Frugal Flyer: My $1 million education

Return on investment isn’t guaranteed

October 1, 2013

frugal flyerIt’s hard to place a value on my nearly 7,000 hours spent aloft in general aviation aircraft, but $1 million is probably close.

That’s an average $142.85 an hour for airplanes ranging from Piper Cubs to warbirds, so the million-dollar figure is, if anything, too low.

Even more surprising than the monstrous sum is how little I seem to have learned during 25-years of “higher education.” I still make errors, have lapses in judgment, and bungle landings with sad regularity. My only consolation, or schadenfreude, is that others—some with even more expensive educations than mine—prove themselves equally dense.

So, even though the thoughts offered here for free aren’t worth anything close to a million bucks, here are some of the lessons that my 7,000 hours of flying has imparted:

  • There are few earthly problems that flying can’t improve, even if getting off the ground only provides a brief respite and a welcome change in perspective.
  • Flying with smart, experienced pilots and doing what they do is the first step in learning how to think like they think.
  • Aircraft engines can and do quit, and when they do, actual engine-out glides look and feel much different than practice ones.
  • It’s OK for family members not to share my passion for aviation. And I will enthusiastically support them in all their endeavors, even if the things they choose aren’t nearly so interesting.
  • There’s magic in a well-flown aerobatic maneuver.
  • Anything you learn about flying will someday, somewhere, find a practical application.
  • Any rating you earn eventually will open an unanticipated opportunity.
  • When presented with a choice between buying a gadget and investing in your own aviation education, do the latter.
  • The world’s finest aircraft have tailwheels.
  • Floatplanes combine the best aspects of the nautical and aeronautical.
  • Hurrying around airplanes invites embarrassment, disaster, or both.
  • Being able to “see” the air and predict its movement like a sailplane pilot is an advantage no matter what kind of aircraft you fly.
  • International GA flying with all of its fees and regulations makes the freedoms pilots in America enjoy all the more precious and worthy of preserving.
  • There’s magic in a well-flown instrument approach.
  • People who build their own airplanes make their own dreams come true.
  • Formation flying is about trust and teamwork more than stick-and-rudder skill.
  • Every airplane has something to like about it. (Except a Champion Lancer.)
  • Understanding angle of attack is essential to pilot happiness and longevity.
  • There’s magic in a radial engine.
  • Absolute certainty that you’ve totally mastered an aviation skill assures a large serving of humble pie is coming your way.
  • Top speed is the most overrated (and most talked about) aircraft performance figure.
  • If you fly a long time in a straight line, you’ll happen upon some amazing places.
  • Every pilot should make at least one pilgrimage to Oshkosh.
  • There’s magic in an open-cockpit biplane.
  • Transportation is an overrated aspect of light GA flying.
  • Kids, dogs, and airplanes just go together.
  • Mechanics are brilliant people who can’t tell time (or read calendars).
  • The worst pilots seem to live forever, and some of the best perish in accidents.
  • There’s magic in a morning touchdown on a placid lake.
  • Hangar flying can impart real wisdom and pass on valued traditions.
  • The people you meet in flying are far more complex, fascinating, maddening, and memorable than any airplane.

On the other side of the ledger, and balancing out the expenses, are the priceless firsts that flying provides: First solo; first checkride; first passenger; first loop, roll, and spin; first student, et cetera. How can anyone place a value on these milestones?

My highly organized wife Martha handles our family finances, and she’s got computerized spreadsheets covering just about every conceivable category. I’m sure she could tell me at the touch of a button how much I’ve spent on flying—and I’m grateful she never has.

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor , AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.