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Getting a Pilot’s License

Q: As a businessman who travels frequently, I’ve considered getting a pilot’s license and buying or renting small airplanes to commute around the Midwest. How safe and practical is this idea?

Private flying, commonly referred to as general aviation or ‘GA’ flying, as you’d probably expect, is entirely different from airline flying. As a flight instructor who routinely evaluated private pilots, my general rule for friends and family members was this: do not, ever, step into a small plane with somebody I have not met or spoken to first. By typing that sentence I’ve invited more hate mail from GA pilots than Salon’s computers are equipped to handle, but so be it. No matter how bright or competent somebody might seem, it is often impossible to gauge how his or her skills as a lawyer, software engineer, or, um, celebrity magazine publisher, might manifest themselves behind the yoke of a small plane. The old Beechcraft Bonanza, a popular GA plane for decades, was nicknamed the ‘doctor killer.’

Operating your own single engine plane would not necessarily be more dangerous than driving, but it would depend how often, how far, and in what kind of weather you’d be flying. To commute safely, you’d need to allow yourself considerable flexibility. A basic private pilot license will only allow you to fly a single engine plane in the best meteorological conditions. An instrument rating, good for gray skies and lower visibility, will nonetheless keep you grounded in icing conditions, for instance, or when the weather is very poor. You would be operating under a completely different set of rules — both the FAA kind and those of common sense — from the airlines. Many private pilots are killed when, like JFK, Jr., they put themselves in situations above the level of their abilities and/or the capabilities of their airplanes.

This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.