Early Retirement: Aviation
by Philip Greenspun in February 2006
Site Home : Materialism : Early Retirement : One Article
You can't spit on the ramp at the local flight school without hitting a
retired tech guy. Why do so many early retirees take up flying?
- flying is challenging and keeps your mind engaged
- flying is social and throws you into contact with lots of
interesting and capable people
- flying facilitates travel
- flying light aircraft requires a lot of time and flexibility of schedule
Flying as a Challenge
If you go to the local general aviation airport, you'll find lots of
guys in their 60s and 70s who are tackling challenges that are way
beyond your own capabilities. Certainly these guys are much sharper and
in better mental and physical shape than the average person of their
age. Flying requires mental acuity and real-time decision-making that
seems to keep pilots young. A lot of older folks seem to be preoccupied
with trivial matters, such as organizing their junk mail or minutia
within their childrens' lives. Old pilots don't seem to be subject to
these preoccupations and the topics of their conversations have more in
common with young pilots than with other old people.
The very process of training to be a pilot is challenging and inherently
motivational. The FAA sets up milestones and checkpoints: Private
Pilot, Instrument Rating, Commercial Pilot, Multi-Engine Rating,
Helicopter Rating, Seaplane Rating, Airline Transport Pilot. A desire
to excel was probably a factor in your ability to retire young. If you
have that desire, the FAA rating system gives you a lot of opportunities
to improve and prove yourself.
One of the tragedies of getting older is the narrowing of one's
activities. An elementary school kid will write poetry, paint, play
music, do math, write prose, etc. An adult will do three or four
things that he or she can do at a professional level of
competence. These are the things for which an adult draws a paycheck
or these are the things that the adult finds rewarding because they
can be done so well.
Learning to fly is an opportunity to go back to elementary school. No
human is a natural aviator. Everything has to be learned, which by
itself is stimulating.
Flying is Social
When you're in the air, flying can be solitary and a wonderful break
from the confusion and congestion of day-to-day life. Except when
taking and landing at a busy airport, it is rare to see another plane
during a flight. On the ground, however, flying is inherently social.
Most airports have an extensive infrastructure of mechanics, refuelers,
flight instructors, and facilitators. It is a big enough world that
there are always new people to meet. It is a small enough world that
people in your region will come to recognize you and your aircraft.
People who have chosen to work in aviation, where the pay is low to
moderate, generally love flying and the community. The people you meet
will almost always be friendly and in a good mood. People who take on
the challenge and responsibility of flying are an interesting and
generally accomplished crowd. The truly annoying people with whom you
might have worked are probably too chicken to get into a small plane,
much less accept pilot-in-command responsibility.
Consider asking the average computer programmer to tell you about
himself. "I'm a great lover, a great driver, and a great software
engineer," is a likely response. What about the fact that his
girlfriend left him, he got into an accident on the way into work today,
and you showed him how to rewrite his data model with one third as many
tables? He will have excuses at the ready: "The girlfriend was having
issues with her family; the breakup had nothing to do with me. It was
the other car's fault. My design was cleaner, squeezing all of that
stuff into fewer tables is a kludge." A computer programmer can be
ridiculously overconfident and will never confront incontrovertible
evidence of his shortcomings.
Pilots, on the other hand, are constantly forced to confront their
limitations. Every time the instructor has to help them, they realize
that they would have been in trouble if doing the maneuver by
themselves. Every time a non-professional pilot puts on a hood and does
a simulated instrument approach, he or she is usually making small
mistakes and generally not being mentally as far ahead of the airplane
as desired. Every time a pilot works toward new rating, there is the
reminder that achieving the standards of the FAA checkride is uncertain
and will require a lot more practice. You're unlikely to spend much
time with pilots who are truly overconfident because, unfortunately,
most of them are dead. Beginning pilots can be very safe, but a pilot
at any skill level whose confidence level is much higher is inevitably
going to get him or herself into very dangerous situations.
Flying Facilitates Travel
Hanging around the same city all day every day is great for wage slaves,
but now that you are retired, why not inject a little variety into your
life? Flying small airplanes give you an excuse to visit friends in
your region. If you get truly hard-core and start flying a Piper Malibu
or your own jet, you can cover the entire continent. Realistically, it
is almost always cheaper and more practical to fly on a commercial
airline or drive a car, but in practice a retired person with an
aircraft is more likely to drop in on friends for lunch or an overnight.
The author, for example, has some friends in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
at least a 1.5-hour drive from the nearest commercial airport, and
something like an 8-hour drive from Boston. Instead of visiting once
every two years, the author sees these friends every six months because
it is only a 2.5-hour flight in a small airplane.
Flying Light Aircraft Requires Time and Flexibility
People with demanding jobs are generally unable to learn to fly, keep
their skills current, and/or use an airplane for trips. Unless you live
in Florida or Arizona, the weather is not consistently favorable for
light aircraft and you'll need to schedule 50 percent more lessons than
you actually fly. Once you get a private pilot's license, you're only
going to be capable of flying feeble little airplanes that can't
challenge the weather. You can get to Quebec City in a couple of hours,
but you might not get back for a week if the weather isn't clear. Even
with an instrument rating, if your airplane is not an advanced model
with de-icing equipment and a turbocharged or jet engine, you might not
be able to fly back through clouds in the winter time. Only someone who
is master of his or her time can travel by small plane.
What does it take, concretely?
If you just want to enjoy the scenery on nice days in your local area, I
recommend learning to fly helicopters.
The visibility from a helicopter is better than from almost any
airplane. The process of flying a helicopter is engaging from moment to
moment. Your friends will be a lot more impressed. The average person
has been on dozens if not hundreds of airline flights. The two
professional pilots up front and the superbly capable equipment make
flying an airplane seem easy. If you tell a friend that you flew a
Cessna from Boston to Martha's Vineyard, he'll say "So what, I flew on
JetBlue all the way to California last weekend for $100." The same
person has very likely only been on one or two helicopter rides in his
life. He imagines that only an incredibly high level of skill keeps the
machine from ending up on the ground like a wounded bird. Going from
airport to airport in a well-maintained helicopter is not actually all
that challenging or risky, but to the general public it is miraculous
that such a flight is ever completed.
Getting a private helicopter license takes about 55 hours of in-air
training, which translates to at least 30 days of hard work, usually
spread out over at least 60 to 90 calendar days. The total cost should
be well under $15,000, i.e., a lot less than a new S.U.V. and it will
leave you with a much greater sense of accomplishment (though of course
the average yuppie would apparently much rather have the S.U.V.). A
brand-new four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter costs around $300,000 and
can be easily shared by three or four owners.
If you're going to do airplanes, you're probably eventually going to
want to fly a Very Light Jet
($1-3 million). You won't be safe or insurable in a jet until you've
had some experience in simpler airplanes. Here is my personal recipe
for a rich non-pilot building time and experience toward a jet:
For the less rich, stick with a local flight school's rental airplanes
for the first 250 hours (at $150 per hour for a fancy glass panel
airplane, about $40,000). It is a lot cheaper and simpler than owning
an airplane. At 250 hours, enter a 50/50 partnership with a local
Beechcraft Bonanza owner (a 10-year-old Bonanza. Now you've got essentially unlimited access
to a fast roomy responsive-handling 6-seat airplane at a total cost
that will be pretty similar to renting a 4-seat airplane from a flight
- Purchase a new Diamond Star DA-40
(under $300,000), find an instructor, and do your Private and Instrument
ratings in this delightful-to-fly forgiving trainer (0-250 hours)
- Trade in the Diamond for a Cessna 400 (close to $500,000; you'll
get at least 75 percent of what you paid for the DA-40 back) with
turbocharger and deicing system. This plane has lovely flying
qualities as well and can go very high and very fast, so you will get
experience with the kinds of weather that a jet pilot encounters
I've written an entire section on
flying, which is not specific to retirees.
If you came here via a search engine, you might want to go
back to my main page on early retirement.
Text and pictures copyright 2006 Philip Greenspun