Learn to Fly in Rural Living Areas

Learn to fly in rural living areas, having this mode of transportation can make the transition to rural living easier and more convenient.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
November/December 1977
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Learn to fly in rural living areas to make rural living easier.
Photo by Fotolia/Marc CECCHETTI


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Learn to fly in rural living areas where planes help transport homesteaders from more isolated parts of the country.

Learn to Fly in Rural Living Areas

"Anyone who says flying and homesteading don't mix ought to take another look," states author/pilot Barry Dordahl of Fort Collins, Colorado. (Barry won't get any argument from us: Several of MOTHER's staffers are active pilots.) "Airplanes can be stupendously useful tools in bush country . . . and flying 'em can be a fantastic way to make money in the back country, too. Ground-bound homesteaders simply don't know what they're missing!"

So. You're almost ready to make the break to a simpler life . . . but you haven't yet decided where to settle down, you don't quite have all the money you need to buy that little place in the country, and you aren't at all sure how you'll earn extra cash (for tools, transportation, etc.) after you've made the Big Move? Allow me to make a suggestion: Maybe you should learn to fly.

For a long time, I was almost ready to make my move . . . but — for one reason or another — I just couldn't bring myself to leave the desk job on which I'd depended for so long. Then, one beautiful winter afternoon, a friend of mine stole me away from my desk to go for a ride in a small plane. One year later, I was a working bush pilot . . . and, to this day, I've never regretted the switch.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that flying is for everybody. It's not. I do say, however, that if you're looking for a "way out" — if you're ready to move to the country but aren't sure how to get there from here — you should at least consider investing money and time and hard work in yourself with the goal of acquiring a skill (flying) that's ideally suited to homesteading. I do suggest — in other words — that you consider aviating your way into a homestead. I know from experience that it can be done . . . and I'm here to tell you how.

Why You Should Consider Earning Your Wings

Maybe you've thought about starting a homestead in Idaho, Alaska, Maine, British Columbia, Central America, or even New Zealand. Each of these places abounds with truly remote, undeveloped regions . . . regions so remote and so undeveloped that they're accessible primarily (sometimes only) by air. Which means [1] you'll find plenty of choice spots for homesteading in these areas, and [2] you'll also likely find any number of small, thriving air charter firms serving the people there. As a pilot, then, you could go to any of the places listed above with a fine chance of landing a job.

Backwoods charter flying has many advantages. As a bush pilot, you'll rapidly become acquainted with the local people. You'll perform a service vital to them and receive a fair wage in return. Also, you'll get a bird's-eye view of the area. And, if you like what you see below, flying will not only help you pay for a piece of that acreage but will remain a good source of income after your homestead is established.

Then again, maybe you'd rather not hire on as a bush pilot. Fine: An airplane can still be a particularly handy tool around the homestead. (Who says a plane is too expensive? You can buy a good bush aircraft — used — for about the price of a new truck.) As a flying homesteader, you can live — if you wish — in no-roads isolation, where people (and government hassles) are few and where low land prices may well offset much of the cost of your bird. You'll be quite independent, since you'll have your own economical, fast transportation in and out . . . yet you won't be hopelessly isolated from the world if, say, your two-year-old comes down with appendicitis.

Even if you choose to live near a city, on the other hand, you'll find that a good many aviation opportunities (most of them compatible with homesteading) await you once you've earned your wings.

The way I see it, the question is not whether you can afford to become a pilot . . . but whether you can afford not to!

Homestead Pilots Making Money Flying

In case you think I'm fantasizing:

I know one pilot who makes $50 each weekend towing gliders . . . and another who pays for his own plane by hauling skydivers aloft on Sundays. Both are homesteaders.

I know a pilot who worked as a flight instructor for two years-just long enough to save $10,000 — then set out for Peru. Last I heard, the guy had flown a stint as a charter pilot and then bought a farm.

A good friend of mine — a middle-aged, former-executive refugee from the Establishment — pumped gas to pay for his flight training while his wife worked as a secretary to support their herd of children. When he graduated and got a job as a flight instructor, she quit her job and they plunked his first month's wages down on five acres of land they'd found 50 miles from town. Then — with his flying income — my friend and his wife built a house and paid off their mortgage . . . and in less than two years (with their homestead completely paid for and producing) he cut his flying work to weekends only.

I could go on . . . but I think you get the idea. Flying and homesteading are not only compatible, but — in fact — either one can lead directly to the other.

Are Flying Jobs Really Available?

Yes, they are . . . if you're willing to go out of your way to find 'em. Which means that this article is not about landing an airline job or a position as a corporate jet jockey. (Those situations are harder to come by than a penniless politician, and aren't compatible with homesteading anyway.) I'm talking about employment that involves flying small single — and/or twin-engine airplanes — either for yourself or a small company — in a remote, scarcely populated, livable part of the world. These jobs can indeed be had.

Not that the going is easy. True, the competition for flying jobs isn't as stiff in the boonies as it is in a big city . . . but then, back-country openings aren't as plentiful as the in-town opportunities are, either. Bush-country jobs aren't often advertised, and sometimes don't even exist until you walk through the door. They take some digging to find. Mark my words, though: The jobs are there. And — chances are — if you have the energy and determination needed to succeed as a homesteader, you'll be able to find them.

Some Flying Jobs and What They Pay

Flight Instructor: Instructors are in demand everywhere, from the big-city flight school to the village charter service that runs a training program on the side. Most instructors view the job solely as a quick way to accumulate the many flight hours necessary to land a charter or airline position, so turnover among CFI's (Certified Flight Instructors) is high. As a result, this is the job most easily won by the fresh-out-of-school commercial pilot with no work experience.

Flight instruction can be a good source of income for the homesteader. Many part-time openings exist (particularly for the person who's willing to work evenings and/or weekends). An ambitious pilot can even instruct in his/her own plane, thus increasing his/her earnings and flexibility.

The pay for CFI's ranges from a low of $3.00 to a high of around $12 an hour, depending on the locality and other factors. (Wages tend to be higher in the West and North than in the South or Southeast.) While a monthly guarantee is uncommon, full-timers who work for busy schools usually bring home sizable checks.

Glider Tow Pilot: This is another job that's often open to low time pilots. Because gliderports are found neither in truly remote places nor in the middle of cities, towing is a job best suited to the homesteader who's chosen to compromise in his/her location. The pay isn't terrific ($1.00 per tow to start), but the opportunity for steady part-time work (evenings and weekends in particular) is excellent.

Jump Plane Pilot: Some folks bail out of perfectly sound airplanes "just for the fun of it" (or so they say). Even more incredible, these people will actually pay money for the privilege of doing this . . . and that's where you and I come in. The pay here isn't great (only a little more than for glider towing), but it can be steady if you work with a good club. Here again, you can use your own plane.

Ferry Pilot: Delivering airplanes from factory to customer (or from seller to buyer, in the case of used planes) can be good work for the homesteader who has a wife (or husband) to look after the place while he/she is away "on assignment". Ferry work is enjoyable, a terrific way to build hours, and a fine (if irregular) source of income for the individual whose time is flexible. (That — of course — includes most homesteaders.) The pay is similar to that of flight instructors.

Charter Pilot: This catch-all term refers to the pilot who flies passengers and/or freight for hire. (The company he or she works for is known either as an air taxi or air charter operation.) Charter jobs are highly prized and competition for them heavy, particularly near large population centers. What's more, most employers require applicants to have a minimum of 1,200 flying hours' experience . . . sometimes more. Low time pilots are usually advised to instruct (or otherwise build time) for a while before seeking a charter job, although some low-timers — the ones who are stubborn, highly motivated, and willing to work in faraway places — do find charter work.

Charter flying is the perfect job for the would-be homesteader. The work is interesting and infinitely varied. It allows you to [1] survey a great deal of real estate (and choose a good tract for your own homestead), [2] meet many people and learn a great deal about the area, and [3] make money at the same time (anywhere from $3.00 to $25 per flying hour, roughly). Here, the full-time pilot is usually guaranteed a monthly minimum.

Remember that charter work may be seasonal in some areas. Often a small company may have a steady need for, say, two full-time pilots during the off-season and additional pilots at other times of the year. Homesteaders, naturally, are in the perfect position to capitalize on this seasonal fluctuation in demand.

Miscellaneous: Odd flying jobs abound. For instance: Various branches of the U.S. Government (the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service in particular) hire pilots, radio and TV stations use aviators to do rush-hour traffic reports and fly reporters to newsmaking events, advertisers employ pilots to tow banners, etc. There are also jobs available involving pipeline patrol, spotting forest fires and schools of fish from the air, and hauling construction workers to remote sites. If you become highly skilled in aerobatics, you may even want to develop a routine and fly the air show circuit (or give aerobatic instruction). The possibilities are endless.

Who Can Become a Pilot?

Almost anyone in good health can be a pilot. All prospective aviators must pass a physical given by an FAA-designated physician (known as an Aviation Medical Examiner) before they can qualify for a license. Any local flight school or FAA office (check the White Pages under "U.S. Government, Dept. of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration") can furnish you with the names of AME's in your area.

If your goal is a commercial pilot's license (an absolute must if you intend to fly for hire), you'll be required to pass a Second Class physical (cost: about $35) once a year. This involves little more than demonstrating that you have good hearing, eyesight correctable to 20/20, (and no worse than 20/400 uncorrected), blood pressure no higher than 140/90, and sound general health. (If your goal is a private pilot's license, you need only pass the less stringent Third Class physical. Neither the Second nor the Third Class exam is tough to pass, however.)

About the only other qualification needed to become a pilot is motivation. Flying a light plane is surprisingly easy, but learning to do so requires intense concentration and much independent study (especially for certificates beyond the private). The person who lacks motivation and/or self-discipline would be well advised to save his money and forget about flying (or — for that matter — homesteading).

What are the Steps to Becoming a Professional Pilot?

The student pilot certificate is your first goal. This slip of paper entitles you to fly solo (that is, all by yourself) under the supervision of your instructor. And, no, you won't be allowed to fly solo the first time you get in a plane. You'll need at least eight to ten hours of "dual" (i.e., instruction time) before you can go up by yourself.

The next step up is the private pilot certificate. (This may also be the last step up for the homesteader who doesn't wish to fly for hire.) The holder of a private ticket may legally carry passengers and may share his or her expenses (gas, oil, etc.) with passengers, but may not fly for a living. A private pilot may, however, use an airplane in his or her business if flying is not the primary purpose of that business. (For example, many big-game hunting guides who fly their clients to and from the scene of the murder are private pilots.)

At present, the FAA requires all applicants for a private license to pass a written examination, complete a minimum of 35 hours of flight training, and pass both oral and flight examinations before the license is issued. That translates into about one to two months of fairly intensive effort for the student with lots of time on his or her hands.

A commercial pilot certificate is required of all pilots who wish to fly for hire. If you want to fly charter, you'll also need an instrument rating (which entitles you to fly when the visibility is less than one mile). To qualify 'for a combined commercial/instrument license, you must pass two written exams (one for the commercial, one for the instrument), log a minimum of 190 hours total, and pass both an oral and a flight test. Commercial/instrument students who devote full time to their studies can finish in as little as three months.

Certified flight instructor (CFI) and instrument instructor (CFII) licenses are required for those pilots who wish to teach others how to fly. (Strictly speaking, the CFII is required only of instructors whose students are preparing for their instrument ratings. It helps to have a " double-eye" -that is, a CFII license-when you apply for a job, however.) Most pilots pass their flight tests for both the CFI and CFII easily after about 35 hours of instruction. (There is no "set" number of required hours.) Two written exams are required for the CFI license . . . no additional tests for the extra "I".

A multi-engine rating (once you've learned to fly a single-engine plane) normally requires about 10 additional hours of instruction. There is a flight test, but no written examination for this license. Any pilot wishing to fly airplanes with more than one engine must have a multi-engine rating but, because of the additional expense, most flyers wait until they actually need it before obtaining this license.

If you can afford it, though, by all means do go for your seaplane rating as soon as possible. Here, there's a flight test but no written exam. The seaplane rating is easy to obtain (normally, about ten hours of dual are needed), fun to use, and of potentially great value to the low time pilot looking for work in Maine, Alaska, or any other place where lakes are the rule and runways the exception.

The Cost of Learning to Fly

Flight instruction costs (like the wages paid to pilots) vary throughout the country. Instruction is generally much less expensive in the South and Southeast than it is in the North or West, although you can count on paying pretty nearly $25 an hour (that includes the plane, gas, oil, and an instructor) no matter where you go.

Here — roughly — is what the various licenses and ratings will cost you:

Private (complete) $1,000
Commercial & Instrument (complete) $4,500
CFI & CFII $1,500
Multi-Engine $800
Seaplane $300

Bear in mind, when looking over these prices, that about 75% of what you spend on flight training goes for plane rental, fuel, insurance, etc. If you were to buy your own aircraft and take instruction in it, you could — conceivably — cut your training expenses in half.

How to Finance Your Training

If the above prices seem frighteningly high, take heart. Very few students actually begin their lessons with enough money in hand to see them through their advanced ratings. Most find a way to pay for the training as they go along.

Undoubtedly the best way to finance your instruction — if you can swing it — is with veteran's benefits. If you qualify for educational benefits under the G.I. Bill, you're in . . . all you have to do is enroll at a VA-approved school (of which there are hundreds). You will have to pay the entire cost of your private certificate, but the Veterans Administration will pick up 90% of the tab for all further training.

No veteran's benefits? Don't fret. With a little ingenuity, it may be possible for you to barter your way to a flying career. Many pilots have earned their wings by working as gas boys (and gas girls) at flight schools in exchange for free flying time. Visit the nearest fixed base operator (FBO) or flight school and ask if there are any openings for "line personnel". Offer to paint the hangar, wash and wax planes, etc. You never know what kind of barter arrangement you might find until you try.

Many of the largest schools offer loan programs, some of which are federally funded and have excellent terms. Look for these schools' ads in Flying and other aviation magazines (or write to one of the academies listed below).

If you intend eventually to buy your own plane anyway, by all means consider purchasing your bird now and taking most of your lessons in it. Many pilots have gone this route and used the money they saved on plane rental to help pay off their own aircraft. It's an option worth considering.

Then again, you may want to get involved in a cooperative venture. I once visited an isolated stretch of Alaskan wilderness where three homesteading families had carved a small landing strip out of the forest. Back in 1972, these families — disgusted with high land prices, zoning laws, and building codes — had paid the money for one of their number to earn his wings . . . after which the group purchased a used Cessna 180 and — exploring from the air — found their Alaskan hideaway, bought their land (which — because it's so remote — was inexpensive), and established themselves. Today, the three families are well entrenched and consider their decision to ''take to the sky" to be the best one they ever made.

Don't worry about how to finance your flying education. Where there's a will, there's a way!

Choosing a Flight School

The selection of a flight school is something that should be done very cautiously, since your choice of a training environment will determine — to a large extent — how competent a pilot you'll be at graduation. So take your time . . . shop around. Be selective.

The first thing you should do is visit all the flight schools in your area. (Look in the Yellow Pages under "Aircraft Schools".) Inquire about their rates . . . and ask if you can buy "block time". (Often, by paying for 10-hour "blocks" of air time in advance, you can get a 5% or 10% discount. This can add up to quite a savings.) If you're planning to use your veteran's benefits, ask if the school is VA-approved.

Many schools and fixed-base operations (FBO's) offer inexpensive ($5 or $10) introductory lessons. If you've never been up before, by all means take one.

The major light-plane manufacturers — Cessna, Piper, Grumman, and Beech — all administer training programs through their dealers. All have been in the business a long time and have built many, many training aircraft. Consequently, a dealer associated with one of the Big Four is nearly always a good choice when it comes to flight training.

You'll also, however, want to consider the many independent schools that have no manufacturer affiliation. These establishments frequently use Cessna, Piper, and/or Grumman training aircraft, and some off er better, more personalized instruction than you'd get at a dealer-run school. (Some, on the other hand, are incredibly poor.) And, because the independents usually offer a less formalized curriculum than the dealers, they're often a little less expensive.

Examine independents carefully. Ask yourself: Would I want to work here? Are the airplanes clean? Do the trainers look well maintained or are they tired and beat-up? Is the "school" merely a one-instructor, one-airplane sideline of a charter operation? Talk to students and instructors . . . see how they feel about the place. Be critical. And consider the one-pilot, one-plane operation only for your private ticket . . . not for your advanced ratings.

If it comes down to choosing between two schools that compare favorably, check to see whether one (or both) has an instructor with "real world" (i.e., air taxi, airline, or other) experience. (This is the kind of instructor you'll want to have.) You might also base your final choice on whether one school charges extra for pre- and post-flight briefings. (Ideally, you want to pay only for actual flying time.) All other things being equal, you should choose the school that does not charge extra for the small amount of ground instruction that accompanies every lesson.

If you want dormitory accommodations, a campus atmosphere, and/or a loan with which to pay for your training, consider enrolling with one of the giants of the business. The following large schools offer fine instruction, have excellent reputations, and can help with placement after graduation:

American Flyers, Inc.
Airpark P.O. Box 3241-F, Dept. TMEN
Ardmore, OK 73401

Burnside-Ott Aviation Center
Building 106, Dept. TMEN
Opa-Locka Airport
Miami, FL 33054

Flight Safety International
P.O. Box 2708, Dept. TMEN
Vero Beach Municipal Airport
Vero Beach, FL 32960

Sierra Academy of Aeronautics
Oakland International Airport, Dept. TMEN
Oakland, CA 94614

Spartan School of Aeronautics
Tulsa International Airport, Dept. TMEN
Tulsa, OK 74151

(Note: The above list is by no means a complete one. You'll find many more large flight schools advertised in aviation magazines.)

Something else you might want to consider is joining a flying club. Many clubs-because they're nonprofit-are able to offer instruction to their members at low rates (sometimes as low as 50% of what a school might charge). The disadvantage of clubs is that they're often too small to offer advanced instruction, and most are not VA-approved. Still, they're worth checking out. (Look in the Yellow Pages or ask around at the local airport.)

Some Closing Thoughts on Rural Flying

Spend some time "hangar flying" — shooting the bull with pilots — and you'll soon discover that when it comes to airplanes, pilots are among the most prejudiced, opinionated people alive. As an eager-to-learn beginner, you'll make an inviting target for hearsay-mongers, and — at first — everyone will offer you advice.

One person may try to tell you that if you learn in a Brand Y trainer, you'll turn out to be a better pilot. Another may tell you that if you train in Brand Y, you'll never graduate . . . and so on. Just remember this: Most of what you hear in airport lounges is sheer baloney. There are actually very few absolutes in aviation. Use common sense in all that you do (and take everything you hear with a grain of sodium chloride), and you won't go far wrong.

Having said that, I'd now like to offer some advice of my own to the person just beginning to take flying lessons:

[1] Find an instructor you're comfortable with, and don't be afraid to switch to another if you feel a loss of rapport. Pick a person who is 100% professional in attitudes and demeanor.

[2] Even if you're completely happy with your instructor, take a lesson now and then from another. You'll learn more.

[3] Don't worry about how long it takes you to solo . . . it just isn't important. If your instructor makes a big deal out of early solos, find another instructor.

[4] Remember that no matter how strongly you're motivated, you will have some bad days . . . days when it seems as if you'll never be able to put it all together. This happens to all student pilots. Don't dwell on it . . . believe me, you'll pull through.

See You in the "Wild Blue"!

If what I've said here has in any way helped convince you to become a flying homesteader . . . terrific! I don't think you'll ever regret your decision.

Once, a friend of mine — a man who's earned his living in the skies for some 20 years (and who's logged even more time as a homesteader) — was asked in my presence what he thought of flying for a living, after all those years. He replied, "It's still better than having fun!"

My sentiments exactly.


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