Flying High: Private planes provide immediate getaways

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The drive from coast to coast is at least three and a half hours—if you obey the speed limit.

A weekend trip to Key West from Central Florida will cost you nearly eight hours (at least) in the car, and if you get behind a slow-moving semi-forget about catching that Key West sunset. A car ride north to the popular LGBT destination of Pensacola will involve one full day of driving on Florida’s interstates.

Since technology still hasn’t provided us with those flying cars we were promised back in grade school, some LGBTs turn to the next best thing—private planes.

Plane1_603557493.jpgJim Barrett of Orlando has been flying for 25 years. He was always around airplanes as a child and began training for flight when he was 16. The first-generation American followed in his pilot father’s footsteps.

Initially he wanted to be an airline pilot, but discovered that corporate flying was not for him.

“It was like driving a bus,” Barrett says. “It wasn’t fun.”

He prefers the life of a private pilot, and is now the proud owner of a Cessna 210.

“It’s like my pickup truck,” says Barrett, who runs his own photography company. “I can put my photography gear in the back and go to photo shoots all over the country.”

Barrett says he flies once or twice a week for business, and at least once a week for pleasure. Rising fuel prices and the recession, however, have caused him to cut back quite a bit on his travel. Barrett says that a couple of years ago he would fly between 250-300 hours a year. Now he flies about a third of that. One of the tricks he has learned is to pre-plan his fuel stops by researching cheaper prices.

But when he does get in the air for pleasure, he likes to travel to St. Petersburg or Cedar Key. He will often meet up with friends who fly in from around the state, and they take a courtesy cab into town or just enjoy the airfield restaurants. Key West and the Caribbean are also just short “puddle-jumps” away. Plane2_740738055.jpg

Taking to the air
Earning a pilot’s license is a little more complicated than taking a test down at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Pilot’s licenses require both ground school and flight courses with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). Students can attend ground school in traditional classes at a local flight school or via video/CD-ROM courses. The flight courses are done in an aircraft under the supervision of a CFI. Once a student becomes proficient, he or she is able to fly solo. Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot certifications require passing a written test, which is covered in ground school, and a flight test.

Prices for licensing vary depending on the flight school, the type of aircraft, region, and number of hours required. Some licenses, such as the Sport Pilot or Recreational Pilot license, are available for as little as $2,800-$3,500 and require 20-35 hours of flight time. The next step up is the Private Pilot license, which generally costs between $4,500 and $6,500. But there are often payment plans, per-lesson payments, or even scholarships and other financial aid for flight schools.

While many students dream of flying their own plane around the globe, in reality, most wind up in the airline industry. For LGBT pilots, the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA) provides gay-friendly career tips, advice, employment protection and social events.

Last fall, the NGPA held its national conference in Tampa, where hundreds of LGBT pilots from across the country participated in lectures, parties and tours of the local LGBT community.

This fall, the group will host its “Cape Cod Classic 2009” in Provincetown, Mass. Such “fly-ins” provide an opportunity for LGBT pilots from all over to meet in a safe gathering.

Next spring the NGPA will hold its convention in Palm Springs, Calif.
One of the other aims of the NGPA is safety. While plane crashes aren’t common considering the number of planes that take to the air each day, news broadcasts have shown grisly scenes of private planes downed in forests, fields and even the water.

For Barrett, providing pre-flight safety checks and staying up on his plane’s maintenance is just as important as keeping his license current. Just like cars, planes require regular oil changes; tests of gauges and equipment, such as landing gear; and a thorough annual inspection.

Maintenance is best done by an Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic.

Barrett prefers what is called “Owner-Assisted” work. He works side by side with the A&P mechanic and learns as much about his airplane as possible. Knowing the craft inside and out helps Barrett to better recognize potential issues, as well as describe the problem when the craft needs repair.

“I also use the lab,” Barrett said.

Oil samples are sent in for analysis to determine which metals are more prevalent. That helps mechanics spot possible corrosion issues and can save valuable engine parts.

All of that extra maintenance can get expensive, Barrett said, but the freedom of private aviation is a worthwhile reward.

“Flying is easy,” Barrett says. “It’s the same procedure every time. The trick is learning those procedures and all the rules and regulations. Once you have that down, flying is actually simple.”

Get more information on the National Gay Pilots Association.

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