What Flying Airplanes Taught Me About FIRE

I’m on the road, so Ask the Readers returns next week. Today, I have something much better for you.

Have you checked out Primal Prosperity yet? There are some great posts over there like this one.

When the writer over at Primal Prosperity offered a guest post, I immediately said yes. And then my reply went directly to her Spam bin. Luckily, we got a hold of each other which resulted in this guest post.


I used to fly both small, single-engine airplanes and gliders (aka sailplanes), which are engineless airplanes. While flying can be an expensive endeavor, I did learn some valuable lessons about personal finance and life, in general.

First lesson ~ financial: If it flies, floats or fucks, it’s cheaper to rent. Most people are surprised to find out that you can buy a small, older airplane for the cost of a car. However, airplanes, like many boats, are expensive to maintain, store and operate. Since these expenses can add up significantly, it is usually cheaper, and far less hassle, to just rent.

Note: You can ignore the last ‘F’ with the right partner, who is financially compatible and responsible. 🙂

Second lesson ~ life: An instructor once asked me if I preferred flying motorized airplanes or engineless gliders. I had to think a bit, because I really like both, but if I had to chose, I decided on this: Motorized airplanes are great for getting from point A to point B, but they can be noisy and they take a lot of work to maintain. However, gliders offer a simpler, more freeing way to experience flight. With gliders, you are much more aware of your surroundings. And basically, your mind is your motor. To me, it is a metaphor of using your intellect to live a freer, intentional, more resourceful life, just like the FIRE folks.

So, if flying and personal finance sound like an interesting conversation, you might enjoy some more of these metaphors:

Identify your four forces of flight:

Here is a simplistic way to look at the basic four forces of flight: weight/gravity (down); lift (up); drag (backward); thrust (forward). If we want our plane to takeoff, we must make sure that the lift and thrust are greater than weight and drag.

In life, there are some things that can weigh us down, drag us along, or just keep us stagnant: debt, wage slavery, greed, gluttony, ill-health, cubicles, road rage, jealousy, comfort.

So, to take flight in life, we need to boost the things that give us thrust and lift, such as: saving, leverage, intellect, community, movement, kindness, generosity, nature, creativity, cooperation, self-care, empathy, discomfort.

Recover your attitude:

One part of flight training is that the instructor will ask you to close your eyes and (s)he will put the aircraft into an ‘unusual attitude’. You are then instructed to open your eyes and get out of it… i.e. right the aircraft. Many times, the best thing to do is just let go of all the controls, to stabilize the aircraft. It may sound counterintuitive, but airplanes are designed to be inherently stable, and sometimes the more you try to use too much rudder, aileron, or elevator, it can escalate the problem and send you into a spin, stall or ‘fiery’ crash (pun intended).

It is inevitable that in life we will at some point experience unusual or bad attitudes. So remember that sometimes the more we try to force our attitudes, or control a situation, the worse it can get. A financial example would be fearing an economic crash and trying to time the stock market, or maybe hanging onto a rental property where you are bleeding cash, because you want to recover the money you invested. From a personal standpoint, maybe you are trying to ‘control’ a relationship to make it what you want, while making things worse. So, sometimes in life, the best solution to a particular problem, might be to just let go, stabilize, then regain control.

Use your trim tab:

Taking off is one of the most dangerous parts of the flight, because you are close to the ground and have little time to recover from an incident. So, when taking off, you need to be 100% present, in control, and actively flying the airplane. No time to relax. However, once you reach a certain altitude above the ground, you will be in a safer position to use a little leverage. If you know that you are going to be climbing for 10 or more minutes, do you really want to use your muscle power that whole time, by pulling back on the yoke and risking fatigue? Probably not. That is when you use the trim tab for the elevator. You adjust the trim tab until it relieves the pressure on the yoke and holds the airplane in a steady climb (it can always be overridden manually by the pilot). Then, when you get to cruising altitude, you push the yoke forward to level off and then you readjust the trim tab to relieve the pressure again. As you cruise along, you will need to monitor your altitude and make sure it is not slipping higher or lower. So you may need to adjust your trim at regular intervals, but you are not actively flying or muscling your way all the way through the flight and you can relax a bit. While cruising, you still need to monitor the gauges, track your flight path and look for possible hazards, but you can also have a conversation and enjoy the scenery.

So, in personal finance terms, we may need to muscle our way off the ground with school, side hustles, working in a cubicle, trading an hour of time for an hour of pay. But do we want to muscle our way all the way through life? Probably not. After you reach a safe altitude in life, use your trim tab…. i.e. leverage. Start building your FU fund, create passive and residual income, become an entrepreneur. You will always need to adjust your trim tab through life, but at least try to figure your way out of the constant muscling.

Understand how the machine works:

To get a pilot’s license, you have to take a written test. You will read some basics about how all the pieces and parts work, but it doesn’t mean that you really understand the mechanics. When I was flying, I used to ask to watch the mechanic do his work, so that I could see the interiors and workings of airplanes. This really helped me understand the machine much better, making for a safer pilot.

In your finances, do you really understand your investments? Whatever your investment vehicle of choice, you need to know what makes the investment ‘fly’. If everyone did their due diligence to understand their investment vehicles, you would hear far less stories about people losing all their money to Ponzi schemes or real estate investing. Read, watch the experts, ask questions…. know your machine.

Determine your altitude:

In flying, there are reasons for choosing certain altitudes. If you are going to do a short flight, in good weather, it might not make sense to fly all the way up to 10,000 feet. You will just burn unnecessary fuel and take more time. Additionally, with gliders, if you know that it is a day with good thermals, you don’t need to tow too high in order to get the lift you need to stay up. Each 1,000 feet of elevation gets costlier. However, flying too low can be futile, and possibly hazardous.

So, in personal finance terms, let’s look at ‘altitude’ as your FI number. Each person, family and situation will have different requirements. Know what is your minimum safe altitude for your situation. It doesn’t mean you need to stop climbing at that point, but understand the tradeoffs and costs to keep climbing. And remember, in gliders, once you release at altitude, you can then catch a thermal and climb to great heights, with little resources. It seems that when many people hit FIRE (release), that is when they really start to climb financially and personally, with much less effort.

Fuel up:

Before leaving for a longer flight, you need to calculate your fuel burn and how much fuel you will need for your destination. What is the weight of the airplane including the passengers and baggage? What are the winds doing? You will burn more fuel climbing than at cruising altitutude, so what is your anticipated altitude? Then, you need to make sure you have enough additional fuel for emergencies such as getting off course, staying in a holding pattern, having to do go-arounds or being diverted to an unplanned airport.

So, with personal finances, everyone is going to have their own altitude (FI number) that they need to reach. Some may burn more or less fuel (money) along the way while climbing to altitude (FI). Everyone needs to figure what their necessary and frivolous fuel burns are to reach their destination in life. Don’t forget to include your emergency fuel supply. And remember, baggage adds weight and drag, so by reducing our life’s ‘baggage’ (whether physical or emotional), we can greatly decrease our fuel (money/energy) burn, and increase our lift (happiness).

Box the wake:

When taking lessons, a glider instructor will require that you learn to ‘box the wake’. Basically, all airplanes create a wake behind them, similar to boats. When you are in a glider, flying at the same altitude as the tow plane, you won’t feel the wake, because it is just below you. So, to box the wake, you drop the airplane straight down through the wake. You will feel the turbulence and then it will stop when you are out of the wake path. You hold the airplane there and then you fly at that same altitude to the left or the right, all the way outside the wake path. Hold again. Then you fly up, fly over to the other side, fly back down and back to the center below the wake, holding the aircraft in position for a second or two before each direction change. The goal is to avoid touching the wake while you “box it”. Then you climb back up to altitude by going through the wake. The purpose of this activity is to practice control while flying behind the tow plane. Also, one possible emergency is that the tow line doesn’t release and you will have to fly back to the airport and land in formation with the tow plane, which means landing with the wake in your path.

Boxing the wake was actually quite mentally uncomfortable and physically challenging for me. And it was by far my least favorite maneuver while flying.

In real life, sometimes we put ourselves in boxes and just accept the turbulence of work and life. As Richard Branson said, “You don’t have to think outside the box, if you refuse to let anyone put you in a box.” Identify what is turbulent in your life, box it up, and stay the fuck out.

Don’t take anything for granted and be resilient:

My second solo flight in a glider was on September 10th, 2001. I was on an extreme high and then an extreme low the very next day. And while I (or anyone I loved) didn’t get physically hurt on that day, I was scared, angry and insecure. And I wasn’t legally able to fly for three weeks. By the time the FAA allowed general aviation to resume, I had lost my confidence. I couldn’t solo again at that point. I had to step back and fly again with an instructor. Life throws us curveballs. We will all be hindered at some point, but even if we need to go back to square 1, or square 18, we need to keep our eye on the goal, and not give up or quit. Don’t take anything for granted in life and be prepared to overcome setbacks.

Feel the fear and do it anyway:

My very first solo was just staying in the flight pattern, in a powered airplane, doing ‘touch-and-go’ landings. I was excited more than I was scared, but then when it came time for me to solo outside the flight pattern, I become a big scaredy cat. I was getting out of my comfort zone. Thank goodness that I fear comfort, security and stagnation more than a I fear… well, fear itself. And the payoff can be tremendous when we face our fears.

Just make sure to analyze the risks, and face your fears safely. Discomfort is different than being unsafe and there is a big difference between calculated risk-taking and stupidity. What are your fears in finance and life that you are afraid to face? What is holding you back?

Practice for emergencies:

Notice that I didn’t say to (just) prepare for emergencies. In small airplanes, you always have to be mentally prepared for an emergency, but you also have to practice for emergencies. When flying, certain hazards can be disastrous at lower altitudes. So, when training, you will be brought up to a sufficient, safe altitude, usually at least 5,000 feet above the ground and you practice stalls, spins and flying under the hood (to simulate using instruments if flying into clouds). It is important that you have practiced how to recover from these situations, and not just be aware that they could happen.

So, in personal finance, it might be a good idea to practice in addition to preparing. Try living on considerably less income while you are still working and have a safe, steady paycheck. You will gain more confidence to conquer most situations, but you can also take the saved money while practicing and put it into your emergency account, or invest it, so that you are even more prepared.

Side note: While you are working, you might want to even practice how you will respond to your new found freedom after FIRE. It would seem that, as human beings, we would have a ‘primal’ instinct to relish in our freedom, but after years of being a “caged animal” in the corporate world – with fancy titles, a steady, secure paycheck, and regular ‘to-do’ lists – complete freedom can be an adjustment for some people. It can be like going from being a farmer to being a hunter. And, wild animals that are born in captivity or rehabbed sometimes have to be reintroduced into the wild slowly to make sure that they are adapting appropriately before they are let loose completely. And others… well, they just claw their way out of the human zoo, flee quickly, and don’t look back. 🙂

Soar with the hawks:

Once you hit FI, you don’t have to ‘retire’, but you can soar. Most gliders are ‘towed’ up in powered airplanes. Once you get to the altitude you want, you release the tow line and both pilots turn and fly opposite of eachother. While ascending to altitude, it can be a noisy and bumpy ride. Once you release, then all of sudden it is quiet from the drone of the airplane engine and you feel the calm of soaring without the vibrations of the flight of powered airplanes. It is an amazing, freeing feeling.

When flying gliders, someone once told me that looking for hawks soaring can be a great way to find thermals. (Just don’t get too close. Bird strikes are disastrous to even small airplanes.) By the way, you probably won’t find this advice in any flight instructional book, or from your instructor. There is no magic formula that will show you how to find a thermal just by seeking out a hawk. Just like you probably won’t find FIRE advice from an economics course or a financial advisor. There is no magic formula or number for FIRE. Some things are just intuitive and when you hear the idea, you think… that makes sense! So, once you have reached your ‘altitude’, and you are FIRE’d (released)… you are then FREE to soar with the hawks.

Prepare for landing:

Just like a pre-flight checklist, pilots also have a landing checklist, even in gliders. And while you can’t make up your own landing checklist for airplanes, you can make your own landing checklist for your life.

For me, I realized that I had to redefine FIRE to better suit my personality and goals, to make a safe landing of where I want to be in life.

My FIRE checklist is: Freedom, Intellect, Resourcefulness, Enough.

Where do you want to ‘land’ in life?

What does FIRE mean to you and what are your real life analogies?

Do you want to keep droning from point A to point B?

Do you want to keep climbing to higher altitudes that are costly and unnecessary?

Or… Do you want to release and soar with the hawks?

[And remember, you don’t need to fly a glider to soar like a hawk. As Bob Segar once sang: “I saw a young hawk flying and my soul began to rise…..”]


Thanks so much Primal Prosperity! Perhaps someday

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34 Responses to What Flying Airplanes Taught Me About FIRE

  1. Wow this was such an interesting post!!! I honestly didn’t think about the connection between flying and FIRE but I love the comparisons.

    I definitely feel like it’s been a noisy ride trying to get to FIRE but I am definitely looking forward to FIRE when I can glide in retirement and pursue my passions 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!!!
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Great Expectations With Your FinancesMy Profile

  2. Team CF says:

    Working our way to flying with the hawks! Great post, very nice analogy.
    P.s. timing of this “flying” post is rather ironic. Just heard a story on the radio of a Russian flight which caused about 27 people serious injury (internal bleeding, broken bones, and all) during unexpected turbulence. Hope they will have a speedy recovery.
    Perhaps the analogy of turbulence during the path to FI is also rather fitting 😉 Fasten your seatbelt and don’t get hurt (financially).
    Team CF recently posted…Real Estate Report – April 2017My Profile

    • Wow, severe turbulence like that is pretty rare, but it does happen. I once experienced unexpected bad turbulence in an airliner where people were falling down in the aisles and the overhead bins opened up. It was a bit freaky.

  3. A co-worker of mine has a plane. He talks about upkeep being about twenty thousand a year. I can’t imagine having a hobby where to stand still would cost me a new car a year before we talk about certification upkeep. Still it does sound like a lot of fun, perhaps a rented lesson some day. And of course I love the analogies.

  4. Wow great stuff. And I learned a lot about flying too! I used to be afraid of flying, mainly because I didn’t understand it. I felt out of control. But then a friend in aviation gave me some basic info and tools, as well as things I looked up online. Once I understood it, I didn’t fear it as much. Oh that turbulence is totally normal and most planes can take 20X the amount of turbulence that most people feel on the plane. I think that translates too to personal finance. I think the more you understand it, the less scary it can seem. You don’t have to be a “numbers person” to like PF.

  5. Eric B says:

    Been reading your site for a while now PP! This is the most metaphor-packed post yet 🙂

    Very impressed that you had the guts to fly a glider!

  6. What a terrific metaphor! Never thought to compare flying to FIRE, but it works! Thanks for the great post this Monday morning.

  7. Well fancy seeing you over here, Primal Prosperity! I love this! I’ve never flown an airplane before; I’m afraid of heights myself. But I feel like you can learn plenty of life lessons from anything new and challenging. 🙂 I love the idea of practicing for emergencies, which is something Mr. Picky Pincher and I try to do often, as our financial situation changes.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…What A Frugal Weekend! April 30My Profile

    • That’s great that you practice, and not just prepare. It can be fun too! I agree, that anything new and challenging can bring us a lot of learning and confidence. There are a lot cheaper ways to do it too. 🙂

  8. Mr. Tako says:

    Well, I’m a sucker for a good metaphor and this post was filled with them!

    Thanks Primal Prosperity! Very enjoyable post!
    Mr. Tako recently posted…The Happy Middle-Ground Of Financial IndependenceMy Profile

  9. Divnomics says:

    Never knew flying had so much in common with personal finance, or life in general.. 🙂
    Great post about all those metaphors. It doesn’t only help to understand the flying part, but als the finance part. It really ads up!

  10. Amber tree says:

    The practice for emergencies is a nice one. And I like the smooth link to thinking about your post FIRE life. Not to be forgotten. I will add that to the checklist

  11. Great way to see it! Can’t wait for your next post: How to own a plane while staying frugal ! 🙂

  12. This post was awesome PP! Interesting, informative, and full of analogies. And I love Bob Segar tunes. 🙂 Thanks to you and Mr. 1500 Days for sharing!

  13. Great post PP! Your analogies were very enlightening and like others mentioned, I learned a lot more about flying.

    I agree with your philosophy of practicing before the actual event occurs. Too often we are afraid of change and even if we don’t love our current situation, it is comfortable and known to us. By embracing change and uncertainty we put ourselves in a more flexible position. For example, I used to think I needed to reach my FI number before I could make drastic changes in my career. But I’ve recently decided that by living well below my means and having healthy savings, I should be able to make some changes and figure out some of the other details as I go.

    Thanks for the inspiring post!

    • “By embracing change and uncertainty we put ourselves in a more flexible position.”

      You hit the nail on the head there. Like you, I came to the same realization a couple of years ago myself.

  14. I took lessons in 1992 but never finished my private pilot. Seems I couldn’t find airports on long distance solos. It also tended to make me nauseous. Fun times but also some scary times. I like the trim tab analogy. Thanks for a great article.
    Financial Velociraptor recently posted…Financial Transparency as of 30APR2017My Profile

  15. Metaphorical post with metaphysical undertones! Good one PP. FIRE is inspiring a wide genre of analogies, and that’s all good – whatever it take to get people moving and make progress towards a decent retirement.
    Ten Factorial Rocks recently posted…Retire in 30s via Real Estate InvestingMy Profile

  16. This was an amazing journey of a story for me, thanks for such an interesting and amazing post. I’m always flying, not piloting, but getting my passengering on and I never really thought about the connection pilots have. I have made a similar comparison to Spartan Races which I probably could take the titles off each section and apply in a similar article. Overall terrific!
    Duncan’s Dividends recently posted…April Passive Income PursuitMy Profile

  17. I love all the flying metaphors! I was in aerospace, but working on helicopters which are inherently unstable. It was my job to stabilize them with computers 🙂

    Great point about testing your budget. We already were trying to live as close to our retirement life as possible. Before I quit, we knew how much it was going to cost us to travel and practice our hobbies. So far our budget has been about the same 🙂

  18. Glad to hear your practice paid off! That’s so interesting that you were in aerospace. I flew in a helicopter once, but never took the controls. That has been on my bucket list to try out. I once heard a helicopter pilot say that you have to let all intuition go out the door… haha…

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