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"As recreational destinations beckon, pilot training sees soar in popularity"



Wednesday, May 12, 2004

As recreational destinations beckon, pilot training sees soar in
popularity
By DOUG PIKE
The Houston (TX) Chronicle


Being an airline passenger means costly tickets, long lines, longer
delays and a bag of nuts not including the ones seated ahead of, beside
and behind you. Being a pilot means go-when-you-want, surprisingly
affordable travel to your favorite outdoor destinations. 

A nationwide program called Be A Pilot aims to reintroduce Americans to
recreational flying, better known in the industry as general aviation.
The small planes are there, the general aviation airports are there, and
an increasing number of people are using both. 

Drew Steketee is president of Be A Pilot and an outspoken advocate for
the program. 

"In the past, it was always a single manufacturer or a small group of
them that did these sorts of (promotional) things," Steketee said. "This
is the broadest coalition ever." 

The entire industry has rallied on its own behalf, perhaps
representative of how threatened it felt a few years ago and how good it
must feel, after that uncertain stretch, again now. 

Interest in general aviation flagged noticeably when baby boomers
settled during the 1980s into what Steketee called their "family
formation phase," a period through which middle-aged Americans bought
bigger houses, drove fancier cars and left themselves with less
disposable income. Recovery began in the late 1990s, as the economic
pendulum swung in a more favorable direction, but the disaster that was
9/11 rocked the flight industry again. 

Negative impact of that tragedy was greater on commercial aviation than
general aviation, however, and industry insiders actually expected the
events of 9/11 to increase interest in private piloting as Americans
rallied around the concept of controlling their own destinies. Those
predictions appear to have been correct. 

"People have come back in droves," Steketee said. "People are saying,
`Life is short.' " 

Too short not to do some flying, which Steketee describes as the
ultimate personal freedom. This nation's 625,000 licensed pilots
probably would agree. Their interest in flight is a direct response to
many factors, not the least of which is the reduction of commercial air
service into smaller markets. 

Never mind business travel here, however, and never mind the cost of
actually owning an airplane. Outdoors enthusiasts of all kinds --
anglers, skiers, hikers, hunters, even birders -- are realizing the
benefits of renting a plane, sharing costs and flying themselves to
places commercial airliners only visit at 35,000 feet. 

Costs are not unreasonable, especially if they're split among the four
adults most small planes are designed to carry. 

According to Steketee, an airworthy airplane rents for $60-$100 per
engine hour and burns about eight gallons of fuel per hour. Nominal
landing fees sometimes apply, and if the plane sits at an airport while
you and your friends enjoy the outdoors, you'll pay an additional
minimum daily charge usually equal to two or three hours of flying time.


Add it up, then weigh that total against the expense of a commercial
flight -- presuming one is available -- plus car rental and parking.
Plus your time to meet pre-flight requirements, pass through security
checks, pick up luggage (assuming it made the trip) and drive to your
final destination. 

When you travel by private plane, you load whatever you want and leave
whenever you want. Your primary concerns are weight and weather, and you
know with absolute certainty who will occupy the seat next to you. 

There are roughly 700 commercial airports in the United States,
including all the minor-market strips only large enough to receive
"puddle jumper" commuter flights. Compare that with the 13,000 places at
which you can safely land a small airplane, according to Steketee. Of
those, 6,000 don't require advance notice. 

As an outdoorsman, whatever your favorite activity, the possibilities
are boundless. 

Imagine scouting your deer lease from the air. Or cruising above the bay
shore while a fishing partner takes photos and scribbles notes. Or
discovering a shorter hiking route to a favorite hilltop. 

Options are unlimited, and there are nearly as many places where you can
rent a plane. Licensed pilots, like licensed drivers, have privileges
wherever "vehicles" are available. 

If you and friends find yourselves in one part of Colorado on winter
business and take a shine to skiing at a resort across the state, you
can rent a plane locally and be on the slopes almost before you could
get onto the Interstate in a car. 

At most public airports, ground transportation is available. Busier
general aviation airports usually have small fleets of rental cars on
site. At some quieter strips, said Sugar Land Aviation owner Dana
Atkinson, visiting pilots may have access to courtesy cars. Those
vehicles might not be fancy, he said, but they will be reliable. 

The next best thing to becoming a pilot -- some might argue the better
thing -- is befriending one. Hang around small airports long enough, and
you'll meet pilots who are as passionate as you about hunting, fishing,
camping, skiing, hiking and every other outdoor activity. In exchange
for an excuse to fly (and every private pilot has a million of those),
that person can deliver you to places no airline goes and a pickup
cannot reach in twice the time. Everybody has a good time, and nobody
waits in line. 

A longer line is forming these days behind flight instructors. The
sensation of lifting off the runway and climbing into a blue sky is
exhilarating, almost intoxicating and, for most people who try it,
addictive. 

Veteran pilots measure their time against the last hour they spent in
the air and the next. 

Piloting certainly is not for everyone. For outdoors enthusiasts,
however, the freedom of flight is an increasingly popular option.


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