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High-Achievement Entrepreneur = Pilot

by Jeffrey Geibel, CFII

Forget the Rolex, the Lamborghini, the 100,000 square-foot 'trophy house'.
Want to show everyone you've arrived?
Get a pilot's license.

It happened again. I was talking to a prospective client (I am a marketing consultant by trade), and in passing mentioned that I was a pilot. "Oh, so is the president of the company," remarked my contact. As an advisor to technology and service companies (many being entrepreneurial), I've found that there is a better than 50-50 chance that one of the executives at any given company is a pilot, and usually it's the Chairman, CEO or president. Considering that there are only 600,000 pilots out of a national population of 300 million - the clustering of aviators in entrepreneurial companies is more than coincidental. What gives?

As a flight instructor, one thing I've noticed is that it really isn't a coincidence that driven entrepreneurs are over-represented in the pilot population, considering the characteristics of the students I've trained (self-confident, focused, take responsibilty for the outcome, etc.) When you look at the type of person who wants to be a pilot, it is almost a given that you are going to find a lot of entrepreneurs there. And add to that the fact that aviation is fairly technical (but less so than rocket science) - it is also to be expected that technical entrepreneurs will gravitate to it as an avocation.

So what attracts entrepreneurs like Michael Bloomberg (dual-rated, airplanes and helicopters), Larry Ellison (CEO of Oracle - who wanted to buy a fully-equipped MIG 29 - the US government said no - supposedly something about Redmond being the practice area), Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple Computer), Bill Poduska (Apollo, Prime Computer), Ken Olsen (Digital Equipment) and others? Here are some of the factors:


During an aviation safety seminar I attended several years ago, the instructor began by asking some questions like how many of those in attendance were lettered in high school or college, how many were valedictorians, how many competed in sports, etc? A remarkable number of hands went up for each question. The point he was trying to make was that pilots, as a group, are achievers. If you similarly had to name one characteristic for an entrepreneur, achievement would be right up there - hence entrepreneurs fit right into known pilot demographics .

Solo Skill (The Perfect Entrepreneurial Sport)

Entrepreneurs tend to be solo artists - not one for being a 'team player' (except the positions of coach or quarterback) - otherwise, they would be content with careers at IBM. With the exception of a crewed aircraft (e.g., large and turbojet-powered) aviation is pretty much a solo sport. Unless you're flying with another pilot or instructor - it's your game - entirely. And it's also your call - there isn't anyone to second guess you in the cockpit - right or wrong. Not for nothing is the FAA terminology 'Pilot in Command' - and that 'command' part is the one that entrepreneurs like. There is a certain satisfaction when you perform a 'perfect' landing (more so in heavy cross winds), no one else did it - you did it, all by yourself. It's performance skill under conditions that are different each and every time. Much like running a fast-paced, entreprenurial company under dynamic market conditions. As a contrast, a pro ball player can hit free throws from the foul line time and time again - but he doesn't have to do it the first time in a right cross wind, another time in a left cross wind, or another time with the winds coming down the runway at 20 knots, with perhaps a rainstorm thrown in for good measure. For a competent pilot, it's not at all scary, just a challenge - and after you do it the first time, you know you can do better, so you request a 'touch and go' (landing with immediate take off) and go around for another one. Lotsa fun.

Calculated Risk

Entrepreneurs are calculated risk takers. By 'calculated' I mean that they have assessed the risks, and believe that their skills and talents can compensate for any unknowns that they have not anticipated. The same is true for pilots - hence the great emphasis on checking and rechecking everything - the plane, yourself, the weather (departure and destination) - to reduce the risk down to that which you know your skills can handle. Do not misunderstand - 'calculated risk' does not mean 'dangerous'. For example, you take a calculated risk each time you cross the street. Whether or not it is dangerous depends on the conditions and your judgement regarding those conditions. The same is true for aviation or starting a company. Many people confuse open-ended 'risk takers' with those who only take 'calculated risks.' Open-ended risk takers in aviation tend not to be around very long - they usually encounter Darwin's theory along the way. Entrepreneurs merely encounter Chapter 11, which tends to be less painful.

Only the few...

Being a pilot puts you in an elite group, sort of like the Marines. In a sense, entrepreneurs are the Marines of the business world, so it would follow that the status of being a pilot would hold similar appeal. And then, among pilots, there is another pecking order. Being just a pilot rated for single-engine planes is, well, OK. But then you have multi-engine rated pilots, or helicopter pilots, or better yet - type rated in your own business jet. If you have lots of bucks, there's almost no limit - except those set by the insurance companies. (Now Larry - wouldn't you like a nice, used F-16 for only $20 million?) For status-conscious entrepreneurs, what other hobby offers such a scale of progression? After all, a Lamborghini is just a car, and anyone with a driver's license can drive one of those...and you might own that jet, but can you fly it?

It's a rush...

There is, in my opinion, few experiences that can match the experience of a successful flight as the pilot in command. And the great thing about it is that you can do it again, and again, and again. It's legal (although so habit forming it should have a Surgeon General's warning), it's moral, you don't need a designated driver, you won't get a hangover, and you'll respect yourself even more the next morning. How many experiences in life can match that? Have you ever been outside on a perfect, '10' day - and just wish it would last forever? How about if you could fly somewhere that day? Nothing like it. For example, there is a certain sense of wonderful solitude when you're a pilot, 'level at 8,500 feet' with visibility for as far as the eye can see - a sensation and environment that few people ever get to experience. Well, maybe second only to that IPO that just put your net worth into seven or eight figures...

Additional Information...

So how much does it cost, and how long does it take?

Provided that you have no severe medical deficiencies (wearing glasses, even a heavy correction, is OK) that would prevent you from getting a FAA medical certificate, a program of pilot training leading to a license in a single-engine fixed wing aircraft will take you anywhere from six months to about two years. I used to tell my students (who were professionals) that there were four things that would get in the way of them getting their license: their schedule, the New England weather, my schedule, and non-availability of the training aircraft. I added that the first two were about 80-90% of the delay. It takes about 60 hours of flight time (national average) to get a licence. About a third of that time is learning to fly the aircraft, including navigation and emergency procedures. Another third is solo, both local and cross-country (e.g., a well-planned trip of a prescribed distance under an instructor's supervision), and another third is dual cross-country (before your solo), dual night flying, preparing for the FAA flight test, and normal 'brush-up' when you haven't found time to fly for a few weeks. The going rate for aircraft rental is about $85-$105 per hour, and an instructor's time will cost you $35-$45 per hour on top of the rental charge. With a calculator, you can figure the total cost, considering that you only need the instructor for the 'dual' flights (or ground instruction). Oh, there is also a ground school (unless you get permission for self-study - there are many packaged, DVD courses available) and the FAA written exam, and fee for the flight test. Figure about $8,000 to $10,000. That figure could be less in lower-cost areas, higher in areas such as the Northeast and California.

So what can you do with your license?

You can rent an airplane and fly to wherever, in fairly clear (VFR) weather. To fly in less than visual conditions, you need an instrument (IFR) rating. That requires 125 hours of prescribed experience, including instrument instruction, and both another FAA written and flight test. Multi-engine (e.g., light twins) aircraft, helicopters and gliders require additional training and flight tests.

© 2007 - population and cost figures updated - Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Jeffrey Geibel, APR, CFII, is a Certificated Flight Instructor (Instrument) in airplanes and holds a Commercial Pilot's rating in helicopters. He has over 2,000 hours as a pilot and over 1,250 hours as an instructor.

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