"The more I find out, the less I know."

Forget the iPhone

Friday - June 29, 2007 05:21 PM

People are lining up for the iPhone this evening. Forget that. The new toy I really want is this.
Too bad a place in line costs a cool $100K.

Posted at 05:21 PM | Permalink |

GA is the new First Class

Friday - August 11, 2006 01:35 PM

I dodged a bullet in my recent trip to New York, arriving home at 10:30 PM Wednesday night, just hours before the new security restrictions went in place. Had I flown home Thursday morning instead of Wednesday night, the traveling experience would have been even more annoying than it usually is, with longer security lines and an absolute ban on all liquids (and many food items) on airplanes.
As near as I can tell, the strategy seems to be to make commercial air travel so miserable that the terrorists give up and take the bus instead.

Today, the Wall Street Journal is running an article about the surge in popularity of private jet and charter flying as an alternative to commercial airlines (subscription required, sorry). It seems to me that general aviation (that is, charter and private aircraft) is becoming the new first class travel, with flexible schedules and no hassle instead of fine wine and attentive flight attendants.

There was a time, perhaps a couple of decades ago, when flying first class actually meant something. A first class ticket could cost a significant fraction of the price of a new car, so only people whose comfort was Worth Something flew up front.

Then the airlines realized that those empty first class seats could be given away (at little additional cost to the airline) to elite frequent fliers as a perk for flying so much. That had the side benefit of freeing seats in coach, which could then be sold for additional revenue, increasing the load factor.

But it also cheapened the first class experience. By the time I started traveling for business regularly (in 1996), pretty much everyone in first class was there because of a free upgrade. I can remember many flights where first class was full, but coach more than half empty--the inverse of what you would expect for a supposedly higher level of service.

Since 2001, the same forces which have been making airline travel progressively more unpleasant (bankrupt airlines cutting back service levels, increasingly obnoxious and intrusive security screening, long and unpredictable lines at airports, etc.) have had the same effect on first class as coach; meanwhile cash-starved airlines are trying to take back some of the revenue generating potential of those first class seats by cutting the price of an upgrade to the point where an average traveler might actually spring for it.

The state of first class today is that at many airlines you can upgrade for under fifty bucks, and the difference between coach and first class is just a larger seat, free booze, and (maybe) a free meal. But you still have to plan to be at the airport 90 minutes before departure (two or three hours today), you are still subjected to long lines and security checks, and the gate agents are just as surly.

Compare that to general aviation travel. If you are flying a charter or private plane, you can depart within minutes of arriving at the airport, there are no security checks, no lines, no fights for the best overhead bins, and best of all, if you're running late the plane will wait for you (instead of departing, leaving you with a cancelled nonrefundable ticket and forced to pay through the nose for a new ticket on the next flight). You may also be able to fly into an airport more convenient to your actual destination.

In fact, the problems with airline travel have gotten so bad that general aviation travel sometimes actually comes out ahead in both time and cost when compared to commercial flight, even ignoring the value of flexible schedules and convenience.

For example, take a trip from Minneapolis to Chicago. This is about a 350-mile flight, and you can get a round-trip ticket for a little under $200 today with three-week advance purchase. Let's compare the commercial flight to the time and cost of flying my personal airplane (back when I owned one):

Commercial Flight
9 AM: Arrive at the airport
10:30 Scheduled departure (90 minutes after arriving at the airport, to allow time to clear security in case the lines are long)
11:30 Arrive in Chicago (60 minutes of flying time)
Noon: Depart airport for final destination (It seems to take about 30 minutes to retrieve luggage; with the current security rules, limiting oneself to carry-on is not a viable option)

Cost: $200/person round trip

Personal Flight (in my former Piper Archer, a 4-seat piston airplane)
9 AM: Arrive at the airport
9:30 AM: Depart for Chicago (allow 30 minutes for preflight inspection because I'm the pilot. If I was just a passenger, I could arrive ten minutes before departure)
11:30 AM: Arrive in Chicago (180 minutes flying time)
11:40 AM: Depart airport for final destination

Cost: 60 gallons of aviation fuel (round trip) at $5/gallon, plus $100 for maintenance and other reserves: $400 for up to three people including myself.

In other words, commercial air travel delays are so bad that flying my own airplane (which cruised at less than one-third the speed of an airliner) would get me to Chicago 20 minutes earlier than flying commercially, with less hassle; and if I was flying with a colleague or two, the price would be the same or less.

Minneapolis to Chicago is something of a special case, since it is a relatively short flight; and flying charter (rather than a personal airplane) will be more expensive.

Even for a longer trip, the comparison isn't so bad. Wednesday I flew from New York to Minneapolis, a distance of about 1,000 miles (give or take). From the time I arrived at the airport in New York to the time I left the airport in Minneapolis was about eight hours. I had a one-hour layover in Chicago (nonstop would have saved that time, but it would have been hundreds of dollars more expensive), and a short (30-minute) delay on the last flight due to a delayed inbound aircraft. In my old Archer, the flight would have taken about ten hours total: nine hours of flying time plus two 30-minute fuel stops (but it would have cost over $1,000 in fuel and maintenance round trip, as opposed to $600 for the two round trip tickets).

That's a remarkably close comparison considering that we're talking about a trip halfway across the continent in an airplane mainly designed to hop up to the cabin and back.

If you go to the other extreme of aircraft, some business jets are as fast or even faster than commercial airliners (though obviously more expensive to operate per passenger). On a coast-to-coast trip, you could easily save three hours of travel time (door to door) each way. That's six hours saved for a round trip, or nearly an entire working day. For people whose time is Worth Something, the appeal of spending a few thousand bucks extra on a round trip ticket to save almost a full working day is obvious. In a business jet, my New York to Minneapolis trip would have been under three hours from parking lot to parking lot--I would have been home in time for dinner, instead of crawling into bed at 11:30 PM.

(If anything, I may be understating the appeal of a business jet. The fastest business jets actually fly about 50 knots faster than typical airliners, and aren't subject to the kinds of network delays that plague commercial travel. Even better, in a business jet you aren't subject to the whims of airline scheduling, which often force business travelers to stay one or two extra nights in a hotel because there's no flight at the right time.)

Can you tell I'm trying to talk myself into plunking down the $25 mil for a Citation X?

(Assuming I had the $25 mil, that is.)

Posted at 01:35 PM | Permalink |

Big news in little jets

Friday - July 28, 2006 02:58 PM

Exciting news this week for anyone who dreams of tooling around in the flight levels in front of a couple turbine engines.
First, the Eclipse 500, the first of a new class of "Very Light Jets" has received preliminary FAA certification, with final certification expected in a few weeks. The Eclipse is a six-seat twin jet which sells for under $1.5 million (though originally it was supposed to sell for under $1 million, but inflation and design challenges have taken their toll). This is a big deal because a lot of naysayers thought it was impossible to build an FAA-certified jet for under $5 million or so.

Eclipse already has a backlog of thousands of orders, enough to keep them busy for years.

Next up, Honda announced a partnership with Piper to develop and build the HondaJet, another Very Light Jet. The HondaJet won't be the first (or second or third) VLJ to make it to market, but this announcement is significant for two reasons. First, Honda has been playing with the idea of building a jet for two decades, building several prototypes during that time, but never commercialized it because the company didn't think the market was ready. Now, apparently, they think the market is ready. Second, Honda brings a level of resources and manufacturing expertise unheard-of in the aviation industry. Keep in mind that even the most advanced aircraft manufacturers still pretty much build airplanes by hand.

Finally, there were rumors of a new supersonic jet, the Quiet Supersonic Transport (QSST) being designed by Lockheed Martin for a group called Supersonic Aviation International. Supersonic bizjets have existed as paper airplanes for years, but never built. Perhaps this time will be different--in which case, I'll have to update my Christmas wish list from a Citation X (currently the fastest civilian aircraft flying) to the QSST.

Posted at 02:58 PM | Permalink |

Flying Videos

Tuesday - May 09, 2006 03:42 PM

I found a neat collection of flying videos today.
My favorite so far is probably the animation of FedEx arrivals into Memphis during a thunderstorm. Imagine ants scurrying away as the dog approaches the anthill.

A close second is the gear-down amphibious landing. Amphibious planes always need to be landed gear-up on water, and this clip shows exactly why.

Posted at 03:42 PM | Permalink |

Next Airplane

Monday - September 19, 2005 11:05 PM

Having sold N620CP, our trusty Piper Archer, last spring, it is time to fantasize about the next airplane.
For the time being, thanks to lack of time and relatively tight finances, I'm in an enforced period of no flying. But that shouldn't be the case forever.

Among light planes today, the one I'm most impressed with is the Cirrus SR-20 and SR-22 (I'm not alone in this--Cirrus has gone from zero to now being the largest airplane manufacturer in the world, based on the number of aircraft sold per year). Unfortunately, these are both four-seat planes. Too small to accommodate our growing family with three kids.

So a more likely choice is a Cessna 206, which is the airborne equivalent of a minivan or SUV: big, ugly, practical, and carries a ton.

I'm not too thrilled with the 206, though. I've test flown one, and it flies like a dump truck. It is also an old design, and doesn't take advantage of the advances in airframe and engine technology since the 1960's.

But as long as we're dreaming, there's the Pilatus PC-12. This turbine-powered monster cruises in the flight levels, has a cabin of the size you find on some business jets, and can easily carry a family of five with three big teenagers (which is what the kids will someday become). Fairly economical, as such things go, at a little under $3 million. The PC-12 also looks cool, unlike the Cessna.

My ultimate plane, though, is the Cessna Citation X. This business jet is the fastest civilian aircraft in the skies (now that Concorde is permanently grounded), clocking in at mach 0.92. Flying a Citation X is not only more convenient than an airline, you'll outrun them, too. The Citation X looks like nothing else in the skies, with oversized engines, sharply swept wings, and sculpted contours (necessary to manage the transonic airflow at cruise speeds). No aluminum-tube-with-wings here. All this can be mine (or yours) for a cool $20 million or so.

Pardon me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard.

Will I ever be able to afford my dream plane? What would it take to put me in the cockpit of that lovely Citation which I know has my name on it?

One rule of thumb is that any airplane will cost about 10% of the (new) purchase price each year for maintenance and upkeep. So the Pilatus would set me back around a quarter-mil each year to keep it oiled and shiny, while the Citation would require feeding to the tune of around $2 million/year (some of that money goes to fancy simulator-based training for the pilot--me--which is essential for such a high performance craft).

Another consideration is that I don't want my baby to be my only asset. That means that before I can realistically afford a particular airplane, my liquid net worth and income should be some multiple of the cost of the plane. Call it a factor of 10.

At a rough estimate, the operating expenses and loan payments for an airplane will be somewhere in the range of 20% to 30% of the purchase price each year. That means that I need an annual income of 200% to 300% of the price of the airplane to be able to justify it to She Who Puts Up With Me. So when I'm earning $50 million per year, the Citation will be mine.

Or, if I come into a great sum of money (say, by selling my company to Google) and pay cash, I need to have a liquid net worth of 10x the purchase price of the plane (income from investments should cover the operating expenses at that point). If I can get to $200 million, I'm there.

Now let's see....how many clients do we need to sign up to earn $50 million/year?

Posted at 11:05 PM | Permalink |


Sunday - April 17, 2005 01:51 PM

We've sold N620CP, and tomorrow the new owner will arrive in Minneapolis to take it to its new home in California. We've had this plane longer than our kids, and it feels a little like a member of the family.

Ironically, today I'm traveling to New York and changing planes at Chicago Midway, an airport I've flown 620CP into a couple times. On approach, I couldn't help but think how I'd much rather be up front than looking at the same approach from the little side window.
We bought N620CP in 1996 from a farmer in central Illinois, where we lived at the time. The prior owner used it mainly for short local flights in the summer, and had taken good mechanical care, but had not invested anything in the cosmetics. Immediately after buying the plane, we invested $30,000 on badly needed upgrades to the paint, interior, and avionics. The autopilot didn't work when we bought it, and we never felt strongly enough about it to get fixed. We also renumbered it: the old number was 181CR, and the new number combines our wedding date and initials.

In the fall of 1996, I took a job in Minneapolis, and was using 620CP to commute between Champaign, IL and Minneapolis weekly for several months. At that time, we added a Stormscope and HSI to better suit the mission of regular cross-country trips, often IMC for much of the flight.

She Who Puts Up With Me joined me in Minneapolis in late 1996, and started flying 620CP back to Champaign regularly until her obligations there were finished in mid-1997.

We've taken 620CP on a number of memorable trips, including Great Falls, Orlando, and New York. Flights to Grand Marais, MN, at the very northeast corner of the state, have been common. Unfortunately, after the birth of Scooter in 1999, and the twins in 2002, our time for flying plummeted. Selling the plane was not an easy decision, but was the only thing that made sense.

During the time we've owned this plane, it has been exceptionally reliable. We've only had to cancel one flight for mechanical reasons, when the vacuum pump failed before takeoff. It is a very nice IFR plane, and trims out almost perfectly. One of the reasons we never fixed the autopilot is we never missed it, with how well the plane flies hands-off. Three hours of hand-flying in IMC never seemed like any kind of burden.

Like any airplane older than most college students, there are one or two quirks. The two we've experienced are both very minor. One is that the stormscope is very sensitive to electrical noise from inside the plane. This manifests itself as a very tight cluster of strikes which always appears at the same spot relative to the aircraft heading. This normally appears during times of high electrical load: when the battery is charging right after takeoff, and when you turn on something which sucks a lot of power (like the pitot heat). Fortunately it is very easy to distinguish this noise from real weather. I have a hunch that replacing the alternator (should that ever become necessary) would fix this.

The other quirk is that the wingtip landing lights induce a small (under 10 degrees) error in the HSI when they're turned on. The nose landing light does not exhibit this behavior. I suspect this is because the wires for the wingtip lights are routed too close to the remote flux gate, but our attempts to get this corrected have been unsuccessful.

As with any old friend, I hope that we've not seen the last of N620CP. But I know it has a good home, and I hope the new owner will enjoy it as much as we have.

Posted at 01:51 PM | Permalink |

Sentimental Journey

Monday - March 14, 2005 08:32 AM

We have a buyer for N620CP. It took only a few days after listing in Trade-a-Plane to get a serious offer (with deposit) for our beloved Archer, and if all goes well, she may be winging her way to California by the end of the week. The plane will be in for the buyer's inspection most of this week, so I took her up for what may be my last flight last night.
I think she was a little upset at not having been flown for so long. There was enough battery to light the lights and turn on the radios, but when I tried to crank the engine, the juice wasn't there. This led to a mild comedy as the (new and inexperienced) line guy spent a half-hour looking for the power pack and the adapter for the external plug on the Archer (some Pipers have nifty external power plugs so you can plug it in to charge the battery or use ground power without having to get at the battery. I wish all small planes had this feature). Then the tug stalled right in front of the plane, and we had to push it out of the way before starting the engine.

But once we had juice, she started right up. Even though my last flight had been <embarassed cough> July, everything was exactly the way I'd left it. After letting the engine warm up a bit during the runup, we taxied onto the runway and took off. The plane leapt into the sky as though glad to be once again free of the drag of the pavement.

Airplanes, like people, have personalities. On the ground, even the most graceful of fliers becomes an awkward creature, slow and fragile, tiptoeing carefully around obstacles so as to avoid damaging delicate wingtips, propellers, and control surfaces.

But once in the air, an aircraft's true character comes to the surface. After nine years, N620CP is like an old friend, or even a dearly beloved wife. We understand each other perfectly, and are completely comfortable relying on each other as partners in our journey through the air. I steer the plane with a thought: my hands know exactly how much to move to set up a standard rate turn. I am surprised to find myself flying with an unexpected degree of precision, despite my recent inexperience, and the fact that I'm not paying any conscious attention to my heading or altitude.

After fifteen minutes of idle playing in the air, it is time to head home. As the glow of the western sky fades, we do three perfect landings, perhaps the last we'll ever do together.

When I park, I'm amused to see the stalled tug sitting right where we'd left it 45 minutes before. It never did get started again.

The new owner is a former programmer in California who made a million dollars as one of the first employees of Yahoo. He's now working for peanuts in the right seat of a business jet, flying for a living because he loves it, not because he has to. I'm sure he will take good care of this member of our family, and I'm glad she's going to a home where her many fine qualities will be appreciated.

Posted at 08:32 AM | Permalink |

Time to sell the airplane?

Monday - October 18, 2004 11:44 PM

This has been in the back of my brain for a while now--since the twins were born, really--but it recently decided to move to my frontal cortex.

I think it is time to sell my airplane.
The logic is unassailable. I hardly ever have time to fly anymore, maybe 30 hours in the past year. Most of that was on a single trip to Orlando and back for a trade show. It costs $6,000 to $7,000 per year just to own it, even if I never pull it out of the hangar (and for about 18 months after the twins were born, I didn't). According to Vref, I could get close to $100,000 for selling it.

The fundamental problem is that a four-place Archer isn't big enough for the whole family, but we don't have the money right now to upgrade to a larger plane (like a Cessna 206) which would carry everyone. As a result, plane trips are necessarily solo affairs, which means they're time away from the family instead of with the family, and, well, you get the idea.

So, my frontal cortex has decided that selling the plane is the logical decision. But my limbic system hasn't come around yet.

This is the only plane we've ever owned, and we've had it for close to ten years. We've grown rather fond of the old girl, and she's taken us many wonderful places. There's something about always climbing into a familiar cockpit, being able to leave personal stuff in the cargo hold, and knowing exactly what to expect that you just can't get from a rental.

If I sell this plane, I know in my gut that it will be years before I fly again. It is hard enough these days to get to the airport when I can do it on a whim....if I have to schedule my flights in advance, and deal with all the headaches that come with rental, I simply won't do it. I probably won't be flying regularly again until my company (or the next one....) is successful enough for me to buy the next airplane.


If you know anyone who is interested in buying a 1979 Piper Archer, about 2,500 TTAF, 500 SMOH, excellent paint and interior, dual glideslopes, HSI, Stormscope, DME, ADF, intercom, backup electric AI, and two Bose ANR headsets....let me know.

The price will reflect the equipment and condition of the airplane. Sadly, it will not reflect the memories our anniversary in Glacier National Park; commuting between Minneapolis and Champaign, IL; trips to Grand Marais, MN, my favorite place in the whole world; flying into Meiggs less than a year before the airport was destroyed; hours spent dancing in and among the clouds; the thrill on Scooter's face when we'd lift off; watching a Piper-sized path through in the thunderstorms open in front of me over Georgia, then close after I'd gone.

Whoever buys this airplane will buy a piece of my soul. Please take good care of it.

Posted at 11:44 PM | Permalink |

A Really Obvious Idea....

Sunday - June 27, 2004 10:38 AM

Thousands of airliners in the U.S. are equipped with "No Smoking" lights which can be controlled from the cockpit. These lights are pretty much useless, since smoking is banned on domestic flights anyway.
So here's a new use for these now-obsolete lights: replace the "No Smoking" symbol with a "No Cellphones" symbol. The crew can then signal to passengers exactly when they need to turn off their phones, and when they can turn them back on after the flight is over. It might have helped this clueless woman.

And for those worried about the lack of no-smoking symbols, just go buy a bunch of stickers and put them on the backs of all the seats.

Posted at 10:38 AM | Permalink |

Minneapolis to Orlando

Monday - May 24, 2004 08:30 PM

For my business trip last week, I decided to take my own plane to Orlando instead of flying commercially. There are lots of good reasons not to do this: it costs more, it takes longer, it is more work, it means more time away from my family. But there is one really good reason why I decided to fly myself. It was far more fun and interesting than sitting in cattle class once more.
Taking my plane on this trip is 10-12 hours of flight time and three fuel stops along the way. It costs about $600 (round trip) in fuel, plus a few dollars here and there for airplane parking and the like.

Compare this to $300 for a commercial ticket, and about three hours of flight time. Of course, with the commercial ticket I would have had to spend an extra hour or so at the airport on departure, and and extra 30 minutes or so on arrival. I was also able to carry a number of packages of trade show gear (signs, booth backdrop, etc.) in my plane, which would have otherwise been shipped out UPS. So the time and money advantage for the commercial flight isn't quite as great as it appears on first glance.

But here's the best part. When I fly my own plane, I get to see a huge part of the country in a way I would never get to see it from the stratosphere. I don't have to wait in a security line anywhere. People smile, help me with my stuff, and go out of their way to make it a pleasant trip.

Rather than just being the guy in 37-B, I get to control my own journey. Instead of going out of my way to accommodate the airline and the TSA, I get to work with helpful people who genuinely want to make my travel a success. I've met plenty of uncaring, overwhelmed gate agents and flight attendants, but FBO [airplane equivalent of a gas station] employees and air traffic controllers are universally willing to go the extra mile.

The best part was returning home. I left early (about 5 AM) so I could get home at a reasonable hour. I called She Who Puts Up With Me from our home airport at about 6:30 PM, and convinced her I was still in Illinois. Then, I drove home to savor her reaction in finding me several hundred miles away from where I was supposed to be.

You just can't get away with that in the world of scheduled air travel.

Posted at 08:30 PM | Permalink |

Poetic Airport Names

Wednesday - April 07, 2004 03:37 AM

The airport we keep our plane at is called "Flying Cloud," which I think is one of the most poetic names for an airport I've ever heard (never mind the busy, hot Saturdays in August, when the airport is known as "Frying Crowd"). Duluth has a small airport and seaplane base called "Sky Harbor." Another small airport in the Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville is called "Airlake."
Sadly, the vast majority of airport have dull, boring names: either simply named after the city ("Denver International Airport"), or after dead people ("John F. Kennedy" being famous; "Wold-Chamberlain Field" being the obscure formal name for the Minneapolis international airport).

Despite the general lack of imagination most cities show when naming their airports, there must be other examples of poetic or evocative names.

But I'll be darned if I can think of any.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

The Wonder of Flight

Tuesday - April 06, 2004 03:37 AM

A family of five traveling in an airplane with four seats presents certain obvious problems. As a result, we've not been flying with the whole family since before the twins were born. While She Who Puts Up With Me and I have been on a couple trips (such as our Gunflint weekend a few weeks ago), we haven't taken any of the kids up with us for something like two and a half years. The last time Scooter (now five) was flying was when he was two, and he had completely forgotten the experience. The twins have never been flying in our plane.
This gave me the opportunity to reintroduce Scooter to the wonder of flight. This evening, we were talking about airplanes, and I suggested, out of the blue, "Why don't we go flying tonight?"

That got his attention.

The weather couldn't have been nicer this evening, so after clearing our plates from dinner, we drove to the airport. I gave Scooter a quick lesson in ramp safety (which, for a five-year-old, boils down to "A propeller will chop you to bits if you get too close, so don't go anywhere without a grown-up"), and while I preflighted, he watched in awe at the variety of airplanes taxiing past the hangar.

In addition to the usual collection of Cessnas and Pipers, we saw a pair of flying boats ("Wow, daddy, they can land on the water?"), a twin turboprop, and a couple of experimental hotrods.

Finally it was time to strap in. Another quick cockpit safety lesson ("Show me how to unbuckle your seatbelt. Good. Now don't touch anything unless I say you can, and if I tell you to be quiet, you need to be quiet") and we were off.

Every moment of the flight brought a new question:

"Why are there so many lakes?" "Because this is Minnesota, and this is the land of lakes."

"Why are there lights on the ground?" "Because the sun is setting, and people are turning on their lights so they can see."

"Who are you talking to?" "The man in the control tower. His job is to keep airplanes from hitting each other."

"Why do you do a runup?" "To make sure the engine is working before we take off."

"Why are there so many rides at Valleyfair?" "That's how they make money."

Valleyfair is the local amusement park, which just happens to lie right beneath the approach to runway 36 at Flying Cloud Airport. I promised we'd fly over it, and since we were on final approach, Scooter got an eyeful of the roller coasters from only about 500 feet up.

The drive home gave him an opportunity to exercise his creative genius as only a five-year-old can.

"Daddy, you and mommy are going to build a jet."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah. And I can invite Max to fly with us. And Nathan, too. And Lindsey. And Jack, and Matthew. We can all fly to Texas!"

"Texas, eh?"

"No, not Texas, Florida. And Kate can come. And Mindy, too."

"That's a lot of people in our airplane."

"Yeah, lots of kids. But no parents, except you and mommy. The parents can fly themselves."

"You've been thinking a lot about this, haven't you."

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

Our Faithful Steed

Sunday - February 22, 2004 03:37 AM

I've had my pilot's license since I turned 17--my first license was actually dated my 17th birthday--even though it isn't something I would ever consider doing as a job. Some things are too much fun to ruin by doing them for money. Shortly after we were married, I convinced She Who Puts Up With Me to get her license, too. Not long after that, I got my instrument rating, and we realized that it made sense for us to buy an airplane.
So, in 1995, we found a 1979 Piper Archer II , a basic four-place single-engine airplane with enough oomph to be fun to fly, but not so complex as to be expensive or difficult to fly. It was literally owned by a farmer who flew it only occasionally, and was willing to be convinced to sell it. Mechanically, the airplane was in excellent condition, but it needed new paint, upholstery, and radios.

Airplanes are different than cars, in that a properly maintained small airplane will last almost forever. Or perhaps, the maintenance required of an airplane is such that, if done properly, the airplane will last almost forever. So, buying a 16-year-old airplane is not quite the same as buying a 16-year-old car. The airplane has many many years of reliable service left in it.

After buying the airplane, we gave it a new paint job, redid the interior, and completely replaced the avionics. When we had it painted, we also got a new tail number. N620CP: 620 is our wedding date, and CP is our initials. How sweet: a romantic tail number.

A new prop and an overhauled engine came along a couple years later. The engine overhaul was expected; the new prop was courtesy of our insurance company after a very minor mishap involving taxiing into a runway light.

Over the years, we've taken our plane as far East as White Plains, NY, and as far West as Great Falls, Montana. The most recent long trip was a business trip to Cincinnati, with a stop in Chicago on the way home. It would have been impractical to fly this trip commercially, since the three-legged trip would have been priced as three expensive one-way tickets.

Now, however, we are faced with a problem. Since the twins were born, we haven't been able to take the whole family flying. We literally don't have enough seats in the airplane, and we don't have enough available load to haul all the weight. This airplane is not a station wagon; it is a compact sedan at best.

So, at some point, dependent at least partly on the financial success of my company, our airplane will have to go. The most practical airplane for our clan is a Cessna 206 , which is roughly the airborne equivalent of a minivan: six seats, and it carries a ton. Unfortunately, the Cessna 206 is neither particularly attractive to look at, nor particularly fun to fly. It goes a little faster than our Archer, but where the Archer flies like a Honda (responsive, predictable, and reasonably fun), the Cessna 206 flies like a dump truck (big, heavy, and clearly utilitarian).

My choice of airplanes right now would be a Cirrus SR-22 , a new model from a startup aircraft manufacturer based in Duluth (really, I'm not joking). The SR-22 has almost everything I could want, and is fast, economical, and comfortable. The SR-22 is almost perfect as a plane for personal business travel, but it has one fatal flaw for hauling my family around: It has only four seats, and we have five people.

Cirrus, are you listening? I'd really like a six-seat version of the SR-22.

But until then...My dream is that my company will be really successful, and we'll become a two-airplane family: the SR-22 for me, and the Cessna 206 to haul the horde.

Or, even better, the company will be really successful, and we'll compromise on a Cessna Citation X . Dream on....

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

More paperwork surprises....

Thursday - February 19, 2004 03:37 AM

Last night, I was scheduled to do my Instrument Proficiency Check, the one which was originally supposed to be Monday, but which got grounded by paperwork . An hour before the flight, the instructor calls. Guess what: no paperwork.
'C'mon, guys, this has been three days and two cancelled flights so far. Don't you think this is getting a little silly?

"Is there someone I can scream at?" I asked the instructor.

"Well, our general manager has gone home for the day, but you don't seem like the screaming type."

"That's OK. Just grab a 'While You Were Out' slip and tell him I called and screamed at you on the phone. For a good twenty minutes."

"Ah," said my flight instructor. "Do you want me to say that you made me cry, too?"

"You can embellish if you like."

It was a nice evening, however, so I did go for a short flight--solo--to practice landings and night flying. It feels good to dust off the wings.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

Paperwork Suprise

Monday - February 16, 2004 03:37 AM

I had been planning a little afternoon flight today, taking advantage of the slightly slower pace of the quasi-holiday to complete an Instrument Proficiency Check. Anyone who had spent much time in aviation knows that airplanes only appear to fly because they're sitting on a 30,000-foot stack of paperwork. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for what was lurking in the flight school's business office.
She Who Puts Up With Me and I own an airplane, and we're both instrument-rated pilots (though She hasn't been flying since the twins were born). Since 1997, we've kept our airplane parked at a local flight school, which we also use for maintenance and flight training. A comfortable, longstanding business relationship of the sort you don't expect to surprise you.

Today, when I arrived for my flight with the instructor, I was greeted with an unfamiliar two-page form, filled with checkboxes and spaces for three different signatures--none of them mine.

"Apparently nobody ever gave you this paperwork before," the instructor said. "When we do flight instruction in an airplane not owned by the flight school, we need to have one of these on file." This policy had apparently been instituted nearly a year ago, but the flight school had neglected to inform me--despite the several training flights I had taken since then.

A review of the form showed that it mostly covered obvious stuff: the airplane was in airworthy condition and legal to fly, required maintenance was up-to-date, and so forth. The only new requirement--other than the form itself--was that I include the flight school as an insured party on my insurance policy.

Fortunately, our policy is with a company which specializes in airplane insurance, and is very good about making these sorts of changes. Five minutes on the phone, and the change was made to the policy with a faxed certificate of coverage on its way. We pay a little extra for this level of service, but it is worth it.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to actually meet the flight school's requirements. Before we could fly, we had to secure the necessary signatures. An hour's worth of trying to track people down only yielded one of the three required signatures, and four of the checkboxes marked off.

So, in the end, we did not fly today. A shame, but flying as a hobby always demands some flexibility in scheduling. There are many things which will keep a careful pilot on the ground. Paperwork is just the most frustrating.

Posted at 03:37 AM | Permalink |

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