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Commuter Pilots

Want time to spare? Go by air

Commuting to work from the suburbs has been a way of life in many parts of America for half a century. But nowhere is the process as time-consuming, lifestyle-affecting, and downright legendary as in Southern California. Here, hour-long commutes are standard and a two-hour drive each way to work is not uncommon. Distances are described in time, not miles, and unfortunate souls who try to head in the wrong direction on the 91 or 605 freeways after 3 o’clock in the afternoon can find themselves moving less than 10 feet in 20 minutes. What ought to be a breezy 30-minute drive with no traffic can become a two-hour ordeal during rush hour. And in the Los Angeles basin, rush hour means any time between 4 and 9 o’clock in the morning or 3 and 7 o’clock in the afternoon.

Californians use a wide variety of creative solutions to help make commuting less frustrating, from car telephones and fax machines to flex hours and company-organized van pools. But some people have found that the best solution is to leave the crowded freeways behind—or below, to be more accurate—and fly to work instead.

The idea of using an airplane to commute to work is certainly not a new one. Forty years ago, aviation forecasters predicted that thousands of people would soon be commuting by air with the help of innovative aerocar designs. The predictions proved to be more than a little off. But although aerocars may have gone the way of the Ford Edsel and the pilots who fly to work still number something less than “thousands,” commuting by air has proven a valuable survival technique for a number of Southern Californians.

The transient parking ramp at Hawthorne Airport (just southeast of LAX), for example, is deserted and silent at 5 o’clock in the morning. But by 8 a.m., enough “commuter” airplanes have arrived that a visiting pilot might be hard pressed to find a tiedown spot. The individual pilots and airplaneloads of people who arrive there each weekday morning come from various parts of the Los Angeles basin and from as far away as San Diego. But all of them fly to work for the same reason. It is, they say, the best strategy they have found for preserving a sane lifestyle.

Mike Smith, who flies a Cessna Cardinal to Hawthorne from Camarillo with a partner every day, decided to start flying to work when a job transfer left him with a commute as long as two and a half hours in heavy traffic. “After a couple of months of coming home, pouring a double scotch and grumbling at my wife every day, she told me I was going to find a way to enjoy commuting down there, or else. One month later, we bought the Cardinal.”

Al Renteria operates a Piper Cherokee pool to Hawthorne from Corona, a suburb 45 miles east of Los Angeles. He says it only took a couple of weeks commuting on the 91 freeway to convince him to look for a way to fly to work instead. James (J.R.) McGuire and Dave Beam are ex-Navy buddies who live in the San Diego area. They were both offered good aerospace industry jobs in Los Angeles, but they didn’t want to move their families out of San Diego. Airplane pooling allows them to have the best of both worlds.

Flying to work, the pilots say, reduces both the time and stress involved with commuting. “It’s a real tranquil way to start the day, and you’re still on schedule while everyone else is beating themselves up on the freeway,” explains John Bramlett, who operates an airplane pool to L.A. from Corona. Even with a little bit of a drive on both ends and having to preflight the airplane, the time he saves is still significant. Door to door, Bramlett says, flying to work takes about 50 minutes to an hour. By comparison, that same commute by car would take two hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the afternoon. In addition to being a shorter commute, the trip by airplane generally takes the same length of time every day, as opposed to a drive that can vary dramatically, depending on traffic, accidents, and construction.

Of course, commuting by air does have some limitations. Los Angeles has a number of airports convenient to various parts of the metropolitan area, but flying to work would be much less attractive for people whose job sites were not near an airport. And while traffic jams and construction may not affect air commuters, weather becomes a much greater concern. Los Angeles has fewer storm fronts with which to contend than most places, but smog, haze, and marine fog layers on the coast still create IFR conditions about 25 percent of the time, according to the Hawthorne commuters.

There are some non-instrument pilots who fly to work when the weather is good, but they have to have a back-up mode of transportation. And even instrument-rated pilots cannot always get into airports like Hawthorne, which has relatively conservative IFR minimums of a 600-foot ceiling and one mile of visibility. “On days we can’t get in, we just go get breakfast and wait for conditions to improve,” says Bramlett. Fortunately, with flex-hour scheduling and Air Quality Management mandates to encourage employees to pool to work, the occasional late arrival creates less of a problem for people working in L.A. than it might in other parts of the country.

Even so, some of the pilots pay to keep a seat in a company van pool or use a neighborhood car pool as a back-up, so they don’t feel undue pressure to fly if there is a problem with the airplane or the weather is really questionable. McGuire and Beam do not have alternate transportation from San Diego, but they acknowledge that their dependence on the airplane means that their lives “revolve around the health and well-being of the airplane.”

Perhaps because of that dependence, Beam and McGuire view their Gulfstream American Lynx strictly as a business vehicle. They fly it only to and from work, which still puts more than 400 hours a year on the airplane. “If the airplane broke on the weekend, we’d be without a ride on Monday morning,” Beam explains. That same concern led them to choose the Lynx instead of a more complex airplane. “We learned the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) principle,” Beam says. “We used to fly a Piper Turbo Lance, but the Grumman is nice and simple. We don’t even have oleo struts to worry about, and that makes it easier to handle the maintenance.”

Renteria likes his Piper Warrior for the same reason. “For commuting, the Warrior is perfect,” he says. “It’s simple, efficient, and not too expensive to fly. In a bigger airplane, the costs would double.” In an effort to reduce expenses as much as possible, many of the pilots try to do much of the routine maintenance on their airplanes themselves. Cost is also the reason some of the pilots choose to fly into Hawthorne. Don Hanson, who commutes from Corona, flew his Cessna 152 into LAX for five years until parking got too expensive. He now keeps a car at Hawthorne and drives the last few miles to work.

But even with simple airplanes, do-it-yourself oil changes, and low tiedown rates, commuting by air is not cheap. Most of the pilots try to defray the costs of commuting by taking passengers to help share expenses. Some, like Renteria and Bramlett, operate their airplanes like company van pools, in which riders “buy” seats on the airplane. If someone is not going into work on a particular day, he can try to find someone to take his seat, but he pays for the seat whether it is filled or not. Airplane pooling, they say, makes flying less expensive than driving their individual cars, although it is still more expensive than a van pool.

Other pilots, like Beam and McGuire, prefer an arrangement in which all the riders are officially partners in the airplane. That way, Beam explains, “one person doesn’t end up bearing the brunt of the maintenance.”

Smith and his partner Bill Thomas know they could reduce their operating costs by filling the two back seats of the Cardinal, but they like the flexibility of having to work around only one other person’s schedule. Still, they do occasionally take riders for a contribution toward expenses of $10 per round trip, which is only $4 more than the cost of a van pool from Camarillo. The riders in Renteria’s airplane pool contribute $48 per round trip, but that includes a contribution toward the costs of an airport car to take them all to work once they get to Hawthorne, as well as tiedown and maintenance expenses.

But the pilots stress that a cost-benefit analysis of commuting by air has to consider more than just the pure money involved. Certainly anyone who puts any value on his time would consider saving up to two and a half hours a day a valuable investment. But the advantages of flying to work go beyond mere time saved. “What price do you put on the wear and tear you put on your body by driving every day?” asks Beam. Or, as Hanson says, “If you’re looking at every dollar spent on the aircraft, you’re looking at the wrong reason for flying to work. I fly so that when I get home at the end of the day, I’m relaxed and my wife’s not afraid to see me.”

For many pilots in other parts of the country, flying in the crowded Los Angeles airspace every day might seem as stressful as navigating the freeways. But the pilots who commute by air say that once they learned the system, it became easy and even somewhat fun. “It takes a while to learn that there’s not a big wall around Los Angeles,” Smith says. “The L.A. controllers get to know us and actually go out of their way to help. One morning we called up and the controller came back with, ‘You’re late. Here’s your squawk,’ and gave us our clearance before we even asked for it.”

“You find out that controllers are real people...and you get to know who the good ones are,” agrees Bramlett.

The commuting pilots also get to know each other, although sometimes by call sign instead of by name. Bramlett’s group, for example, is known to Beam and McGuire only as “the guys in Two-Five-Golf.” The pilots who commute from Corona, on the other hand, have compiled a telephone list with all of their home and work numbers, as well as a list of potential alternate riders. The list makes it easier for the commuters to find a seat on another airplane if their airplane is down or another passenger to take their seat if they are not going to work that day.

All the pilots agree that the primary reasons they commute by air are stress, time, and family. But some of them find other benefits to the arrangement, as well. For Smith, Thomas, Bramlett, and Renteria, flying to work provided them with the justification they needed to own their own airplanes, and offers them an excuse to fly. Some of the pilots admit that their recreational flying has dropped significantly since they started flying to work every day, but others say they still enjoy flying for fun. “The difference is that now I get enough flying during the week to let my wife do more of the flying on the weekends,” Thomas says.

Of course, even flying to work counts as fun, according to many of the pilots. Dale Ploung, who commutes in his Cardinal from Corona to Santa Barbara, says that he never runs out of interesting things to see from the air. “I’ve seen houses in Beverly Hills with miniature golf courses in their backyards and followed F-4s over Angel Stadium,” he says. “And pretty soon, you get a kind of local knowledge that allows you to do things other people couldn’t do.”

For Smith, it is the ever-changing beauty of the coast, the ocean, and the Santa Monica mountains that makes the flight so enjoyable. “I’ve seen some eye-watering sunrises over the L.A. basin, coming in over the Malibu coast,” Smith says. “And every day is different.”

Sometimes, the commuting pilots get to see some unusual and dramatic sights, as well. “On the morning of the (January 1994) earthquake, we got to see one of the aftershocks,” Bramlett remembers. “The dust was coming off the hills in clouds. We’ve also seen fires, floods, and even riots.”

Although Southern California is not the only place where people use their airplanes to get to work, commuting by air would not make sense in all parts of the country. In many places, the drive by car is not that bad; there are other, more economical forms of mass transit; weather is too great a concern; or the available airports are too far away from the city centers.

Even in the Los Angeles basin, where pilots have more airports to choose from and a lot more motivation to use them, flying is not the cheapest way to get to work. But for a number of pilots and their passengers, saving time and keeping their sanity and quality of life is worth a little extra expense. Besides, Renteria argues, flying gives them a kind of freedom their co-workers will never have. “One day,” he says, “everyone in my airplane pool took the afternoon off, and we flew to Catalina Island for lunch and went home from there. You can’t do that in a van pool.”

Lane E. Wallace, AOPA 896621, is an aviation writer and private pilot who has been flying for more than seven years. She owns a 1946 Cessna 120 and is restoring a 1943 Stearman.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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