It all hangs by the flimsiest of threads. We believe ourselves to be a civilized, urbane lot. We go about our lives interacting socially and commercially, all working collectively to keep the hive thriving. Money moves, goods flow and information ties everything together. Right up until it doesn’t.
Our tidy little world is awfully crowded, and we’re never more than a headline away from pure unfiltered chaos. Social unrest, currency collapse, the disintegration of our unstable power grid, natural disasters, a pandemic, terrorism or one of myriad other possible end-game scenarios can move large numbers of Americans en masse.
When the balloon goes up, it really doesn’t matter how awesome your gear might be. If you are sharing the roads with a zillion other terrified families, it is still going to suck.Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
There is one way to bypass all that pandemonium. If you have the means you can comfortably flee independent of terrestrial mayhem. To do so requires some effort and a not insubstantial amount of cash, but the end result makes you immune to traffic.
It also massively expands your options for a quick weekend getaway when the world is not actually on fire. Such unfettered freedom requires that you own your own airplane.Technical Capabilities
So long as you can get off the ground, you can cover vast distances in a modest period of time. I live in Mississippi. In my small plane, I can get up early on a Saturday and have lunch in Chicago.
A privately owned airplane will be as capable as your budget allows. A moderately fast two-seat machine like mine can be surprisingly affordable. However, if your mission is to fly six people quickly and comfortably across the Atlantic you will pay out the nose for it.
Unlike an automobile, an airplane has significant volume and weight considerations. Your minivan will tote most anything you can cram into it. By contrast, an airplane can be fairly sensitive to the amount of mass it is expected to manage. Payload considerations include passengers, personal kit and fuel.Technical Stuff
Flying an airplane is not necessarily hard. However, it is an acquired and perishable skill. It is also undeniably expensive.
The Army taught me to fly. If you are learning on your own nickel, expect to shell out around 10 grand for a private pilot’s license. Many brick and mortar flight schools charge markedly more than that. This includes airplane rental, gas, instruction and incidentals. If you own your own airplane that number obviously gets way smaller. Finding a partner and buying a plane together sweetens the deal considerably.
Flying demands that you meet certain requisite physical standards. Significant sight, hearing or dexterity deficits are simply incompatible with piloting an airplane. A private pilot’s license requires a Class 3 medical certificate. The minimum standards are easy to find online. (See HELPFUL LINKS)
“WHEN THE BALLOON GOES UP IT REALLY DOESN’T MATTER HOW AWESOME YOUR GEAR MIGHT BE.”
The FAA requirements for a private pilot’s certificate are 40 flight hours. However, most student pilots don’t meet proficiency at that point. Some folks take a little more.
A private pilot can fly day or night under visual conditions most anywhere in the country and can carry passengers so long as they aren’t paying for the privilege. A private pilot can legally split flying expenses with passengers, however.
The FAA also offers two other types of airplane pilot ratings. A sport pilot can fly light sport aircraft but only in daylight and in good weather. This type of license requires at least 20 flight hours and will cost about $4,400.
A recreational pilot can fly one passenger but must stay within 50 miles of home base. This license requires at least 30 hours of flight time. A recreational pilot license costs about $7,700.
Is It Safe?
“ I LIVE IN MISSISSIPPI. IN MY SMALL PLANE, I CAN GET UP EARLY ON A SATURDAY AND HAVE LUNCH IN CHICAGO.”
According to the Dutch aviation consulting firm To70, there were no commercial airline fatalities anywhere on the planet in 2017. In 2018 a woman died on a Southwest Airlines airliner when an engine exploded and sent shrapnel into the cabin. This was the first fatality on an American carrier in nine years.
General aviation in America remains markedly safer than driving. One in 9,821 Americans will die in an aviation-related accident. By contrast, 1 in 114 will perish in a car crash. You are three times more likely to die choking on your food than from flying. The most dangerous part of flying is always driving to the airport.Physical Considerations
Flying will never be cheaper than driving. However, it is always faster. Slow general aviation airplanes will cut a car trip in half. Faster airplanes will cut a car trip by two-thirds. You can find planes that fly yet faster, but the cash outlay becomes prohibitive.
You will always be a slave to the weather. Earning an instrument rating lets you fly through clouds, but wander into a tornado, hurricane or thunderstorm and you’re going to die. However, in many to most crisis scenarios you’ll have plenty of time to bug out before things get sideways.
Weather moves relatively slowly. In the Information Age it is also generally predictable. Stay sharp and you can easily outrun the nastiest hurricane so long as you don’t linger unduly.
Modern inflight data management systems let you keep track of weather in real time from your cockpit. I first flew in 1990. That might as well have been the Pliocene epoch. Today’s inflight data would have been unimaginable when I earned my wings.DIY Airborne Survival
My first plane was a Piper Tomahawk trainer. These planes are old and slow, but they are also surprisingly affordable -– less than most decent cars. However, this sort of machine doesn’t carry a whole lot.
Our litigious society has significantly curtailed the production of factory-built private airplanes. You can still find new factory aircraft out there, but they might cost as much as your house. The answer to this quandary is experimental-class homebuilts.
So long as the owner completes 51 percent of the build then he or she shoulders the legal responsibility for the machine. This keeps homebuilt aircraft affordable. Like most human endeavors, building airplanes can be done well or it can be done poorly. In the case of amateur-built airplanes it behooves you to do your homework.
Modern manufacturing techniques mean that, in many cases, the original kit producer still does most of the heavy lifting. Essential stuff such as wings and fuselage components can come preassembled. The build process is undeniably challenging yet remains within the technical capabilities of most folks reasonably handy with tools.
If you are trying to build an airplane and still have a job and a life, however, this will take a while. Most homebuilt airplanes require years to complete if you are working only in the evenings and on weekends.
I bought my current plane from the original builder. You can generally poke around a machine and tell if the person who built it was serious or not. You want your builder to be diagnosably OCD.
You will want to have a mechanic you trust go over every inch of it. Worn belts or loose fittings that might be annoying in your car can be catastrophic in an airplane. However, once you get comfortable behind the controls the world is your oyster.
An older four-seat airplane is also not terribly expensive to own or operate, and airplanes age much better than cars. Your family situation obviously drives the details. However, flying might be more practical than you think.
“ YOUR MINIVAN WILL TOTE MOST ANYTHING YOU CAN CRAM INTO IT. BY CONTRAST, AN AIRPLANE CAN BE FAIRLY SENSITIVE TO THE AMOUNT OF MASS IT IS EXPECTED TO MANAGE.”
Owning your own plane also entails insurance, maintenance and hangar fees. I budget up to a grand a year for my annual inspection by a licensed mechanic. Many to most small airports will let you tie down your plane outside for free. However, the weather can take a toll over time.
Even if you cannot afford your own aircraft being able to fly a plane can be a lifesaving skill in a crisis. I’m obviously not encouraging illegal behavior, but it is markedly easier to hotwire a plane than a car. Airports are technically secure areas, but I have climbed over a fence before when I forgot to ask about a gate code before heading off for dinner.
My plane has small tires and performs best on a hard surface. However, slap a set of tundra tires on a Super Cub and that thing becomes an airborne mountain goat. Plan your contingencies in advance and you can potentially land in all manner of unexpected places. The surface has to be fairly smooth, and wires are not your friends, however, with a little skill and experience it is amazing where you can go.
A secluded rural road free of obstructions or a closely mowed field are both potential improvised airstrips. Recon such spaces carefully in advance. A single unforeseen ditch will ruin your day.Denouement
A decent used airplane is not necessarily the overwhelming financial burden you might think. Chip away at the project over time as you might any investment and approach the undertaking methodically, and it might surprise you. If used responsibly a personally owned airplane can become your fast ticket to safety.The Ultimate 3-Dimensional Sports Car
My Vans RV-6A will carry two normal-size people and up to about 100 pounds of gear about 170 mph. Be meticulous and you can get up to 700 miles out of a full fuel load. However, bugging out in an airplane demands serious planning.
My airplane is aerobatic and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Now that my kids are grown and gone this fast little airplane helps keep us connected. Unlike a long car trip, getting there really is half the fun.
My RV-6A burns seven to eight gallons per hour at around $5 per gallon.
There is plenty of space behind the seats for gear so long as you are mindful of the weight. The canopy on my plane slides back like that of a P-51 Mustang, and the design is simple and rugged. The small wheels prefer a hard-surface runway, but this plane will get me and a loved one miles from calamity before normal folk can get to the interstate.
“FLYING WILL NEVER BE CHEAPER THAN DRIVING. HOWEVER, IT IS ALWAYS FASTER. SLOW GENERAL AVIATION AIRPLANES WILL CUT A CAR TRIP IN HALF. FASTER AIRPLANES WILL CUT A CAR TRIP BY TWO THIRDS.”
The plane is nimble and responsive though still fairly forgiving. Stall speed is a mere 49 mph. I needed some time in a slower plane before I graduated to the RV, but now I can wear that thing like a second skin. However, like any addictive drug, once you get started flying it can be mighty tough to stop.Airborne Ordnance
You don’t have to clear security when you fly a general aviation airplane out of a small airport. Flying with a gun is therefore no more onerous than driving. However, weapons and ammunition get heavy fast.
Half a dozen 30-round P-Mags stuffed with 5.56mm ammunition weigh 6.5 pounds. That same load packed with .300 BLK weighs 8 pounds. A comparable 7.62x39mm AK ammo loadout weighs about 10 pounds.
By contrast, six loaded 30-round 9mm MP5 magazines weigh 7 pounds. That means a typical AR and half a dozen magazines will weigh about 14 pounds. Add a suppressor and a few well-reasoned accessories with a little carry gear and you can push 18. A loaded Glock 17 handgun with three 33-round mags runs about 5.5 pounds.
I always fly with a survival kit that includes two reliable means of conjuring fire along with a couple of space blankets, a good knife, some paracord and whatever mission-specific kit you might need. I keep a charged power bar for my cell phone, a Lifestraw water filter, a quality flashlight and a signal mirror handy as well.
Pack it all into a bag you can just grab and go in case you need to egress the machine in a hurry.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
To70 Aviation Consultants
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.