Aircraft are expensive, fragile, very dependent on the weather and, unfortunately, on other people such as Air Traffic Control and airport operators. Airports can be blocked, aircraft can be seized and it only takes a pea shooter to put them out of commission.
Given all that, they are still by far the best devices to quickly put hundreds of miles between you and a problem.
If you wanted an airplane as a survival tool, you would be looking at something simple that relies on the least possible support and can operate outside of airports: a bush plane. A bush plane is the equivalent of a four wheel drive car, with high wings and long legs to keep the body and propeller away from an uneven runway and a short take-off and landing distance. In that category, the Cessna 172 is the most available and easiest to fly aircraft. It is a four seater that will take you and your family halfway across the country in a day. A 40 years old model is still perfectly serviceable and costs under $50,000. However, you will need to count on a minimum of $5,000 a year in maintenance and running costs (constant compulsory maintenance is why old airplanes remain in good condition) and a serious investment in time.
Similar aircraft start with the Piper Cub, a seventy years old classic which is probably the cheapest airplane you can find but is mostly made of tubes covered in fabric and go up to the De Havilland Twin Otter, an absolute master of the genre (the main support plane in Antarctica) but much too large and expensive for anything other than commercial operations. I must absolutely mention the Cessna Caravan and the Pilatus Porter as top of the heap although they are also too large and expensive for our purpose. Back in the “vaguely reasonable” range, you’ll find the De Havilland Beaver ($300,000), the most famous airplane on floats, ubiquitous in Canada and Alaska and the much more affordable ($100,000) family of Maule 7 light aircraft (the Maule MX-7 on Tundra tires looks like a monster truck and will land anywhere!).
People use all those planes on water, dirt, grass and snow in inhospitable country around the world every day. They are slow, but usually have a superb range. The aforementioned C172 will take you at 140 mph for more than 800 statute miles away from your troubles before having to be refueled. Almost 45,000 have been made since 1956 so every mechanic in the world will know how to fix it and will have parts for it. Those planes are able to take off in less than 250 yards, but if you are considering converting one of your fields into a runway, count on double that to be comfortable and triple to be safe.
If you just want to get a license, it takes only between 40 and 50 hours of flying, a serious health check, a bit of classroom tuition, one ground exam, a flight test and a budget of around $6,000. Even if you don’t own an airplane, having the ability to fly one is a serious asset, especially if you consider living in a post cataclysmic world. Imagine The Walking Dead with stranded pilots instead of slightly intellect-challenged policemen.. They’d be in Hawaii having margaritas by now.
Higher up the scale come twin engine piston airplanes, which are much more difficult to fly and way more expensive to maintain without much added performance. Their only saving grace is that if you lose an engine over mountains or water at night or in bad weather, it is not the end of your world.
I live in a small island and a light twin is one of my main modes of transportation. I would certainly not bother with the time and expense otherwise, although I am aware of a few survival situations where the plane could become useful. We were invaded once and the plane would certainly give me the option of escaping if it happened again. It might also work for a well documented tsunami or a case of serious civil unrest or a nuclear power plant failure. In every case, I’d need at least 30 minutes of prior warning and a clear enough case that I’d need to leave everything behind immediately. I used to have a second home about 500 miles away that made the plane much more useful but today, a boat would probably be a better escape choice for me.
A twin rating, added to your pilot’s license costs about the same as the original license and is at least equivalent in difficulty. It is quite a big step up but you will understand how to fly the majority of aircraft in the world and really feel like a proper pilot. A bit like the difference between driving a moped and a Harley Davidson.
Next up is the Instrument Rating. It is a course and an exam that allows you to fly exactly like the airlines, landing with as little as 200’ vertical visibility (scary!) and flying above the clouds with Air Traffic Control telling you what to do (which does make it much easier). This allows you to use your airplane as a traveling tool as you have to worry much less about the weather and I would be going nowhere without it. This is a long and expensive course for which you should budget a good $20,000 so it is not worth it unless you want to travel regularly with your own plane. Becoming a professional pilot takes a similar but parallel and slightly more difficult route and you need to decide early which one to follow. As salaries have come down significantly, the investment in time and money to become a hirable professional pilot is not really worthwhile nowadays unless you are really passionate about being in the air when you fill your endless paperwork.
A good, realistic flight simulator like the defunct Microsoft product or the still very much alive X-Plane 10 will teach you a lot but it is no substitute for the real thing, especially in the early stages. It helps greatly later on, in learning all the procedures. You can get you checklists right and learn how to operate the instruments without having to spend $150 an hour in the plane (or $15,000 an hour if you’re qualifying for a 747) and you can surprise your instructor with your new proficiency, acquired in-between lessons.
A pilot’s license can be a valuable part of your assets and, in a few select situations, a plane could put you seriously ahead of the crowds. In any case, take one lesson and do discover the third dimension for yourself.
Because they can take off and land pretty much anywhere, having a helicopter handy opens up tons of options. While it might take you a minimum of an hour to get to an airport and get an airplane ready, the scramble time of a helicopter is counted in minutes and although they are not generally considered fast,120 mph in a straight line will beat any car in traffic. They are incredibly agile and I have learnt to land a helicopter in a forest clearing, on a mountain slope, on a building’s roof and finally, to balance it on the top of a fence when there was really nowhere else to put it.
The problem, of course, is that the cheapest helicopter costs four times as much to buy and operate as the equivalent airplane as they require even more meticulous maintenance (think 2,000 moving parts, all critical..). There are a few classic models that are vaguely reasonable to own, such as the 300, a piston engine three seater designed by Hughes in the sixties but now under license to other manufacturers like Schweizer and Bell, the very successful Robinson R22 and R44, modern two and four seater pistons, the fabulous Hughes 500, a small, very agile turbine five seater made famous by the Vietnam war and the Aérospatiale Gazelle, a very fast four seater turbine designed for the French military. They range in between $100,000 and $500,000 (very) second hand although you will need to get a 40 years old Hughes to put it in that sort of prices whereas a Robinson will never be older than 10 years, at which point they go back to the factory to be stripped and rebuilt. If you are not playing with back of the sofa money, Agusta, Sikorski, Eurocopter and Bell will all be delighted to sell you a superb new twin turbine five seater... starting at just $5 million a piece… And if you want a proper workhorse and are not afraid of random and expensive maintenance issues, $200,000 will get you a very old but still legendary Huey (Bell UH-1).
Helicopters are also limited by weather, although not in the same way as airplanes (one might fly when the other can’t) and they have a much smaller range, often just around 250 statute miles.
It all sounds quite negative but the one thing that helicopters are good for is fun. A good comparison is that the vast majority of planes can be compared to buses, trucks and at the best, luxury sedans while any helicopter is going to be a motorcycle, and more than a few are in the Ducati category of motorcycles. Most planes are inherently stable and will easily fly on their own. In fact, it is good practice to trim (adjust) the controls so that a plane does fly itself and the pilot can use its hands and concentration for things like navigation, communications.. and paperwork. Flying a helicopter is like driving a motorcycle fast on a mountain road and the last thing on your mind would be to let go of the controls. In fact, and to complete the analogy, you even have a twisting handle for power although you do operate that one with your left hand in a helicopter.
A good airplane will allow you three mistakes before killing you; you can get in a few nasty scrapes with a car and have no more than a sore neck and an angry insurer to show for it. Just like a motorcycle, a helicopter will bite your head off if you so much as look at it funny. This, what most people would consider as a serious flaw, is of course a big part of the attraction. You’re not on the highway in cruise control, you’re on a forested mountain road in a 200hp superbike. It makes the blood flow differently.
Getting a helicopter license will involve 40 to 50 hours of flight time at $200 an hour plus the usual ground tuition, exam and flight test. It is reasonable to budget above $10,000 for the lot. You will need to double that to get a professional license but it may be worth it as, in contrast to an airplane pilots license where you will need additional ratings and flight time, the basic professional helicopter license is more immediately marketable. Also, while there is less job security, being a helicopter pilot is much more of an adventure. You might be doing oil rig transfers in the Philippines one year and herding sheep in New Zealand the next or flying tourists inside a volcano in Hawaii or shuttling millionaires to and from their mega-yachts in the Virgin Islands or picking up casualties in the Swiss Alps. All a bit more exciting than doing the 17:15 to Boston every day.
So, if the helicopter is definitely a millionaire’s toy, it is also an extraordinary tool that proves its worth whenever there is a disaster and in every battlefield. Being able to fly one goes high in a list of personal assets and it makes for quite an exciting and varied career.
A subcategory of aircraft that are worthy of particular interest for preppers are ultralights. In most of the world, anything under about 1000lbs could be considered an ultralight and that allows for some quite capable aircraft. In America, unfortunately, those are considered sport airplanes and are subject to quite a few regulations and a specific pilot’s license although, fortunately, nowhere near what certified airplanes have to go through. Only the smallest of single seaters are considered Ultralights in the USA but those are completely unregulated: no license, no bureaucracy, just a few reasonable limitations like not flying over built up areas. Do note that not legally requiring a license doesn’t mean that you are not going to kill yourself the minute you take to the air: instruction is paramount!
As you do the maintenance yourself, the costs go down tenfold and you don't need to spend a significant part of your life renewing licenses and medical certificates. Barring a reasonable amount of flying to maintain your proficiency, you can keep your little escape and reconnaissance tool nicely folded in your garage until it becomes useful. Ultralights are an uncommon freedom if things go really bad.
The smallest ultralight is an extraordinarily compact device: the powered paraglider. In its simplest expression, it is a parachute and a backpack engine with a propeller attached. The whole thing can weigh less than 60lbs and will allow you to fly (slowly, not more than 25mph) from very short fields (less than 300 ft for obstacle clearance but you do get airborne almost immediately) for more than two hours. They are inherently safe (you are, in fact, already under a parachute) with the only serious danger being landing on water (where you will instantly sink with all that stuff on your back) or flying into electric lines. If you’re not interested yet, consider that many military and law enforcement agencies use them for low altitude reconnaissance and behind-the-lines insertion. A brand new package will cost you about $7,000 but you will find much cheaper second-hand ones discarded by pilots having lost their enthusiasm (they are, after all, very, very slow...). The biggest limitation of the powered paraglider is that it is almost impossible to fly in winds above 15 mph. An other limitation, for the paranoid, is that you do make a very tempting target, noisily drifting against the clouds.