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Flying Versus Driving: What's Harder?

The driving examiner turned to me, his face expressionless, unreadable. If he'd turned his hand to poker he could've made a fortune. Luckily for me, he'd chosen a more noble path: letting teenage drivers loose onto the roads.

The driving examiner turned to me, his face expressionless, unreadable. If he'd turned his hand to poker he could've made a fortune. Luckily for me, he'd chosen a more noble path: letting teenage drivers loose onto the roads.

"Well, you've passed," he said - an audible sigh - "but if you carry on cutting corners like that, an accident will be a matter of when, not if." He didn't realise that by this point my 17-year-old self was barely listening. I'd passed, first time. Who cared about a few little cautionary words? The roads were my oysters.

After 28 hours of tuition I'd been carefully moulded into the stereotypical teenage driver: overconfident, complacent, and fairly inept in the skills department. And six months later the examiner's prophecy did indeed come to pass, when the front end of my P-reg Ford Fiesta had an unexpected encounter with a local field, resulting in two very bent wheels and several pounds of mud stuck to its underside. In those 28 hours, then, I'd been transformed from somebody who couldn't drive at all into somebody who could barely drive. Hardly a dramatic improvement. But even so, my driving was by no means below average. In fact, compared with some of my peers I deemed myself relatively good at it (with the emphasis on 'relatively').

With my poor driving performance in mind, then, being let loose on the roads after 30 or fewer hours of practice could seem rather too early, even if one does manage to get through the practical test without any major cause for concern. Compare this with learning to fly. Undoubtedly, most people would consider flying a plane more difficult than driving a car. Put the average person into an aircraft and the chances are they won't even be able to start the engine, let alone safely get it into the air. However, the average time it takes for a person to be 'let loose' and fly solo is only around 10 to 20 hours - barely half the time it takes to pass a driving test and be permitted to drive a car solo. And the minimum age is less strict, too: 17 years old to drive a car alone, 16 to fly powered aircraft, and only 14 to fly a glider. With such low mimimum age requirements, it's easy to look at learning to fly and say: "well, if a 14-year-old can do it, there can't be much to this flying business, after all."

In my opinion, though, the minimum age requirement for flying solo isn't a sign that flying is easy, but is instead a testament to the professionalism of those who do learn to fly at such a young age. I certainly wouldn't have been disciplined enough to plough through air law guides (you need to pass an air law exam before soloing) in my spare time at 14, or even 16.

Of course it is true that in some ways, flying is easier than driving. Keeping in a straight line, for instance, especially when the air is reasonably still and the aircraft is trimmed accordingly, requires virtually no effort whatsoever. And the same goes for simple climbs, descents, and basic turns, all of which can be picked up fairly quickly and easily. However, flying is virtually never this straightforward. Whereas picking up the controls mid-flight can be laughably simple, there's always the business of getting it up there in the first place, and of course, getting it down.

And then there's the weather. While weather can occasionally affect driving (icy or wet roads, snow covering the windscreen, etc.), when it comes to flying, it's all-important. It dictates the direction the aircraft takes off, the speed at which it's able to climb, the height at which it's able to fly, and of course, the question of whether it's able to fly at all. Ice on the wings can turn a perfectly serviceable aircraft into a big, expensive, out-of-control brick. The same goes for storm clouds and mountain winds. Because of this, every pilot needs to be a bit of an amateur meteorologist, with a deep respect for the weather and for what it can do to poor unexpecting aircraft.

Whereas driving lessons are pretty much the be all and end all of learning to drive, when it comes to flight training, the lessons themselves are just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, there's the driving theory test, but this can be revised for and mastered in a matter of hours. Compare this with obtaining a pilot's licence. I'm currently studying for an NPPL, arguably one of the most basic licences available to UK pilots, but even this requires five theoretical examinations, an oral and practical test, and a recommended additional licence in radiotelephony. All of this equates to a lot of homework - a lot of time spent studying the weather, aerodynamics, navigation, and, vitally, preparing for when things go wrong.

Because of these additional areas of study, many of which are almost limitless in their scope (take the weather, for instance - one can spend an entire career attempting to accurately guess its next move), learning to fly is a far more involved and in depth process than learning to drive. Ask me the exact quantity of fuel my car's tank, or its optimum oil temperature, or its most efficient cruising speed, and I'd have little idea of the answer, even after spending hundreds of hours driving it. But ask the same questions about the aircraft I've only sat in for around 20 hours, and I'd instantly be able to tell you, solely because of the in-depth homework required when learning to fly.

Plus, there's always the fact that you can't exactly pull over and call for a knowledgeable mechanic to diagnose that spluttering engine 2,000ft in the air.