Dear MMM (or is Pete okay?),
Forgive me formatting this as a blog post. I originally thought about writing you fan mail on this topic a long time ago. When I became a serious student of Mustachianism, I shamelessly appropriated many of your ideas and repackaged them in a way that I hope a bunch of my pilot friends would listen to. That became a book, Pilot Math Treasure Bath, and a website by the same name. I think other people can benefit from what I’m writing about today, so I’m posting this on my website too.
I only found your blog a few years ago, and I quickly became hooked. Your philosophies on life, stoicism, savings rate, and face punching resonated with me. My wife and I have achieved financial independence at a relatively young age. We both still work, because we still like it. In fact, now that I’ve reached FI I can afford to enjoy four jobs.
Beyond shockingly simple math, our shared background in computer engineering, and your affinity for the mountains of Colorado, I decided you and I were kindred spirits because one of your posts mentioned that earning a pilot’s license was one of your life’s goals.
Then, in a later post, you mentioned that you’d abandoned the idea of flying as an unnecessarily expensive hobby.
You’re right, of course. Unless you’re a military or airline pilot like me, it’s tough to make money in aviation. Most hobby flying is downright expensive. Still, my heart hurt when I read that you’d essentially given up on aviation.
I’m writing this to assert that aviation is a pursuit worthy of even your time. I also hope to show several ways to make aviation affordable…as a hobby and/or side-hustle. First, some context:
I love being out in nature. I grew up in Loveland, CO, just up the road from Longmont. I hiked, biked, canoed, climbed, skied, and ran cross country all over the Rockies and can’t get enough of them. My Eagle Scout project was illegal campsite destruction and erosion control on the trails of Long’s Peak. For me, the mountains are as sacred as any cathedral. I believe it’s important for human beings to go experience the beauty of our world, to explore it, and to take time to appreciate it.
For me, flying is an extension of that philosophy. If the sum of your aviation experience is limited to sitting in the back of an aluminum tube with a hundred other people staring out a window barely big enough to rank as a day/night indicator (thanks for your business) you haven’t seen anything.
Not only can you surpass the amazing views of places like Mt. Elbert from the windows of a flight deck, you have a freedom and capacity for maneuvering through our world that is unmatched anywhere else in human experience. John Gillespie Magee Jr. did more justice to describing it than I can in his famous poem, High Flight.
I think the ironic psuedo-religion of Mustachian is an awesome, positive force in our world. However, I don’t want you to miss out on the opportunity to explore your world through aviation because of any arbitrary economic or philosophical limitations.
So, how might a Mustachian pursue aviation without violating his or her principles?
First off, I’m the staff writer for a group of more than 25,000 pilots called The Pilot Network. I wrote a series on this general topic, targeting people who want to pursue a career in aviation. You should check them out…you’ll see shortly how they tie in to two types of aviation I’ll recommend for you.
- Part 1 – become a glider instructor in as few as 15 flight hours. (I’d be ready to do more than 15 hours to be gain the necessary experience, but it’s still cheaper than being an instructor in powered aircraft.)
- Part 2 – become a Sport Pilot Instructor in as few as 150 flight hours.
- Part 3 – How to use home study to prepare for flight training, how to get flying scholarships, how to choose the right aircraft/school for flight training, and how to fit in work around your pursuit.
- Part 4 – teach drone pilot ground school as a side-hustle. MMM World HQ is a perfect venue for these classes. (I think the great Alan Donegan would love this post.)
- Part 5 – serve your community and country, while flying cheaply and/or for free, as a pilot for the Civil Air Patrol.
- Part 6 – Look for part-time flying jobs, or become a powered aircraft flight instructor.
You’ll notice that my first suggestion in that series involved flying gliders. I believe that this is probably the closest thing to a Mustachian form of aviation there is.
Flying powered aircraft is great…I love it. However, pilots tend to treat airplanes like cars…expensive gas-guzzling wheel chairs. We drone along “smashing bugs” or “boring holes in the sky” just to land an another airport and buy the proverbial “$100 hamburger.”
Soaring, or flying gliders, is nothing like that.
A glider needs a tow plane to pull it into the air. You usually release around 2000 ft Above Ground Level (AGL.) From that altitude, an unskilled pilot has enough altitude for a few maneuvers before it’s time to enter the traffic pattern and land. Total flight time tends to be around 18 minutes.
That’s fine for a training flight, but it’s not cheap. The average glider tow costs $30-40. If your flight only last for 0.3 hours, you’re flying at an equivalent cost of more than $100/hr. Ouch. The cool thing about soaring is that your costs are inversely proportional to your abilities.
A skilled glider pilot can find places with rising air currents, put his or her aircraft in them, and enjoy much longer flights. I learned to fly gliders just down the road from you at the USAF Academy, and can tell you that Colorado has some of the best soaring condition in the US, if not the world.
You can catch thermals, roughly cylindrical updrafts that form when the sun heats up the ground. You can catch ridge lift that forms on the windward side of a ridge line. Or, you can catch wave lift that forms leeward of a mountain range with stronger winds.
Learning to fly each of these is its own unique challenge. When you get good enough, that $30 glider tow could result in a multi-hour long flight. The last time I checked, the Colorado state record for the highest altitude reached in a glider was over 49,000 feet. The Perlan Project hit a world record of 76,000 feet last year in a very special glider! When I used to instruct at the Black Forest Soaring Society (just down the road from you in Elbert) the people who owned gliders used to launch every Saturday around noon. They would be out playing around the Rockies all afternoon, and only just beat sunset to land back at the field.
When you get that many flight hours from a single tow, the hourly rate for your flying drops to effectively nothing. Is it still frivolous? Yes, a little. However, it’s a way of exploring and experiencing the beauty of our world that at least equates to hiking in my mind. I feel like it’s particularly Mustachian that your flights get both cheaper and provide more overall enjoyment based on your skill.
You’ve mentioned that the dastardly master plan behind your website is one of environmentalism. Gliders aren’t totally clean because they rely on some type of motor to get them airborne. However, long-duration soaring is certainly the lowest-impact type of aviation around.
The Soaring Society of America has an interactive map that shows places with active glider operations. It shows two at the Boulder airport. It’s not close, per se, but it’s probably within biking distance if you really wanted it to be. Also, if you wanted to put a concerted effort into flying lessons, and you did all your ground school ahead of time, you could get most of your flying done over a few weekends. This would minimize the trips required for training.
Longmont has a great airport and would be a nice site for a glider operation. You’d need to find someone with a plane interested in doing some towing. It’s not a trivial undertaking, but it’s definitely doable. I know lots of TPN members who are looking for work as tow pilots. (Another option would be a motorglider. More on that shortly.)
Another Mustachian thing about glider flying is that most operations are organized as clubs, rather than commercial operations. The spirit of community that exists in these groups is fantastic. Young people show up in the morning for flying lessons and help launch gliders all day long. People with their own gliders pay the club for parking and for tows. At the end of a flying day, the club works together to clean up the operation before gathering at a clubhouse for stories, dinner, and beverages.
Most clubhouses could use a little carpentry work, and I suspect that it’d be easy for you to trade your skills in those respects to cover some of your flying costs.
I could stop at that. Any Mustachian afflicted by the flying bug could enjoy a lifetime of aviation in the soaring community. However, there’s one other option I think you’d find particularly interesting: you can build your own airplane.
Back in the day, this process involved drawing your own plans, glueing wood together, and sewing fabric for your aircraft’s skin. Although that sounds as awesome as it does difficult, it’s a little easier today.
Dozens of companies make high-quality aircraft kits. They design using cutting-edge CAD software, and cut all the kit’s pieces on multi-million-dollar CNC machines. They also do any metal bending you need. Their CAD engineers and fabrication processes are so good, that the holes from one piece align with the holes in the next one when the kit arrives at your door. You just line them up and start popping rivets. (Not, it’s not quite that simplistic, but it’s a lot easier than it used to be.)
You don’t need any crazy skills to build most aircraft. If you want some instruction before you get started, the Experimental Aircraft Association offers SportAir Workshops in every possible discipline of aircraft kit building. Most kit companies also hold workshops at their factory. My father-in-law is building a Zenith CH-750 Cruzer. He and I had a great time building his rudder under the Zenith pros’ supervision at their factory.
With coronavirus limiting travel right now, Zenith is doing their next workshop virtually. They ship you a rudder kit and all the tools you need. You build the rudder with supervision via Zoom, and then ship the tools back to them. There are worse kinds of social distancing!
Since these aircraft aren’t produced in a factory, the FAA classifies them as “experimental.” Some people worry about this, but I don’t. I feel like I could be more confident flying an aircraft where I’d seen all the guts and knew exactly how well each rivet was driven. Experimental aircraft also get to use technology and instrumentation years before it’s available to the certified market. Since the process of certifying anything with the FAA is lengthy and expensive, all that technology is cheaper for kit aircraft too.
I have long maintained that you can get far more aircraft for your money in experimental aviation. If you don’t believe me, check out this video. The SR22 here probably cost $800K to $1M, depending on the options. The RV-10 cost a maximum of $150K, plus sweat equity.
You don’t have to spend $150K on a kit though. There are plenty of cheaper options. Sonex advertises that you can have a 2-seat airplane flying for $37,314. That’s still more than a year of the MMM family’s spending, but it’s downright cheap for an airplane.
Going back to glider flying, Sonex Aircraft also has a kit for a motorglider, the Xenos-B. You could build your own glider, base it at the Longmont airport, launch yourself any day of the week, then shut down the motor and soar to your heart’s content (assuming your skills and the weather are in your favor.)
Sonex advertises the Xenos as costing about $40K to build. If that’s too rich for your blood, you can take advantage of another great thing about aircraft ownership – you can get partners. Four people could easily share ownership of something like a Xenos. They might have fun building it together, and since it has two seats you could plan to fly it in pairs. Or, each individual could have it for one weekend each month. Any Mustachians in the FIRE camp probably have free time to go flying every day.
You don’t have to build a kit though. There are plenty of used gliders in the world available at great prices. You could buy one yourself, or do a partnership for it as well.
A partnership cuts all the costs of ownership, and creates an automatic community around a shared passion. I bet you could find three other people at MMM HQ right now who’d love to join you in pursuing aviation.
I realize that starting something like this probably isn’t in your plans right now, and that doing so would be a stretch in a lot of ways. My intent in writing this isn’t to compel, but I do hope it opens your eyes to some possibilities.
Your writing and your ideas have made a big difference in my life. I wrote this as a way of saying “Thank you!” If you ever decide to pursue flight training, I’d love to to offer my services as a flight instructor as further thanks. I live near Tampa now, but my work schedule is extremely flexible, and I fly for free on my airline. I could travel to meet you somewhere conducive to training. (The flight instructor equivalent of carpentourism.)
Most glider clubs only operate on weekends, but some make exceptions for special circumstances. If we did ground school online ahead of time with an in-person capstone, and found a club that would let us fly every day for a week, we could get you a Private Pilot’s license, no problem. This is a standing offer.
Thanks again for creating MMM. You are a force for good in this world.
If you’re reading this, your name isn’t Mr. Money Mustache, and you don’t know who that is, you need to go read his entire blog, right now. Not only is it highly entertaining, it will change your life!