You Want to Learn to Fly. But… Part 1

by on December 8, 2010

An informal survey by AOPA on their eBrief newsletter asked individuals why they had quit their flight training before getting their pilot’s licenses.AOPA Flight Training Survey Results. (click for larger view)The results of the survey, shown here, indicate that by a huge margin the biggest barrier to completion is the "Expense of renting and aircraft and receiving instruction."  At about the same time AOPA was contracting with a prominent opinion research firm (APCO Insight) to obtain similar information in a more formal manner.

The results of the formal survey were presented at the AOPA Flight Training Summit during AOPA’s annual meeting, held this year in Los Angeles. This is an excerpt from the information presented during the summit:

The research also made the important distinction that cost was not a statistically significant reason people drop out of training. While cost is a factor, Benson found that value, and a student’s perception of a school’s ability to be fair and honest, were more important. Student pilots are more concerned about getting good value with the money they spend than about the actual dollars and cents amount. They want to know that the flight school and instructors put the students’ interests first and look for ways to minimize cost and maximize the effectiveness of every dollar spent. Factors like flight simulators and well-maintained aircraft that are available to fit the student’s schedule affect this perception. quote source

The two survey results seem to be contradictory unless you assume that the majority of the people queried in the formal poll had the monetary ability to complete training and elected to discontinue the course and to use those funds in a different manner..

Scott Spangler wrote an article in early November about the state of the flight instructor/flight school industry and again in December about what might be done in light of the flight training survey results. As of this writing, his first article has 100 comments and the second has 50. Clearly this survey and its conclusions have hit a nerve.

I admit that when I started writing this article I was focused on the costs involved with training. My plan was to show how you could easily earn your Private Pilot’s License (PPL)  while spending a reasonable amount of your income. My hypothesis was that costs are driven higher because everyone is all hyped up to learn in the latest and greatest trainer – the Garmin 1000-equipped Cessna and Piper aircraft or the new glass-panel LSA that just arrived on the ramp.

My Flight Training Background

I am at a disadvantage in trying to understand the cost problem because I’m one of those really fortunate people who have never paid very much for flight training. I entered Air Force (AF) Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) two months after graduating from college.

At the completion of a military basic flight training course you can take a written test on the civilian flight regulations and qualify for a Commercial pilot’s license and an instrument rating.  Way back then the UPT was completed in the Cessna T-37 and the Northrop T-38. As a result,  the commercial certificate that you received was restricted to multi-engine, centerline thrust aircraft unless you had a single- or multi-engine pilot’s license before beginning the military training.  In my case, one of my instructors in the T-38 phase of UPT was also a CFI who did some flight training at the local airport. I took some weekend time out, studied for the Private Pilot License (PPL) written test and passed it. Then I went with the instructor to the local airport and got 5 hours of flight training in a Piper Cherokee 140 and took the PPL practical test. That added single-engine-land (SEL) to the Commercial/Instrument certificate I received when I passed the  military competency written test.

My assignment after AF pilot training was to the Fairchild C-123K in Southeast Asia. When I returned stateside I took my training records to the local FAA office and, based upon my C-123 aircraft commander qualification,  had the centerline thrust restriction removed from my commercial license.

My next military assignment was as an instructor in the Cessna T-37 back at the same UPT base where I took my AF flight training. At the completion of all the AF training courses qualifying me as an AF instructor I looked up that same T-38 instructor I had flown with for my PPL and hired him again. I used a self-study test prep course and passed all the required flight instructor written tests, then took another 5 hours of flight instruction in the Piper Cherokee 140 and this time got my CFI. Then I took five hours of instruction  in a Piper Cherokee 6 and got my CFII.  By then I had purchased my first airplane and had a solid foundation in the general aviation world.

I went on my merry way and did some civilian instructing at various flight schools where I was based during my 20-year career. My last military assignment was as an instructor/evaluator teaching pilots how to fly the Lockheed C-5. I could see my military career coming to a close and, as luck would have it, the airlines started hiring ‘older’ pilots about that time. I studied for and took the Flight Engineer Written test and then found a flight school in the Dallas, TX area where I could spend 4-5 days training and get my multi-engine ATP and Multi-engine instructor ratings in a single check ride. With the new ratings and the AF experience in large aircraft with multi-person crews I got interviews with five different major airlines. I went with the first one to offer me a job and the rest, as they say, is history.

My Flying Situation

I hadn’t given much thought recently to the costs required to operate my plane. Not having it was never  a consideration. Writing this article forced me to go back and look at what it costs me to fly. I bought the plane back in 1972 at a reasonable price and got a low interest rate loan at the AF base Federal Credit Union. The hangar rent at the local airport (middle-of-nowhere west Texas) was $35/month, 80-octane aviation fuel was $.48/gal and I had the airplane insured for liability and hull insurance for the purchase price. I looked up my records and came up with a cost of $40/hour for a 100-hour flying year. Then I went into the government’s Consumer Price Index website and used their CPI Inflation Calculator to convert $40/hr in 1975 dollars to the purchasing power of 2010 dollars. It came to $162/hr.

My Bottom Line Cost to Fly

I now have a different airplane of the same type that has a bigger engine – and higher fuel burn. The airplane is paid off, the hangar rent is 12 times higher and 100LL fuel at the local airport was $4.50/gal the last time I refilled the tanks. I still have it fully insured insurance – maximum liability coverage and hull equal to the aircraft value. I added in hangar utilities and $10/hr for a maintenance fund.  I am an A & P and do my own maintenance but have to buy parts.  The total?  It came to $150/hr for that mythical 100-hr flight year. 

It appears that the cost of flying my own plane has remained essentially constant for almost 40 years. There are any number of ways to change these numbers – add a loan payment, get different insurance coverage, share a hangar, add a bigger amount for maintenance, etc. This numbers exercise was to see if my current flying costs are way out of line when compared to when I bought my first plane.

Yes, you say, but your income is a lot higher now. Well, I would hope so.  My CPI-adjusted income is about 30% higher than when I bought my plane – only because I have an AF retirement. My salary as an AF First Lieutenant in 1975 is virtually the same purchasing power as my current  bankruptcy-adjusted airline salary. The point is not that I have the ability to pay but that the costs to fly haven’t changed much for me.

The  result of this number-crunching has confused me even more. Have I missed something here? Are my numbers way out of line? If the costs to fly my own plane haven’t skyrocketed out of proportion compared to the general cost of living, why are there so many complaints about the cost of flying or getting a license?

My next step was to see if I could find out just how much it might cost to get a Private Pilot’s License in my local area.

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