What Can I Fly?
If you want to take up flying, the first questions you need to answer are what kind of aircraft interest you, and what type of flying do you want to do.
The cheapest option is hang-gliders or gliders, while the most expensive is helicopters; somewhere in the middle come microlights and conventional, single-engined, fixed-wing aircraft.
Gliders are pretty neat for pure flying pleasure. The absence of an engine keeps noise and vibration at bay (gliders are environmentally friendly too) and they require intelligence and an understanding of the sky and weather to stay aloft and fly for miles across country. It’s a challenge that many enjoy and there are some 6,000 glider pilots in the UK.
If you want to start at the cheaper end of motorised flying you’ll need to look at microlights. The first thing to decide here is whether you want to fly weightshift (also known as flexwing) or three-axis, which is more like a conventional aircraft but lighter. Whichever you choose can make it difficult to learn the other later, so it is an important decision. ‘Basic’ used to be the best way to describe weightshift microlights. Pilots flew (and mostly still do) exposed to the elements; a typical cruise speed was 60mph on a good day. But these days they offer more protection against the wind and speeds go up to around 90mph. You can learn to fly for around £3,000 and buy a used two-seater for around £8,000.
Three-axis microlights are controlled in the same way as larger aircraft. A stick (or yoke) controls bank (rolling left or right) and pitch (up and down), while pedals control yaw (veering left or right). They are simpler than the larger training aircraft, lighter and generally easier to fly, and the instruction course is shorter. Prices start at around £3,500 for a licence. Training on larger aircraft gives you the same initial training as pilots who will end up flying passenger jets, so the course is longer than for microlights. Roughly speaking, expect learning here to cost around £8,000.
One of the most popular weightshift microlights is the Pegasus Quik GT450. Its normal cruise speed is 50-65mph, although its maximum level speed is 88mph. It is powered by a 912 Rotax four-stroke engine and you can buy one new for around £27,000 plus VAT. Training at a typical school costs around £115 an hour, but do shop around.
A relatively basic three-axis Thruster T600N Sprint can be hired at one school for £70 an hour and training prices are around £108. It cruises at around 70mph on a two-stroke Rotax engine. Unlike the Pegasus, where the occupants sit out in the open wrapped in thermal overalls and with motorbike-style helmets with visors, the student gets a ‘proper’ enclosed cockpit. It costs from around £29,000 plus VAT to buy. There are more modern and popular three-axis microlight trainers such as the Ikarus C42 and Eurostar. These are much more sophisticated so cost at least twice as much to buy. They are also much faster than the Thruster, cruising at 100mph. Training prices at one school are £120 an hour.
Moving from microlights to larger single-engined trainers, one of the most popular is the Piper Warrior. Compared to microlights, the Warrior is much heavier, a four-seater (instead of two) and quite a lot faster, cruising at about 120mph. Flying clubs love the Warrior both as a trainer and as a hire aircraft. Members tend to hire them once they’ve got their licences; as fully practical four-seaters, they are ideal for taking friends and family abroad. Training rates are around £190 an hour.Quite a few schools still offer Cessna’s hugely successful two-seat trainer, the Cessna 152. It has a smaller engine and uses less fuel than the Warrior, so teaching rates can be as low as £170 an hour. Cessna 152s tend to be getting rather long in the tooth, but if you can ignore the scuffed seats and worn carpet, they make great trainers.
In the helicopter world, the most popular trainer is the Robinson R22. This light, relatively cheap (around $250,000) two-seater made helicopters affordable for the first time when it was introduced. They are still a lot more expensive to learn on than fixed-wing aircraft. Expect to pay around £250 an hour, which means a helicopter licence can easily end up costing £12,000.
To fly any helicopter you have to learn to hover it, which is undoubtedly harder than anything fixed-wing pilots need to master, nevertheless, most schools will tell you that anyone can learn; it just takes longer with some students. While the cruise speed isn’t that great at 90mph, it’s the ability to take-off and land within a confined space that appeals. Helicopters don’t need an airport and can land anywhere, provided that the landowner gives permission.
Whichever form of flying you choose, especially if it’s for recreation, remember that it’s all great fun and being able to take to the skies is a wonderful gift.