Saturday, January 24, 2015

On cloud nine: High-fliers are discovering the joys of single-engine aircraft

For hobby pilots in Pune, nothing compares to the magic of being airborne in a single engine aircraft. The pure joy of defying the pull of gravity to fly into clear blue skies is an experience they wish to relive over and over again. But in India, where recreational flying is yet to catch on, the hobby isn't so easy to pursue.

"Even getting a pilot's license can be a struggle," rues Vikas Achalkar, an architect in his 40s. Achalkar decided to give the activity a try two years ago, and soon got hooked. He remembers the time he flew a Cessna 172R solo for the first time last year. "I had to overcome my vertigo to achieve the feat," says Achalkar, who got goosebumps while taking off from a runway in Baramati. Achalkar learnt flying from the Baramati-based Academy of Carver Aviation.

In aviation, the ultimate test for a rookie pilot is to successfully fly an aircraft solo for the first time. However, only after spending considerable amount of time and money was Achalkar confident enough to fly a plane singlehandedly.

His confidante in the pleasures and challenges of piloting an aircraft was fellow city-based recreational flying enthusiast, Sameer Belwalkar. Before they got a chance to sit inside a cockpit, Achalkar and Belwalkar had to familiarise themselves with air law, rules and regulations.

Moreover, both had to make their way through reams on meteorology, navigation and aeronautics. "Imagine studying the nuances of flying in your 40s," laughs Achalkar. But with each other's help and support, both finally cleared the written tests two years ago.

They also had to clock 40 hours of flying to become eligible to get a private pilot license (PPL). "The effort we put into practicing flying was totally worth it," smiles Achalkar.

Interestingly, most people have been drawn to give recreational flying a go in their late 50s and 60s. Swapnil Baheti, a flight instructor at the Academy of Carver Aviation, tries to explain why. "One thing that's common about these individuals is their urge to do something different in life," says Baheti.

Another reason perhaps is that flying for pleasure is an effective stress buster. "These extremely busy individuals, who come to us to learn flying, lead very hectic lives. But when they take off skyward, all the cares of this world are left behind," Baheti adds. "I can't describe the feeling of being completely in tune with the aircraft and one's environment in words," smiles Belwalkar, a real estate developer.

Achalkar and Belwalkar are now planning to pool in money to buy their own private single engine aircraft. "Contrary to what many people think, a single engine aircraft doesn't cost millions. A secondhand airplane can be bought for Rs 60 lakh," mentions Achalkar. According to him, a secondhand aircraft is as good as new. "An airworthy airplane is equipped with parts in top condition. The aircraft may look old, but its engine is duly changed periodically," he explains. The most popular ones are the models produced by Cessna, an American aircraft company and Diamond's single engine aircrafts manufactured in Austria. The model used by Achalkar and Belwalkar is a Cessna 172R, a four-seat light aircraft owned by Carver.

But recreational flying comes with a price. Pursuing a course towards getting a PPL can cost anything around Rs 6 lakh and takes a few months to complete. Chartering a single engine aircraft can cost as much as Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000 per hour. Also, dealing with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) is a hassle as it's yet to fully meet the needs of hobby fliers. The complaints against DGCA are many: flying enthusiasts claim DGCA's website is difficult to navigate and that it's not updated regularly. Sometimes, if somebody buys a new single engine aircraft, DGCA isn't aware of the model and getting licenses becomes a time-consuming procedure. (DGCA officials were not available for comment when contacted.)

Yet, there are people like Vishwas Bhisey, an entrepreneur, who decided to pursue recreational flying despite the difficulties. He owns a single engine airplane manufactured by Diamond Aircraft. For aircraft owners, it's a totally different ballgame— the plane has to be parked in a hangar at Academy of Carver Aviation — besides being maintained by aircraft maintenance engineers. The most senior and experienced pilot among the group, Bhisey got into recreational flying back in 1986.

Bhisey is so seasoned, he says he doesn't rely much on his aircraft's equipment while landing, which is the most critical moment for any pilot. He flies purely by instinct, and explains that with time it's possible for anybody to fly like him. "I resumed flying in 2008 after a long break. I realised in my 50s that I wasn't going to live forever. Now, I am making the best use of my time flying my Diamond," says Bhisey.

According to Baheti, Achalkar, Belwalkar and Bhisey treat Carver in Baramati like their second home. Sometimes, they even insist on wearing a pilot's uniform while flying although PPL holders are exempted from wearing one. And as one would expect, the boys have a gala time once they are inside an aircraft — flying around Baramati — and whenever time permits, to places like Shimla, Kolkata and even Lakshadweep. Once they reach their destination, they land to refuel before resuming flying.

All the hobbyists agree that having spouses and children, who are supportive of their hobby is a plus point. "If you look at it, the time we spend on flying is borrowed from the time we should have spent with our family," says Achalkar. The activity is pursued at least once or twice a month with gusto, and on days when they aren't practising their flying skills, they can't wait to head back to Baramati.

The variables these budding aviators have to deal with while flying is truly mind-boggling. "But we have to perform no matter what. Whether it's observing wind speed, stabilising an aircraft or dealing with a stray cow that appears on a runway out of nowhere while landing, flying is risky business," says Belwalkar. So why would anybody want to take a risk? "Flying an aircraft isn't as far-fetched as it's made out to be. Yes, it is expensive, and you have to deal with the weather and authorities, but at the end of the day it's all worth it when the sky is the limit," smiles Belwalkar.

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