The Only Way to Go
Rocky and Bullwinkle

Recently we were treated to an enlightening opportunity: a flight in a private plane, courtesy of a friend-of-a-friend. We took full advantage of the time with the pilot, asking all kinds of questions about getting a pilot's license and what airport security is like for people who have their own airplanes. Turns out this is a great way for freedom-minded people to travel, if they have some extra FRNs on them. Here's what we found out.

Our trip started out from a small airport -- a place that didn't look much like an airport, really. There was no "terminal", no lounge, not even a vending machine to get a Coke from. It was a collection of hangars and a runway, and didn't really inspire confidence. But, as our friend pointed out, there were absolutely no fed types -- or any sort of busybody -- around the place. The pilot told us that this varies from place to place; some airports are essentially unstaffed, but more likely, ones that get enough traffic do have at least one FBO -- that stands for Fixed Base Operator -- that sells fuel and provides other services. He's seen TSA snoops at small regional airports, he said, but only at ones that provide service to commercial air traffic. He hasn't seen them bother people on private planes. If you're interested in seeing what kinds of airports your area (in the US) has, you can browse the web site.

A few other hangars were open, and as we were getting set to go, a couple of planes came and went. With no traffic control tower, we wondered how they coordinated with each other to avoid collisions. When we went up, we got the answer: flight traffic is keyed to a specific airport, and the pilot announces arrival and departure in a standard format so that everyone around knows what's going on. (In the plane, you can hear more air chatter than the airport you're keyed to, because the radios can pick up signals from miles around.) Taxiing to and from the runway is basically run by good manners; the pilot checks to make sure no one else is using the runway, keeps clear distance from traffic ahead (if any), announces takeoff (or landing), and does it and gets out of the way.

We didn't have to file a flight plan, or do any other kind of tracking nonsense for our trip across the state and back. The pilot informed us that since he was flying VFR -- visual flight rules -- he didn't need to do that, and he also didn't have to keep in touch with air traffic controllers. Only when you fly IFR -- instrument flight rules -- do you need to file a flight plan. Then you are tracked from region to region (if necessary), and handed off from control tower to control tower. He said you can change your flight plan if necessary, but it isn't always easy. He didn't like to fly IFR, and we could easily understand why. It seems pretty regulated.

The pilot told us that it is getting a little harder to get a license these days than when he first learned to fly, but that the fedgov hadn't cracked down too hard yet. It requires learning a lot of stuff that (according to him) you'll promptly forget and get from books when you need it again, getting a physical, and taking some tests and showing some papers. He said they don't seem to be cracking down on private pilot students, but still, it doesn't seem like a good way to try out your fake IDs. One very interesting observation he made is that he's never been asked for his pilot's license. And he's never seen anyone else asked to show his or hers. Now isn't that a refreshing change from the "papers, please?" we're all used to when driving?

The sense of freedom while up in the wild blue yonder was exhilarating. No speed limits, no cops, no one telling the pilot what he could or couldn't do. It was fun! He did need to keep an eye out for other air traffic (the radio helps with that some too), but the only limits to what we could do were imposed by physics.

Back on the ground, we began asking him about the costs involved in getting into flying. Getting lessons is expensive -- but you might be able to make some kind of deal to get them cheap -- and getting a plane can run anywhere from fairly cheap to outrageous. A fixer-upper can be had for a song, but then you'd need to pay to do all those fixups. And it turns out that isn't likely to be cheap. The FAA does keep a heavy hand on aircraft parts and repairs, with safety being the justification. Depending upon the repairs your plane needs, it could be very expensive to do them. However, since the FAA's clamped down tightly on new plane models, there tend to be lots of sound rebuilt parts around. There's also a good market for new parts, even for old planes that are still in common use.

If you want to go the do it yourself route, the FAA hasn't yet come down too hard on experimental aircraft, and there are lots and lots of kits to be had. Again, expect to be inspected, detected, and selected, and all that stuff, but once you're done with that, you're done. There's no place to pull you over at 10,000 feet to check your papers, or your exhaust for politically incorrect chemicals -- and no one to do the pulling over. If you go this route, you can do all your maintenance and repairs yourself, too, without the FAA snooping in. That's definitely a bonus that makes the sweat equity investment more worthwhile.

Avgas is more expensive than auto gas, and depending upon lots of things, including what kind of plane you have, what kind of flying you do, and how economically you try to fly, you can guzzle a lot of it on a trip. But if you're thinking of using a plane for long trips, you'll save on hotel and related costs, so it could balance out. As we mentioned before, maintenance can be expensive too. If you have trusted friends in your area, perhaps going in together on the costs of owning and operating a plane is an option worth exploring.

But we all know that freedom has a price. And, come the revolution, what better way to be prepared than to have a travel alternative that can literally fly under the radar of the fedgov? The "investment" costs into a license and working plane could pay off handsomely down the road -- and you'd have the benefits of greater traveling freedom now.

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