengers, who gape and ask, "What did you guys just say? Something about X-rays? And who's Mike?"
You quickly flip the radio dials -- click, click, click. They look like a series of random numbers, but you've got the communication and navigational frequencies memorized from the charts. Push the throttle in gently and steer the plane with the rudder pedals at your feet. At the end of the runway the controller announces, "One Eight November cleared for takeoff," and it's time to make magic.
The plane bumps shakily down the asphalt as you eye the airspeed indicator for that 90-mile-an-hour mark. It's all about the airplane at this critical moment. There's no room to think about anything else. Listen to the engine, free of any lags or misses. Feel the runway underneath and the controls responding to your hands and feet. Your gut agrees with the airspeed indicator: the plane feels ready to fly. Pull steadily back on the yoke, and suddenly you're airborne!
The moment of flight thrills even jaded airline pilots: the machine stops being a car and starts being a bird. The runway noise disappears, and all three dimensions are yours as the plane banks gently to the left, nose high in the air, climbing quickly away from the people stuck to the ground below. It's like a carnival ride, except the amazing thing is that you're the one making it happen.
There's only a second to celebrate, and then there's work to do. Get the landing gear up, scan the instruments to make sure everything's working, turn to the departure heading, adjust the throttle and propeller settings for climb configuration -- there are so many details to focus on at takeoff that airline pilots regularly enforce a "sterile cockpit," meaning that none of the crew members talk to the pilot unless it's an emergency. Fly first, talk second, instructors say.
During the climb you flick a few knobs and double-check the engine gauges. The needles are centered in their green arcs. Chatter with a few more controllers. Level off the plane at 8,000 feet and adjust the power settings for cruise flight. There you sit, in the middle of a ton of aluminum and gasoline and fiberglass, floating on air. An hour ago your investor reneged on his promised half million. Sales are slumping, and the economy is going to hell. But you can handle it. If you can make this screaming monster fly, you can do anything.
Below, the sunlit fields and roads have dropped away, falling lower and lower until the houses blend in with the ground. Shopping malls, tall buildings, highway interchanges -- they all shrink blandly into the landscape until they're almost impossible to spot. The best landmarks are giant-sized: lakes, wide rivers, power lines, highways, airports, mountain ridges, oceans.
The ground becomes a big greenish-brown smear that meets up with the bluish-white smear above. The line they make at the horizon encircles the plane, and that's your guide for keeping it right side up. The plane can fly sideways or upside down. It doesn't care where the horizon is as long as air keeps moving over the wings. It's the pilot's job to eye the horizon constantly, jiggling the yoke every so often to correct for drift and keeping the wings level in relation to that outside line.
And yet, it's not as demanding as driving a car. Dip or wander a few feet, or a few hundred feet, and there's really nothing to hit but sky. Other planes headed toward you will be 1,000 feet above or below (mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration to provide separation), so the risk of a midair collision is low.
"Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror" is how pilots describe the experience. After an hour or so in cruise, the boring part begins. The novelty wears off, and the scenery repeats itself -- another town next to a lake, another airport, another river branching off into creeks. The engine purrs, so soothing. It's like the calming clickety-click of train rails or the comforting rocking motion of a boat. Wouldn't it be nice to doze off, just for a second? So tempting to nap while things are calm.
What's that? Did the engine just cough? Erect in the seat, all tiredness gone instantly, you scan the gauges. They look steady. Did it cough again? OK, calm down. Panic never helps anything. What's the procedure? There's always a procedure, thank goodness. Sputtering engine: it could be water in the fuel lines, or one of the fuel tanks running dry, or mechanical trouble. (Where is the closest airport?) Take it one step at a time. The most likely thing is an empty tank or water, so switch tanks first. (If the engine quits, remember the first thing to do is establish the best glide speed!) Reach down to the floor and rotate the fuel-selector switch quickly from the right to the left tank. Your eyes are riveted to the fuel and engine gauges -- flow meter, mixture, tachometer, manifold pressure. (If it quits now, there's enough altitude to make Roanoke airport, straight ahead.) The gauges hold steady in the green. Nothing wavers, nothing sputters. The whole event takes less than a minute.
Is it OK now? A few more minutes of steady engine noise and you take a deep breath. Seems fine. Another bullet dodged. The hairs on your neck slowly settle.
Clouds building up ahead. Damn, probably should have filed an instrument flight plan just to be safe, but Flight Service gave an all-clear weather briefing earlier. Granted, that was three hours ago. Nobody can predict what it will actually do up there, how the moisture and winds will swirl together over warm plowed fields and cool lakes. Clouds tend to linger over the Appalachians. Fortunately, today the clouds are thin, with blue sky peeking through from the other side. There's a hole big enough to fly through and still be legally on visuals.
The plane bumps on the way through -- clouds are the sky's potholes. It's mild chop, not enough to be scary, although passengers would gasp and grab the armrest. On the other side of the clouds lie familiar landmarks, with Knoxville about 50 miles away. Do the math. To reach the landing-pattern altitude of 2,000 feet, you have to lose 6,000 feet. At a standard descent of 500 feet per minute, that will take 12 minutes. Descent speed will be about 180 miles an hour, which puts you how many minutes away from the airport? Uh, 180 miles an hour is 3 miles a minute, so 50 miles away divided by 3 equals 16 minutes from the airport right now. Better start the descent.
Throttle back, point the nose slightly down, tune the radio to listen to the recorded weather information for the airport. Down the plane comes, wind whistling loudly past the cockpit. Down toward the airport. Where is the airport, anyway? The needle on the navigational instrument points directly to it, but you still can't spot the runway through the haze. Look for a large, empty field with wide roads cutting through it. It's next to the river, close to the city. Is that it? Down points the nose, down toward the field. That must be it. Yes, there's a hangar.
Down, down the plane floats. It's determined to land as you hurry to complete the landing checklist in time. Extend flaps and throw out the landing gear to slow the speed, announce the airplane's position over the radio. The ground rushes up and its details become distinct again -- a house, individual trees, a boat on the river. Up comes the runway, and you can read the numbers painted at the end: runway 22, pointed toward a heading of 220 degrees.
Careful now. The plane's flying very slowly, almost at the edge of its ability. Don't make that turn to final approach too steep or you might lose the airflow over the high wing, stalling the plane so that it falls out of the sky. Gently coax the beast toward the runway, keeping the nose pointed straight ahead, gliding down at just the right angle ... gently ... and now the flare, lifting the nose just enough to bleed off the last of the airspeed and touch down on the main wheels. Pull back on the yoke and hold the plane off the runway. It's down there somewhere, not quite yet, and then -- squeak -- the wheels touch the asphalt. Perfect.
An anticlimactic rollout, after the drama of landing, and then you taxi to the tie-down spot. The world starts to crowd into the cockpit as you look at your watch, wondering if you'll have time to stop at Kinko's on the way back to the office for the sales meeting. You shut the engine down and pop open the door. Maybe you'd better call from the car and say you'll be a few minutes late.
As you walk to the parking lot, you turn and glance back at the clean lines of the white wings and the black blades of the propeller standing proudly at the nose. The tires are full, the wings level and smooth. The whole plane sparkles, ready to fly again. And you grin.
Phaedra Hise is a pilot, freelance journalist, and author of the forthcoming book Pilot Error: The Anatomy of an Airplane Crash (Brassey's, May). She lives in Richmond, Va.
Copyright © 2002 Phaedra Hise
So, You Want to Get Your License ...
Be prepared to commit both time and money. It takes, on average, a year of training to earn a pilot's license, according to an October 2001 survey from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
Before taking the practical flight test to earn a license, a student must pass a written exam and log at least 40 hours of flight time (20 of them with an instructor). Students typically surpass that flight-time requirement. According to the AOPA, the 2,145 pilots surveyed logged an average of 63 hours before passing their flight test.
Hourly costs for using an aircraft range from $60 to $85, depending on the location of the airport and the type of plane. Instructors cost an additional $28 to $40 an hour. Estimates for the total cost of getting a license, not including supplies, manuals, and other equipment, range from $4,000 to $6,000.
In the months after the September 11 attacks, busy executives turned to charter flights to avoid long lines and increased security hassles at commercial-airline counters. In late October, Air Charters, in Teterboro, N.J., was already booked solid for November. "Usually," says company president Susan Bopp, "we're only booked days in advance." The trend is confirmed by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which reports that business-oriented flights in small planes are on the rise because charter flights have fewer delays, executives feel safer, and they can reach the airport closest to their destination and return within the day.
At flight schools, however, short-term changes were not for the better. The weeks-long flying ban after the September attacks wreaked havoc on their financials. Even now that flights have resumed, "our business is down at least 50%," reports Greg Saccardo at East Coast Aero Club, in Bedford, Mass.
Although business is bad, don't expect a discount on flight training. Insurance rates are skyrocketing, so flight schools will have to raise prices. And if other states follow Florida's lead by passing proposed legislation that would make flight schools assume responsibility for student background checks, expect the cost for such checks to be passed along as well.
The AOPA predicts the downturn won't last long. "This will push some people into flying," says Keith Mordoff, a spokesperson with the trade association. "The security of flying your own plane when and where you want to go -- that's a reason for people who have been considering it to start now."
The Inc Life
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