10 tips for prospective businessmen (or businesswomen) pilots

Would you like to be a businessman pilot? Would you like to fly your own airplane for work and family travel? If so, you are like me from a few years ago. Since then I got my private, my instrument rating and my own Cessna. In about 750 hours I have landed in 28 states, Canada and flown over another five from LA to Boston, Austin to Green Bay.

Arnold Palmer with airplane
Flying GA to support your business? Arnold Palmer started doing it decades ago.

It is more rewarding and more fun than I ever imagined. It’s a lot of other things, too, nearly all of them good. My business, family and I have all received unanticipated benefits.

If you are serious about moving you and your loved ones around by air, here are 10 things I have learned that I never read anywhere else.

1. Fly the same airplane.

When I was renting 172s, I had a lot of issues learning the various idiosyncrasies of individual planes: avionics, brakes, ventilation, and handling all caused gaps in my knowledge that were a cause for concern. The unfamiliar sounds, smells, and vibrations played on my nerves as fingernails on a chalkboard. As I only fly about 170 hours a year, these variables were unacceptable to me. Whether you rent the same plane, get in a partnership or buy your own ship, unless you are flying many more hundreds of hours annually than me, fly the same plane.

I am very fortunate because I know how my plane has been flown and maintained. There are no guarantees, but I never hesitate when an over-water approach or a night flight is required. I can find any switch in the dark. I know that the left tank drains faster in the first hour, but that the right tank will catch up in the second and that the fuel pressure mysteriously drops to the low end of the green arc between 13,500 and 14,000 feet and then bounces back up to normal when I level out.

There are a half dozen more little things like that, each of which would send a jolt of fear through me unless I knew the plane well.

I am not sure I would have continued if I was not certain I could fly the same plane all the time.

2. Owning an airplane is harder than flying it.

It’s true. There are more regulations, more gotchas you need to be concerned with as the owner of an airplane than its pilot. You are responsible for all of them. Take it seriously.

You will have to become something of a mechanic, even if you never turn a wrench. Your job is to monitor systems and diagnose problems.

Cessna maintenance
Maintaining the airplane is usually harder than flying it.

Unlike cars, even certificated airplanes are mostly hand-made one at a time. If you fly an older aircraft, it has likely been modified many times and had at least one major avionics upgrade. Things will break. You need to know not only how to handle the problems in the air, but also on the ground.

Special hint: Just telling the mechanic to fix it and send you the bill is usually not the best idea.

3. Talk to the pilots in the lounge.

The information you need is all around you at the airport. You just have to swallow your pride and ask.

If you get a clearance you find confusing, need help with a departure procedure or just want some local knowledge, there’s almost always another pilot in the lounge or nearby who is willing to share theirs. Look for the guys with the stripes on their shirts and an iPad or laptop in their hands. Maybe they are sitting in an office with a sign that say Flight Instructor. I have never had anyone turn me down and usually there are three or four pilots chiming in with their opinions.

4. Don’t call the airport until you are sure you see it; only cancel IFR when you are in the pattern.

When near the end of an IFR trip on a VFR day, it can be tempting to cancel IFR some miles away and start descending. I face that temptation every flight home because the standard procedure to enter Chicago airspace calls for an out-of-the-way detour that’s a minimum 11-mile round trip to the Joliet (JOT) VOR.

Follow the clearance all the way to the field and only cancel when you are 100% sure you will be able to land.

5. Be boring.

Young Eagles
Boring flight? Good – that’s what they’re supposed to be.

The first time my son flew with me he was disappointed.

“It was SOOOO BORING,” he said to his friends at school. “Just like a car ride only a better view.”

My goal ever since then was to fly every flight as boring as I can. The highest praise came from an Angel Flight passenger to the person picking her up: “It was beautiful but COMPLETELY uneventful.” Sweet music.

I never want the controller to repeat a request to me and I have not missed a radio frequency in a long time. I have procedures and checklists hanging from the yoke such that a pilot friend ruefully asked if I was flying the space shuttle or a 182. I have found these procedures and checklists are indispensable to mostly boring flights. If I don’t have an hour in cruise, I brief every likely approach before departure. When it is an hour or less from landing I am doing something all of the time. I have XM satellite radio and I have used it exactly once. I don’t want the distractions.

I won’t fly inexperienced passengers in summer heat turbulence. I just won’t do it. Same for gusty crosswinds. The normal and safe motion created in these situations is the opposite of boring. I have left early from Young Eagles events when the wind was right down the runway 20 gusting to 30.

It was completely safe but not boring. I love boring.

6. A day late or a day early is on time.

If you have been – like me – a habitual planner with a penchant for promptness or become generally anxious when plans are fluid and undecided, get over it. Your schedule is literally up in the air all of the time. This one was tough for me.

Thunderstorms on radar
Those thunderstorms really don’t care whether you have a tight schedule or not.

In four years of serious flying, I have gone a day early or been a day late five times, or about once a year, to avoid weather issues. I have also cancelled a dozen flights due to ice (9) or thunderstorms (2) or because the meeting was so important I couldn’t take the chance so I went commercial (1). I have also had four mechanical cancellations.

For certain, the majority of the time the plane, pilot and weather collude to deliver me substantially on time.

When there’s a doubt, making launch decisions on the ground is maddening and the hardest part of the whole business for me. It is the only thing about personal flying that I don’t like.

Mechanical cancellations are easy. Weather cancellations are agonizing because you badly want to fly yourself, especially when you are headed home.

Three ways I stay sane: 1) An account with a Webinar service. That way if I can’t make it in person, I can always have the meeting remotely; 2) I brief my contact on my travel plans beforehand. Generally my contacts think it is cool I am flying myself to their location and are extremely supportive. I keep them fully informed, well in advance, as the meeting approaches of any potential hiccups; and 3) I limit the amount I will study the weather at any one sitting to 60 minutes, especially the night before. I used to become totally obsessed with what the weather was doing to the exclusion of the rest of my life. If you don’t know with 60 minutes the night before and 60 minutes the day of, then it’s time to take Plan B.

I have never yet missed a meeting because of airplane or weather issues. It helps to live near Chicago, blessed with a central location and two monster airports including a major Southwest hub.

7. Have an avionics configuration for each phase of flight.

Cirrus SR22 panel
Do you have an “avionics profile” for each phase of flight?

We all are taught how to configure the airplane for takeoff, departure/climb, cruise, descent/arrival, approach, and landing. No one taught me how to best deploy the avionics. I used to constantly tinker with the iPad, iPhone, Garmin GNS 480, multi-function display, audio panel and comm 2. Seldom did I use them the same way for two flights in a row. Now I have a set configuration for each phase. To describe those would be an article in itself, far longer than this one. Suffice it to say that there’s a best avionics configuration for each phase of flight. Figure it out. Use it religiously – in other words, have an avionics checklist, too.

8. Touch down at twilight or depart before dawn.

From Christmas to March, I can’t follow this advice in the Great Lakes Region, but when I have flexibility in the Spring, Summer and Fall I like to leave just before the sunrise or land between 90 minutes before or 30 minutes after sunset. The common advice of “Don’t Fly in the Afternoon” I think is wrong if you have a three- or four-hour flight. I’d rather punch up through the bumps at 4:00 PM and land at 7:30 or 8, if the sunset is around that time or just after. The descent and arrival is usually sublime as the diurnal clouds and winds dissipate. Best of all, you can still see! At other times, I like to leave early to get the most out of the day. Then I have found that low clouds can sometimes develop just after sunrise that are not there at all 30 minutes before. So, taking off before the sunrise works best for me.

9. The fear never goes away.

Let’s face it: if you are thinking about becoming a businessman pilot one thing holding you back is fear. Maybe it is your fear or maybe a loved one is fearful for you. People die in airplanes as the news media trumpets every chance it gets, film at 11. The risks are real, even if they can be really hyped.

Call it what you want – the alertness, the excitement, or the periods of high concentration – the fear never goes away. At least it hasn’t in 750 hours. Find a strategy to deal with it or you’ll never get off the ground.

Turn from cockpit
It’s up to you, the pilot, to stay safe. That’s cause for comfort or panic, depending on your outlook.

It is sobering: most accidents are the pilot’s fault. Of course, that’s a glass half-full kind of thing, right? There are risks involved that must be managed and you are the one responsible for managing them. Depending on your outlook that could be cause for comfort or panic. It’s a super personal thing, the risk you are willing to accept, and how you deal with the challenge of flight.

My mantra: I know I can manage the risks involved and I will watch myself like a hawk to make sure I do.

Double-checking my performance with checklists and procedures is always accompanied by at least a small pang of concern, a touch of fear, that if I don’t do the right things, bad things could happen. As time goes on, the fear feels mostly like excitement, but somewhere deep in there I am always concerned about keeping the plane in control, and all of the other aspects of the flight in mind. My strategy: I subjugate my fear to the service of my safety. Courage is the subjugation – not absence – of fear. In my experience, it’s never completely absent when you’re in the left seat.

10. The service at small airports is the best.

There is nothing like the feeling of flying a great distance and arriving at the FBO. Casting off the cares of the air, you arrive to the pleasant discovery that most small airports still know how to provide great customer service.

Whether it is a smiling lass with hot chocolate and cookies, or the lineman bringing your rental car to the plane, you can generally count on being cared for in the most professional way possible.

I was pleasantly surprised to find showers, cots, movies, snacks and more at great FBOs all around the US. The commitment of all of these folks makes it possible for you and me to run our traps at towns big and small and have a haven where you will be treated well.

With so many airports, as long as you have planned well, you are usually landing within 15 minutes of your final destination. What a treat it is.

So, are you ready to take the plunge? Would you like to become a businessman pilot? When you do, I hope to see the list of ten things you learned on the pages of Air Facts.

27 Comments

  • “To describe those would be an article in itself, far longer than this one. Suffice it to say that there’s a best avionics configuration for each phase of flight.” I would love to see an article just on this topic.

  • Mark,

    Great article, and very well done. This is some positive-thinking aviation pep-rally material right out of the 1960s and 70s. We needed to hear it. Hurrah for our side…!! Hope it inspires many; it did me.

  • Mark,
    If all the (GA) world followed the precepts you detailed so well, the light aircraft accident rate would plummet… especially if there were one more item: stay proficient. Really proficient, not just legally.

  • I love to read a story on avionics check list, that wb something I don’t think I’ve read anywhere.

  • As a recent new owner I am starting to fly more for my business. On a recent trip to Texas and back, weather was good to TX but not so great coming back. I flew 3/4 back and stayed overnight in VA. Had the extra days planned. I’m IFR rated and still give myself time. Something you point out in the planning. I like to plan an early arrival if possible. On a trip to KROA in a few weeks I’m giving myself a day and half for a 2:45 trip in our SR20. And I have a driving out as well. My return trip also has 1.5 day built in. If I don’t use its bonus and money saving. Nice article.

  • Great read and insightful. I’m starting to fly more and more for business and working on my instrument rating to provide more flight availability and flexibility. Exciting times.

  • A good list. I can’t think of anything I would add or subtract. Well, maybe an add to the “don’t cancel IFR early” could be “don’t even start the approach if weather is being called below minimums”.

  • Working on my instrument ticket so I can increase the use of my ship… Many great weather days here on the west coast, but still, IFR is a must for business travel.

  • Wonderful article full of wisdom and hope! As a Sales Engineer, my hope is to also be a Businessman Pilot. With the delays, crowded commercial flights, business travel has become a drudge of epic proportions. When the delays get longer and longer I pull out the iPad and determine what would have happened if I flew myself to and from meetings. In many cases, I would get to either destination a little sooner or at the same time the Boeing/Airbus/CRJ would.

    My dream is to be on the side of Businessman Pilot and using the Commercial Carriers as a backup.

    Kudos to you for “living the dream”, doing it safely, and giving me a list of things to start doing on every flight!

  • Excellent article. I’m closely related to your hours, ratings, mission (businessman flyer) profile, etc. Just this past couple of weeks did Kansas City, Columbus Ohio, and Coeur d’Alene Idaho all from my base just north of Denver. I only do trips where flexibility exists (in between those trips flew commercial to Montreal and Pittsburgh due to time and weather constraints). My number 1 passenger is the wife and my goal has always been to emulate “boring”. She is so enthralled with the boring flights that she refuses to fly commercial any more and wants all our trips in our own plane. While I only hope to live up to all of your excellent insights, this article truly puts together rules that everyone should fly by.

  • Student pilot here, progressing, thanks for the tips. Lots to learn, and the learning never stops! I started because my retired airline pilot husband of over 30 years/builder/A&Pmechanic took me up in his airplane and I realized I need to know how to land…and I’m learning the “make it boring” lesson… procedures, procedures, procedures!

  • Mark,

    I was a GA pilot before spending three decades doing military aviation in big jets…your insights combine the very best of both worlds (independent decision making, personal responsibility, mission accomplishment, procedure where it matters, perspective balancing “joy of flight” and “not busting your a–irplane.” GREAT words of wisdom on a lot of fronts. Thank you!

  • I flew for business for about 25 years, mostly in C-210s. In that time, I only went by airline once. There was only one occasion when I missed or was late for a must-do event, when the mechanical fuel pump cracked. I was only delayed one other time by mechanicals, but I had a spare day built in, as was my habit, so it wasn’t an issue. There was also a big meeting in Indiana that the rest of my west-coast office missed that I made. Their airline trip was delayed by weather, but I could plan for and go around it.

  • I flew commercial last week, two legs with mechanical problems caused major delays. I have to rethink my threshold for time enroute to justify the hop to a big fast jet. My plane is old and slow but is in exceptional condition and very well maintained. I like the day before and day after thought process because I can get work done on the road with modern technology but if you do get out very late on a commercial flight you aren’t productive the next day anyways!

  • Nice article! I haven’t flown for business in many years, but I learned back when I did that having flexibility in some fashion is pretty important, to keep the stress level down. Our avionics are better now, and with XM or ADS-B In weather, we can plan more exactly, but still leaving a healthy margin on either end of a business trip, or on any kind of trip, makes good sense.

    On the “don’t cancel until…” issue, I used to fall victim to the idea that if I could see the airport and there was no danger of losing sight of it, I could cancel and help out others who were waiting to depart or start their approaches. Then I read an accident report in which the pilot did exactly that, but crashed in between where he’d cancelled and the airport, and no one knew it for many hours. I realized that in my willingness to help out others, I was at best saving them maybe 3 minutes but cutting myself off from contact with ATC if something did go wrong in the last minutes. Now I don’t cancel until I’m on the ground, as most of my destinations have RCOs or relays which allow doing so. That extra bit of safety is worth the slight delay I might cause someone else.

    Boring? Nah. Flying to me is not boring, ever. Unexciting, yeah. In over 4 decades of flying, I’ve had enough exciting moments that I’d just as soon not have any more of them.

  • Your article reminds me of weekend trips in Kenya (usually C182 or Cherokee 180) with three non-pilot passengers, often needing to get back perhaps for a an onward connection. Sunday lunch return from a remote coastal location to Nairobi marked the day for me by not eating and a tension about my planning – little in the way of navaids and weather in the sixties – but I recognised my anxiety was my best ally in ensuring I never became complacent. Very good article even for a retired flyer in the same flight hours area as you.

  • Great article which is much appreciated. Having roughly the same number of hours and also traveling for business my 182, I find your comments spot on. Creating realistic expectations of business partners (and family) is important. I like to be near, or even better, at the airport for meetings, when it works for the people with whom I am meeting. For them, it is often a chance to get out of the office / meeting room and experience something new and interesting. In the meantime, most airports / FBOs have a meeting area available. Add a quick trip around the pattern or view of their home from above and they find the experience memorable and are already asking when we can meet next. Living in Munich, Germany, I can make it to many of my destinations and back on the same day, as well as have the flexibility to change plans and stay overnight if business requires.

  • Great article. I fly for business in my RV-10 (jointly owned) with glass panel, also got my Instrument Rating recently. I’m actually really struggling right now which is why this article was even more of interest.

    We’ve had problem after problem after problem with our bird, little thing here, little thing there, and I’ve had enough canceled flights (including two aborted flights mid-flight, return to base, in the past 5 weeks) that I’m considering very hard whether even to continue this. Unfortunately it just seems several factors (mechanical/ownership being a big one) are conspiring to make it just not a reliable form of transportation–and yes, flexibility is just plain required. Even still…

    I only got my IFR in May and so am really eager and pleased to open up a whole new range of doable flights that weren’t doable as a VFR pilot, but again, the ownership/reliability issue is threatening to shut me down or make me look for a new plane, or something. But that’s a big old can of worms too, definitely not a slam dunk (gotta learn the new plane then too–see Tip #1 above).

    It’s fairly discouraging but I appreciate this timely article to season my ongoing thinking.

  • Excellent. I’m closing in on my Instrument rating and the pressure’s on to finish – my written IFR exam expires this August. My instructor says I’m pretty spot-on with all the maneuvers required for the Practical (the biggest obstacle I’m having now is memorizing everything I’ll need for the Oral portion of the IFR checkride.)

    FINALLY made a breakthrough with my wife last year regarding my flying. She admitted out loud she no longer views my flying as “a hobby.” Probably because she’s considering as some level the practicality of business flying.

    She’s the managing partner of a national law firm that always wanted to establish an office here in Louisville (the PLLC side of the firm is headquartered in West Virginia and the national side in Washington DC.)

    I don’t wish to disappoint her. I would fly her to the firm’s HQs and back with the care and caution EXACTLY as described in the article. The eventual goal is to fly her and her colleagues and even work for her on a part-time basis as her pilot. I’m also lucky in that a family friend of ours is a FO for UPS Airlines (where I work in ACMX technical publications) and he recently admitted to my wife that HE’S interested in flying HIS family general aviaion to vacation destinations, so he’s going to spend more time flying GA. We might even be able to team up so we can mutually benefit by gleaning tips, experience and professional knowledge.

  • I just wanted to say THANKS to everyone who commented on my article.

    A few follow ups to commenters…

    I agree proficiency is key. I am going to do 10 hours in a Redbird aimulator this week. But I also believe confidence is critical. A blend of both is needed.

    Also, I meant to write…

    ‘It is harder to learn to own a plane then to learn to fly it’

    I am working on the article about my Avionics configurations. After reading John’s article, I am ordering the new foreflight stratus – from Sporty’s of course. I will wait until I have a couple dozen hours with it before completing.

    To everyone:

    No matter what, go flying. If you are reading this you have the desire. Don’t let anything stop you!

    And if you want to travel by air, you must read every one of Mr. Collin’s books, plus Weather Flying by the Bucks and Stick and Rudder by Mr. Langewich (sp?).

    Thanks for reading Air Facts!

    Sincerely,

    Mark Fay

  • Just catching up on Air Facts and finished reading your article. Spot on in all your points. I especially like #6. Plans are always up in the air, so get over it! Very true. And the part about obsessing over the weather. If you have a back up, or you can be fluid, no need to obsess over the weather. Now if I could just practice what I preach!

  • Hi Richard:

    On this comment about weather obsession..

    ‘Now if I could just practice what I preach! ‘

    First, true and really funny.

    Second, accepting cancels as evidence of good judgment instead of weakness or lack of confidence finally got me out of pre launch weather dithering.

    Everyday I watch the synaptic picture so when a night before flight arrives I have the big picture in mind. The week before I make alternative arrangements for travel.

    The night before I check the TAFs and area forecasts for the departure, fuel stops and arrival. I look for potential ice, thunderstorms, low ceilings and turbulence. If an in flight diversion seems likely, I will briefly review potential havens. That’s it.

    Day of I study and print out fltplan.com weather and if I have questions call the briefer. I also have built this page:

    http://base.claimtoolkit.com/Aviation/weather.asp

    And if I still have questions I can find the answers here.

    Then I get a cup of coffee and sit somewhere comfortable and let the decision come to me.

    At that point I am done with the decision and begin the execution.

  • Good article. Nice to see a picture of Palmer, given recent events. He left big shoes to fill as a golfer, an aviator, and a businessman. He started with an Aero Commander 500, and no doubt had to learn many of the lessons posted here.

  • Mark, I’m a doctor and also a pilot, and your article was the most sincere and inspiring one I’ve ever read regarding our concerns and worryings, specially when flying with family. I can say I admire you greatly for this and if possible, I’d rather have your email, so we could talk a little bit more.
    Thanks!!!!

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