General Aviation FAQ

I’ve been working on my pilot’s license and naturally, a lot of people have questions. Here are some of the ones I’ve received from friends:

Q. Isn’t flying a small plane dangerous?

A. It depends almost entirely on the pilot. The majority of small aircraft crashes are due to pilot error, mostly flying into bad weather. Aviation is a pretty unforgiving hobby, and if you don’t take it seriously, it can kill you. I take safety very seriously, and always try to examine my attitudes to ensure I’m being realistic about my limitations. There’s an old saying that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.

All that said, it’s probably roughly equivalent to riding a motorcycle. The difference is that, unlike a motorcycle where you’re at the mercy of the other drivers on the road, you control most of the risks in a small airplane. You can read more here.

Q. How long does it take to get your license?

A. It varies from person to person; the legal requirement is 40 hours of instruction, but the average is probably closer to 60-80 hours. I’m a little over 50 hours right now and I hope to finish in the next couple months, below 80 hours. That said, I took a 3-year hiatus in the middle of my lessons, so that set me back. Most people could do it in 50-60 hours if they were disciplined.

Q. Is it expensive?

A. Yes.

Q. What if the engine stops?

A. All airplanes (even jumbo jets) can glide with no power. The trainer aircraft that we fly can usually glide about 10 feet horizontally for every 1 foot of altitude they lose. This means that if you lose an engine at 5000 feet, you theoretically about 50,000 feet of horizontal distance before you have to land, or almost 10 miles. Various factors can reduce this distance somewhat, but you generally won’t plummet straight out of the sky. We spend a significant portion of the training learning how to avoid engine failure, and when it does happen, how to troubleshoot the problem and attempt a restart. If the engine won’t restart, then we find a place to land and put it down.

Take comfort though: engine failures are relatively rare. Many pilots will fly thousands of hours over the course of their lifetime and never experience one.

Q. How fast does the plane go?

A. The planes we fly during training generally cruise right around 100 knots, or about 115 mph. Once you get more experience (and money), you can start looking at higher-performance planes that may cruise at twice that speed, or more.

Q. Are you going to buy a plane?

A. Not for awhile. Airplanes suffer from being both expensive to purchase and expensive to maintain. They have high fixed costs, including insurance, hangar space, annual inspections, etc, so unless you fly more than a couple hundred hours a year, it often makes more sense to just rent a plane when you need one.

Q. Why do you do it?

A. I have no idea 🙂 Seriously, flying a small airplane around is terribly impractical. They make for pretty lousy transportation compared with commercial aviation (slower, less reliable, and much more expensive) and they definitely introduce some risk into your life, no matter how safe a pilot you are. The only thing I can say is that I love the feeling and freedom of flying, and tend to view it more as a challenge and a source of entertainment. If you haven’t been up in a small plane, I encourage you to try it; there’s nothing quite like it.

Post any questions that you have in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.