Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tips for the Thrifty Student Pilot

I listen to several aviation "podcasts." For the uninitiated, "podcasts" are like radio shows, except they are recorded and "broadcast" through the internet. You can listen to them anytime on your computer or, if you have an iPod, on your iPod, in your car, etc..... I like to listen to them during my commutes.

One of the podcasts is called "Uncontrolled Airspace." In late April, they spent part of an episode responding to an email about ways to make learning to fly more affordable. Being somewhat "cheap" myself, I had some thoughts that I put in an email to them. They later posted the email on their website, and I thought that I should put it here as well, since I know that most of my family will be learning to fly at some point.

Well, my nephew, at least, will be a pilot someday. (In case you can't read it, his shirt says, "I wanna be an aviator."). There are a thousand ways to learn to fly, and even more ways to pay for it, but here are my tips for easing the financial burden..... (It's long -- if you're just looking to read about Adventures With Millie, you can click the link on the right.)

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I sympathized with Dave's comments in episode 19 about the cost of learning to fly, and have listened with interest to the followup comments from other listeners. I'd like to tell you how I ended up saving a bunch of money learning to fly, have one commentary to make, and a few more tips for Dave and anyone who's concerned about the cost of learning to fly. It's long, so use as you see fit.

Background: I first signed up for an intro flight back in 2001 when I was living and working in the Boston area. I went out to the FBO at Bedford, took my intro flight, and then listened to the sales pitch from the instructor and the other FBO employees. It was the same as I heard from other FBOs in the years since -- I needed $4-6,000 (for the first 40 hours), and the FBO wanted me to pay it up front in chunks of $1,000 or more. My rent at the time was $900 per month and my car was worth about $1,500, and I just couldn't stomach writing a check that was more than a month's rent before even starting. I heard the refrain from other FBOs I visited over the next couple years -- I should have the money all ready to go before I start, and I needed to immediately write a check of $1,000 or more. Plus $300 for ground school. And I needed to buy a headset (from them) and an expensive bunch of books (from them). I just couldn't afford it the way it was presented to me, and I remember the feeling of dejection as I drove from the airport to work.

I didn't lose the bug, though, and in late 2005, after I had moved to the DC area, I got a list of local flight instructors from the NAFI website, and started contacting them to ask about less expensive ways to fly. Two replied. One spent an hour talking on the phone with me one evening, and told me about self-studying for the written exam (saving about $350 off the cost of ground school), and recommended Gleim or King Schools. The other invited me to meet him for lunch that Saturday at the airport cafe. I met him, we talked, and he took me around the ramp (behind the chain link fence -- sacred ground!!) and told me a bit about some of the planes. After a bit he invited me to come to a flying club meeting the following Tuesday. I went, joined the club, started attending club functions, and generally started meeting people and making friends.

Here's what I learned: the FBO was renting 172s at $115 per Hobbes hour, and their instructors were $30-60 per hour. If you figure the national average of 70 hours fo flying time and a $45/hour instructor for 40 hours, that's ($115 x 70) + ($45 x 40) = $9,850.

The club I joined cost $45 per month and a non-refundable $500 to join. They rented 172s for $68 per tach hour, if I recall correctly, which translates roughly into ($68 x .75 =) $51 per Hobbes hour. The difference in plane cost alone could save me (($115 - $51) x 70) = $4,480 over 70 hours of flying. In actuality, it took me 63.6 hours including my checkride, so I saved about $4,070, or a bit less as the hourly cost has creeped up to $72 per tach hour with fuel prices increasing.

Then, once I was in the club, I met people who were CFIs but who were not doing it to make a living or trying to build time. One was a former Navy/NASA CFII who had been flying for fifty years and was retired. Another CFI was a guy my age who had a full-time job in the construction industry but who just loved to fly. A third CFI worked in government, was just a nice guy, and wanted to help out a struggling student pilot. I completed my checkride last week with 41.2 hours of dual instruction. Other than the occasional lunch or beer after a club meeting, my instructors have not accepted payment for a single hour of instruction. That's a savings of ($45 x 41.2) another $1,854.

In all, this approach theoretically ended up saving me nearly $6,000 over the cost of training through the FBO. I only say "theoretically" because I'm a bit of a gadget freak and just had to buy a handheld GPS ($190 for a nice, used Lowrance 500 off EBay), a good ANR headset ($280 refurbished from the factory), and other stuff that I could have done without but just couldn't control myself. More importantly for my budget, though, I paid for the club plane only as I used it, so the $500 up front to join the club was the biggest check I had to pay all at once. After that it was a couple hundred dollars here and there, and much more palatable to my wallet, budget, and wife.

Commentary: FBOs are their own worst enemy when they push prospective pilots to plunk down thousands of dollars before their first lesson. I wonder how many potential pilots like Dave (and me in 2001) just walk away when confronted with a big bill like that. If I recall correctly from his autobiography, Bob Hoover learned to fly by working for a week to earn enough for 15 minutes of flight training each weekend. If they really want to reel in students, what the FBOs should be saying is, "Come on out Thursday afternoon, bring $160 and we'll get you your first hour of instruction and go from there." Then, "Give us a call when you're ready for the next lesson." It'll take longer for the student to get his ticket, and probably more hours, but since when is "more hours" a bad thing for an FBO? As to whether it's better or worse for the pilot, well, if it worked for Bob Hoover....

Tips for Prospective Student Pilots:

1. Get a list of instructors from the NAFI website and contact them directly. Tell them you want to learn to fly, you can't plunk down thousands at the FBO, and ask for advice. Other than the pilots and instructors I met who were associated with clubs at my airport, I have also met one instructor at a little airport nearby who charges $75 per hour for instruction in his plane, and $50 per hour for the plane once his students solo. Those people are out there, but they're not at the FBO counter.

2. Spend some time at the airport and meet people. Three times when traveling in the last year I've stopped by small airports in other cities and struck up conversations with pilots. Twice, the pilots were heading out for a joy ride and, once they found out I was a student and just fascinated with flying, they invited me along. On one flight I got some stick time in a '46 Aeronca Champ! Look for open hangar doors and stick your head in to shake hands and admire the planes. One beautiful spring day I took my lunch, left the office, and ate on the hood of my Jeep at the airport while reading "Stick & Rudder." A passing pilot said, "Good book," and we struck up a conversation. It turned out the pilot was a CFI, and before long I was offered a couple hours of free instruction.

3. Find out what clubs there are, and look for clubs that meet frequently. In my opinion, clubs generally don't advertise all that well, so you'll have to dig and ask around. My club meets once a week, which is unusual, but the benefit to a student of spending that much time around people talking about airplanes and flying is invaluable. The rental cost will save you thousands over the cost of renting from the FBO. And, if you're lucky, you'll meet club members who are instructors and willing to instruct in club planes for less than the FBO charges or, if you're lucky like me, for nothing. Even the non-CFIs can have a lot to offer. One pilot in my club who's training to be a CFI spent four hours one night grilling me in preparation for the oral portion of my checkride. It was good practice for both of us and we concluded with a mutual list of 20 things to look up.

4. Look for CFIs who are retired from some other career. These guys have a huge amount of experience, generally a lot of time, and quite often they're just happy to be out and flying. They also have great stories, though I don't believe half of them.

5. Don't pay retail for anything. All sorts of PPL training materials show up on EBay (my stuff is all going up soon so I can turn around and buy used instrument training materials). The six-disc DVD set from Sportys costs $199 retail, I got it for about $75 off EBay. Craigslist is another possibility -- a guy in my club got a Garmin 296 for $550 off Craigslist. Books are available used from retailers like and Barnes & Noble. The Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge retails for $35, but is showing up used on for $3.69 as I write. Even better, if you get in a club, there will be people who have the books just sitting around gathering dust, or the club may even have some materials you can borrow.

6. Self-Educate. Other than books, there are free podcasts, forums, and websites. There's the FAA website, which was mentioned by someone else, but there are also online forums like where CFIs are circling, waiting to answer questions and give advice. The University of North Dakota has free flight training video podcasts that can be downloaded -- they're excellent. Jason Miller's instructional podcasts (and now videos) from are also excellent. I recently told my instructor that he should get his CFII so I could continue instrument training with him and he replied, "What, so you can teach yourself that too?" Everything you teach yourself from the available materials is stuff you won't have to pay an instructor to give you ground training on.

Oops. I didn't mean to write so much, but given a pulpit I can get carried away. Anyway, there's my two cents worth. Bottom line -- avoid FBOs, find a club, self-educate, and don't pay retail.

Brand Spanking New PP-ASEL

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Adventures with Millie

Millie is my dog, and we've had some adventures together over the years. I picked her up as a 10-week old puppy from the shelter in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was a "flying puppy." That is, she was from a shelter in New Mexico, where they had more puppies than homes available, so she was put on a plane to Massachusetts where there are more homes than puppies. We had lots of adventures together when I was a bachelor, hiking and camping trips, long road trips, and so on. When Jodie came into the picture, it was love at first sight -- Millie just couldn't get enough of Jodie, and vice versa. So now we're a happy family, but I like to think that Millie and I still have a special connection from our long history. Last night we struck out for a little bonding through flying, and we had another adventure.....

It's been a goal of mine to fly with Millie. Rich got a puppy shortly before I finished my training, and it slept in the backseat while we did stalls and steep turns and short-field landings. I've been looking for the right time to take Millie in the plane, and last night was our chance. I reserved a plane for the whole weekend, thinking I might fly to Massachusetts and Maine to see family. The weather here was beautiful, but the weather in New England was not manageable for a pilot without an instrument rating, so I wasn't sure what to do with my reserved plane. Then I decided that I would use it last night to maintain my night currency. In order to remain "current" and be able to carry passengers at night, pilots have to do three takeoffs and landings at night at least every ninety days. It's a minimal requirement, but looking back, I'd only done one within the last ninety days, so I decided to take care of that. Also, when I go for my instrument rating, I'll need 40 or 50 hours of cross-country flying time, so I thought I'd fly to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then go do some landings in Westminster, Maryland, then return to Gaithersburg. It's more than 50 miles to Carlisle, so the flight would qualify as a cross-country, I'd get at least three landings at night, so I'd be current, and I'd take Millie with me to see how she does.

We took off about 9:00, just after sunset, in Three Zero Yankee Romeo, a newer Cessna Skyhawk owned by one of my clubs, and headed North. I was busy flying and talking on the radio with Air Traffic Control for the first 20 minutes or so, but once I had some breathing room, I looked in the backseat to check on Millie. She was sitting up straight, her eyes were wide, and she looked very nervous. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't seem to hear me over the airplane noise, so I turned my attention back to navigating -- this plane has an autopilot and I'm still playing with it to figure it out.

The sky to the west was beautiful. The sun had already set and most of the sky was dark with stars already showing, but the silhouette of the mountains forty miles away was in crisp contrast to the bright pinks and oranges of the Western edge of the sky. I went to take a picture, but the battery in my camera was dead. The visibility was excellent, with little to no haze, which is a rarity in this part of the country. As the light faded from the horizon, I checked on Millie again. She had relaxed, and was lying down. Good, I thought.

We crossed over a low ridge into the valley where the Carlisle airport is and I headed down to pattern altitude. It was very dark, there was no moon, and I clicked the microphone seven times to turn on the runway lights. Nothing happened. I tried again, but nothing happened. I tried a dozen more times, but still nothing. I flew over the runway, just 800 feet off the ground. I could make out airplanes tied down, and I saw the runway, but just barely. It was too dark to land without runway lights and they weren't working.... I chided myself for missing the notice that I knew must have been published, considered what to do, and decided to head to an airport in York, Pennsylvania.

York is just under 50 miles from Gaithersburg, so I wouldn't have a landing far enough away for the flight to qualify as a cross-country, but I could still regain my night currency. Millie and I climbed over the ridge from Carlisle and headed to York. As we were flying away, I heard a helicopter on the radio heading to Carlisle, and I wondered if a helicopter needs runway lights to land. When I was 4-5 miles from York, I tried to turn on the runway lights. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Then I heard another plane click the transmitter seven times, and the York lights came on. Since the lights were on, I didn't think anything more about it and just landed.

We'd been flying for over an hour, so I parked the plane and let Millie out. She sniffed around the dark and empty airport, then when I said, "Ready to go?" she headed for the plane. I opened the door and she jumped into the back seat. Millie's always liked to go places. I started the plane, waited for another plane to land, then took off.

I headed South toward Westminster, and triggered the runway lights when I was about 6 miles away. There are a lot of lights on the ground around Westminster, and I couldn't pick out the airport. I thought I just wasn't seeing it, so I decided to fly right over the airport. I've been to Westminster a dozen times at night and never had a problem, so..... I flew right over where the airport should have been -- there was just a black hole in the middle of the surrounding city and street lights. I circled back, triggering the lights again and again. Nothing. I checked the GPS -- yes, I should be flying right over the airport. I circled back again.... Nothing. Was the GPS working? Am I just in the wrong place? I could dimly make out large buildings that looked like hangars, but they could have been warehouses and there were NO lights.

Then it all made sense. I pulled my handheld aviation radio out of my bag and turned it on. I bought this radio for safety purposes. It has rechargeable batteries, and when it sits for long periods the battery will go dead. Other times I'll just not bother to bring it. But this night I had it charged for my flight to Massachusetts, and I had it with me. I clicked the transmit button seven times as I headed back to the airport and . . . the runway lit up like a Christmas tree.

I landed, and the landing was funny.... I had noticed that although the airport was reporting very light winds on the ground, there was a significant wind aloft. I didn't think about it too much and landed according to the wind on the ground. My glide was off and I landed a ways down the runway. I'm just out of practice, I thought.

I taxied back and took off to head home. The visibility was incredible. I could see the lights of Washington from 40 miles away. My indicated airspeed was about 118 knots, but my groundspeed was 135 knots according to the GPS. (That's about 155 miles per hour!) The automated weather reporting system at Gaithersburg was reporting calm winds, so I planned to land on Runway 14, the preferred runway in calm wind conditions.

As we approached the Gaithersburg airport, I tried to turn on the runway lights with the plane again. Nothing. From 8 miles out, I tried using my handheld radio. Nothing. When I got to about 4 miles, my handheld worked -- the signal it puts out is weaker than the airplane's signal -- and I could see "home."

I headed in for a landing, but the plane just wasn't going down like it usually does. Halfway down the runway, and still fifty feet in the air, I pushed in the power and climbed up to circle around and try again. Once again I was long! I wondered, how did I ever get my license when I can't even land?!?! Although I was long, I managed to get the plane on the runway with room remaining. As I taxied back to park the plane, I thought about it, and.... Wind shear! I had seen that there were strong winds aloft, about 20 knots, and I knew that the wind was calm on the ground, but I just hadn't put it together. That's why I landed long at Westminster and both times at Gaithersburg. I won't make that mistake again.

I shut down the engine and opened my door. I planned to get out, then slide my seat forward to let Millie out, but the second the door was open she squeezed past the seat and jumped out. She'd been asleep as we cruised back to Gatherisburg, so I think that aborting the first landing and going around made her nervous. Whatever the reason, she was READY to get out of the airplane. Anyway, it was almost midnight, so I secured the plane and jumped in the Jeep with Millie.

So that was our adventure. A malfunctioning "PTT" switch on the plane that wouldn't let me turn on runway lights, a steep wind gradient that made landing difficult, and Millie's first flight, all in one night. I've ordered her some "Mutt Muffs" for ear protection, now that I know she tolerates flying alright. I'm looking forward to going somewhere with her soon.....

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