Soaring above the clouds and following the invisible roads in the sky without the hassles of commercial airlines is trending. Traveling by private plane –– as the pilot or the passenger — is an increasingly popular method of transportation for many Columbia residents. It might be a long-awaited vacation or a quick jaunt to a football game for a few hours, or simply one of many business trips across the country.
Private plane sales were at an all-time high before the 2008 recession. Since then, while business is still not back to its high point, it is picking up. Private personal planes, shared planes and corporate jets continue to be in demand as people and businesses look for more convenient ways to travel.
What might be surprising — if not a bit unsettling — is how quickly people can learn to fly a plane. “An average person of average intelligence and hand-eye coordination can learn to solo a plane in eight to 10 hours of formal practical instruction in the airplane, and most people will be able to solo after this level of instruction,” says Jim Hamilton, for whom the Jim Hamilton-LB Owens airport is named. Jim served on the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission, served as president of the South Carolina Aviation Trade Association, was the founder and owner of the Midlands Aviation Corporation and served as the Columbia Owens Airport operator for more than 40 years. During his time at the airport, his company provided flight training, an air taxi charter service, airplane sales and maintenance and encouraged Richland County to build hangars for the storage of airplanes. In short, Jim knows aviation.
In his more than 60 years in the industry, Jim has suggested to only two people that they take up fishing instead of flying. While the formal instruction may take 40 to 50 flight-time hours, it is supplemented with another 40 to 50 hours of classroom training to earn an FAA private pilot’s license. During Jim’s time teaching the courses, his classes consisted of high school drop outs, college graduates, PhDs and everyone in-between. “You don’t want to bore the PhD, and you don’t want to lose the high school dropout,” says Jim.
Jim Hamilton served on the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission, served as president of the South Carolina Aviation Trade Association, was the founder and owner of the Midlands Aviation Corporation and served as the Columbia-Owens Airport operator for more than 40 years.
Because of that, Jim was careful to tailor his classes to the individual, ensuring every student was learning at his or her own pace. Classes aren’t for those with only a casual interest in learning; students must learn five specific areas to become academically proficient; those areas cover theory of flight, meteorology, engines, controls, navigation, rules and regulations, among many others. This process enables students to earn their private pilot license where they can carry passengers but not fly for hire.
While there have been countless changes over the years in airplanes, the biggest change Jim has seen in modern general aviation is the evolution of the GPS for navigation systems. Sixty years ago, airplanes had rudimentary navigation systems with flashing lights that were transmitted by Morse Code. The light flashed and beacons would lead the pilot across the nation. The low frequency range delivered a steady beep and if the pilot drifted, he would get a code redirecting him. “I would listen to that beep for hours on end,” says Jim. “When I got home, I would still hear that beep in my head.”
Today, the GPS systems enhance situational awareness, safety and decision-making, ensuring pilots have the tools and resources to most effectively fly the friendly skies. Dave Lipski, president of Eagle Aviation and another Columbia resident with tremendous aviation knowledge, agrees that GPS systems are on the leading forefront in terms of some of the biggest changes in avionics. “We used to have old round gauges,” says Dave. “Now they have modern panels that are extremely sophisticated, improving safety and providing much more information for pilots. It’s a major technical leap in the avionics area.”
Another innovative trend in new airplanes is the built-in parachute. This new feature on planes, which comes standard on the Cirrus aircraft and is available as an option on others, is providing an enhanced level of safety for pilots and passengers alike. If for any reason the engine on the plane stops running, the plane then becomes a glider in the hopes of landing safely. Failing that, the pilot can then deploy the parachute, which helps to land the plane safely. Thanks to the parachute, there have been emergency landing situations in which the parachute has been deployed and there were only minor, if any, injuries.
To be sure, in today’s fast-paced, always-connected world, one imperative for many corporate business aircrafts is the need for Wi-Fi. “Business people are in the air for hours on end, and they want to be able to communicate and transmit data, so Wi-Fi in airplanes is becoming much more prevalent,” says Dave. “That being said, it is very expensive, so you don’t see it on many smaller planes. You will someday, though. It’s working its way down the chain; it started with the most exclusive airplanes, now it’s in the smaller jets and turbo props. I don’t think we will see it in the small single engine planes for a while as it just isn’t cost-effective.”
As technologies and materials improve, so does the design of the airplane. And while airplanes have always been manufactured to last a long time — and that will continue — the more reliable the airplane, the less maintenance required. These updates and upgrades are all due to design enhancements. There is also a continued push toward fuel efficiency, as aviation fuel is quite expensive — as is an airplane itself.
To combat the costs associated with owning a private plane, some owners will look into airplane sharing, co-ownership or group owners. This enables the owner to spread the fixed costs and make the purchase more affordable. “You can’t fly a plane all the time, so going into a sharing plan, where each person rotates their priority period, is a very good option for some people,” says Jim. “The cost savings in insurance and storage alone can be a great benefit.”
But before thinking about sharing the plane, the prospective owners need to ensure they are sharing the plane with people that they can get along with. “Sharing a plane is just like a marriage. You have to be compatible,” says Dave. “If everyone wants the plane on July 4th, it’s just not going to work. But in most cases, it can be a great idea.” In addition to the added convenience, co-owning an airplane can also be better for the plane. Just as a car needs to be driven, a plane needs to be flown to keep it in the optimal working condition.
When looking to purchase a plane, Dave always advises his customers to base their purchase on what will handle 90 percent of their needs. If they are only going to fly across the country once every other year, then their needs won’t be the same as someone who is flying to the coast every weekend. “People get into flying for different reasons,” says Dave. “Some people just enjoy it, which is how I got started many years ago. And then they find practical uses for flying, whether it’s for personal use and they want an easy way to get to the islands, or they need it for business reasons. It boils down to how people want to spend their money. Some people buy boats, some people own multiple homes, some people play golf every weekend, and others want to buy a plane. It’s how you choose to use your disposable income.”
And really, for many pilots, it’s how they choose to spend their time. For Jim, learning to fly a plane has not only changed his life but it has enabled him to change the lives of many others. More than 40 years ago, he founded the Jamil Flying Fezzes, a charitable flying group that is dedicated to flying children to treatment facilities across the country. Jim can’t even count the number of children he has transported, but no doubt, each one of those families remembers that he did. Jim chose to spend much of his time in the air helping others.
It’s this love of flying and giving back that was also the impetus for the creation of the Young Eagles program, which offers a free, 20-minute ride to children ages 6 to 18 in Columbia at the Jim Hamilton-Owens Airport. The program boasts a very rigid safety program. Pilots generously donate their own planes and their time to provide these children with this exciting experience. “I think this is one of Columbia’s best kept secrets,” says Jim. “I have known professional pilots who gained their first interest in flying through a Young Eagles flight. That is thrilling to me.” The local chapter alone has taken more than 10,000 children on a flight.
Whether it’s a 20-minute free ride, a coast-to-coast adventure or a business meeting, private airplanes can deliver thrills, enjoyment and convenience, while making the getting there half the fun. Especially if that final destination is an island in the Caribbean …