Sam Hassabo, vice president of sales for a San Diego-based company specializing in sophisticated computer printers, remembers the day he decided to learn to fly. It was Christmas Eve, 1986, and he needed to have an emergency meeting with his regional sales manager, based in Los Angeles.
The manager, who Hassabo didn't know had a pilot's license, packed up his portable computer and files, and flew himself from Los Angeles to San Diego. Two hours later, without the aid of tourist-infested commuter airlines, he was back in Los Angeles in time to celebrate Christmas with his family.
Hassabo was impressed. Until that day, sailing had been his No. 1 hobby and not-so-cheap thrill. Flying even seemed practical--compared to sailing. "There's no place to go in a sailboat," Hassabo said.
He now flies himself at least once a week on business matters to places throughout the West. If he decides in the morning that he wants to meet with an employee in San Jose, he gets in a plane and goes--and is back home for dinner.
Hassabo even moved two of his regional offices nearer to small airports. "If no one picks me up at the airport, I can walk to the office in 10 minutes," he said.
Business people like Hassabo are the foundation of the flying school industry, able and willing to rationalize the expense of flying lessons by emphasizing the business uses of a private pilot's license. Some even manage to write off flying lessons on their taxes as a business expense.
Dave Butler, president of the Montgomery Field-based Western Aviation, where Hassabo learned to fly, said 70% of the 80 students currently enrolled in his school are business people, or at least are using business as an excuse to learn to fly.
The percentage is generally lower at the handful of other area flying schools, although members of the business community provide the schools with a consistent clientele. Even such factors as skyrocketing costs for new small planes and a questionable economy don't deter business people from the quest for independent flight.
"The percentage of business people in school is actually higher these days," said Steve Mason, co-owner of Golden State Aviation, which has been operating a school from Gillespie Field in El Cajon for 20 years. "There was a time when people were able to use the GI Bill to cover the expense of flying. But now everyone has to pay out of pocket, and a larger number of the people learning are business people."
Preparation to earn a private pilot's license costs a minimum of $2,000, which includes ground school and the cost of flying time. Usually a minimum of 35 to 40 hours of flying time is required before a person can apply for a pilot's license, although many people take closer to 70 hours of instruction before feeling ready to take the Federal Aviation Administration test.
Ground school, which covers such diverse areas as meteorology, FAA regulations and the inner workings of airplanes, can also be covered by separate courses at local schools such as National University, and Palomar College and other community colleges. It is considered the most tedious--and perhaps the most important part--of flight training.
"The amount of information is pretty intensive," said Pat Brown, host of the local version of the "PM Magazine" television show. "I think I know more about an airplane engine than my own automobile engine."
Brown represents the majority of people who enroll in flying schools. She wanted to learn to fly as a challenge, and for the freedom to take quick and easy vacation flights.
Most pilots admit that the business applications of a license are rather limited. Trips of more than 1,000 miles are difficult for a solo pilot--stops for fuel and bladder relief slow down the flight--and additional equipment and preparation are necessary to enter major traffic areas. Besides, airlines offer something close to a million flights a day to major centers like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"If I'm going to Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Phoenix, it makes no economic sense to fly a light plane," said private pilot Speedy Rice, an attorney with the San Diego firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps. "I can hop on Air Cal for $49 and get there in an hour."
However, dissatisfaction with the scheduling and inconsistency of commercial carriers is one of the most common reasons business people give for learning to fly. Private pilots have "the convenience of being able to get where they want to go without relying on any public transportation," Mason said, especially to such smaller, outlying cities as Riverside, Palm Springs and El Centro. From the small airports, they can get in a plane and go, without even filing a flight plan.
"Business is moving out to the satellite cities," Mason said. "If you have a light airplane, you can get in there more conveniently and quickly" than by using commercial airlines.