Rich Suicidal Idiots


Rich, suicidal idiots — that’s what most people think about general aviation pilots. In many ways we bring these perceptions on ourselves. If we are to improve the public’s opinion of personal aviation, these are the stereotypes we need to address and, if possible, refute.


As a “personal trainer” instructor in high-performance single- and twin-engine airplanes, I’ve rubbed shoulders (literally in some narrow-cabin airplanes) with some extremely wealthy individuals. Most are completely unassuming about their wealth; if you saw them in a sandwich shop eating lunch you’d never know they could probably buy the franchise.

Although almost all are genuinely appreciative of the good fortune that permitted them to earn, well, a good fortune, almost none of them consider themselves to be “rich.”

One of my students summed it up nicely by observing “the definition of ‘rich’ is anybody who has more money that you.”

By that definition we are all rich compared to someone who cannot afford to fly. Face it, if you rent the cheapest airplane available and fly only 50 hours a year (a minimal standard of currency), you must have at least $5,000 of disposable income available that you don’t dedicate to some other purpose. Own a plane and you’re committing at least $20,000 a year to your pursuit (and probably much more). You may scrimp on things non-pilots buy (drive an old pickup instead of a new hybrid, for instance), but the public considers flashy vehicles a “necessity” when an airplane costing the same thing is certainly not.

Certainly if we can afford any flying at all we are “rich” compared to much of the population. How can we address this perception? By comparing the cost of our flying to other luxury items, like flashy cars and big houses. We can show the relative costs of “normal” things like ski vacations, horses, and boats (“You think airplanes are expensive?” said a retired airline captain. “Buy a sailboat.”) Of course, if you indulge in those purchases and activities too, it’s harder to make the case (because compared to me you are rich — and good for you!). But we should be able to show the relative costs of various levels of personal aviation activity, and I’d bet I’d find it’s not too out of line with jet skis and Disney vacations. Flying is just what you’ve chosen to do with your discretionary income.


The public is scared to death of “little airplanes.” Can you blame them? When was the last time you saw general aviation featured in television or movies when there wasn’t an emergency, and probably a crash (the Gulfstream on “Criminal Minds” is the only exception — its characters actually defend the use of a private jet in the series, and so far there’s never been an in-flight emergency).

When we invite the public to the airport, what do we show them? Low-altitude, “death-defying stunts” purposely designed to make the audience gasp at certain death. Now, no one is going to come out to the airport to see a series of touch-and-goes by a Skyhawk or a Cirrus straight-and-level fly-by at a safe and legal 1,000 feet AGL. But no wonder the public thinks we’re suicidal — we go out of our way to impress them with the extreme danger of our pursuit.

My friend and editor LeRoy Cook writes a little column in his local weekly newspaper narrating the goings-on at his town’s airport — first solos, passed checkrides — and who flew where to do what…just the type of local gossip that’s in small-town papers everywhere, only with an aviation theme. This is the sort of press we need to show we’re not bent on killing ourselves in airplanes, but instead they’re a way to spend time with friends, enjoy a sunny day, and travel to visit family and friends. This won’t pack ‘em in like low-altitude aerobatics or a fiery crash on video. But more of this type of press would soften the message, and let people know that, done right, flying is a safe and worthwhile family activity.


Flying in thunderstorms. Loss of control in low clouds or fog. Crashed trying to take off or land. Running out of gas. Crashing into people’s houses. This is what the public hears about general aviation — and many think we’re idiots for going up in these expensive, dangerous toys with no idea how to fly them.

This should be the easiest stereotype to overcome. All we have to do is learn from our group experience. Use good planning and cockpit technology to avoid adverse weather. If you think your airplane’s range is five hours, plan all your trips to arrive in less than four hours from takeoff — including flight to an alternate if needed. Practice takeoffs, landings and go-arounds so you know your abilities and limitations (which are probably less than the airplane’s).

Be especially careful flying over houses and populated areas, and keep emergency landing sites in sight at all times — a power loss over Los Angeles or Chicago is as risky as losing an engine over mountains in terms of emergency landing zones. Study, and learn from, the unfortunate experiences of others…because when an emergency happens to you, it’s too late to think about how you should respond.

Rich, suicidal idiots: That’s what much of the public thinks of general aviation. Luckily for us, with a little work, it’s a stereotype we can break.


Holder of an ATP certificate with instructor, CFII and MEI ratings and a Masters Degree in Aviation Safety, 2010 National FAA Safety Team Representative of the Year and 2008 FAA Central Region CFI of the Year, Master CFI Thomas P. Turner has been lead instructor for Bonanza pilot training program at the Beechcraft factory; production test pilot for engine modifications; aviation insurance underwriter; corporate pilot and safety expert; captain in the United States Air Force; and contract course developer for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He now directs the education and safety arm of a 9,500-member pilots’ organization. With over 3,700 hours logged, including more than 2,400 as an instructor, Tom writes, lectures and instructs extensively from his home in the nation’s Air Capital, Wichita. Subscribe to Tom’s free Flying Lessons Weekly e-newsletter at



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  1. Eileen Minogue says

    Wouldn’t it be nice if there was more coverage of the amazingly generous compassion flights that are taking off and landing at general aviation airports all over the country everyday!  Pilots using their talents and yes, gifts of wealth to help those in need of medical diagnosis treatment and transplantation.  We at PALS (Patient AirLift Services) try to get the word out there that good is being done everyday by these so called “Rich Suicidal Idiots” and without them, people wouldn’t be able to access lifesaving treatment! These Volunteer Pilots are, Changing lives, one flight at a time…

  2. Guest says

    Great article!

    Owning a plane can cost less, though! I own a Cherokee 140 and flying 50 hours / year would be about $3,000 in fuel. Annual of around $500 (owner assisted). Tie down of $500 / year, hangared at $1,500 / year. Oil changes about $400 / year.
    Other items can increase the price, like new avionics, unscheduled maintenance, etc. I plan for about $10,000 / year including insurance and loan payment and unscheduled maintenance.

    • Guest says

      Owning airplane is nice but rental is a better way to go. I can rent airplane for 130-140 an hour and that costs $7000 a year or about $590 a month for 50 hours of flying. I also do not have to think too much about airplane insurance, maintenance, tiedowns or oil changes.

    • Rod Beck says

      Yes; and OWNER assisted annual is exactly why your small neighborhood FBO is either already or in the process of going out of business!

      Coming soon to a restaurant near you;owner assisted (you) wait staff, the cook prepares the meal, however, you have to get it from the kichen and then clean up your table after eating! But of course if you don’t eat out often the “saving” would be marginal.

      Botton line: If one doesn’t have $12,000 a year in “disposable” income for the benefit, utility or emotional (fun) of flying, I suggest finding a less “expensive” leisure alternative!

      • Barry Wood says

        So Rod, you are saying that if we don’t have $12,000 a year to
        spend on our hobby we should get out of it.
        That is what this whole editorial was about. Perception!!
        We don’t need to be rich to enjoy aviation, and an owner assisted
        annual is just one way to save a little.

        • Rod Beck says

          Barry; Your on the $$. However, as a former FBO,etc principal my BEST customer was not the one who spent very little money, rather it was the who did. Frankly, a “business” minded (rare) FBO or other Aviation Retail Provider earns his/her income, and idealy profits, from those aviation consumers who, are you ready, SPEND dollars!

          It seems to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, a large segment of the receational consumer market is about “saving”  $$$, Now, Barry, if YOU were an FBO,etc provider, how would YOU define your BEST customer?

          Rich – isn’t that also somewhat “subjective”?

          And on the $12K annual budget; that was a “round figure” based on my experience with GA consumers.

          Simply, this whole industry, mainly the recreational segment, suffers from VOLUME spending. Therefore, when quanity is lacking, such as in “volume”, we offset it by increasing the QUALITY of the consumer and rest asured it isn’t the owner of the Super Ultralight 2012 who represents quality.

          Recreational aviation is “dying” not for a lack of new aviation consumers; but rather for lack of SPENDING at your FBO, flight school or maintnance shop from the present ones!

          Frankly, I’ve never experienced any other industry that has so many complaints; fuel to high, planes are to expensive, tie-down fees to much, etc.  If you can’t “afford” $12K, can you afford $10K, for example, probadly not.

          Your position, I assume, is from the “buying” side of the counter – what do you suppose it would be from the SELLING side?

          So Barry,how much income did YOU provide in the last few years to your FBO, etc, or has that FBO been “assisting” in financing your hobby “indirectly”?

          And in closing; would you own or invest in an FBO – I dought it – why would I do that when I already have an aviation “romantic” doing it for me!

          Oh, one last thing, rumor has it that if President Obama is re-elected, he may try to offer “Aviacare” for the needy!

          • Guest says

            This was a message from “friendly” FBO operator with totally unrelated political rant in the end.
            I would not be paying one cent to such guy.

          • Guest says

            This was a message from “friendly” FBO operator with totally unrelated political rant in the end.
            I would not be paying one cent to such guy.

          • Rod Beck says

            So “Mr.Guest”, If an FBO,etc is motivated to make MONEY, this equates with a less than hospitable atmosphere?

      • Gene says

        Well, I just got a bill for over $700.00 to adjust the rudder. I was told that a part was bad, (it wasn’t), and when I got it back, the rudder was maladjusted in the opposite direction, screws were loose, missing, cross-threaded, and in the wrong places. THAT is what is killing aviation.

        The owner had better be watching when their plane is being worked on. I’m more concerned now than before I took it in. They will never touch my plane again. I’ll take the wings off and trailer it somewhere else.

      • gbin says

        If one has such a big chip on one’s shoulder about one’s customers, I suggest finding a more enjoyable way to make a living.

        • Rod Beck says

          Mr.gbin; Sorry I’m just getting back to you!

          Want to know WHY I left GA in 1978 – kindly consult my feature on our web-site, – March 31 titled “Passion or Profit – A Conflict of Motives”. Ideally, you might understand the many “up and downs”, no pun intended, and my motive for putting GA, “24/7”, behind me.

          I along with my colleague, Mike Dempsey, about 18 months ago, formed our aviation business consulting service to aide those who not only want to make a good living FIRST, and be “passionate” about aviation, in that order, which few rarely do, in assuring their success.

          To quote from the text of “Essentials of Aviation Management”, used by airport/aviation management students in university degree programs; “The aviation manager of the future must be  a business person first and an aviation enthusiast second”.

          Until, which I frankly dought, you’ve made the investment in GA as a business for 10-12 years, work for minimal wage, at best, “leave” very disenchanted and betrayed by what you really belived one could attain not just emotional satisfaction , but equally rewarding in the way of financial security -  then shut the hell up!

  3. Brad says

    The “idiot” characterization isn’t going to go away any time soon I’m afraid. Not for lack of trying, but because it has at its root a weakness in the human brain that is extremely difficult to defeat. As long as we (the pilot population, not the general public) think of people who fly into disaster as idiots we’re not going to solve the problem.

    People who make this class of mistakes are capable, competent pilots. But in the wrong set of circumstances the brain works against us: it’s hard to believe that abstract notion of bad weather is more important than the easy-to-believe notion of missing an important engagement, especially when the brain itself is impaired by fatigue, adrenaline, and stress.

    It’s not for lack of trying: the FAA and NTSB have poured a lot of energy into trying to understand these mistakes and educate pilots about them. But when you need to make smart decisions at the very time that your brain is compromised, you’re already fighting a losing battle.

  4. Rod Beck says

    People have bought SUV’s for 50% more $$ than the more “efficient” mini-van
    People have bought Starbucks (bitter!) for twice the cup of Dunkin Donuts-
    People WILL buy flying – with IMPROVED PACKAGING?

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