by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, March 30, 2018
Becoming a commercial pilot is a lengthy, competitive process, and ultimately a lucrative and enviable job. But what if you just want to fly your own plane for fun? Is learning the ropes at the helm of a two-seater aircraft comparable to a course of driving lessons? Is becoming a hobby pilot in the realms of financial possibility? You’re about to find out.
Telegraph Travel spoke in depth to two private pilots about their paths from “interested in planes” to flying them for leisure - Andy Wilson, a 45-year-old photographer based near Henley-on-Thames; and Daniel Foster, 39, MD of a web hosting company in Worsley, Manchester.
Wilson, who says he “totally flunked RAF pilot selection” as a 17-year-old, took a trial lesson at Clacton Airfield when he was 32 and as soon as he landed, signed up for a full Private License (PPL) Course.
Similarly, Foster has wanted to fly for as long as he can remember and applied for the RAF at 17 but was turned down when they spotted that his vision wasn’t 20/20. He saved up until he could afford to get his PPL at 24, “before even buying a car”.
How much does it cost?
This varies, but it usually ranges between about £6,000 to £10,000 depending on the flight school and the hours it takes you to complete, according to Wingly founder Emeric de Waziers, whose “Uber of the skies” company matches more than 10,000 private pilots with passengers who want a ride.
GoFlyUk, for example, offers PPL packages that start at £7,499, which includes the mandatory 45 hours of tuition. Most learners, however, will end up needing more hours than that (it’s £178 per hour with this company). Which leads us to our next question...
How long does it take to learn?
The average pilot will need between 55 and 60 hours of training to pass their test. Depending on how much spare time you have, therefore, getting your PPL can take anywhere from a few weeks to two years. There are two tests to pass: theory and practical.
Wilson had his PPL in hand within five months. “Which is OK, considering I was training on a muddy UK grass airstrip from winter into spring,” he notes.
Foster planned for one lesson a week, and the the whole process took about a year. “There's no need to rush - you are flying in your lessons and it's a very enjoyable process,” he says. “A year is pretty typical for PPLs who learn in this country.”
The other option, he says, is to book yourself onto an intensive course abroad. Flight schools in the US, for example, where the weather is more reliable, advertise accelerated courses that can get you flying in a matter of weeks, but while the hourly rates are lower, the associated costs of getting and staying there mount up.
For those in a hurry, the Accelerated Flight & Instrument Training centre offers a 14-day intensive PPL course (“you won’t have time to answer your cell phone, or solve any business problems”, it warns), in which your instructor will come to a US training location of your choice, for $13,600 (£11,870).
How easy is the course?
Foster insists it’s not hard, but he sounds suspiciously like he might have been a natural. “There's nothing particularly difficult about gaining a PPL beyond the time and money commitments involved,” he remarks. “I was lucky enough not to find any part of it frustrating - weather cancellations aside - or so difficult that it made me reassess whether I wanted to keep going.
“I know some learner pilots that have, and without exception they've got through it and been very glad that they did so.”
Wilson says the trickiest aspect for him was understanding communications with air traffic control. “I went to Southend Airport, took a tray of donuts with me and sat in the control tower one Saturday to get my head around it,” he says. “But it’s pretty straightforward once it clicks.”
Can I pass if I’m useless at maths or physics?
“Common sense, a slight interest in how things work, and a bit of reading worked for me,” Wilson says of passing his written exam. “But I wouldn’t say being a genius at maths or physics is a prerequisite.”
According to Foster: “The maths involved in gaining a PPL is very basic and well within the reach of just about anyone. If you can use a calculator to multiply and divide, then you have the knowledge you need to gain a PPL. If you have a maths GCSE then you're well ahead of the curve.”
How scary is it, honestly?
“I have never found flight in a light aircraft to be scary,” Foster insists. “In the early stages of training you always have an experienced instructor sat alongside you, in a training aircraft with full dual controls, allowing them to be flown by either occupant.”
As for Wilson: “No, not at any stage of training. I went solo after eight hours of training and I don’t think any pilot forgets that day when the instructor steps out of the aircraft and waves you off. But I think if you enjoy driving a car, you’ll generally enjoy flying.”
So have either of our amateur pilots had a hairy moment or a near-miss?
“Not really,” says Foster. “A large part of the training all pilots go through is how to cope when things don't quite go to plan, and the maintenance of an aircraft is very highly regulated, with the result that things going wrong is a rare event.
“In more than 500 hours of flying, I've only had one small problem which just meant I had to land the aircraft without being able to talk to anyone on the radio. It was a total non-event and ended up being a very easy fix for our engineer.”
Wilson, on the other hand, has been at the controls during one such ‘rare’ event, and rather casually tossed in his own anecdote: “I’ve had one engine failure after faulty maintenance and ended up doing a belly landing in a Lake District farm field in 2010.”
Cockpit video footage (below) captured the entire incident, which earned itself more than 1.6m views on YouTube, and sees Wilson very calmly complete the forced landing. He walked away, but went to hospital with his injuries afterwards. The plane, you’ll be glad to hear, was also successfully repaired.
I’ve got my PPL, where do I get a plane?
Buying a plane is far from cheap (think at least £20,000 for your most basic, second-hand model) and neither is maintaining and storing it.
“Most privately flown light aircraft are owned by syndicates who share the running costs of the aircraft,” Foster explains. “I'm no exception - a member of an eight-person syndicate that operates ‘my’ aircraft. We pay for however much we fly and share the fixed costs like insurance and putting the aircraft in its hangar at Liverpool John Lennon Airport.”
Wilson has a half-share in a 1942 Harvard T-6 WW2 trainer, “the type used to prep pilots for the bigger warbirds such as the Spitfire/Mustang”.
Foster explains: “People will generally train in one of a few types; a Cessna 172 or 150, or a Piper PA28. After gaining your licence, with extra training, you can fly faster and more complicated aircraft.”
While many pilots keep flying the same types they learned on, there are a huge number of other options. “From aerobatics to vintage aircraft; from warbirds to sleek, fast, modern machines.” he goes on.
“I fly a type called a Rockwell Commander, which goes quite a bit faster than a typical training aircraft. This means there's more to remember and less time to think about it. It also means you get where you're going quicker and in a bit more comfort.”
Transport or leisure?
Wilson generally flies for the enjoyment of it alone, for an hour to 90 minutes at a time, and clocks up around 50 to 70 hours a year on average.
“If I need to get from A to B on a schedule, I’ll leave it up to a commercial airline pilot,” he says, adding: “If the weather looks bad it’s just as easy to jump in the car for the average trip."
Foster takes to the skies a couple of times a month.
“While I do sometimes fly for fun with no destination in mind, I certainly use the aircraft as a means of getting to places,” he says.
“I've flown myself and my wife away on holidays with friends - I actually flew her to Antwerp to propose. The furthest I've flown myself is to the south of France. For my aircraft, that's two hops with a stop for fuel and lunch about half way down France.
“Work-wise, I've used the aircraft to get to business meetings and conferences. The flexibility it affords can be a real bonus, with no need to stick to airline's schedules with early morning or late night departures.”
What’s the hardest thing about flying a plane?
As Telegraph Travel explained earlier this month, it’s the landing. Particularly in a cross-wind, Wilson says.
Foster backs him up. “Landing takes precision control in three dimensions and is invariably the last basic flying manoeuvre that students grasp - few would argue it isn’t the toughest nut to crack,” he says.
“The majority of pilots, once they have learned, wouldn't be able to tell you how they land an aircraft. It's just one of those skills that you master subconsciously.”
And the best?
“Complete freedom,” Wilson reckons. “You have to concentrate 100 per cent on the flying. My mind doesn't wander, it’s actually very relaxing yet all consuming at the same time. That coupled with the great people I’ve met through the flying world, both civilian and military.”
“The freedom,” echoes Foster. “The views, the camaraderie with other pilots, the sense of achievement. The best thing though is probably sharing this fantastic hobby and the smile on someone's face when you take them for their first flight in a light aircraft.”