Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Crisis of Faith

Lately I've been having a crisis of faith regarding my fanatical devotion to aviation. I'm a smart guy -- I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm quite smart, certainly smart enough to be able to justify just about anything. This gets me into a lot of trouble, and frequently, by allowing me to get into situations that end up making me miserable. But I'd gotten into these situations through a series of rationalizations that even now make so much sense that I fear I'd make the same bad decisions again. I've spent a lot of time rationalizing my love of aviation -- straight lines are more efficient paths, you don't burn fuel in traffic, it's worth the money for the same reason that college is, etc, etc.

But really, here's the straight scoop about flying, aviation, piloting, whatever you want to call it: I love doing it, and I'm reasonably good at it. Actually, there are aspects of it that I'm very good at. GPS operations are not among those aspects. But I digress. I love to fly, I love being in the air and I love being the pilot in command. I love the communication with ATC and towers, I love taking passengers up in the air, and I love being able to land on a runway I've never seen before. I love when something unexpected happens and I have the right reaction. I love it when a flight plan comes together. I love nailing an instrument approach and sticking a landing. I love all takeoffs and landings, I love busting through a cloud, I love tooling around when there are no clouds. I love emerging from a plane all sweaty and exhausted, and thinking how much cooler it was than driving. I love showing up at work and telling my friends that just an hour ago I was in Stockton, or Tracy, or Sacramento or Ukiah or Salinas or someplace. And I love the thought that there's SO much more to learn that this will never get old. Bored? Faster plane, mountain checkout, new airport, some new piece of avionics, multi-engine training, tailwheel....the list goes on, long enough to be a challenging pursuit for a lifetime.

So what's the crisis? This is a crisis in two parts, both practical, one much more immediate than the other. The first, most immediate part of this crisis is that flying is really expensive. It's REALLY expensive. I make a very good salary as a software engineer in the bay area, and I really can't afford all this flying I've been doing. My last flight, including instructor costs, cost me over $1000. One thousand dollars!! To go to Ukiah, screw up a missed approach, land briefly in Sacramento, and go home. $1000, over six hours!! If I'd spent six hours in Vegas and lost $1000 in the slots, I'd be really upset! In two weeks, I will be responsible for a mortgage payment, and my savings will have been decimated by a down payment. I absolutely cannot go dropping $1000 on a random Sunday to fly to Ukiah and Sacramento, touch down in one of the two cities, and come home.

I estimate that my 220 hours of airplane time have cost about $30,000, taking into account that much of my initial time was in older 172Ns, which are cheaper than the newer 172SPs. That does not include instructor time, which totals about another $10K. So, I've spent $40,000 on flying over the last two and a half years. That is mind boggling. I spent less on grad school!

Now, say I want to get my commercial license and my CFI rating so that I can start getting paid for some of my hours. How long will THAT take? Won't I need to use a more advanced aircraft for my commercial rating (I don't actually know the answer to this; it's just what I've heard)? This is such a financial sink hole, with no promise of ever returning on the investment, especially because fuel costs are only going up, which will put the aviation industry in a bind, potentially taking away the only monetary motivation, however far-fetched it may have been, for me to continue this route.

And speaking of fuel, that brings me to Crisis Part 2: Flying is TERRIBLE for the environment. Yeah, I know, I've tried to justify this six ways to Sunday, but there is no way around it. If I take a Cessna 172 up to Petaluma, aside from it costing about $250 round trip (see Crisis Part 1), it burns about 15 gallons of fuel. LEADED fuel. The exhaust from this LEADED fuel falls on the happy people below me who are none the wiser but become infinitesimally less healthy as I glide overhead on my joy ride. Say I did the same trip in my car. Well..MY car might be tough to beat; it gets 45 MPG on the highway running biodiesel. Round trip from Palo Alto to Petaluma is about 150 miles, so I could do it on about 3.3 gallons (of veggie oil). Say I drove a Honda Civic that got 30 MPG: That's 5 gallons. How about an SUV, say a Hummer H3 with a V8 and an automatic transmission? Beast still gets 16 MPG, using a little over 9 gallons for this round trip.

So the little Cessna's about a time and a half worse than the most egregiously consumptive SUV I could come up with off the top of my head. We are using up the Earth's decidedly finite oil supply, and here I am doing the equivalent of driving not one but TWO Hummers (or, maybe a Hummer and a Honda) just to go have brunch. This is not good, and there's really no justifying it. Planes are terrible for the environment.

On this front, though, there is a little bit of hope. While a 747 burns about a gallon of fuel every second (yes, you may gag), the world's first all-biodiesel jet flight was recently completed. Also, a small plane recently achieved an efficiency of 48MPG at 170MPH! That's five times more efficient PER PERSON than a 747. More immediately, a whole slew of planes are coming out that go about as fast as a 172, that burn about half the fuel. But until I can rent those from a club or somehow afford to buy and maintain one, that remains a crisis.

So what to do? I don't know. I do know that I have to just finish my Instrument Rating at this point; I'm about five or six flights away from being done with it, and it'd be ludicrous to stop now. After that....I don't know. I'd love to find a more efficient and cost effective way to continue flying and training.


Janna said...

It's totally rad (yes, I just said totally rad) that you are even thinking about this. And hell, at least you do offset your normal American impact by driving the biodiesel. Maybe you could just calculate the equivalent lifestyle changes that would keep you below average, but still allow you to fly?... the flying ascetic monk, perhaps? just kidding. :)

Ron said...

I just wrote about this on my site.


It's true that aviation is expensive. But don't forget that we're ALL limited in terms of time. One day each of us will no longer be able to get a medical certificate. If you love aviation, you'll regret not pursuing it, believe me.

There are ways to control the cost. Fly a cheaper plane. Own an aircraft in a partnership. Join a flying club. Make your flying tax deductible (a la AngelFlight).

As for the environmental impact, there's no doubt that the leaded fuel is bad for the environment. What we burn is not nearly as bad as what we drip or dump on the ground. But think of this: there are only 200,000 aircraft in the whole country, and most of them fly once a week at most. There are 300 MILLION cars and trucks, and they drive all day long. The morale is that GA is not large enough to have a major impact on the environment. I wish it was, but it ain't.

Ron said...

I forgot to add that you can get an RV-3 or similar aircraft for about $25k and operate it on about 6 gph while traveling at 180 mph. Flying can be (relatively) economical. But you have to get away from renting. Heck, just eliminating the CFI will save you a lot of $$$. Your training is at a very expensive point right now, but once the instrument rating is done, the cost should go down while the utility of flying will go way up.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to aviation my friend.

Jeremy Osborne said...

My good friend James went through the same crisis, more dealing with the money, less dealing with the environment.

For the environmental crisis, taking a long view, every little bit every single human does helps. Who will it help? I don't know the answer to that, perhaps just you knowing that you are doing your part the best you know how to.

For the money, I like what ron talked about in his comment, "One day each of us will no longer be able to get a medical certificate. If you love aviation, you'll regret not pursuing it, believe me." It's a great question to answer, and you gotta answer that for yourself.