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The air up there: why you should buy a plane

Hell is other people. If you own a plane you can fly away from them

The next time you see an article about overcrowded territorial campgrounds, open Google Earth and count the number of lakes that don’t have road access within 250 kilometres of Whitehorse.

There are alternatives to spending the weekend jammed between one camper with a yappy dog and another with vintage Loverboy dialled up to 11.

All you need is a plane and a pilot’s license.

The floatplane base at Schwatka Lake is one of Whitehorse’s top features. Picture yourself driving there after work, sparking up your engine, and zooming off to some lake none of your workmates have ever heard of.

There’s no campground crowd. The fish have never seen an artificial lure before. Your fitness is the only limit to the hiking possibilities.

Generally, when I dispense financial advice, I suggest keeping the burn rate under control and avoiding big assets you don’t really need.

But you do only live once. One of the reasons for economizing in some areas is so you can splurge on things that are important. And piloting your own plane is more accessible than many think.

I’m not talking about the executive jets you see occasionally at Erik Nielsen airport. I mean a used floatplane, probably built even before Loverboy put out their first album.

First you have to get your license. Alkan Air runs a flight academy in the Yukon. According to them, you can get your private pilot license in as little as six weeks if you study full time.

The minimum age is 17, a year older than the minimum to get your driver’s license.

You need to do 40 hours of groundschool, take a medical exam and pass the tests for your aviation language proficiency certificate and radio operator’s certificate. Then you need at least 45 hours of flight time, starting with an instructor and then going solo. Finally, you need to pass your Transport Canada written and flight tests.

According to the Calgary Flying Club, the average cost to get your private pilot license is $12,000 to $14,000. They suggest doing 2-3 flights per week, and getting your license in six months to a year.

One local pilot suggested to me you could do it more cheaply if you bought your own plane, such as a Cessna 150, which is popular for training. This allows you to do your solo hours without having to rent a plane. Later, you could sell it and move up to a bigger plane more suitable for floats or skis.

How much does a used plane cost? It varies widely, and cheap is not necessarily good when it comes to planes, but Kijiji has a Cessna 180 for $72,000 and a Cessna 172 floatplane for $82,300.

The same pilot told me he spent $6,000 on insurance plus annual maintenance and checkups this year, and budgets about $50 per hour for gas and operating expenses. Some years, of course, you may have more major expenses such as overhauling the engine.

So flying is not cheap. But neither is it the preserve of plutocrats. You also have the option to economize by sharing the plane with a friend, as numerous local pilots do.

To put it in context, think about how many new pickups and campers you see around town. A 2018 Ford F-150 Supercrew 4x4 with a new Adventurer camper on the back costs well over $100,000, and the rig can’t even fly.

Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can grow into floats, skis or tundra tires to make your plane even more versatile.

You can even go farther and get your commercial pilot’s license. On the way out of one far-away lake, the young Yukon bush pilot at the controls told me how much she enjoyed flying for a living. You meet interesting people in interesting places, and the ennui of the Whitehorse desk job is far away.

For a young Yukoner, it could be a great career option to consider. Flying a bushplane can’t be outsourced to China, and I’m guessing that artificial-intelligence and robo-pilots will take over big jets long before they get to Yukon bushplanes.

Flying isn’t for everyone, of course. In addition to being expensive, it’s also risky. I was musing about getting my license, when I knocked the mirror off the family Suburban just driving down a dirt road on the way to a family hike. No one disagreed when I suggested it might be best for me to stay firmly on the ground.

Careful pilots mitigate the risk by staying in practice, watching the weather and taking good care of their equipment. You can get away with going downhill skiing just once a year, driving too fast on icy roads, or forgetting to change the oil in your Honda. Planes are less forgiving.

Despite the risk and expense, flying adds something special to life in the North. I suggest you either get your pilot’s license or, if you’re like me, save up a few bucks from time to time and hire a real Yukon bush pilot to fly you somewhere special.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.