Map of route

Commuting to work by automobile is a time-honored ritual for many Americans. Most airplane owners dream of commuting by air if the opportunity would only present itself. A decade ago, that possibility became a reality for me.

Commuting to work is not the same thing as flying in furtherance of a business. For the latter Mark Fay has written an excellent article. What distinguishes commuting from other types of personal flying is its repetitiveness and rigidity. Repetitiveness is fairly manageable, but the rigidity of being expected at your workplace, at a specific time, every day, can expose you to more risk than other types of personal flying.

Mark Fay gives a good outline of how he prepares for a business flight. For commuting, I would suggest taking care of all the airplane-related details (fuel, oil, preflight inspection) immediately after arrival in the evening. The following morning you’ll be pressed for time and preoccupied with the demands of the day.

Map of route

Only a 60-mile flight—how hard could it be?

I was fortunate that my commute started during the summer in reliably clear weather that characterizes central California. My route of flight between Tracy (TCY) and North Highlands (MCC) enjoyed light traffic, excellent radar coverage, and WAAS/ILS approaches. It was an ideal setup for my purpose. Yet, for a year and a half I’d be repeatedly challenged by the demands of that simple mission.

Hesitation and Mitigation: As summer transitioned into fall, weather emerged as a risk to be dealt with.

In the beginning, any below-minimums forecast for McClellan would have me creeping along the parking lot that was Interstate 5 during rush hour. It only took a few of these excursions to motivate a reevaluation of my risk tolerance and an increased focus on mitigation. The first step was an IPC ride with a no-nonsense examiner. Next was acquiring a better understanding of the weather along the route. During winter it could be highly localized and time-variable. The usual drivers were radiation fog, low stratus from the Pacific marine layer, and advection fog from standing water in rice fields—often in combination. Low pressure down from the Gulf of Alaska added classic frontal weather to the mix. I love weather and engaged this with gusto. Those indifferent to it would find it a slough.

You’re Not the Boss: Commuting can pose risks that are unrelated to aviation.

MCC was below minimums but Tracy was VFR under a thin layer of cirrus at departure. Experience suggested the obscuration would clear by my arrival. Instead, it thickened into several hundred feet of solid stratus. NORCAL cleared me for an approach, which confirmed no landing was practical at MCC. Twenty minutes later, a second approach revealed only worsening conditions. After some consultation, NORCAL vectored me to Sacramento Executive airport’s ILS to wait it out. By 11:00 am the AWOS at McClellan was reporting minimums. I quickly filed and launched.

A queue of corporate and Part 135 aircraft were lining up on the parallel taxiway when I landed, eager to get going. Their enthusiasm wasn’t shared by my company’s vice president, who gave me a hard look then demanded, “Where the hell have you been!” Flying four instrument approaches left him nonplussed.

In today’s workplace, nobody is indispensable. But if you commute by air, you owe it to yourself not to be easily dispensable.

Dirty and Wet: Rain had been falling all afternoon and was forecast to continue into the night. When the engine repeatedly failed a magneto check I considered departing for home on the good magneto, but the factors were against it: impending darkness, dew point spread, unknown fault… Only the fault could I do anything about. When the engine cooled I removed the cowling, climbed back into the airplane (soaking wet), and ran the engine on the bad magneto, bucking and shaking, for a couple of minutes. A quick check of the valve covers revealed one that was cold, hence the problem cylinder. A piece of debris had wedged between the lower plug’s electrodes, shorting it. A technician at the Jet Center removed the chip with a dental pick and I was on my way.

Open Wallet: In my enthusiasm for commuting, I never made an assessment of the actual costs before committing to it: Fuel, oil changes, incidentals, and TBO depreciation—the last frightened me so much I ignored it. Those costs can easily exceed the fixed costs of a hangar, insurance, and database updates. On the positive side, this nullifies any criticism that you’re incurring high fixed costs for an asset you rarely use. I tried that argument on my wife with mixed results.

Minimum Equipment: In order to maintain high dispatch reliability, the FAA permits airlines to operate with certain components inoperable—all codified in an approved minimum equipment list. For the rest of us, the FAA has basic rules about what equipment can’t be inoperative for a given flight. Beyond that, personal pilots are left to decide whether a fault will compromise flight safety and how to mitigate it.

Cylinder head temperature senders rarely last longer than 20 hours in our airplane. First they become intermittent, and then they die. I commuted a year with one in that state and never gave it a second thought.

At one point the airplane developed a severe swerve under hard braking. Corrective action had to be deferred a couple of weeks until the problem could be properly investigated. In my view it was a manageable fault in a low performance airplane—I wouldn’t attempt it in an Aerostar.

In the depths of winter our faithful 430W navigator posted a “VOR/Localizer Failed” error. My technician said many older Garmin 430s had a nav board which would occasionally produce the fault, and that recycling the box in-flight restores functionality. From that point I briefed every approach and departure to include an escape route on the number two (VFR) GPS. The localizer never did quit on approach but the plan proved its worth when the Garmin experienced a WAAS RAIM failure in significant rain at the final approach fix.

Rain erosion

Flying in moderate rain can lead to noticeable prop erosion.

On the subject of rain, operation in moderate rain/sleet will take a toll on the propeller. Fortunately, using a file to restore the prop’s leading edge is a straightforward exercise (per AC 43.13). A technician can show you how and sign off your work.

That winter substantially broadened my view of manageable risk, but there were lines I wouldn’t cross. One night, descending through a broken layer, the drive shaft on our vacuum pump sheared. Waiting for a replacement pump, a friend suggested I continue air commuting since I was IFR proficient and the airplane’s rate-based autopilot didn’t rely on the vacuum system. His argument possessed a curious logic, and would make sense in an emergency, but I couldn’t bring myself to consider it otherwise.

Theoretical Risk and Reality: We don’t waste time thinking about the risk associated with things we never do. Until we decide to do them.

An irrigation canal runs parallel to the Tracy airport, and close in. On this morning conditions allowed dense fog to form over the south side of the field. It would likely burn off in an hour but I had a critical morning meeting that couldn’t be postponed. I’d flown “zero visibility” takeoffs under the hood as part of my instrument training. Backed into a corner now, I considered it. The runway was wide, the liftoff speed low, and there was no wind. After consideration I judged the risk would be elevated but acceptable. As it happened, the most difficult part was finding the taxiway.

That said, it reflected poor contingency planning. In the future I booked a room in North Highlands on the night before critical events at work.

Fatigue is the Hunter: Flying experience can afford an added level of safety for older pilots. And fatigue can wipe it away!

The afternoon TAFs were forecasting 5000 broken, which was reaffirmed a couple of hours later by the skew-T charts. Sitting in the airplane, I listened disheartened as the MCC AWOS reported 800 overcast. I’d had a very long day, it was late at night, and I’d been counting on an easy VFR ride home.

The forecast’s collapse caught everyone by surprise and clearance delivery told me to call back in an hour when they might have something for me. I sat shivering in the airplane until we were finally released. Meanwhile the ceiling had dropped to 500 feet and was continuing down. Closing in on Tracy I was cold, tired, and hungry. The first approach ended when the localizer went off scale a half mile from runway 12. My ability to fly with precision was slipping away. I asked the controller at for another try and was cleared back to the runway 12 initial fix.

In the procedure turn I thought about engaging the autopilot but (incomprehensibly!) did not. It had been years since I’d practiced an autopilot approach. I was in no state of mind to try anything that would take me outside my familiar routine. The second attempt ended when I glimpsed a street lamp and several parked cars less than 100 feet directly below.

After an immediate climb to safety, ATC provided vectors to my alternate, Stockton, where a 700 foot ceiling and the approach lighting system kept me out of trouble.

A research psychologist said the fatigued brain will tend to reject decisions which require forceful, focused, or novel actions. The brain evolved to do this in order to conserve energy when fatigue sets in. He said the effect could be demonstrated in every animal tested—including me I suppose.

When it All Becomes Too Much: The aircraft ownership experience will include periods when the owner decides they hate their airplane.

I reached that point late in the winter. The resolution was to find an inexpensive domicile in North Highlands and limit the air commute to two or three flights a week. A local motel was amenable to selling me blocks of time at a discount. Things began to turn around.

Sure You Can: Should you try commuting if you get the opportunity? I’d say absolutely! But launch into it with your eyes open. Be prepared to develop a more nuanced approach to risk that goes beyond the popular acronyms and colored charts. I can say, without a hint of irony, that year of commuting left me a better-rounded and, eventually, a safer airman.

Kim Hunter
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12 replies
  1. Stephen Reeves
    Stephen Reeves says:

    Isn’t it odd that an employee who has a flat tire or other car trouble while driving to work is perfectly acceptable. Yet someone who commutes by air experiences the corporate expectation of perfect and prompt attendance.

    Still, a drive to work is much more dangerous with countless hazards navigated repeatedly every time.

    I commuted to my job by air for 36 years. And because I was very conscientious, I was able to put my record of prompt attendance up against any worker who drove to the workplace over an equal number of years. But had I missed more than a trip or two in that same period, it would not have been tolerated. So yes, there is pressure when commuting to work by air. But I still think it is safer.

    Reply
    • JOhn T
      JOhn T says:

      I used to commute to work some days, and frequently flew myself for work when away from my office. FWIW, the risks of an accident while flying a single engine aircraft are just about the same as riding a motorcycle. Yeah, I’ve heard all the excuses (“I wear leathers… I always wear my helmet… I’m so safe I’m more likely to die in my sleep than hit an oil slick on my motor cycle… etc.).

      I’ve had several partial power loss events and one complete engine failure in my SEL flying. All in different aircraft, all in aircraft supposedly “well maintained”. “Two is one, and ONE is NONE” can’t be any more true than when the fan quits. Two of the engine failures were at night. I’m lucky, however, and in both cases I had successful landings.

      We shouldn’t fool ourselves with the myth that driving is more dangerous than flying GA aircraft. The data just hold out when we really look at it, or when we live it.

      Reply
  2. Lee Dalton
    Lee Dalton says:

    Once upon a very long time ago, I was a student at Kent State in Ohio and decided to try flying to school every day for summer quarter. It was just a short flight from our airfield near Hiram, but by the time I could get the T-Craft BC12D ready to go, prop the Armstrong starter on the engine and fly to Kent, I had eaten half the morning.

    But it sure was FUN.

    I had to land at the KSU Airport several miles from campus, but just walked to the road and stuck my thumb up. Pretty soon I had found a fellow student who made a point of meeting me every morning in return for a few plane rides.

    Then came the day when Ohio’s ground fog plunked down right over KSU and the only thing showing was the top of the beacon pole. For change in my young life, discretion proved to be the better part of insanity and I flew a holding pattern until I could at least make out the runway. I was just a tad late for class and the prof asked where I’d been. I wasn’t sure he believed me, but the next day a reporter for the campus paper showed up, interviewed me, and wrote a front page article that made me sound like a peer of Lindbergh. If I remember right, there were only a couple of days that summer that I wasn’t able to go for it.

    Can’t imagine trying that today . . . but that was back when flying was really flying and not a video game with glass dashboards.

    Reply
  3. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    When I worked in the Bahamas and TCI, there was really only two choices; commercial or private. Private saved about $250,000 annually based on lost man hours using commercial flight… this was before 9/11. I bet it is well over a $1 million in savings annually now.

    Reply
  4. neil cosentino
    neil cosentino says:

    Its coming… The FASTA USA national interstate flyways system ( NIFS )
    1700 Waterways
    +1800 Railways
    +1900 Highways
    + 2000 Flyways ( NIFS )

    Reply
  5. JSthePilot
    JSthePilot says:

    I commuted between workplaces in my Cessna 172 for about 2 years when we lived in northern Arizona on the Navajo (Dine’) Indian Reservation. My workplaces on both ends were near the “airports” (actually, dirt landing strips). Flying turned a 2+ hour drive on bad roads into a 50-minute flight. Weather conditions definitely played a role in whether to fly or not, but the weather is consistently VFR. These commuting flights were some of the best of my entire 40 year flying adventure.

    Reply
  6. paul bunce
    paul bunce says:

    Commuting by air will never be more than very miniscule activity. Too expensive and too demanding of operator input even if it’s “autonomous”. Aircraft will always be intolerant of “kick the tires and light the fires”. Most people can’t even be trusted to check the air in their tires and keep the light bulbs working in their cars.

    Reply
  7. RichR
    RichR says:

    Access to a reliable car at each end decreases the temptation toward bad go/no go decisions. If you’re not prepared to drive it, you’re not in the right mindset to fly it.

    Reply
  8. Kurt S.
    Kurt S. says:

    I keep my airplane at a small airport just north of MCC and use it now and then to commute back and forth to OAK. Invariably, if it’s foggy in the valley, it is clear in the Bay Area, and vice versa. If the valley is fogged in there are airports up in the foothills such as AUN, that are often above the fog layers.

    Commuting via airplane is definitely more expensive, but the time savings is so worth it. Aircraft are time machines by way of that is what they save you – time. A 1:45 to 2:30 drive is shortened to :40 when I fly. However, the $46 dollars it takes to go back and forth in the car is obliterated by the $110 in avgas and the maddening $64 landing fee charged by the port of Oakland. That cost is magnified by the “oh, it’s a TWIN!” comment, which always causes FBOs to salivate as they jack the fees up. Yes, it’s a twin. A little one, and it has the same ramp footprint as it’s single-engine brother, and in no way justifies a higher fee. But I digress…

    Commuting by air is something that was envisioned years ago when general aviation was still in its infancy. An instrument rating is a must, as is being comfortable and proficient when utilizing it. There will be days when one must take the car instead, but when we gaze down at the long steams of traffic, “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race”, one can’t help but smile. Pilots have a unique ability to compress time, something that others can only imagine.

    Reply
    • Kim Hunter
      Kim Hunter says:

      Thank you Dean for those kind words.

      What was missing in my piece are the countless wonderful flights I had and the personal relationships I developed with controllers – things you can’t put a price on.

      Say hi to Jean from us.

      Reply

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