Flying has almost universal appeal. Who wouldn’t want to soar through a clear blue sky, free from earth-bound constraints, even if only for a short while?
I’d always assumed flying small planes was a luxury pursuit reserved for a fortunate few. And yet, here I am doing exactly that. I push my right foot down on the rudder and tilt the yoke to the right. The tiny Cessna 172 banks to the right, circling a tower of fluffy white clouds. I’m flying!
Sort of. Flight instructor Jeff McGlashan, sitting in the pilot’s seat, is in control really, so he can take over if necessary. But we’re most definitely airborne, and I have the chance to feel how the airplane responds when I tilt the nose up or down, steer left and right, and use the trim wheel to find that sweet spot where we simply cruise.
I’m taking an introductory flying lesson with the Cayman Flying Club, a non-profit organization that aims to enable anyone in the Cayman Islands with an interest in aviation to achieve their goals. Introductory lessons are a relatively inexpensive way to get a taste of it before committing serious time and money to gaining one’s private pilot’s license.
The thrill of it all
There’s something oddly exciting about seeing a landscape you know so well from an entirely different vantage point, and even though you know perfectly well your house, office and even car are going to be exactly where you expect them to be, it still gives you a certain thrill to see them from up here, where the birds hang out.
We turn right, turn left, climb higher, and then start to descend. And this is perhaps why the idea of flying represents freedom to many people: you can go pretty much anywhere. There are no white lines, roundabouts or traffic lights up here. It’s just you, and the huge wide open sky.
That’s what McGlashan, who is also a commercial pilot, loves about his job.
“When you’re flying, the sky is your highway,” he says. “Wherever I am, I can look out of the window. There might be busy streets below me, or mountains in the distance, the sun could be rising or setting, and all around me there is this space and these great views. And that’s my office.”
Grand Cayman is laid out below us like a scale model. As we fly east, leaving the airport behind, the neat houses that line canals and roads give way to an increasingly green and undeveloped landscape. Along the coast, the sea is a pale turquoise inside the lagoons, and where coral reefs lie close to shore, you can see the individual coral fingers. A little farther out, a dark line in the ocean marks the point where the shallow coastal waters drop off suddenly to thousands of feet.
Getting your pilot’s license
Because he works one week on, one week off, as a commercial pilot, McGlashan spends his ‘down time’ teaching people to fly in Grand Cayman.
Learning to fly is neither cheap nor quick, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s open only to wealthy retirees or playboy millionaires. For young Caymanians wanting to pursue a career in aviation, obtaining a private pilot’s license is the first step on the road to becoming a commercial pilot. Once a person has a private pilot’s license, he or she can become a flying instructor and thereby increase their flying hours while earning some extra money at the same time. This is how a lot of Cayman Airways pilots got started in their careers, says McGlashan.
Highly sought-after career
In fact, aviation may be one of the most secure career paths open to young people today.
“The great thing about flying for a living is that there has never been a shortage of pilots like there is now,” McGlashan says. “United Airlines, for example, will be hiring one pilot every eight hours for the next 15 years. And that’s just one of hundreds of airlines.”
As more and more pilots reach retirement age, and as the aviation industry continues to grow, demand for new pilots will only increase.
How long it takes to obtain a license depends on how much time one can devote. For someone flying on average twice per week, it would take eight to 12 months and typically around 65 hours of flying time to qualify. Costs run at $12,000 to $14,000.
More than time and money, the most vital requirement for learning to fly is passion, McGlashan says.
“Flying is a freedom you have to earn. It’s like mountain climbing - no one can get you there except yourself, no matter who you are.”
If someone has that passion, it’s usually evident pretty quickly.
“About 50 to 60 percent of the people who take an introductory class finish and immediately want to know what the next step is in getting their license,” McGlashan says.
Indeed, he had just returned from a flying lesson when I arrived, and there was no mistaking the bright eyes and glowing smile on his student’s face.
It’s not for everyone, of course, but that’s where trying before you buy with an introductory lesson comes in. Priced at $200 for an hour’s lesson, it’s a small price to pay to avoid making a $12,000 mistake, and it can also make a great gift, regardless of whether the recipient wants to become a pilot.
The $100 burger
Once they have their private pilot’s license, club members have the right to use the club’s aircraft - a single engine Cessna 172 - on an hourly basis. Some people may take visitors in a plane to show them the island from above, while others may head to Cayman Brac or Little Cayman for a day out, or even just for lunch. Some might just take the plane out and fly around with no destination in mind.
Once you’re airborne, the sky is all yours. “That’s the privilege that pilots earn,” McGlashan says.
“There is a joke in the aviation industry,” he adds, “about the ‘$100 burger,’ although in Cayman it would probably be more accurate to talk about a $300 burger.”
It refers to the tendency pilots have to fly somewhere away from the home base for the sole purpose of eating a burger, and then flying back. A burger quickly becomes a good enough excuse for taking to the skies, even if it does end up costing $100 - or $300.
That being said, he points out, with space for four on board, including the pilot, it may well be more economical to fly the Cessna to the Sister Islands for lunch than to fly there on a commercial airline.
Even if it does end up being an expensive lunch, it’s guaranteed to be a memorable one.