Most flight schools and small aviation companies will charge you no more than a couple hundred dollars for a taste—usually an hour ride, with an instructor. You get to grab the controls for part of the time, zip around, maybe fly over your house. It’s usually called a discovery flight.
When you fly in a small aircraft at a low altitude, the sensation is not so much that the world below gets smaller. The overwhelming sensation is that the sky gets bigger. Bigger than you’ve ever seen it, even from some endless beach, or from out in the desert, or from out the multilayered polycarbonate window of a commercial airliner. The sky pulls you up and surrounds you—it feels as if all the blue is keeping you aloft. You feel it in a way you don’t on an oversold 10:45 from Chicago to Dallas.
I had the opportunity to go up in a Cirrus SR22 with my 11-year-old son and a pilot named Ivy McIver. Ivy has been with Cirrus most of her career, selling planes, flying them, evangelizing the very idea of personal flight. She is laid-back and cool, and before we left the ground—before we even climbed into the four-person cabin—she demonstrated the entire irresistible attraction of learning to fly yourself in an airplane. Here is how she demonstrated that:
I said, “Where are we going today?” (We were starting out from Westchester County Airport, about 35 miles north of New York City.)
She said, “I thought we would go to an air show in Rhode Island first.” I said, “Great!”
She said, “After that, I don’t know . . . we could go to Maine?”
I said nothing.
(We could go to Maine?)
She said, “Or there’s this great ice cream shop in New Hampshire that you can walk to from one of the airports there.”
I just looked at her. I felt like a kid who’s just been told he can stay up all night.
She said, “Don’t worry, I’ll have you back by dinner.”
Right there, I got it. We could go to Maine. Flying your own plane is fun, it’s cool, it’s glamorous, and, to most people, it’s an exotic treat. But most of all, flying your own plane is freedom.
We went to the air show. Then we went to Maine. On the SR22’s navigation system, we found an airport in a place called Sanford. First it was a yellow dot on the screen, then we saw it, down there on earth: a solitary strip of asphalt, with a small building next to it, a few small planes parked. Ivy radioed. (“Niner-niner . . .”)
They said no problem, come on in. Words to that effect. There were two ladies sitting outside on folding lawn chairs. They said hello, and told us there was a good ice cream place up the street a ways. They said we could use the car—Ivy told me this is quite normal, that aviation companies would have a “crew car” for visitors to borrow. The crew car at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport was a Suburban. They got the keys for us.
At Shain’s of Maine we ate lobster rolls and clam chowder and their homemade blueberry ice cream.
On the flight home—my son flew most of the way from Sanford back to Westchester—we called my wife. (You can make cellphone calls from your own plane.) When we got close to our town, Ivy took the SR22 as low as she could (about 1,000 feet). My wife and our younger boy went out into the backyard, and they waved up at us. We could see them, and we did a little wing-tip.
Flying is freedom.
You’ll get to control the plane for a few minutes on your first time up. That’s how they get you.
Am I gonna be flying an old plane?
Not necessarily. On your discovery flight, you might go up in a newer, nicer plane, just to get a more pleasant first impression. There are some upsides to learning on an older model: Those planes have simpler controls, which can make it easier to focus when you’re learning the basics. They’re also cheaper. The rate for a late-1970s-era Cessna 152 could be around $100 an hour; for a newer model, it might be closer to $300 or $400. It’ll mostly depend on what your airfield has available, but a good rule of thumb is to train on the kind of plane you expect to be flying after you get your license.
I am quite sure I will never be able to afford a plane.
Expect to invest $7,000 to $10,000 to get through training and certification for your private license, says Shawn Marshall, a Navy veteran and chief flight instructor at Florida Flyers Flight Academy in St. Augustine, Florida. You’ll usually rent a plane at what’s called a “wet rate,” which combines maintenance, fuel, and insurance costs; your instructor’s fee is a separate hourly rate on top of that, starting at about $70.
When you own a plane, you’re responsible not only for the original investment, but also for a spot in a hangar, insurance, gas, and maintenance fees. To make it worthwhile, you’d probably need to be flying a whole lot. If you do want to look into buying a plane, think about whether you could split the cost with a couple friends to have joint ownership, or even enter into a timeshare. Also, keep in mind that when you rent from a local airfield, you’re only paying for the hours in the air. If you have a $300-an-hour plane for the whole weekend but you only fly four hours, you’re paying $1,200—not $14,400.
- Hourly: “Wet rate” (plane + insurance + gas): $100 to $400 an hour, depending on age and model of plane
- Fuel: $5.50 a gallon; the average four-seater airplane gets 16 to 20 mpg
- Insurance: Up to $1,500 a year
- Hangar fee: Up to $550 a month, depending on proximity to large metro areas
- Maintenance: Usually about 10 hours a year plus parts, around $2,000
- Keeping certification: About $200 every two years
Who are the instructors?
Instructors have their private license, instrument license, commercial license, and an additional flight-instructor license. They’re often people accumulating hours toward becoming an airline pilot; sometimes, they’re retirees who want to put their years of experience to use.
How long do lessons take? Am I working toward a certification?
The FAA requires 40 hours in the air before you can take your license exam, but most people spend more time training. For a regular person with a full-time job, who can fly maybe two times a week, it’ll take probably three or four months to complete training. Weather also factors in if you’re trying to learn in a Pennsylvania winter; a Florida location will mean weather isn’t as much of a factor. Once your instructor deems you proficient, you apply for the FAA to send an examiner out to fly with you. You’ll have an oral examination first where you answer questions about things like aerodynamics, safety, and airspace rules. Then you do a flying practical—just like getting in the car with a DMV examiner when you get your driver’s license.
And then do I need to maintain my status as a legal flyer?
If you’re the only one going up, you’ll need to do a flight review with an instructor every two years. The length of that process may depend on how frequently you’ve flown in the interim. If you’re planning to take passengers up, though, the FAA has additional requirements.
Can I fly barefoot?
There’s nothing dangerous about it, per se—there aren’t sharp objects down there; if anything were to catch fire, shoes probably wouldn’t make much of a difference. Some planes have no a/c, though, and the plane produces heat, so sweaty feet might be an issue—slipping off the pedals, for instance.
A few words for those of you scared of flying and not interested in any of this:
According to Ivy McIver, many people actually start lessons as a way to get over a fear of flying; it can also help mitigate motion- and airsickness. “When you’re in control and you’re focused, your anxiety level goes down,” she says. “You’re the one directly affecting your destiny.”
This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of VentrePlat. You can subscribe here.