A wing, a prayer and big bucks: What it takes to be a private pilot

What it takes to be a private pilot--and leave flying coach to the hoi polloi.

A bird's-eye view of the world is something most of us only get to experience from the cramped passenger seat of a commercial airliner. But for a select few, soaring high above the clouds–and behind the controls–of a million-dollar plane represents the epitome of the high-flying lifestyle. Whether it's a cross-border day trip to an annual shareholders meeting, a quick jaunt to the cottage for a weekend getaway, or a longer sojourn to a Bahamian retreat, membership in the exclusive private pilot's club is a privilege afforded to those with the desire to soar and the money to burn.

Just ask Emil Simon, a 47-year-old entrepreneur and former marketing executive from Aurora, Ont., who regularly flies off to business meetings in New York, Detroit, Buffalo and Montreal in his million-dollar-plus Piper Mirage, a six-seater, turbo-charged, twin-engine airplane. Since he got his private pilot's licence less than three years ago, Simon, who admits he's become “addicted to flying,” has bought and sold two other planes–a nearly $400,000 Cessna 182 turbo, followed by an almost $550,000 Cessna 206 turbo–in the pursuit of a bigger, better and faster model to call his own. Before the NHL lockout, he also used to fit in regular trips to Montreal, where he has bench-side season's tickets for the Montreal Canadiens. “I guess it's kind of an expensive way to watch a hockey game,” he says with a chuckle. “There's no financial justification for doing this. It's simply a challenge to be able to fly to any airport, or any location I wish. If I want to fly to JFK in New York, I can do that. If I want to go to O'Hare in Chicago, I can do that, too–and it's fun.”

Kevin Psutka, president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, says the option of flying (and owning) your own plane is particularly attractive for many business travellers who have come to dread mind-numbing waits at airport check-in counters, delays on the tarmac and baggage mix-ups. “It is kind of demeaning to have people tell you to take off your shoes and treat you like a terrorist as you're going through,” he says of security checks. “You avoid all of that by flying a private aircraft. You still have to clear customs–but it is an awful lot more convenient to fly on your own schedule.”

Convenient, yes. But expensive, too. First, you'll have to learn how to fly–a commitment that will set aspiring pilots back anywhere between $7,000 to $10,000 for a private licence (excluding an extra $5,000 to $10,000 for an instrument flight rating that allows you to fly in cloudy conditions). Transport Canada requires a minimum of 45 hours of flight training and at least 40 hours of ground school, which covers everything from navigation to meteorology, aviation regulations to flight theory. You'll also have to take a written test and obtain a medical certificate. (Individuals with convulsive disorders, a head injury or a history of past heart attacks may be deemed unfit, although they can be reassessed at a later date.) Then you must pass a pre-flight evaluation before taking the in-flight exam with a Transport Canada inspector or designated examiner. Although it's possible to complete flight school in four to five weeks, going at a full-time clip, most people spend between six months to a year obtaining their licences.

“It's like golf–it takes time and it takes money,” says Gerry Mants, manager of B.C.'s Victoria Flying Club. Many of his clients are execs who are happy to fork over $94 to $109 an hour to rent one of the organization's planes for a quick trip to Seattle or a more leisurely day trip north to Tofino's breathtaking beaches for a little out-of-office R&R. “You're in a pretty small group of Canadians when you have a private pilot's licence,” says Mants. “It's good for the ego.”

No need to tell that to Canadian top gun and former Cognos Inc. software executive Michael Potter, who does regular flybys in his 1945 vintage Spitfire SL721 at military air shows. And then there's the legendary Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of product development with Detroit-based General Motors Corp., who, in his 70s, continues to fly his US$500,000 McDonnell Douglas MD-500E helicopter to work during the summer. The former marine, who once landed a L-39 Albatros military jet without the landing gear down, recently bought a West German Alpha, which is similar to the American F-16. “Bob is a great pilot,” says Gary Cowger, president of GM North America. “And he is great on rotor and fixed wing, which is unusual. Not all pilots are good on both. But you can tell if he's late when he comes winging into the GM tech centre because he almost has to stand the damn thing on end.”

For the ultimate in sky-high transportation, US$1.9 million will buy you a six-seater Piper Meridian single-engine, complete with a sleek glass cockpit, leather seats and a pressurized cabin perfect for all conditions. At more earthly levels, there's the US$500,000 turbo-charged, six-seater Piper Saratoga II or the four-seater, single-engine Cessna 172 at US$248,000. Used airplanes are also extremely popular, and include the 1976 Piper Aztec twin-engine at about $200,000 or a 1975 two-seater, single-engine Cessna 150 for about $30,000. “We are seeing airplanes from the '50s still flying,” says Solly Capua, an airplane broker with Aviation Unlimited in Markham, Ont. “They appreciate similarly to an exotic car.”

And just like a set of pricey wheels, maintenance costs on private airplanes don't take very long to hit the stratosphere. Depending on the type and age of the aircraft, hangar fees, insurance, fuel, maintenance and engine replacement costs can add between $15,000 to $50,000 a year for a four-seater aircraft, assuming at least 150 hours of air time.

For daring young pilots looking to outfit their flying machines with the latest and greatest in aviation gear, a trip to the Prop Shop at Canada's largest flight school–Toronto Airways Ltd.–is sure not to disappoint. For starters, there's the top-of-the-line David Clark H10-13.4 headset ($420); the $60 ASA long tri-fold kneeboard (the equivalent of an in-air briefcase); the $460 battery-powered IC-A5 air band transceiver radio by Icom that allows you to communicate with air-traffic control while acting as a backup in the event of an electrical failure; and the portable Garmin GPSMAP 296 colour-screen global positioning system ($2,400). “If you're a real enthusiast, you can get a scanner and turn it on at home and listen to see what the aircraft are doing at the local airport,” says John Davis, manager of flight operations at the 40-year-old, family-owned Toronto Airways school, which operates out of Markham, Ont.'s Buttonville airport.

Of course, the package wouldn't be complete without the quintessential bomber jacket–Avirex sells a top-of-the-line leather model for about $1,100, but you can get less expensive nylon versions for about $200. “We get a lot of hobbyists who don't fly planes but who come in to buy the jackets anyway,” says Dana Whyte, manager of Buttonville's Prop Shop.

Ontario entrepreneur Simon, who logs about 200 hours of flying time on his Piper each year (at a cost of about $500 an hour with fuel), estimates he's also spent an extra $100,000 on a new, three-bladed propeller and top-of-the-line avionics, including an engine analyzer, GPS system and weather-radar pod. His next step is to refit his plane with a $500,000 jet engine, which will enable him to travel at about 550 kilometres per hour, or 100 km/h faster than his current turbo engine will allow. Insurance is an additional $12,000 a year, and hangar fees are $16,800, adding up to a grand total of more than $100,000 annually.

Due to increased regulation and airport closures in Canada, plane broker Capua says he's seen a drop in the number of people interested in buying certified private aircraft. But despite plummeting sales, he says he's hoping the inconvenience of not being able to close a deal quickly because of travel hassles will encourage more people to consider flying their own plane. According to Transport Canada, there are 66,594 airplane and helicopter pilots in Canada and 40,903, or 61%, of them fall into the private or recreational category. “The only growth in aviation in the past four years has been with private aircraft,” says Psutka of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association. Of the licensed private pilots, 38,040 of them, or 93%, are men.

“You've got to ask the question, why do people do this?” says Simon. “Financially, it's stupid. But the freedom of just being able to buzz around is quite cool.”