Jet Fever Symptoms: No Treatment, No Cure

"Hey, Dick, whatever happened to your Mustang purchase?"

I hear this all the time. And, after reporting in the January issue that I'd plunked down $10,000 at the NBAA Convention as a down payment on Cessna's new jet, I got a burst of mail, not all of it supportive. So I thought I'd tell you about the points of view I've received, what's happened to my own thinking as I've sobered up and maybe make some projections about the likelihood of actually getting one.

First, the mail. Many readers were genuinely enthusiastic about my buying an airplane for $2.295 million. The whole idea seemed to strike a familiar chord with pilots everywhere in the throes of moving-up aspirations. Several compared my hopes for a jet with their own dreams and desires. Bob Schuon of Deer Park, New York, acknowledged the exhilaration inherent in such a reach by quoting Samuel Johnson almost exactly: "Knowing you owe Cessna $2.3 million in 2006 concentrates the mind wonderfully." Canadian Colin Brown wrote me directly with these simple and welcome words: "Wow. You're really going for it. Good for you."

Some writers were Mustang buyers, too. In fact, one named James McCann had seen me at the Orlando NBAA Convention in the Mustang mock-up and had had a good laugh when I climbed out of the cabin only to have my reading glasses fall out of my coat pocket and land ignominiously on his shoes. Another, Mark Henderson, wrote generously to say that I sometimes write "for all of us airline/corporate pilot 'wannabes' otherwise grounded in professions of business or commerce … I'm sure Mr. Karl's Mustang order raised one or two eyebrows out there, but as a business owner … I will be smiling when I read his first column as a Mustang driver, in part, because I should be two years further down the delivery schedule."

I got several business proposals to help pay for the Mustang. Many of them I couldn't quite understand, and some sounded sort of harebrained. Others seemed amazing and a few were touching. One reader was president of a company that plans to enclose an entire Canadian golf course for year-round play. Another wrote to say that he'd had reservations similar to my Mustang concerns about rehabilitating a bus for personal use. After calling his wife like I did, he went ahead anyway and sent along a "before and after picture" of the bus on stationery announcing, "Shoestring Bus Conversions." He signed off with these words: "Life is getting short. Do love your Mustang."

I mentioned in January that the plan to purchase a Mustang had reinvigorated my interest in work. Like many pilots, I work pretty hard, in part to pay for the flying. At age 57 I admitted to a certain decline in my enthusiasm for long hours and trying days. This also hit a nerve in several readers. Some identified with the emotion while others took me to task for requiring an extravagant purchase to get motivated. Bob Axsom of Laguna Hills, California, wrote: "I'm 66, get up at 4:45 in the morning, go through a four hour daily commute cycle and I can guess at the 57-year-old doldrums he (me) was in. His actions and his sharing the experience will reinvigorate a lot of tired conservative minds, I'm sure."

On the other hand, Douglas Malcolm, MD, JD, thought that "Dick Karl's article about purchasing a $2.3 million Cessna Mustang to replace his turboprop was troubling. It is a true privilege to serve others through the practice of medicine or any other profession. I was disturbed when I read that Dick was 'reinvigorated about medicine' because of his desire to finance a personal jet of questionable utility." That hurt, so I e-mailed Dr. Malcolm, and our ensuing e-mail correspondence led me to believe that we both hold medicine to be an honorable privilege and responsibility. Still, it reminded me that it is easy to appear to be a rich, thoughtless jerk if you write about getting a jet for yourself.

Steve Tyron of Lansing, Michigan, cut deep with these words to the editor: "I see Mr. Karl relating his exploits as an MD and privileged pilot of significant means as being more self serving to himself and others of his ilk than representative of a majority of GA pilots that scrape and save for a single hour of air time." I never have been comfortable being part of an "ilk," so I wrote Steve, too. He turns out to be an air traffic controller and a man with a profound sense of romance about flying. I came to respect his point of view, and I have been reminding myself of his and other nudges toward humility. Just to be clear about it again: I have not inherited any money and I work hard. And I have done lots of scraping and saving in order to fly.

One guy ripped the January column out of the magazine, fired up his red pen and wrote, "Karl ought to stop acting like a kid. He's already chasing around the countryside in a twin …. What more does he need? He should put any extra money he's 'struggling' for to some real good use, like scholarships for underprivileged ... students." The words "ridiculous" and "foolishness" were scrawled across the bottom of the note. I couldn't make out the writer's name, but he lives on Kensington Circle in Toms River, New Jersey.

Then came a thought-provoking note from Jeff Schiller. "You know life is short, and there is no way of knowing what the future holds for us medically. I think you should go out right now and buy a used Citation I for a million or so … . Flying a Citation today with the same performance of the Mustang ... will cost you quite a bit less." Oh dear. This was not advice I needed to hear. It set in motion an alarming series of events and some very debilitating daydreaming.

Since his letter I've been riding the internet pretty hard, looking at Citation I/SPs. Sure enough, there are several at just over a million. I've come into possession of the Pilot's Operating Handbook for the Citation I, and I've pored over it hour after hour. "How can you keep rereading those charts?" asks my patient wife. But what great reading it is. At 41,000 feet she (the Citation, not Cathy) burns just 688 pounds per hour on a standard day. Range? You can probably count on 1,000 nautical miles IFR, 1,400 total. I called my mechanic extraordinaire, Bill Turley. He said, "We had one here for a while. It was a dream to work on. It had very simple systems and the engines were extremely reliable. The guy who owned it thought it was cheaper to maintain than his Conquest."

That didn't help. So I went to look at a few. They are roomy. And the idea of things like thrust reversers, high altitude, quiet flight and a jet, well I was smitten. As you will read in other parts of this magazine, it isn't quite so simple. Insurance is a worry. Just today I got a quote for $24,000 for $1.2M hull value and minimal liability. In addition, the requirements for insurance at this rate included FlightSafety initial training, a type rating, 50 hours with another pilot and 20 hours alone before carrying any passengers.

The Citation I burns some jet-A, too. Way down at Flight Level 330, she'll suck up 144 gallons an hour in cruise, more than twice our Cheyenne. You may have noticed that the price for fuel has gone through the roof, what with the uncertainty about the Middle East and some mighty aggressive pricing, at least here in Florida. Of course these same forces have decimated the used airplane market, so our Cheyenne is not worth what we've got in it. Everybody else is in the same boat, so nothing is selling. Somewhere, some day, somebody has got to buy a used Cessna 172 so its owner can get a 182, and so on, until that Citation X finally sells. If I had cash and no airplane, I could get a great one for a great price. But with a wonderful airplane in the hangar, the prospects of getting a retail buyer for it are slim. So here I sit, overcome with dreams but dead in the water.

Finally, there is the matter of paying for the Mustang. I mentioned in January that my wife and I had hoped to get into some business enterprises. But we haven't. We spent some money on due diligence for one project only to have it turn out badly, and we lost a bid on another venture. Real business is real competitive, and we may not have the risk-taking skills necessary to compete effectively. As an MBA/CPA and a surgeon, we have never had to live by our wits like so many entrepreneurs do. I've got a renewed respect for people who build businesses, make some money and buy their own airplanes. They've got good skills and nerves of twisted steel.

I haven't heard much from Cessna about the Mustang's progress. I read that they've chosen Pratt & Whitney for engines, which I like because of my experience with their engines on the Cheyenne. I got a Christmas card from the sales director who took my down payment, but that's about it. There was talk of polling purchasers about some design features, but so far, no joy.

I'm playing the Florida lottery more often, even though I know the chances of winning the jackpot are less than being hit on the head with a Mustang. We even looked into selling our house, moving into cheaper digs and using the profit to make a down payment on a used jet. So far, though, I haven't been willing to do it. I have also looked into a Part 135 operation that may pay to use a Citation for charter. This would make some sense, but so far I haven't seen any numbers and don't know the implications for insurance, maintenance, etc.

So I'm sort of waiting for the Gods to speak. Maybe the airplane market will open up; maybe I'll win the lottery. Maybe I'll get help from people like Jeff Burr, who wrote to say that he's "done what little I could to further his [Dick's] dream of owning a new Mustang by purchasing six copies of his book, Across the Red Line." That's at least another six bucks for the Mustang fund.

I can say that I am still reinvigorated about medicine and surgery and that, Mustang or not, I plan to work until I'm 65. At least. These things have been clarified by this episode of jet disease.

On the other hand, the Cheyenne is a wondrous machine. I've been to Houston recently, flying from Tampa right across the Gulf of Mexico to Leeville on the Louisiana coast. Groundspeeds (well, water speeds) were slow at first in the face of a 50-knot headwind, but I ended up making it nonstop in three hours and forty minutes. Out in the middle of the Gulf I hit the nearest airport key on the GPS and the page was blank. I was 134 nautical miles from the nearest paved runway. Still, those PT-6s turboprops ran like tops, and I had not a minute's unrest or worry about my swimming abilities. Maybe, I started to think, all this business about a jet is too wasteful, too much, too expensive, too, well, obnoxious.

Then I landed back in Tampa and spent the next day washing the airplane. While I was on the ramp Jimmy Buffett showed up in his Falcon for a concert, General Schwartzkopf departed for a gig on Meet the Press in Washington on a Lear and Bill Cosby glided in on his Gulfstream to visit a sick friend. Several other ordinary looking people showed up and departed on their smaller jets and it got me to thinking. If they can do it, why can't I? Wouldn't it be great, just for a while, to be a jet owner-pilot? I just need to work a little harder.

Today, back at work, I was right back on the internet looking at Citation I/SPs. I guess this ambivalent fever has not yet broken. I'm less sanguine now about getting a Mustang, but I haven't given up. There's still some time left. And a Citation I may be possible some time in the future. I'll let you know.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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