Confessions of a Private Pilot

It's one of the world's most expensive, dangerous and exhilarating hobbies. Author and pilot Peter d'Plesse shares his story.

The conversation always starts the same way. “So, you’re a pilot.” The rising inflection that makes it sound like a question is accompanied by a quizzing look. Don’t I look like I should fly?, I always wonder before admitting to it.

I’m a private pilot so unlike a commercial or military pilot, I get to pay for all my own flying. My first flying instructor was as honest as they come. “It takes two things to fly, mate. Airspeed and money.”

He had learned it the hard way by paying for his own lessons. When I first turned over a propeller I paid $25.00 an hour, a significant sum of money at the time. Now an hour costs around $230.00 for a run of the mill Cessna. If I want more speed, power or capability, I need a rake to scrap up a bigger pile of money.

If I multiply my flying hours by an average cost over the years, I could have a Ferrari parked in the garage. The change would buy a Prado as back up and there might be still enough left over to be a fairly attractive ‘sugar daddy’. Instead, a couple of Jeep Wranglers occupy the driveway. Is it worth it? You bet.

The first time on your own in an aircraft is mind blowing. After you land you are a different person. A Ferrari would never deliver that feeling. Generally first solo’s go very well. Flying instructors must be admired. It’s the ultimate act of teaching. Intervene too early and the student learns nothing. Intervene too late and the result can be embarrassing and potentially deadly.

There are also other problems with flying.  Just imagine what it is like to have a sleek, fast aeroplane with an endurance of up to eight hours but one of your passengers has a two hour bladder. I can vouch for the fact that an ice cream container does a wonderful job. However, emptying the contents out of the little hinged window on a Mooney 201 cruising at 150 knots is not a good idea!

Flying is incredibly safe in spite of the news. The most dangerous part is driving to the airport. I’ve had passengers standing in front of an aircraft built 40 years ago who can’t help asking, “Is it safe?” Those ingrained manners stop me from replying the way I want to. If it wasn’t safe, would it have got to be 40- years-old?

However, there are things to watch out for. If you’re flying with someone who says, “Watch this!”  - get out immediately. That’s a bit difficult after take off, so give the pilot a clip around the ear instead. This has a good chance of bringing them to their senses. The words “Watch this!” are well known as fitting into the category known as ‘famous last words’.

Some say that flying is like driving a car. Aircraft are just a bit different. They can’t stay upright unaided. Someone needs to stay in control and that is usually the pilot. If it’s not the pilot, then things have become interesting. Unlike a car that can glide to stop, there comes a point as the airspeed comes down that an aircraft simply stops flying. That’s not a good place to be, especially when low to the ground. These two characteristics make flying very different to driving. Flying needs discipline to be safe, but it’s always safer in the sky than being on the road.

Flying an aeroplane is a challenge but flying a helicopter is something else. An aeroplane pilot has both feet on rudders and a stick or yoke to put a hand on. The helicopter pilot has feet on two pedals and two sticks, each with a twirly knob on the end.

Flying a helicopter is a bit like juggling two sets of balls with only one pair of hands. That’s why learning to fly a helicopter burns much more money. The airspeed is less but the pile of money is higher. The money is spent learning how to keep the bottom half of the helicopter from spinning as fast as the top half. That is money well spent.

Aviators have a good sense of humour, even when under stress. Another of my friends managed to get himself lost in the training area. Air traffic control was trying to be helpful. “What was your last known position?” they asked him. “On the runway I took off from,” he replied truthfully. They got him home in time for a beer and some well deserved ribbing.

Being a pilot has an awesome responsibility. Newton stated that what goes up must come down. The pilot must ensure that what goes up comes down in a condition to go up again without spending months in a repair shop. That’s where all the money goes in training. That way we ensure that we can have fun in the sky and always get our passengers home safely.

Peter d’Plesse is a private pilot and author of the new action adventure book, Fire Eye (Short Stop Press $29.99), now available at www.shortstoppress.com

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