Should you learn to fly?



Probably not, but there is one big reason to do so revealed at the end.  There’s a lot to unpack.  Flying in a small aircraft is fantastic: expands your mind, develops new and interesting skills, responds well to perseverance, and opens up a whole new dimension of freedom.  It’s an exclusive club, there are only around 600,000 “active” pilots in the U.S. and that number is overstated, it is probably less than ¾ of that.  There are about that many pilots in the entire rest of the world.  My flying club has had active, dues paying members for 10+ years that have never flown a single hour that I’m aware of and most of the airplanes at the airport are unairworthy or fly < 10 hours per year.

There are probably 150,000 people making their living as pilots in the US, with a very high standard deviation in earnings, kind of like a pro sports career if you include all the people playing minor league ball and college sports. If you want to earn a living as a pilot, the first thing you need to do is spend $75,000 separate from any college to get to a commercial license (250 hours), a multi engine rating and then 500 hours, the insurable minimum for a $10 hr job. You can do it cheaper at the cost of time, but time is money too. Working for a major airline can pay amazingly well, $300k plus. BUT. You’ll only earn that if you are hired at the right time, stay at the same airline your entire career, don’t suffer any adverse medical events or screwups, etc, and you WILL be furloughed, your company will go bankrupt and this will happen multiple times. There are exceptions and unicorns, but you are probably not one. Know yourself. I work in IT.

Airplanes are old in ways old car people are amazed by. The post-war US industrial base and economy produced a lot of them and since that economy ground to a halt in 1986 very few have been produced since then, maybe 15% of the fleet size, so the old ones are still around and in use every day. The average small plane is 45 years old, i.e. 1975 vintage. They are amazingly well built and durable but are not something that is readily legible to the youth and monied middle-aged of today and old is old regardless of how well it was built and maintained. A 2020 Cessna Skyhawk, basically the same plane as a 1955 Skyhawk, is $400k+ for the same performance. Sure, the instruments are nicer and it’s not 65 years old but… I can afford $40,000 for a toy, $400,000 might as well be $4,000,000.

Pilots are old. I got my license when I was 19 (I’m 46 now) and was routinely the youngest pilot at fly-ins (fly your plane to an airport to eat pancakes and jabber with the other pilots and locals) until I stopped going in my early 30’s. There was just no new blood for 20 years. There has been a surge of younger people over the last 5 years or so but they are all on a professional track and are not plane owners nor will they be. They are also all unemployed at the moment or working their backup jobs due to the covid panic.

Why did everyone get so old? I have a few theories and it’s probably a little of everything. Baby boomers and older that could afford airplanes mostly had pensions and weren’t expected to pay for their kids college, so they could consume, be it a lake house or an airplane. Others ran small or midsize tool and die or multi-location manufacturing locations so they could justify it as business expense and write it off. Tax changes and China killed off most of those, so guys my age work for big companies now, we save for retirement and our kids’ college (plus overconsume on housing) so we just don’t have as much free income at every life stage. Finally, airplanes are no longer sexy… they are something your grandpa did. A boat jet ski or motorcycle is much more accessible and has more pussy power than an old or even new airplane.

There is an entire federal department dedicated to regulating every bolt in an airplane and just about every square foot of airspace in the US. You will deal with them, directly or indirectly, and they are probably better than you expect individually, but on the whole they increase costs and risks endlessly. Play their game and you can enjoy a simulacrum of freedom, enough to kill yourself in mundane or spectacular fashion. Don’t play their game and you can sit on the ground while they bleed you to death with papercuts. Know yourself.

That was pretty negative. What is the final upside? Heinlein, always Heinlein. You worked for an education. You work hard at your job and your job skills. You take responsibility for your family and your community by voting correctly, paying what is needed, going to court when you have to, having a generator, gasoline, guns, ammo and a plan. You can ride, drive, shoot straight and speak the truth but you are still restricted to the ground, to the roads, to two dimensions.

Other people or authorities can block the roads, hem you in, drive faster or call their friends, foment a better mob and surprise and surround you. When you can fly, you are literally above all that. If you can make it to the airport you and your family can be 500 miles away in less than 5 hours and there is no-one short of the military that can stop you, and even then they won’t. There is value in that, for you, your friends and your family. In a world of chess, get high above the board where their moves don’t apply.