Why doesn’t everyone fly airplanes?

You have to meet 500 people before you bump into another pilot in this country.  I’ve been told that only 3% of colonist actually fought the revolutionary war, that 1% of bikers are outlaws, and 10% of Americans have a boat.

So why is it that only 0.2% of Americans get their pilot’s license?

It can’t be airplane purchase costs.
You don’t even have to buy an airplane.  Many private pilots just rent a plane when needed or, if you want to fly more, join a flying club to keep airplane costs down.  If you do decide to take the ownership plunge, I found 85 aircraft for sale under $25,000 today.  You can even partner with a friend to split the costs.  That’s what I did.  Airplanes can be financed up to 20 years so payments are very low.

Here I am picking up my first plane.

It can’t be training costs.
With options for Sport Pilot and Private Pilot training we’re looking at $4,000 to $7,000 respectively.  This can also be financed quite easily.  I paid for my Private Pilot training by just paying as I went.  At the end of each flight I paid for the instructor’s fee and airplane rental.  I’m not saying that even $4,000 isn’t a lot of money, it is.  But let’s put this in some perspective.  In Germany it costs over $3,000 USD to just get a driver’s license.

It can’t be too hard.
As much as I would like to think that I an in the top 0.2% of the United States in intelligence, I’m smart enough to know that I must be somewhere (slightly) below that.  After all, I have not invented any cures for cancer, perpetual motion machines, cold fusion reactors, or even a better mouse trap.  Flight Training requires studying the books and practice in the plane, nothing more.  Anyone of reasonable intelligence can do it.

It can’t be too dangerous.
I often tell my passengers upon arrival at the airport that they should be feeling better now.  The most dangerous part of the trip is over, the drive to the airport.  I know this is debatable, there is still the drive home to contend with.  Like anything, flying is as risky as you make it.  If you drive like you have an angry badger in your pants all the time you are more likely to have a serious accident than your driver’s ed instructor.  The same goes for flying but there are some key differences.  If my airplane follows a big jet by under 6 nautical miles it is a “Loss Minimum Separation” and someone will be in trouble.  If you follow a big truck maintaining 2 seconds of distance, and another car passes beside you less than 5 feet away at 140mph closure rate, it is called driving carefully.  Which one do you think happens more often?  If my engine dies at 5000 ft I can glide about 12 miles in any direction to find an airport, beach, or a good field for landing.  If your car engine gives up the ghost you have to pull off to the side of a busy freeway and wait for rescue.  If I land on the same freeway with my aforementioned dead engine, everyone will stop.

I think it is really about making time and perception.
Most people work 5 days a week and do very little else Monday – Friday except watch the tube.  We are largely a large nation of large couch potatoes.  Then the weekend comes and we want to sit on the couch some more, go shopping, and eat potato chips.  The less lazy have other priorities.  Time off work is devoted to hitting the gym, hitting the bars, hitting the beach, and hitting on the opposite sex.  No time to hit the books or the airfield.

So, why don’t people make time?  Perception.
Nobody has shown people how rewarding, practical, and fun flying is.  How could we?  Every pilot in the country would have to take over 500 people flying in a small plane.  Airliners don’t count; that’s like showing someone what it is like to drive a convertible from the back of a greyhound bus.

Don’t knock it till you try it!
Many flight schools will let you take a “Discovery Flight” for about $60.  I even found one that will take you up for a 30 min lesson for free!

There are a few sites out there to help:

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2 Responses to Why doesn’t everyone fly airplanes?

  1. Richard says:

    I’ve been thinking about learning to fly recently. It seemed like a great idea: money isn’t really an issue, and I would be willing to make the time investment, and I’d be able to just drive to the airfield and fly wherever and whenever I wanted! The thing that I’m struggling with, now that I’ve done some research, is the utility. Flying is much less practical than I first thought, and I think that might answer the question in the title of your post.

    (I’m sure flying is fun, but so is motorcycling, and the barrier to entry for that is lower, so why fly if there’s no utility? That’s the question I’m considering right now. This is genuinely something I’m thinking through — I’m not just being antagonistic, and I’d welcome counterpoints.)

    As an example: I’m in Eastern Washington. To take a trip to, say, San Francisco — about 650nm — would take about twelve hours of pilot time in a Cessna 182, with a stop along the way to refuel. It only takes 17 hours to drive!

    (Oh, and a Cessna 182 requires a High Performance endorsement, so now you’re spending more. Dip down to a less-powerful Cessna 172 and you’re looking at drop of 20kn cruising speed, and more time in the air and pumping gas.)

    The trip would take 125gal of fuel, which is about $700 if I figure it right. The one-way rental of the aircraft alone would be $2,000 (or I could buy a 30-year-old one for $90,000, or get on the waiting list for a brand new $370,000 plane… ignoring the significant maintenance and storage costs).

    Sure, it would be fun, but this trip costs about $250 on Alaska, and I can be eating lunch in San Francisco that same day. Driving it costs about $200 in gas, plus wear and tear.

    To fly myself would thus cost ten times as much as either commercial travel or driving, and take at least five hours longer than just going to the airport, as well as requiring perhaps a hundred hours of time commitment beforehand.

    I was simply astonished that the times to fly and drive were roughly comparable. It turns out that the typical plane that a regular joe can afford goes slower than the average Toyota’s top speed. (Obvious in retrospect, but I suppose it had never occurred to me that these little planes aren’t going to be keeping up with the four-engine jet airliners of the world.)

    If I try to get that travel time down, it means using a much larger, faster aircraft… and that means more cost. To get up to, say, a 235 knot cruising speed in a fixed-gear plane means a $650,000 Cessna 400, and you’re still looking at a three-hour flight time, plus ground time. That kind of aircraft is simply out of reach.

    I’ve pretty much reached the conclusion that the kind of flying that’s within reach for me wouldn’t be practical, and that means it’s just a really, really time- and money-intensive hobby… just like taking the bike out on the weekend, but with a hundred hours of study and certification beforehand.

    I expect that a lot of people who’ve looked into flying have done similar calculations, and decided that spending fifty thousand dollars to be able to fly to Portland for a burger just isn’t worthwhile.

    Please, prove me wrong!

    • Sean Caranna says:

      650nm / twelve hours of pilot time would = 54 kts. You’d stall, the plane just can’t fly there that slowly.

      650nm in a Cessna 182 (145 to 155kts) is more like 4.5 hours. The 182 burns about 15 gallons per hours. $240 to $300 in fuel.
      Most renters rent their planes wet. That means fuel included. A 650nm trip being around 4.5 hours and a 182 renting for about $200 per hour is $900 for up to 4 people to make the trip.
      The same trip in a car would be about $200 in fuel and maintenance alone. It also takes a LOT longer. What is your time worth?


      17. hour drive * 4 people = 68 man hours of travel.
      4.5 hour flight * 4 people = 18 man hours of travel.

      $20 * 50 hours = $1000

      Make it a round trip and you really have a HUGE savings if going by air. Plus you get to FLY THERE.

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