To be clear, this article does not refer to people who fly professionally, or for some utilitarian or practical purpose such as to regularly commute to faraway places for work or leisure. For these pilots, the ends justify the means.
The focus here is on people who choose to purchase and / or fly aircraft purely for the fun of it, with no enduring practical objective. Pilots who buy and fly for example – cantankerous vintage aircraft, or impractical single mission aerobatic aircraft, or in fact any general aviation aircraft that they might use occasionally to travel to places, but most of the time will use to simply fly around the patch for fun, purely recreational aviation.
There are many names (some derogatory) given to this breed of flyer – sport pilots, private pilots, weekend warriors, the “ray ban clan”, even Wichita flak! At one time they represented the majority of flyers, but sadly, recreational flyers are today a slow dying breed, why is this? And can it be reversed?
The cost / benefit balance for recreational flying comprises two very heavy scales, meaning to say, that one has to invest so much into flying, but on the other side of the scale, one also gets much out of it too.
It does not take too much to tip the balance either way; and when the balance tips to the negative side for too long, when costs out weight the benefits, then pilots are likely to decide to hang up their wings.
On the cost side of the scale there are firstly the obvious tangible expenses such as money, (often ridiculously large amounts), as well as significant time that is required. Flying is not (or at least ought not to be) quick and easy like for example golf where one can simply limit one’s participation to a few hours a month.
To do it properly and safely requires more time than an average ‘hobby’ or sport. Constant study and vigilance are necessary, because the laws of aerodynamics, and indeed the safety aspects of air law often don’t care if you fly for fun or professionally; you still share the same sky with others, and you fly over people and property, hence you bear a huge responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.
And then there are all the administration and hassle factors too. Civil aviation authorities across the world are notorious for making things difficult for sport pilots, and I have known of more than one pilot who has quit flying simply because the constant red tape tipped the scale for them.
In addition to these tangible costs, there are also the intangible costs, the vast amounts of emotional energy required, the disappointments, and occasionally the failures, which diligent pilots will tend to take very hard. And, needless to say, the inherent risks too.
Thankfully the benefit or gain side of the equation is also immense. The benefits of sport flying are often deeply personal and comprise some simple things such as the wonderful sensation of controlling an aircraft in three dimensions, the breathtaking views, and the freedom to go where you want.
There are also more complex benefits such the sense of achievement, the self-knowledge and confidence that results from overcoming a demanding situation in the air. Or the self-discipline that is required for flying which often permeates all aspects of one’s life. And of course, the friendships that are forged.
There are also some less wholesome benefits. How does the old joke go – “when you walk into a room how can you tell who the pilots are? Well, it doesn’t matter, because they will soon come and tell you!” If one is to be totally honest there is still too much pride and ego that can come with flying. The “image” of being a pilot motivates some people, but this can also become destructive and even delusionary.
Yet, even with all these benefits, pilots can after some time become desensitized and unappreciative of the great privilege of flight, and if this happens the costs won’t fade but the perceived benefits do, and the balance is then tipped, and as a result pilots may decide to quit.
To avoid such desensitizing boredom setting in, private pilots will often set themselves new challenges (night rating, tail dragger ratings, instrument ratings, etc.) and some may choose to enter the competitive arena (precision flying, aerobatics), which introduces a new realm of excitement, but like most things, the more one gains, the more one must invest, and so both sides of the scale get much heavier.
But all told is it always worth it?
I have known quite a few very passionate flyers who after years of dedicated flying suddenly decided to stop flying completely. Sometimes it’s because of an unpleasant incident, but most often its financial, sometimes due to health; but every now and then it is the result of a very calm and rationale choice that made with no drama, where one simply concludes that they have had a good run-in aviation and it is now time to hang one’s wings ….no regrets, no fuss.
The cost / benefit trade-off of sport flying cannot be objectively quantified. Sure, one can calculate the cost side of the equation (time, money, hassle) very accurately, but can you really quantify all the positives of flying?
What price would you put on flying home in a breathtaking cloudscape sunset, an experience that can totally reenergize you after a hard week at work. Try quantifying the value of that first light take-off from a bush strip on a camping flyaway? Or flying on a very dark and still night, sitting in an aluminum box a few thousand feet above the ground watching the stars above, and the lights on the ground slip by. Or seeing the expression on a person’s face the first time they take to the air with you.
Recreation is just that “re – creating” yourself, gaining a fresh outlook on the world, reviving your spirit – and you can’t put a price on that.
With the emergence of new technologies, airplanes are becoming safer, with lower operating costs and less hassle. New licenses such as sport pilot ratings are making it easier to fly. These will help reduce the cost side of the equation.
And on the benefit side of the equation? – if you fly for the right reasons, not for glory or ego, then balance is likely to stay in your favour.
I think the future of sport flying is very bright.