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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.