Last month I attended a gathering of people who fly an airplane that was designed for short-haul small-airport airline service, but which, due to its slow approach speeds and single engine (less training involved and less experience required than for a twin-engine jet), has become popular with owner-pilots. Many of the folks at the convention had been successful enough to purchase at least a share of an airplane worth between $1.5 million and $5 million, depending on age. Furthermore, they had enough time available to maintain their pilot training, manage an aircraft, plan business and family flights, etc. What can we learn from these folks?
First, the group tends to confirm President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” philosophy. What kind of business generates a never-ending fountain of cash without requiring too many desk hours by owner-managers? A business that exists only because of government regulation! The government subsidizes certain kinds of purchases, such as health insurance, by allowing workers to make these purchases with pre-tax income. This gives rise to apparently enormously lucrative corporate benefits consulting opportunities. (If not for the baroque tax code presumably employers would pay all compensation in cash and let workers then go and buy whatever they wanted.) Workers compensation insurance and benefits administration is also an area where the government requires companies to perform various tasks and the companies don’t have the necessary internal expertise.
The traditional path of family and kids seemed to have worked out best for those whose wives were already close to 40 years old in 1990 when the child support guidelines mandated by the Family Support Act of 1988 began to take effect (prior to these guidelines, the potential revenue and profits from filing a divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit were impossible to determine with certainty; see “History of Divorce”). One of these older guys described Father’s Day as a time when he was “honored as a patriach.” He lives in Texas, where child support is capped at roughly $20,000 per year per child and alimony is not available, thus reducing incentives for lower-income spouses to sue.
For the male attendees who were younger, and who therefore had younger wives, some had intact marriages regarding which they expressed satisfaction, but roughly half of the ones I spoke to had been defendants in divorce, custody, and child support lawsuits. All of these lawsuits had been won by the respective plaintiffs and the result was deep dissatisfaction with at least that part of their lives, much more intense than the satisfaction from the marriages that had not resulted in a lawsuit. In the lawsuits described by convention attendees, plaintiffs had behaved in exact accordance with the financial incentives offered by their home states. In states with unlimited child support, high-income men had been sued after short marriages or brief relationships that they believed to have been romantic (though they turned out to be primarily financial). In states that favored 50/50 custody of children and/or that capped child support profits, women had filed lawsuits only after being married long enough to build up a strong alimony claim (see this video at 0:45 on this subject). A typical story came from a trim soft-spoken man with hair beginning to go gray who sat next to us at dinner. He worked for a vendor and earned an upper-middle-class salary. He had four children, the youngest of whom was just four years old, and took care of them week-on, week-off in a western state where shared custody is common and child support profits are generally much smaller than in, say, Massachusetts or New York. He said “I don’t understand how the institution of marriage can possibly work today because it is predicted on the idea that people won’t change.” How had his former wife changed? When they got married she was a non-practicing non-believing Catholic. She eventually developed three passions: (1) Evangelical Christianity, (2) drinking alcohol, and (3) having sex with a boyfriend from prior to the marriage. Now she confirms one divorce litigator’s theory that “Americans can’t resist the opportunity to have sex with new partner(s) while cashing checks from a former sex partner.”
The convention included some former divorce, custody, and child support plaintiffs. These were all women and all described the event that led to their children growing up in a single-parent household in passive terms. They had “gotten divorced” or “become divorced” or “gone through a divorce.” In every case it turned out that they had been the spouse to decide on a divorce and they had actually filed a lawsuit against a partner who had not wanted to get divorced, yet none described the event as something that had occurred due to their personal agency. All of the plaintiffs had scored a 100 percent victory in the courtroom, yet they remained unhappy with some aspects of their situation. With Father’s Day coming up, how did one woman describe the father of her child? “Useless.” It turned out that, consistent with the court orders she had obtained against him, the “useless” man had paid for the house that she lived in and had supplied profitable child support checks for her to spend on herself in addition to providing for at least some of the child’s expenses directly.
Consistent with academic studies (cites), the children who had yielded a comfortable material lifestyle for plaintiffs pursuing personal goals, had paid a high price. For every plaintiff who was better off from having sued her husband it seemed that there was a corresponding child who was worse off to at least the same extent. Conference attendees spoke of adult children who were not on speaking terms with one biological parent. The only children who were there enjoying the conference, learning from this high-performance crowd, and seemingly on track to take over a family business, were those from intact families. Attendees spoke of children as having been damaged and coarsened by being turned into cash sources for an adult: “My daughter learned at around age 8 that a woman’s body can be used to earn money and that a child can be used to earn money,” one attendee said. “She was robbed of about eight years of innocence. After what my ex-wife did I didn’t think that it was possible to be more jaded, but my daughter ended up with a transactional view of sex and sexuality that is shocking even to me.”
Personal flying is an aging/dying activity in our era of deregulated airlines, NetJets, risk-aversion, and expectation that big institutions will take care of everyone (example: Boston Globe coverage of passengers upset after an American Airlines crew executes a textbook recovery from an engine failure; the airline apparently failed to handle their emotional needs). A lot of the folks at the conference had learned to fly in the 1970s and early 1980s before the collapse of piston-powered general aviation. Consequently there were plenty of senior citizen pilots at the convention. Those who had managed to keep their weight under control and who exercised regularly seemed to be aging pretty well (but perhaps it is all genetic and the ones who weren’t aging well due to genetics didn’t feel well enough to exercise and consequently gained weight?).
Living in Europe seems to lead to a better-balanced life than living/striving in the U.S. The Europeans weren’t as wealthy as the Americans, at least at current exchange rates, but they seemed satisfied with their lives and were fit and cheerful. Due to their different system of law, none had spent a lot of time or money defending a divorce, custody, or child support lawsuit.
The conference was held in Quebec City during glorious summer weather. The Canadians were out partying every night in a city that truly sparkles. Either being a middle-class Canadian is much more pleasant than being a middle-class American or, like some European countries do, Canada just pours a larger share of wealth and effort into a few central cities, leaving the suburbs and small towns to decay. (Some evidence for the latter theory was supplied by a stop in Riviere-du-Loup, a town in which residents said that the only good jobs were government-related.)
What about “life as a pilot” lessons? I have to say that I disagree with one premise of the conference, which is that it is worth splitting hairs over safety-related issues in single-pilot operations. It is helpful to be trained for aerobatics so as to recover from an upset (we learned that a pilot has 6-10 seconds, may need full aileron deflection, and might need to pull 3G to avoid overspeeding, for example). It is helpful to be an expert on all of the systems in the rare event that something serious goes wrong. It is helpful to memorize emergency procedures. Yet if you’re going to fly an all-weather aircraft on business trips that are tough to reschedule, I think it is a lot easier to move the safety needle by bringing in additional crew members. A professional airline-style dispatcher who isn’t stuck in a meeting is going to do a better job planning the flight and identifying hazards before the plane leaves the ground. Even a moderately well-trained copilot in the cockpit will cut the workload by more than 50 percent. It is a lot easier to keep the airplane from going into a crazy attitude that requires heroic stick-and-rudder skills if one person doesn’t have to do anything other than watch the attitude indicator (“artificial horizon”). Unless it is an idiot-proof sunny day hop out to a big familiar airport, isn’t it safer to fly as a crew rather than try to be the world’s best pilot?