Student Pilot Finances/How To Plunge Yourself Into Massive Debt/I Regret Nothing

*cue hysterical laughter*

Okay, so one of the first questions people ask when they want to know more about flight training is “Is it really as expensive as people say?”

And the answer is yes. Whatever you think you’re going to end up spending on it, it will probably cost twice that. Here’s a link to the rates at my school. And those are mostly the numbers based on the *minimum* number of hours required by Transport Canada. Most people will take longer than that to be ready for the test. Furthermore, between getting your private license and getting your commercial license, you have to get your Pilot in Command time up to a minimum 100 hours, and that’s not included in there either.

So, thinking about those statistics on how many people make it through flight training and how the majority don’t finish, I wondered how much of that is due to lack of funds. I bet it’s most of them. When I started, and word got around about what I was doing, suddenly there were people left and right telling me they’d done some flight training at one point. But then they ran out of money. Over and over I heard the same story. I’ve seen people on the internet in the throes of that running out of money stage, and it’s heartbreaking. I almost feel guilty for having been able to do it myself.

I suspect there’s some people who were surprised I made it this far, even though now they all say “I knew you could do it!” But the people who know me the best tell me they never had any doubt I could do it, and the only thing that really surprised them was that I managed to make it happen financially. I’m not someone who’s really good with money, but now that I’ve made it this far, I figure maybe I do have a few things to say on the subject with regards to flight training.

So here’s some straight talk about the realities of how much it costs to learn to fly.

The main thing I’d recommend, that I did do right, is making sure the money is there when you need it. You don’t want to be nearly ready for whatever level test, just need a few more hours of practice, and then run out of money. If that happens, then you’ll be out of practice by the time you get your hands on more money, and need more hours of practice before you’re ready again. Having a credit card with an amount of credit you never imagined you’d actually use is great for that. Lines of credit to pay off the credit card with cheaper interest rates are even better. I stress about money easily, and when the secretary at Harv’s would remind me I needed to top off my account, it made it so much easier to know I had my credit card in my wallet and could take care of it right there and worry about paying the bank later and focus on flying when I needed to.

Another consideration is whether or not to buy your own plane. I had a lot of people tell me that I should buy my own plane, that it would be cheaper in the long run. I think if you’re only planning on getting a private license that’s probably a valid argument. For myself, I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, but not for financial reasons. On the one hand, I’d have been responsible for maintenance and airworthiness reports, hangar space, repairs, and I don’t know what else, all while trying to focus on learning to fly.

On the other hand, I’d have only learned to fly one plane. All through my private license, I flew about ten different Cessna 152’s. Some had climbing props, some had different types of radios and instrument styles, and sometimes the stall horn would go off if you looked at it the wrong way while another wouldn’t go off until you were fully stalled. Then I got my license and got checked out on the Cessna 172, and the Citabria. When I’m ready to go on to my Multi-IFR, the school has two Seminoles available for me to fly, and if I’d bought my own plane, it would have been a single engine and would have been useless for getting a multi-engine rating, even if I were lucky enough to find myself a plane with both a VOR and an ADF to work with on my IFR rating. So, I’d say, if you’re planning on just doing a private licence, go ahead and buy a plane. If you’re planning on going commercial, don’t bother.

What else to say…

Where to get the money? There’s a good question. Student loans doesn’t cover flight training. They don’t consider that legit post secondary training and you can’t get government student loans for it. Everyone will tell you to apply for scholarships, but there are actually very few, and almost none worth more than 1500$. Most of them are like, 200$-300$. I have not won any monetary scholarships. The big one I did win was the first to solo scholarship, and that was mostly schwag, plus a really fracking nice headset. Still totally worthwhile, even just for the headset, but it doesn’t go very far when it comes to avgas. I kind of have a dream of someday having enough money to fund a couple thousand dollar scholarship.

I was lucky. We had some money –about 25k–and my husband agreed to sign it over to me to follow my mad little dream. I think I probably spent about 15k on my private licence. I’m now finished my commercial licence and that money’s all gone, plus I’m about 15k in the red. I would have run dry of credit long before completing my CPL if I hadn’t had that money to start. If your flight school is on a certain list, you can qualify for a student line of credit, which is what I’ve got, but if you don’t own a house or a car worth more than a few thousand bucks, you have no collateral, and they can’t repossess your pilot’s licence so they’re hesitant to lend you a whole lot. I got a limit of 20 in the student line of credit, and another 10k in a second line of credit. My Dad was willing to co-sign for me, but turns out because he’s self employed, his signature didn’t actually help me, even though he’s the most financially stable person I know and could have paid for all my training out of pocket. I have also received a little over 10k between my Dad and my paternal Grandmother and other family members.

And that’s another thing. I have family I can turn to if things ever got really bad. I wouldn’t be on the street if the debt became overwhelming. If my Dad wasn’t as financially stable as he is, going into this much debt would be terrifying. Many people wouldn’t have had a job where their income would have allowed them to borrow as much as I have, and wouldn’t have the startup money to offset the debt. I’d love to be able to say, like many people do, if you want it, you just have to find a way to make it happen, look at me, I did. But I know there are tons of people out there who love flying who may never be able to follow their dream because they could never scrape together  the resources necessary, and it’s not fair. I’ve been lucky.

So how much does it cost to learn to fly? The answer is all of it. All your monies. All gone. And some of the monies that belong to the bank too, as much as you can sucker them into lending you. All the monies you can sucker your family into giving you. If you discover you love flying, you will hemorrhage cash at rates you do not now think possible. There are always more ratings, more training, more time-building, more licenses to get, and if you love flying, you’ll just keep going until you have no more money. The numbers on checks and bank statements will start to seem surreal and loose real meaning. But if you’re going commercial like I was, unless you’re filthy rich, it’s really an all or nothing thing.

And yet, there has not been one single moment in all of this where I’ve thought to myself “I wish I hadn’t done this,” or “I don’t know if this was really worth it,” or “This didn’t turn out to be everything I hoped it would be.” It is everything I hoped it would be, and like the title says, I regret nothing.

Imma Duck-bird Now

I went for my first lesson on floats today.

The first time I ever left the ground was in a float plane. My dad had a family friend who ran a fishing resort, and had a float plane – I don’t actually know what kind, but he took my brother and I flying when I was maybe six or seven. I barely remember it other than that it happened, and that the plane was yellow. I was at that age where seeing that plane, I assumed that all float planes are yellow and any that aren’t are exceptions to the rule.

The nearest place to Winnipeg that does float ratings is Interlake Aviation, based in Gimli, and their float plane, a Cessna 172 (they have a Stinson too, but it’s wings are being re-covered) is based on Norris Lake, North of the city. I’d flown over it before – I remember noting it as a landmark as I flew over on my three hundred nautical mile trip for my commercial license.

You know, after the struggle to learn to land a Cessna 152, and then the struggle the figure out the taildragger thing, I was expecting the float thing to be the same. I figured it would be this new foreign thing I’ve never touched on and that I would be a fish out of water, being a bird in water after all. Instead, it felt like the most natural transition in the world.

I showed up, and we did a check over the plane, you know, as best you can when you can’t walk all the way around it.  One of the most interesting things was discovering that the floats were actually attached to what is essentially a roll cage encasing the cockpit. This is because there are no shocks for floats. I imagine whatever shocks they might add with might mess with how the plane touches down on the water. Anyway, we did the usual, checked the oil and took fuel samples. I love how in flight training, they get you to do things yourself as much as you’re comfortable with, right from the beginning. He let me get the plane turned around facing out by myself and then we hopped in.

We started with taxiing. A little bit of put-putting around, and then he demonstrated a “step taxi” – which is like in a motorboat, when you get going fast, and the craft starts skimming over the surface of the water rather than pushing through it. He had me go up and down the lake three times, and I didn’t feel like I was having any trouble. There’s a sweet spot to hold the plane at a certain angle as you’re taxiing on the step, and if you’re too low it’ll slow down, but if you’re too nose high, it will start bouncing up and down. But finding that sweet spot was easy, you can feel it.

Actually, he asked me one or twice if I’d spent a lot of time on the water. I said no, not really. I just grew up 200 feet from a lake I guess. The high school I went to had canoes and we went canoeing for gym class once or twice. Oh, wait, our family had a boat for a while…. You know, I have never considered myself a “water person” partly because I’m one of those people who can’t stop water going up their noses, but I suppose it’s possible I may have had more exposure than other people. It’s possible I take it for granted and assume other people have had as much exposure as myself.

Anyway, after three treks up and down the tiny lake, he figured I had enough practice, and he let me take off. It was a bit of an awkward take-off, but I’ve been told I have good instincts for being in ground effect, and it’s easy to tell the moment you leave the water, so as soon as I was airborne I was fine. He demonstrated a landing, and then he let me try.

My first landing I was over correcting, and he helped me. The second one I managed to do it unassisted. The third one was too nose-down, and it started to dig in – he went to yank the stick back, but I was doing the same thing at the same time to recover, so it was hard to tell if he was doing anything that I wasn’t already doing. I remember so many times on bounces, not getting the power in fast enough, and my instructor putting the power on to recover and telling me “you gotta be faster.” When I finally got the knack for recovering from a bounce by adding power, I was so pleased with myself. But today I was fast already – it seemed like my first instinct was correct. Like I said, it seemed natural. I was even dealing with a fairly noticeable cross-wind and managing perfectly fine.

Lastly was getting back to the dock. The wind had picked up, and I was already having difficulty turning in certain directions. “Lets see if you can get us into the dock,” he says.

Nailed it first time.

I dunno, maybe it was beginner’s luck, and he did give me some advice to start the approach upwind of the dock, but he said it as if there was some question as to whether or not I’d be able to do it. I dunno. It’s been half my life since I’ve been in a boat, and I was never allowed to dock one. Maybe my exposure to boating helped, I can’t tell.

Anyway, I got it up withing two feet of the dock, and climbed out to jump to the dock. The instructor seemed impressed with it. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but he commented on the fact that I’d anticipated how much the plane would move as I jumped, and I guess I seemed very sure-footed. I hadn’t thought I was unexpectedly so, but I got the distinct impression that he thought I was going to go in the drink, perhaps because others have before me.

That said, I will probably end up in the drink at some point, it’s not an if, it’s a when, and it’s not the end of the world. It’s water. I will not melt. I can swim. I’ve even established that I can tread water with clothes on.

Anyway, we were figuring out paperwork, and at some point I needed to make a stop at Gimli, so I figured since I was off, I might as well do it today. And then the funniest thing – the instructor would lead me there in his truck, but he asked me if I was okay taking my car on a gravel road.

Lulz! Okay, I grew up a beekeeper’s daughter (and grand-daughter), and this was my grandpa’s and dad’s car while they were beekeeping. They used it to check on the bees, and too me with them often. The only risk in me driving on a gravel road is me getting all nostalgic for my childhood!

Gods, I forget I’m a country girl sometimes….

End of story: I’m already in love with float flying.

It is a fact universally acknowledged, that a pilot in possession of a CPL must be in want of a job.

So, job search. Fact is, and I knew this going in, that there are not a lot of jobs out there that a pilot with a CPL and no other ratings aside from that is qualified for. Certainly very few that would pay enough for my husband and I to live off of. Even if I were to go up north, employers typically expect pilots to work the ramp (non-flying position, loading and fueling planes, etc) for a year or more for little more than minimum wage with no guarantee they will ever be moved to a flying position.

An acquaintance was kind enough to look around for me, and advised that all the people he knew that he hoped to get me an interview with required at least a float rating and some float time. That’s typically 50 hours, which is a good bit, when renting a float plane is 250$ an hour.

Apparently getting my multi-IFR would get me in the cockpit right away, and every commercial pilot I know says that’s the way to go, but that’s gonna be another 15 000$ or so. At which point, I’m reaching the edge of what I have available to me on lines of credit, and would be starting to run up my credit card. So all I need is 15K and I’m set. Incidentally it’s my birthday (I’m thirty two). Just sayin’.* **

Which makes me think of all the statistics about people starting flight training and not finishing. I believe one stat I read was that 75% of people who start flight training never finish. Far fewer ever make it to a commercial license, probably a similar proportion. And only 6% of those who get a commercial license are women. I’ve beat a lot of odds. And I’ll keep going at this until I get a job.


*Just kidding.

**Not really, I accept cash, check, or paypal.