A little bit on flying

Gordon said he’d like to read something about flying, and since I really like this post of his I decided “what the hell, let’s talk about flying.”

Depending on the definitions you use I’m in the “one percent.”  My business also owns a plane that I fly, but that’s probably drawing some pictures in your head that are way off.  In my mind plane ownership is:

  • Rational
  • Affordable
  • A pretty clear lifestyle choice.

First off: what kind of plane are we talking about?

The average airplane in the united states is 41 years old, and the most successful plane ever built was the Cessna 172 – the Skyhawk.  So I’m going to write this post about the 1973 Skyhawk:



It’s not nearly as nice to look at as a Lear Jet, and it’s certainly not as capable, but this is fairly representative of general aviation aircraft in the United States.

So what’s it cost?

You can buy one new for around a quarter-million dollars, but something like 40% of that is liability costs built into the plane, and another biggish chunk ($60,000 or so) represents the Garmin avionics that gives the instruments their video game feel.  Not surprisingly, Cessna doesn’t sell that many new Skyhawks.

Looking at for-sale listings for early-1970’s Skyhawks (the 172M model) shows asking prices that range from $22,000 to $130,000.  In general it’s not too hard to find one in reasonable shape for somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000.  That’s not inexpensive, but it’s about the cost of an entry-level BMW 3-series.

Once you own it you’ll need a place to park it — probably an airport — and prices vary based on whether you want to tie it down outside or place it in a hangar, and where in the country you live.  I live in a tiny town, so I’m paying $150 per month for a hangar.  In Los Angeles that could be ten times higher, depending.

Jesus!  40 years old?  Is it safe?

Sure.  The FAA requires that you pay a mechanic to take the thing apart and inspect it every 12 months in order for it to remain airworthy.  Research has to be done on every part of the plane in order to prove that all of the FAA’s airworthiness directives have been complied with.

It’s mechanical, and mechanical things break, but you can be pretty sure that the thing is safe provided you keep the maintenance up to date.

I’ve heard small planes are dangerous though.

People die every year in them.

Statistics are lacking, but the best data I’ve seen suggests that flying a small airplane is about as dangerous overall as riding a motorcycle based strictly on the annual statistics.  The difference is that on a bike someone else’s mistake can end up killing you.  In a plane, it’s generally the pilot’s fault.  Somewhere between 7-10% of accidents are caused by mechanical failure.  The rest is things like:

  • Running out of gas.  Seriously – this is much more common than it should be, and it’s easily preventable.
  • Flying into something other than air.  Generally this is due to doing something stupid like flying in zero visibility and not noticing the mountain in front of you.  Or deciding to show off in front of your friends by (failing to) perform maneuvers close to the ground.
  • Flying into weather that kills you.  Thunderstorms can tear a small plane (or a big one) to pieces.

Show decent judgement and try not to perform any stupid pilot tricks and the safety record is pretty good.

OK, so what is a Skyhawk?

This is a dead-simple aircraft:

  • Notice the landing gear are fixed.  Definitely not sexy, but the landing gear is strong enough to survive a long series of student pilots making terrible landings, and there’s not much to go wrong.
  • Propulsion comes from a gasoline-burning engine hooked directly to a propellor.  You can get better performance and economy from a “complex prop” which can be compared to a transmission between the propellor and the engine, but the Skyhawk is simple.
  • That engine is pretty basic too.  It’s an air-cooled 320 cubic inch horizontally opposed carbureted engine.  It uses magnetos to provide the spark for ignition so you won’t lose engine power if your electrical system dies.  Magnetos only last about 500 hours though, so you’ve got two complete ignition systems (2 magnetos and two spark plugs per cylinder) for redundancy.
  • That engine can run on 87 octane gasoline from a gas station, provided you can find some without ethanol in it.  If not, you’ll be burning avgas, which (believe it or not) still contains tetraethyl lead – that stuff we took out of automotive fuel decades ago.  The FAA has been looking for a replacement for a couple of decades.

Basically, aviation is highly regulated, and regulation drives up costs and reduces innovation, so we’ve got technology that was cutting-edge in the 1940’s driving modern aircraft.  What I’m describing here is essentially the same thing as you’ll see in the quarter-million-dollar modern version, except the modern one will have (mechanical) fuel injection, has less useful load, and can’t burn car gas.

Yeah, well, I’m not mechanically inclined so that didn’t tell me much…

OK, look at this:


That’s the inside of a Skyhawk.  What you need to know is:

  • It’s pretty simple.  See the windows?  That’s your air conditioning.  Along with the vents you can see in the corners – those vents can push a fair amount of 0° C air at cruise altitude.
  • See the headsets?  You don’t need to fly with those, but we now know hearing loss is permanent and it turns out a 5 liter lawn mower engine running at 2,500 RPM in a vehicle designed to be as light as possible is pretty loud.
  • You can put a bit less than 850 pounds in this thing until it’s at its max weight.  It has four seats and 38 gallons of usable fuel, but you either get full fuel or full seats.  Consider this a 2-3 person aircraft with full fuel.

You seem nice, but I don’t think I’d want to get in your plane and just fly around.  Isn’t that boring?

Yes, which is why I go places in mine.

Here’s a snippet from the owner’s manual:


(TAS is “true airspeed” – the speed at which you’re moving through the air.  Often the air moves in reference to the ground – generally opposite your direction of travel – so ground speed varies based on the whims of the wind spirits.)

At 8,000 feet these aircraft go about 130 miles per hour at ~ 18 miles per gallon (note to Gordon – those are real gallons, not imperial gallons.)  Better: they do it in a straight line, and at 65% power it will fly longer than you want to without a bathroom break.  This makes it very viable for vacations, and if you’ve got a 3-day weekend it really opens up the sorts of places you can visit.

Yeah?  Where?

Most anywhere in North America.  According to Wikipedia there are more than 6,300 airports in the US and Canada that are usable by general aviation (that means privately owned small planes, mostly.)

Check it out yourself.  Go to Skyvector and poke around to see where you can land near the destination of your choice.  Here are some pointers though, since that’s a map made for aviation and it’ll look freaky:


  • Yellow blotches are cities or towns.  They’re just designed so that you can look out the window and say “yep, this town below me is shaped just like that, so there I am.
  • The magenta circles with lines in them?  Those are airports, and the line represents the general direction of the runway.  If it’s blue then that means it’s got a tower, and some towered airports look like runways without the magenta circle around them.
  • Some of the other stuff is obvious (water, train tracks, power lines) and some isn’t (radio and navigation information.)  Ignore it.

So, like, you just fly places?

Sort of.  Some car rental companies in the US cater to pilots, because pilots tend to travel and are assumed to have money, so they’re good customers.  Go online or call, tell the rental company where you’re going to be, and a car will be waiting for you at the airport.

What if I want to go farther in less time?

Then you buy a faster plane.  Something simple (like the plane we’re talking about here) is about as cheap as you’ll see in aviation.  If you want to go fast, in comfort, then you’re talking about an airplane that costs more to buy, maintain, and feed (6 miles per gallon is more common for a fast, capable, twin-engined aircraft.)

Performance costs, so increasing speed or load hauling ability a little drives up the price a lot, like you’d expect.  You can buy a twin-engine plane that’s capable of flying in icing conditions for a few hundred thousand, and some of those are even pressurized so you don’t need to wear oxygen above 12,000 feet.  Those will go around 230 miles per hour, will carry up to 6-8 people, and will cost many times more per hour/mile to operate.

If you want to go faster than that, then you’re looking at turboprop or jet territory.  Think millions of dollars and truly outrageous operating costs.

OK, so what does it take to be a pilot?

You’ve gotta jump through a bunch of hoops:

  • Pass a physical, then retake it every 2-5 years depending on your age.  Fail a physical and lose your ability to fly.
  • Be a citizen, or pass the DHS’s whatever-they-do.
  • Pass a written test.
  • Pass a multi-hour oral exam.
  • Pass a multi-hour practical exam.

The biggest obstacle for most healthy people is cost.  You’ll need a minimum of 40 hours of experience to take the test (35 in some schools), but the average is 60.  And you’re probably going to be renting that plane unless you’re foolhardy enough to buy a plane you can’t fly, or you’ve got a generous friend.  Rental is going to be somewhere between $95 and $230 per hour depending on what you’re renting, plus $30-50 per hour for your instructor for those hours you’re flying together.  It’s not unreasonable to pay $10,000 for your license, and some pay more.

That ain’t cheap.  And that’s one the reasons more people don’t fly.

So what’s the catch, other than the cost of the license?


This plane will fly to 13,000 feet at maximum gross weight, and that’s pretty high.  Except when there’s bad weather.  Thunderstorms are things you can fly around in some parts of the country; in others they’re likely to be embedded (meaning you can’t see the thunderstorm because it’s hidden by lots of other clouds), and those things’ll kill you.

Most pilots fly under visual flight rules, which give minimums for visibility and cloud separation.  You can get additional training and fly under instrument flight rules and fly through clouds and in generally worse conditions, but that’s no panacea.  In general though, if there’s mist/fog/low clouds and you can’t see the airport, then you’re in trouble.

Some clouds will cause ice to form on your plane, which makes you heavier (bad), while accumulating on your wings which changes the shape of the airfoil and reduces lift (worse), and does the same thing to the propeller (which is just an airfoil too) which reduces thrust (worst.)  This is really bad, and it generally means you’ll be landing soon, and under less control than you’d like.

So prudent pilots sometimes look at the weather and say “nope,” which sucks when you’ve planned your vacation around flying there.  It also sucks when you’re trying to get home so you can make your appointment in the morning and the weather is telling you that if you’re smart you’ll stay another day.

So in response you plan on renting a car to drive home in, or you book a refundable commercial ticket before your flight and use it to get home if the weather turns sour on you.  And smart pilots always check the weather before a flight, through one of the many ways that the FAA makes available (web site, phone, iPad apps that tie into online web sites, etc.)


Eventually that engine will wear out (somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 hours of use, probably – figure 20-30 years).  At that point it’ll need to be rebuilt, and that will probably cost somewhere in excess of $20,000.  Because even though the engines are dirt-simple, aviation is heavily regulated and nothing in aviation is cheap.

That’s not to say it’s unaffordable for a regular every-day person though.  You just need to budget.  And budgeting of both money and time is something I’m sure to discuss more in the future…)

And that’s my intro to general aviation.


2 thoughts on “A little bit on flying

    1. RejectDogma Post author

      Well, that just means I explained it reasonably well. Because really, who *doesn’t* want to fly?


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