I'LL NEVER FORGET my first takeoff. You won't forget yours, either, and if you've ever had a yen for true travel independencefree of security pat-downs and the related frustrations that define commercial air travel in America todaythere's never been a better time to join the ranks of the 600,000 licensed pilots flying in the United States. That's especially true for adventurers, who can expand their options exponentially by charting their own course. Just ask professional kayaker Brad Ludden, 24, who frequently tucks his playboat into his 1962 Cessna Skylane 182 and barnstorms all over the West, scouting and paddling obscure rivers. Another frequent flier is triathlete David Lee, the 36-year-old CEO of AirShares Elite, which sells partial-ownership shares of aircraft.
"Three friends and I fly down to Florida, Hilton Head, Savannah, and Key West to do our ocean training swims and compete in triathlons," says Lee, who's based in Atlanta and usually pilots a Cirrus SR-22 or Piper Malibu. "We're a six-hour drive from the ocean, but only a 70-minute flight, so we get up at seven in the morning, head for the coast, swim until 10:30, take a quick run and grab a bite to eat, and we're back in Atlanta by two in the afternoon."
If that agenda sounds appealing, there are two hurdles ahead: earning your wings and buying or securing access to an aircraft. Neither goal is a snap, of course, but they're more doable than you might expect. There are 3,500 flight schools in the U.S. To earn a private-pilot certificate, which allows you to fly a single-engine plane, you have to be at least 17 years old, write and speak English, and pass an FAA physical. You also need to log 40 hours at the controls: 20 with an instructor, ten solo, three at night, and three while wearing a hood that blocks your view out the windows, simulating instrument-only flight. You have to complete a pair of long-haul trips with an instructorone at nightand a 150-mile solo jaunt. Finally, you have to pass a 60-question written test, plus a check ridethe airborne equivalent of a driver's-license road testwith an FAA examiner riding shotgun.
It sounds like a lot of work, but it can be accomplished during a two- to three-week course for around $8,000. Incredibly, you might find yourself soloing after just 12 to 15 hours in the airless than halfway through the program.
Then there's the question of your ride. The current generation of single-engine airplanes, made of high-tech, lightweight composites, are safer and easier to fly than planes from a generation ago, and they go faster, fly farther, and burn less fuel. And though aircraft aren't cheapa new base-model Cessna Skylane 182 runs more than $250,000you don't have to be a successful real-estate investor, like Ludden, or the chief executive of a thriving company with branches up and down the East Coast, like Lee. A variety of financing schemes (see "First Class, With Economy") can clear you for takeoff with an investment similar to what you might make for a second home.