Early Retirement: Aviation

by Philip Greenspun in February 2006

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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 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 school.


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