Most of us have been to Aggie Stadium. We’ve all wandered the Death Star and trotted through the Quad on a sunny day, but very few of us have witnessed all this from 1,000 feet in the air.
The Cal Aggie Flying Farmers, operating from the University Airport just 4 miles from campus, offers lessons to anyone interested in becoming a licensed pilot – and for a relatively low cost compared to other flight schools. They provide the planes, the gas and the instruction.
The only thing left, they say, is an adventurous soul.
What’s in a name?
With a title like Cal Aggie Flying Farmers, one might expect these pilots to be watering a tomato field or planting the next crop of apple trees. But that’s as far from true as their planes are from the ground.
The CAFF don’t have anything to do with agriculture. Instead of plowing the fields, many of these pilots can be spotted in places like the Monterey Airport, getting out of their private planes. They’re dressed not in overalls, but in slacks, with a lunch reservation by the water, accompanied by a friend or family member.
The name actually comes from a more traditional time, when a portion of UC Davis students were former pilots in WWII. Established in 1947, the CAFF was a place for those maverick veterans to retain their aviation skills. Many students came to UC Davis just for the airport, which helped it lift off to the success that it is today.
It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s an Aggie!
But that’s history. Currently, you don’t have to be a war veteran to fly planes in Davis. Anyone can get their private pilot’s license, provided they pay the fee for lessons and have an extra 60 hours to devote to them.
To get a private pilot’s license, which allows the pilot to fly small planes, as long as they do not charge his or her passengers, most students put in an average of 60 to 70 hours of flight time with an instructor before their written exam. The minimum amount of time put in for the U.S. and most other parts of the world, though, is 40 hours.
“Just about anyone can do it-especially students,” said Jonathan Bar-or chief pilot of the CAFF. “If you have the discipline to get through college and study then you have the discipline to go through training.“
First a candidate must pass a multiple-choice test focusing on theory and the mechanics of aircraft and flying. After the written test, the student must take to the air with a certified instructor, who will ultimately decide if the student can become a pilot.
“The test is not the biggest thing,” said Davis resident and pilot Paul Pion. “And the instructors wouldn’t let you go up if they didn’t think you were ready.“
Pion, a veterinarian, got his license in 2005 when he was 47. Since then, he has been choosing private flying over commercial flying whenever he can. It fits his schedule better, he says.
The ups and downs of flying
But for a student, finding those spare 60 hours may not be an option. The flight lessons are usually spread out over eight to 10 months, but even then, the time it takes to truly learn the ropes can be a commitment.
Jimmy Nichols‘ solution to this problem was to take his lessons and test over the summer, when he could simply go to work after flying in the morning.
“I put a lot of time and effort into it, but it was worth it,” said Nichols, a junior crop science and management major and pilot since 2006. “Now if I ever want to go into aviation as a career, there’s a lot of need for pilots right now.“
Also the cost of taking lessons may hinder someone on a student budget from deciding to get their license. Every hour-long lesson costs approximately $100, including gas. The total after all the lessons usually amounts to $6,000. And that’s just for training. Pilots must continue to pay for rentals, gas, maintenance and insurance even after they’ve earned their license.
“I sold my car to pay for flight training,” said Anthony Lam, senior music major and pilot. “I just rode my bike to the airport – which ended up being about 8 miles round-trip to the airport – but it was very rewarding in the end.“
Another way Lam was able to save money to get his license was by having a local mentor help him with his training. He was paired up with his mentor through the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association (AOPA), which connects pilots with students learning how to fly.
Do you have what it takes?
All pilots interviewed agreed that the number one quality that all flight students should have is an adventurous spirit. Having a license allows one the freedom of going anywhere with an airport, which many say is very liberating.
Also, given the level of commitment, students must be able to manage their time well. But as a result, pilots have found that their drive to succeed improves and they actually get more done as a result.
“Flying doesn’t stop or end once you get on the ground,” Lam said. “It taught me a lot about planning ahead of time and focusing on the tasks in front of me.“
Obviously, the instructors expect their students to be somewhat dexterous when it comes to operating a plane. Piloting is not for the timid, Pion said, but as long as students remember to keep flying the plane, they shouldn’t experience any trouble. In fact, the number of mechanical errors is close to zero; most accidents occur at the fault of the pilot.
Frequent flyer rewards
“Flying is like being on a roller coaster without a rail,” Nichols said.
And indeed the rush is what draws most pilots to the airport. But the time between takeoff and landing is a thrill all its own.
“Being up in the air is the best part of flying,” Nichols said. “Seeing all the landscape from 1,000 feet up is pretty cool.“
Flying in Davis has its rewards also. It’s one of the cheapest locations to fly in the country and extremely accessible to students, considering its proximity to campus.
“There’s nowhere really that’s more affordable,” Pion said. “Plus the atmosphere [at the University Airport] is so nice and everyone really gets to know each other.“
To try flying with the CAFF, contact the main offices at 752-3067, or their website at calaggieflyers.com to sign up for a 30-minute lesson ($52).
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.