Helping Out

Rear cockpit.

This pair is a little young, but it won’t be long before they’ll want to do a little flying of their own. The way things are going they’ll need all the help they can find to see themselves to a private certificate and, hopefully, the means to put together an Experimental.

You may have noticed, but things have gotten sort of expensive lately. The daily stuff has a new bite to it and the once solidly expensive but worth it toys are now out of grasp.

Strangely for a guy living in a state reputed to have $1.19 worth of taxes and fees per gallon of mogas, it wasn’t the price of fuel driving me to this conclusion but rather an old travel trailer we’ve had for too long around the ol’ rancho. A little 19-foot weekender, it has served respectably during house construction and later as a guest house of sorts. We even towed it on quickie overnight outings a few times. But like anything built to a price and stored outside, it has done its time as I noticed while pushing it yet farther aside recently. In fact, it’s toast.

What I realized next took me aback, however. There’s no way I can justify replacing that little trailer given today’s prices. To do so would wipe out the toy budget for years and while I could certainly use a guest cottage these days, ponying up the dough for a current replacement trailer doesn’t mesh with the budget. Nor, I next realized, would I be replacing the 21-year-old pickup truck, the little trailer boat or any of the other haggard vehicles in my fleet. Including, I realized with a chill, even my old biplane with its ratty fabric but fresh engine, good tires and ADS-B. Heck, an engine overhaul or semi-thorough airframe rebuild is disqualifying at this point, although there always seems to be some combination of jungle telegraph and sweat equity to save the day.

But if I, a comfortable enough retiree who at least paid off the mortgage a while back, can just hang on to a lifetime’s accumulation of stuff, how are the youngsters supposed to keep up? Housing costs are beyond expensive, and with rent so high stashing away the cost of entry to a starter home or condominium is daunting enough to scare off all but the fanatically dedicated. Where does owning an airplane figure in all that?

By building your own, as it always has. But that’s gotten expensive to the point of discouragement for the young and the flightless, too.

We’ve beaten to death all those easy-to-say, difficult-to-do ideas surrounding “inexpensive” plane building. And yeah, you can shape a prop from enough popsicle sticks or make a tailwheel from your kid’s scooter wheel, but past merely getting in the air, arriving at an airplane offering a minimum of utility is a six-figure exercise in these oh-so-modern times. Even older RVs are bringing far more than lunch money, such that going vintage Van’s or the like means a rebuild project, typically with pricey engine or panel consequences.

All of this whistled through the wind-swept expanses between my headset cups last week when I suddenly realized a young, new friend of the family was a 100-hour private pilot but had not flown in two and half years, thanks to finances and ongoing service to our country in the military. Yes, he is turning wrenches on helicopters for Uncle Sam and accrediting his military experience toward a civilian A&P ticket, but flying is simply on hold for him right now.

And so, I took him flying and we had a great time.

Paying It Forward

It was the end of a long, early summer day when the wind had died and the shadows were stretching over the hills. Given his near-epic absence from the controls, I opted for a scenic hop down the nearby Pacific coast where the airspace is simple, the bumps nonexistent and the flying easy. The coastal fog was regrouping for its nightly onshore advance so there were still wide spots in the thin stratus, enough to question going below or above them, and where to best make the transition. To my delight he wanted to try a stall or two and his attention to flying was rapt with enthusiasm only the young and disciplined can muster. Atop all that, his command of the controls was excellent.

With no tailwheel time in his logbook I did the takeoff and landing, but in a bit of dirty pool I had him taxi the little devil on our hilltop airport’s fiendishly narrow, sinuous, vertically challenged taxiways. Once again we were in the little Cessna 140A instead of the Starduster due to the biplane’s windblown communication challenges, not to mention its more limited sightseeing capabilities or the minor fact it was out of condition inspection at the time. The Starduster, with its 100-mph approach to landing, blind flare and need-to-get-used-to-it wind noise, along with its not rapacious but still real need for experience on the rudder pedals, is too much for the typical low-time nose-gear driver, so I default to the puddle-jumping Cessna given anyone without a tailwheel endorsement. And to think of how many newbies were broken in on Stearmans and Wacos during the war. How many of those who washed out would have made good pilots given just a little less steep learning curve in primary trainers?

Truth is, my young friend showed great technique and he likely could have put either of my taildraggers on the ground and lived to tell about it. But that’s something for another day.

And there’s the point. I’m going to give this guy another day, and a day after that. I’ll do what I can to get him ready for a real instructor and a tailwheel endorsement. It seems a small thing to do for someone with talent and so much time ahead to enjoy flying, and who’s already working toward a useful career in aviation. He’ll enjoy the flight time and I too. The only question is which one of us will do the more enjoying.

I guess it’s a form of paying for the help, or at least the acknowledgement of what I received as the pesky kid who rode his Schwinn to the local airport on Saturdays. A couple of pilots there went out of their way to get me in the air a few times and later plenty of people gave me much help and encouragement both at the airport and the racetrack when I began participating in earnest. Without them I would not have made it half as far as I did, so it only seems right to return the favor, even if it is 50 years in the making.

And if I do things right, hopefully the budding pilot-A&P will someday buy or build an Experimental and keep this thing of ours going.

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Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.


  1. Great read. Sometimes I almost tear up a little when I think of how much generosity it took to get my PPL, tailwheel, solid backcountry instruction, inspect & buy a solid plane and the hardest part of all – find a hangar! I owe a lot and pay it forward every chance I get.

  2. Yes, aviation is needlessly and ridiculously expensive. Things are way over priced compared to what they actually cost to make, and I’m saying this as a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineer. I can design and make equivalent parts for far cheaper than certified ones cost. Worn out used certified parts can cost me 1000% more to buy than making the same part brand new from scratch. Utterly ridiculous.

  3. What a nice thing to do for this young man. I am also young (33), have a good job, and am in a good position financially. After my recent third visit to Airventure, getting into aviation seems completely out of grasp for me. Getting the license is really the only thing that seems obtainable. Everything else like renting or buying a airplane, insurance, fuel, or hanger space is outrageously expensive. I watched a video on YouTube of two guys building a RV8. It was from 2001. The IO-360 they put in it was $28,000. At least double that today. Maybe someday I’ll be able to achieve flying and building, but until then, flight simulation is my only option.

  4. Hi, Tom. Your article brought home to me how expensive it is to get flying lessons. I fly a Hummel ultralight and have 27 hours of dual instruction in a Champ. A CFI I know endorsed me for the sport pilot written exam last year and I passed. But he does not have insurance so that I could do the flying part in his sport plane. No one close by offers any sport pilot flying training. The closest I found is 80 miles away at $220 an hour. The FAA must not be interested in creating new pilots because it is so outrageously expensive. The upcoming change in planes that qualify as sport planes could help, but probably not for me. I have 2 years to do the flying part before I have to take the written again. And, there is the cost of a sport plane and the annuals, engine overhauls, blah….I guess my Hummel will have to do a little longer.


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