GUEST EDITORIAL By HAL SHEVERS, founder of Sporty’s Pilot Shop in Batavia, Ohio
“I want to get a private license.” Over my 50-plus years of teaching pilots I have heard that statement countless times. After talking to the prospective pilots a short time, you realize what they really have on their minds is to be able to fly on a nice afternoon, to show a friend their home from the air, or see the mountains, the city, a sunrise or sunset, or cruise over a beach. Private license is merely a term they have heard and they want to appear knowledgeable with someone they know is intimate with the world of aviation.
Normally we invite them to go for an introductory flight during which we tell them it will likely take at least six months and 60 hours flying time, and mention they will learn all about the FAA, TFRs, AHRS, ADC, NTSB, NOAA, NAS, SUAs, VORs, and GPS.
It is little wonder many will then consider obtaining their pilot’s license as a steep cliff just too big to climb, so they go buy a boat. Unless we can reduce the cost of admission, both in dollars and time required, we can expect to watch our numbers continue to dwindle.
I remember getting my private certificate with the Purdue Aero Club back in 19XX (actual date redacted to protect the elderly and, besides, I can’t really be that old).
I had soloed in eight hours and took my flight test with 39-½ hours because they knew the flight check would take over 1/2 hour, to bring me up to the required 40-hour minimum. Trust me, I was no prodigy, but I was determined. Also, it only cost $225.00 (yes the decimal is in the right place). You should also know back then it cost 3 cents to mail a letter, pro sports hadn’t learned they could use the Secret Service to establish a TFR over their venues, and many airplanes didn’t even have an electrical system, let alone radios.
In that simpler time, the private license was the “gateway” certificate. Then, as now, it was a license to learn, see some sights, and impress your date. Soon, if you needed to rely on an airplane as a reliable source of transportation, “advanced degrees,” such as an instrument rating, moved your airplane from a toy to a tool — and the same is true today. But now, due to the complexities of modern cockpits, airspace, and regulations, the requirements are greater for the private license than it was for a commercial certificate half a century ago.
Today we must consider the recreational or sport pilot as the entry level certificate. Pilot candidates pursuing these licenses learn how to control the aircraft, master simple navigation techniques (mostly how to program a handheld GPS), safely take off and land on a nice afternoon. Once certified they can show a friend their house from the air, look at the mountains, the city, a sunrise or sunset, or cruise over a beach. In other words, experience the joy of flight. Now they are hooked, and soon will come to understand the value of aircraft as a personal and business vehicle.
Currently the sport pilot license does not require an aviation medical examination. Those pilots are required, as we all are, to self certify their fitness prior to each flight. However, the low availability of Light-Sport Aircraft and acquisition costs often in excess of $100,000, makes the availability of this type of training scarce.
Enter the recreational pilot certificate. Although a 3rd class medical is required for solo, it is also required for any advanced rating, and the candidate will have that requirement out of the way. Moreover, the FAA is conducting a review of the medical requirements of the recreational certificate based on data obtained from sport pilots. No doubt at the conclusion of this study, the self-certification medical will be extended to recreational pilots, further reducing the costs and enhancing the value.
The recreational pilot is permitted to fly a single engine aircraft with a maximum of four seats and a 180-hp engine. In other words: Most of the GA aircraft ever built qualify. All the 152s, Skyhawks, Tomahawks, Skippers, Musketeers, Cubs, Champs, Taylorcrafts, and most Cherokees fall into this class. Flightworthy representatives of all these models can be readily purchased for a quarter to half the price of a new LSA or they already exist on our flight lines.
After passing a pilot knowledge test (which is shorter than the one for the private ticket) and in as little as 15 hours of dual instruction (same as sport), they are ready for their checkride.
Here at Sporty’s, hundreds of pilots have pursued this route to the coveted pilot’s license. For most, the next step has been to take some additional instruction to get their 50-mile restriction removed so now they can fly anywhere, including towered airports. Next thing you know, they have a few “hundred dollar hamburgers” and 60 to 80 flying hours under their belts, most of it PIC time. All that is left is passing a short 30 question knowledge test, three hours of additional instruction in preparation for the private practical test, and (cue the ceremonial music), a newly minted private pilot emerges!
Advantages? Many. That steep cliff is reduced to a series of plateaus with a shorter climb to each. The first accomplishment is mastering the fundamentals of flight and demonstrating to the students they CAN make the airplane climb, descend and turn at their discretion. Second is a visit to the Aviation Medical Examiner and solo flight, with all the shirt tail cutting, pictures, and certificates to go with it. Next step, correctly answer 35 questions on the recreational pilot knowledge test. Finally, schedule the practical test. All of which can be accomplished in a few weeks, for under $5,000 with aircraft sitting on most ramps right now. The candidate doesn’t really have the time to drop out prior to each accomplishment and each successful certificate holder becomes a walking, talking promoter of general aviation as a whole.
Note the focus of this is on what the recreational license permits, not its limitations. Our intent should be to build gateways into our industry, not walls to keep people out.
It may be, for some, this certificate is all they need. I have many friends who come to the airport nearly every weekend, fly around enjoying the view for a while, come back to practice a few landings and push their aircraft back into the hangar. For them, a recreational certificate would be adequate.
More often, however, the newly minted recreational pilot becomes a permanent customer as a renter, private pilot student, maybe an instrument pilot student, possibly an aircraft owner requiring a hangar, maintenance, flight reviews, etc., resulting in the expansion, rather than the extinction of our industry.