One of the emails I received recently suggested that I address some ways in which a pilot can remain active in GA and continue to fly after selling his/her airplane. he correctly stated that there are many options available, but he is trying to determine which one is best.
I think that is a very timely topic, given the rising cost of aircraft ownership and the fact that many pilots are reaching retirement age. So let's look at some of the considerations.
Of course there is no single solution that is best for everyone. Before we explore options, I think we should establish the critical need to maintain proficiency. If we are not proficient, our capabilities curve is lowered and our margin of safety is smaller. If that doesn't make sense, look at my YouTube video about the Task Load vs. Capabilities Curve.
We must build a plan for keeping sharp into our solution. The amount of flying done by a pilot is not necessarily a measure of proficiency. Flying less does not mean that a pilot must sacrifice proficiency. In fact, there are some ways to increase proficiency that can be more effective than flying.
Many flight schools and FBOs have now added some kind of flight simulation device to their offerings. There is a wide range of devices with a wide range of capabilities. The cost to use one varies with how high up the food chain the particular device is located. In just about every case, it will be considerably less than what it would cost to fly an airplane, even if you own the airplane. Don't forget that, in a given amount of time, you can get much more actual training and practice accomplished in a simulation device than you can in an airplane.
It is a good idea to engage an instructor for at least the first couple of sessions to become really familiar with the functionality of the device. After that, you may be able to rent the device solo. Just make sure to formulate a plan for the training, focusing on any areas that you might not have practiced in a while such as go-arounds. If the FBO does not require an instructor, I highly recommend bringing along a friend or two. You can take turns "flying" and critiquing and have some fun with the whole process. You may or not be able to log the time, depending on the device, but the objective is to be proficient, not fatten a logbook.
We will discuss flying clubs shortly, but if you are a member or are considering joining one, owning a simulation device can be a big plus. Sharing the cost can make ownership very affordable. A flying club might even consider purchasing a device and leasing it back to the FBO with highly discounted rates for club members.
But there are still options available to work on proficiency if a high-tech simulation device is not available. See if anybody has Microsoft Flight Simulator installed on a computer. Get a small group of pilots together and begin a cross-country flight of about 400 miles. Take turns "flying" while the others introduce "what-if" scenarios. For example, while climbing to altitude, someone might say, "What if your oil temperature is pegged on the hot end?" Or, during cruise, someone might offer, "What if you observe a cloud layer ahead at your altitude?" Or, as the landing seems imminent, someone says, "Deer on the runway! Go around!" Each of these scenarios should include pausing the flight and having a detailed discussion of the variables involved. For a scenario such as a go-around, a step-by-step description of what to do is vital.
Even if you don't have access to MS Flight Sim, you can still spend a valuable couple of hours by doing the same kind of exercise by simply using a paper sectional chart and moving a penny along the proposed course. As you near the destination, you can pause for a review of the stabilized approach. (Click here to download a PDF document regarding the stabilized approach.)
But, since we cannot, nor do we want to, eliminate actual flying, let's go back look at some affordable options to make the sky look big and make the houses look small.
We have already mentioned perhaps the most obvious choice, joining a flying club. There are some excellent clubs around but there are also some that leave much to be desired. Some research is necessary because you are entering into a contract that has implications beyond the obvious financial ones. Your safety is also at stake.
My advice would be to make a list of the flying clubs that are located within a radius that you find acceptable. Request any material that they might have regarding membership. This would include costs, bylaws, insurance, operating rules, member duties and responsibilities, number and type of airplanes, scheduling requirements, etc. If you find anything there that you can't live with, cross that club off. Just like anything else, you often get what you pay for so choosing a club solely based on cost isn't wise. But, if any club is priced out of your range, you can probably eliminate that one. Think about the airplanes offered by each club. If you don't find their fleet to be of your liking for any reason, you can eliminate that club also.
Next, request to attend a club meeting. This can really be the most crucial part of your evaluation. Try to get a feel for the club culture. Do they have a culture of safety or do they boast of their misdeeds? Do they have a plan for addressing maintenance squawks or do they just hope that the next pilot won't notice? Do you think that you can get along comfortably with these folks or do you sense conflict? While you are there, be sure to take a good look at the fleet. Look for any signs of neglected or poorly-done maintenance.
One final word regarding insurance. It is critical to know what your responsibilities are if you damage the airplane. In most cases, you will need to purchase a separate insurance policy to cover your liability. Read the club's insurance policy carefully and also see what the bylaws have to say about your liability. It is probably wise to spend a few bucks on a lawyer to get a professional opinion on your liability exposure.
Beyond the flying club, there may be an opportunity to go in partners with one or more individuals. Of course, the fewer people sharing the cost of ownership, the larger the bills can be. Check out the local flying scene and let people know that you might be interested in a partnership. You can even post notices or place ads in local publications seeking partners. Of course, you need the right people with the right attitude and the airplane that is suitable to everyone's needs. Good insurance is crucial. This is a more complicated endeavor than it might seem, so I highly recommend having an attorney draw up the agreement.
These are simply some of my thoughts based on my experiences and the experiences of people I know. I am sure there are more options. I would be anxious to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share and I can publish a follow-up to this article.