Cessna 152
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Cessna 152

Is it a tool or a toy?

In our recent article about the ICON A5 amphibian, a key point of debate was whether the airplane’s purpose as a purely recreational toy was a strength or a weakness. Some readers cheered the focus on fun, arguing that flying small airplanes should be about the experience and the freedom, not the utility. After all, there are faster and less expensive ways to get around than a Cessna 182 or a Cirrus. These pilots believe the relentless campaigns to justify airplanes as valuable business tools are misguided – just admit they’re fun, like motorcycles and boats, and don’t feel bad about it.

But other readers clearly disagreed, with one saying, “comfortable, efficient and speedy transport has always been the principal economic driver and justification for most aircraft sales.” For these pilots, airplanes will never compete with easier, less expensive and more available toys (like the aforementioned boats and motorcycles). The reason people spend vast amounts of time and money on aviation is because there’s a practical payback. If we want to attract more people to aviation, we need to promote the everyday benefits of aviation as a tool.

What do you think? Does aviation attract more people by talking about fun or utility? Why did you get involved? Add a comment below.

Air Facts Staff
18 replies
  1. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    My $.02: Completely a business decision. I do love to fly but it is both expensive and hard work to do it safely and without places to go with a profit motive, I just don’t think I would have ever made the commitment.

    • Rod Beck
      Rod Beck says:

      Many comments; TWO sides; different motives?

      The question really becomes: Recreational or business?
      First, one would have to know the history of the “light plane”, or its plight.

      After WW II, the assumption was that many returning military trained airmen by all branches, would most likely, continue to pursue their flying experiences in civilian life.

      Many manufactures, namely Cessna, Piper and less know start-ups, like Globe Swift, Republic Sea Bee for example, produced birds to satisfy the anticipated “demand” of the former flyers. However, the demand never happened.

      But 2015, and 1945/46, were very different times; with a myriad of many alternative recreational activities available today, that didn’t require the skill or intellect of piloting an airplane
      even 70 years ago!

      But frankly, I don’t feel “recreational flying, or non-utility GA, always had an “up hill battle”; not at all cost/benefit? Oh yes, one may have a little fun shooting touch/go’s and flying to “airport café” 50 miles or so away from how base; but may ultimately wane possibly?

      Enter the “utility ” value component The serious aviation consumer of today isn’t dropping $10K+ for pilot license to impress his/her buddies at the office water cooler or his “bar” pals during Friday night happy hour!

      That said, I believe the light plane pilot/aviation consumer of today, falls into ONE of three market segments: 1. Pure-recreational(NON-UTILITY) 2. Both recreational and utility 3. Major UTILITY-minor recreational use-if any.

      OK; lets examiner the “pilot” here; Generally, the recreational gal/guy is more interested in the “social interaction” of being in the company of fellow aviators; whereas the “utility aviator” is less interested in the social activity; he/she views the airplane as a means to get to his/her destination – while enjoying the piloting of the airplane while getting there, in that order?

      Now please take a look at the capital or investment cost of the airplane; the greater the investment – say a Gulfstream at $30M VS the LSA for $175K+, hence, the greater the utility value?

      SO then doesn’t this really come down to cost/benefit no matter how you cut it – weather for recreational or business?

  2. Liad B.
    Liad B. says:

    I will go for a business travel machine as well, with the perk of family flying every now and then. The ICON looks like a very cool airplane, but really, people have a hard time spending $8,000 on a jetski, HOW MANY will spend $250,000 on a flying jetski ? not many.

    You want to change things? give us a true four seater airplane that burns 6 GPH doing 140kts and cost under $100,000 (new!), and people will start taking this “aviation” thing more seriously.

    And another thing (while I am on a roll here), stop comparing an airplane to a motorcycle or a boat. Most people tow their boat HOME, and don’t pay 100s of $s in parking fees, they don’t pay $1,000/year in insurance and $1,500/year in maintenance costs (and I am being nice here), the average boater can get away with a $100/month to keep his boat going… not so much for airplanes.

    You either have disposable income to pay $500/month for an airplane to sit ideal on the ground, or you get to justify the expense via your business, that’s it.

    • Greg W
      Greg W says:

      The hangar issue is to me the great unspoken barrier to aircraft ownership, and perhaps rental availability as well. The boat/motorcycle comparison works on base price, (for a used aircraft),It fails as you state with storage. I have owned several aircraft, the closest available hangar to me is ninety minutes away so while my plane was stored at $100/month it was seldom used because of the three hour drive a flight would require. The closer hangars all have much higher cost and are non available, waiting list only. My taildraggers were cheap to run,4.5-7.5 gph, cheap,(simple acft.) to maintain but storage is the big problem. The local airport tore down hangars because the looked “bad” aggravating the problem but the airport did not want older aircraft anyway, burn jet A and you would be welcome.

  3. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Pleasure first in the beginning, but business after a few years.
    If I had to pay myself, I would fly around 30 hours a year, but as I can travel with my plane for regional business, I fly 80-100 hours a year. My company pays for the hours.
    No plane… No business, but for me, it’s ” no business… no plane…”.

  4. Brandon Freeman
    Brandon Freeman says:

    I have no business reasons to use an airplane. I fly to enjoy the local scenery and get to local destinations that are normally several hours by car just because I can. I don’t make a lot of money, and I’m blessed with understanding and enthusiastic friends and family (especially spouse).

    Sometimes, you just need to have fun, and I won’t try to justify or apologize for that.

    • Wayne
      Wayne says:

      I will second this! For the fun, no reason to fly for my job. On the other hand, why does it have to be an either or? I am in a partnership with a guy that flies for his job and I fly the same airplane for the fun of it. So from our perspective, it is both!

  5. Harry Clements
    Harry Clements says:

    There were two things in the history of general aviation that I think help answer this question, though I think you can fly for business – or required travel – and still have fun doing it. General aviation increased in importance – the sales volume of airplanes – when the tri-gear became “standard” with the big 3 of GA: Beech, Cessna and Piper (in alphabetical order!). Their ease of flying attracted owners who likely wouldn’t have been a pilot anyway. Then the airline industry was freed of economic regulation, and airline travel became more affordable – though perhaps less enjoyable. Airbus was properly named because airlines became the buses of air travel – and GA airplane sales tapered off. But trip length and destination determined method of travel – you can’t take an airline to a destination that is not served by an airline. But (rental)car travel from a destination that is rather close to an airline served city can be a suitable alternative.
    Another factor is that airline growth clogged airways and airspace making GA flying – in summary – more difficult, expensive and time consuming. I think pleasure only flying ought to be in airplanes and airspaces devoted to that end.
    Also, at Cessna in the 1950’s if you were on business travel and alone, or maybe two of you, you took an airline. If it was three or four of you going to the same, or related destinations you flew a company, GA, airplane. That was determined by the economics of alternate methods of air travel.

  6. Duane
    Duane says:

    As the reader who was quoted in the other thread about “comfortable, speedy, and efficient transport” I was not referring only to business travel. Though the majority of my flying has been for business purposes, most of my pleasure travel has benefited greatly from the same comfortable, speedy, and efficient travel that is possible with light aircraft.

    For instance, the maximum travel radius for me via automobile on a 2-4 day weekend trip is no more than about 200-300 miles. Beyond that radius it’s a drag to drive. But in my Cherokee I can double that radius or more because of its 150 mph no-wind cruise speed, no traffic delays, and its ability to go direct to my destination. Depending on road traffic and how direct the highway route to my destination the differences can be much greater than 2:1. From my home near Naples, Florida to Key West the drive is a minimum 6 hours on the Overseas Highway, but in typical heavy weekend traffic it goes to 8 hours or longer – much too long for a weekend jaunt. In my Cherokee the trip is little more than one hour!

    Plus, most trips in my airplane constitute at least half the pleasure of pleasure travel!

    Yes it is true that business travel goes a very long way to justify the costs of private aircraft ownership and operation. But for me the value of my time is the primary benefit of private aviation – whether it is business time or pleasure time. Reasonably fast light aircraft are “time machines”.

  7. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    I took up flying in mid-life because of an infatuation with Things That Fly which began in infancy, prodded by my father’s premature death and a sense of “if not now, then when?” For me, learning to fly, owning an aircraft, and using it were always for the sense of accomplishment and adventure (yes, I had plenty of adventure in an old Skyhawk). I did use the Cessna for business travel now and then, and had some adventures doing that, too. But my last airplane was purely an indulgence, a retro move to an old wood-spar taildragger best flown from a grass strip. Perhaps if I’d had more money (a lot more), I would have moved up the aviation ladder to high and fast, and made long-distance travel my focus. But I doubt it. As I’ve explained elsewhere on these pages, I came for the airplanes, and stayed for the people.

  8. Nate D'Anna
    Nate D'Anna says:

    I was attracted to aviation as a fun thing to do along with the occasional vacation trip. I still feel that way and if everyone is honest, very few of us NEED personal airplanes to get to our destinations. A place like Alaska is one of the few environments where a personal aircraft is really a necessity for most people.

    The truth is, for me, vacation spots are located in airline reachable airports. In doing the math, it is actually cheaper for me to take the airlines than to use my own plane in reaching the same destination.

    Spare me the argument about GA being ultimately a time saver because there is no check in, waiting in lines and specific time schedule to follow. While those items may be a factor for the true businessman, I don’t consider them a factor for me personally.

    The bottom line is, I don’t NEED an airplane, but I have one to have fun, the opportunity for camaraderie with other pilots, and the enjoyment of flying to the proverbial $100.00 hamburger destination.

    I live in Phoenix to where San Diego is a stone’s throw away by GA and the airlines, but it is still cheaper for me to take the airline than fly my own plane. And as much as pilots hate to admit it, the airline is safer in the event of serious IFR and the airline avoids being grounded for days due to what would be considered bad weather in the GA world.

    Have to go to some Podunk town with no airline service? Then yes, GA is great. But I have no reason to visit Podunk towns so I really don’t care.

    In the end result, some people have a true need for a personal aircraft, but in my 45 years of flying, the majority of pilots I have known fly for fun. We don’t NEED an airplane, we just WANT one.

    • Duane
      Duane says:

      Nate – people do whatever we do for our own reasons – to each our own. You don’t fly for business, fine, you fly for other reasons. But that is not what sells a great many, and probably the majority, of travel-capable airplanes when family or company budgets have to justify the expense of light aircraft.

      Me personally, I hate flying the airlines. Most airline passengers actually don’t enjoy the experience, they merely endure it because they have no other practical alternative.

      I personally detest the entire airline travel process, from parking to check-in, to baggage, to enduring airport security, to boarding, dealing with the idiots who try to over-stuff the baggage bins, to being squashed into a tiny seat next to people I don’t know, nor do I have any choice with whom I fly … people who frequently are over sized, over-smelly, over-talkative, with overly active children, or who are nosy, and/or downright nasty from time to time. I’m not a misanthrope … but I sure do prefer to choose those with whom I’m going to travel in very close quarters for hours at a time.

      I avoid all of that when I fly my own personal airline. That’s why the rich usually avoid the airlines altogether. But you don’t have to be rich to own and operate a light aircraft and enjoy all the perks that the rich get, as long as one is willing to settle for 125-150 +/- knots vs. 400 kts, and don’t need cabin service.

      So I fly the airlines only when there is no other practical alternative.

      Private airplanes have proven themselves over and over again as practical travel machines, whether used for business travel or for pleasure travel. And, unlike airline travel, for the light aircraft owner and pilot, the travel itself is part of the benefit and the pleasure of travel.

  9. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    I never would have kept flying if I hadn’t become an owner, and I would never have been able to justify becoming an owner if I hadn’t been able to use the plane for both family and business trips. The cost just didn’t make sense for either one alone.

  10. Chris
    Chris says:

    There will always be arguments on both sides of the equation. There are so many different missions that people fly, and different aircraft that fit those missions. I doubt that the majority of people who buy a Piper Cub do so with expedient travel in mind, and by the same token that most who buy a Cirrus aren’t looking for beaches and farm fields to land on.

    As a renter pilot I fly for the fun of it, mostly $100 hamburger flights and visits to fly-ins. At ~90 hours I’m still very new at this and discovering how aviation fits into my life. If the day ever comes that I buy my own airplane it would be largely with travel in mind. The three key locations for us would be my parents (5 hours by car), the family cottage (7 hours), and the in-laws (18 hours by car or 4 hours/$1000 each by airline). All 3 are within 20 minutes of small airports and I have access to an grass strip a mile from my house so the logistics make sense.

    At least that’s what I’m trying to convince the wife of. It might take a while.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I should add that there’s nothing wrong with either argument – one does not preclude the other. The wonderful thing about hobbies is that they don’t have to make sense. We all blow money on things that have zero value returned to us, beyond the experience. I mean, I have an 8 foot RC Cessna 182 floatplane at home that’s cost around $2000. To most that doesn’t make a bit of sense! But I love building things so for me it’s worth it. The same applies to flying airplanes. I love being in the air, so if getting an hours flying time means skipping the weekly office lunches that’s perfectly all right with me.

  11. Joe
    Joe says:

    Uncle Sam funded my initial aviation training. When I mustered out, I didn’t have any $ and I couldn’t get a civilian flying job with a living wage, so no more flying. It was fifteen years later when it looked like we were prosperous enough to own an airplane. My initial plan was to use the airplane to ease my business travel. To my surprise, the airplane doubled our radius of operation and way expanded our business opportunities. As time went by, we made more family and Angel flight trips. As my business activity slackens (few people want to hire a geezer architect/engineer), I’m wondering how long my budget can support the activity. I guess I’ll keep flying until I can’t and then I’ll stop. It is a shame to think of all the young people who will never appreciate the sense of freedom that flying offers. Well,I t was fun while it lasted…

  12. yves allan daoulas
    yves allan daoulas says:

    I think both reasons are equally valid ; however I,m convinced that an impressive number more of us would fly more often , or get involved with flying to start with , if we could somehow deduct the expenses incurred from our taxes the way business flyers do . Let’s face it , the great majority of households in North America don’t have sufficient discretionary income to even keep truely current ( and I consider flying a minimum of one hour a week to be the least required for this ) let alone the $12-15K to get licensed in the first place .

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