If you're like me, we live every day as part of the GA community, an exciting place to thrive in any of the 50 states that makes up this country of ours. We are familiar with the rules, regs and costs, we know the drill for chasing $100 cheeseburgers forwards and back.
But we also know that there are GA aircraft and pilots in other countries, and when we stop to ponder that, we find that most of us knows little to nothing about flying in other countries. So recently I went about manifesting a connection with a foreign pilot who would be willing to go on the record about flying in the United Kingdom and the European Union.
I found Liz Hamilton, an energetic, active private pilot with 76 hours in mostly Piper Warriors in the UK. Liz earned her PPL in May of last year, and is currently working on her Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) rating. I posed a few questions to her, and she has explained the many differences in flying on different side of the pond.
World of Flying: You told me in an email it costs "about £140 an hour to rent a PA28" in England, which converts to $229 USD! The plane and instructor costs the equivalent of $261 USD. How can anyone afford to earn a pilot's license at those kinds of prices?
Liz Hamilton: "I’m not going to pretend it’s not more expensive over here than in other countries. This can really depend on the area that you fly in though. I live right on the outskirts of London and fly with the British Airways Flying Club, which in my opinion is one of the best schools in the UK, but it certainly shows in the price. It varies quite a bit when you start looking at places further north which can be reduced to £80 an hour ($130).
To obtain a PPL that allows you to fly in both the UK and Europe it takes 45 hours of training. This includes minimum 25 hours of training with an instructor and at least 10 hours of solo flight. You must do at least 5 hours of cross country flying (solo) and a qualifying cross country of over 150nm involving two landings at away aerodromes. I think it cost me in the region of around £8,000. ($13,109 USD)...so yes...expensive, but worth it."
World of Flying: Talk to me about user fees.
Liz Hamilton: "I think you’ve got to bear in mind that a majority of the cost in flying is based on the fact fuel prices are currently so high around Europe so it’s really only the flying part that is the most expensive. Only the big airfields cost a lot to land at (Bournemouth International costs around £40 ($65), most are only about £5-£15 ($8-$25), and some just ask for a donation! You get free landing cards from Pilot magazines a lot too. As far as my experience goes I haven’t been charged for crossing any air traffic zones (military and commercial) which is lucky because I do it a lot. And although you do of course get charged for some instrument approaches (talk downs etc.) it’s priced pretty fairly."
World of Flying: Do you see less people flying in the UK because of user fees and/or high rental and aircraft ownership costs?
Liz Hamilton: "I don’t think it’s user fees that are the problem in the UK it really is the fuel costs. Fuel is £1.55 to £1.77 per litre ($5.10/gal to $6.69/gal USD) in this area which is just insane. I think what’s most sad is the fact that aspiring pilots (like myself) get little to no help financially unless they are willing to sell their soul to the devil or re-mortgage their parents house. There’s the interest and a lot of people still learn to fly, it’s still very popular in the UK and can be fairly cheap, but what’s wrong is that in a lot of cases it’s only the people with money who become pilots and not the people with talent."
World of Flying: Tell me how you get your pre-flight weather
Liz Hamilton: "As a British person I of course love talking about the weather! I always use www.metoffice.co.uk which is great for aviation and what’s best is its free! There are of course some parts of it which need to be paid for but my flying club always provides the extra weather reports needed for flight plans so I’ve not had to spend a penny on it yet."
World of Flying: Describe what kind of weather is found around the UK.
Liz Hamilton: "The weather is probably one of the most exciting parts of flying in the UK because one minute it can look great and the next minute will be some of the scariest flying you’ve ever experienced. I had the pleasure (?!) of flying in nearly 30knot winds gusting up to 40knots when I was just training. Of course it’s not really that bad a majority of the time. You’d be surprised at how amazing the weather is in winter. My favorite time of year to fly is actually in the winter on a clear morning when its frosty on the ground and airplane literally shoots into the sky. It does rain a lot here though."
World of Flying: How often do UK pilots travel around the rest of Europe?
Liz Hamilton: "As you can imagine it’s quite costly to fly those sorts of distances unless you’re doing it with other pilots too to share the cost. My club does organize a lot of trips to France and through to Germany though and since most Pilots in the UK hold the European license (like I do) there’s nothing stopping you. I know they recently visited the factory where they build the A380’s in Germany. I’ll be saving my money for the time-being, though I am actually planning to fly to the Isle of Wight very soon."
World of Flying: What is the primary means of navigation for most UK pilots, GPS or VORs?
Liz Hamilton: "GPS?! Surely that’s cheating. If they ever let me loose in a glass cockpit I’m sure I’ll be a complete convert but I was trained to use VOR’s and ADF’s and for the time being I’ll stay loyal to them. Besides, where’s the fun if you don’t get lost once in a while?
In all seriousness though I believe that navigational training in the UK is some of the best training you can get. Along with contending with the weather you have to contend with some of the busiest airspace in the world! I only live 30 miles away from Heathrow so you can imagine it gets quite exciting at times. I also have other busy International airports like Luton, Gatwick, Stanstead, Southampton, Bournemouth and London City airport all within a 100 mile radius. If you can fly here you can fly anywhere in the world."
World of Flying: What do you primarily use your flying privileges for, pleasure or business?
Liz Hamilton: "I wanted to be a pilot practically from birth I think. My Dad was a Pilot and flew initially for Air Canada before flying as a training Captain for British Airways until he retired. I started flying when I was 21 (after university) because I had lost the dream somewhere along the way thinking I could never afford it, so I didn’t start until I had a job and could fund it myself. When I started I was thinking it was just for pleasure, but it only re-affirmed what I’d always wanted and turned out I was pretty good at it too. I finished the whole PPL course, including qualifying cross country, in just 33 hours and won best private pilot’s license of 2008 from my club, breaking a 60 year tradition of guys winning it. I now consider it to be a hobby that is also helping to secure my future, hopefully as a pilot. At 150 hours I can start training for my Commercial Pilot’s license so I will be doing that as soon as I have the hours.
World of Flying: Tell me and my readers something we do not know about flying in the UK
Liz Hamilton: "Easily the best part of flying in the UK is the aircraft you will be sharing your airspace with and the history that surrounds you. The one moment I will never forget is when I was doing a 40ft low flyover at the airfield in my training and out of nowhere a Spitfire dropped out of the sky and flew alongside me then spun off into the clouds. Needless to say I almost crashed into the ground at the shock of the whole thing, but once again I prevailed! This aircraft is one of only 44 airworthy Spitfires left in the world. The history is incredible and so easy to access. That particular Spitfire is actually based at the same aerodrome as me so I get to see it quite a lot and yet it never fails to give me goosebumps. I also have the opportunity to fly a Tiger Moth as one is based really nearby at Blackbushe which I think I’ll have to do in the New Year. As a country we are certainly proud of our history in the skies."
World of Flying: What is your version of the FAA like?
Liz Hamilton: "That would be the CAA or Civil Aviation Authority. They divide our airspace up into different categories so depending on what ratings you have depends on which ones you can fly in (Class A-G). I think this is a good idea because it keeps the big jets away and at the same time allowing pleasure pilots to have areas in which you can fly freely. With such a small country and such a large population of pilots the CAA does an excellent job in keeping us safe. You can make your own decisions on how good or bad you think they are from my previous comments but I will say this, as far as I’m concerned I have never had any problems with the CAA apart from how much they charge for Class I medicals. It cost me about £300 ($461 USD) when I did my commercial med. That is ridiculous for a couple of urine samples and an eye test! But a private medical is less, about £160 ($261 USD)."