Aircraft and Aviation, Post-TEOTWAWKI, by G.R. in Texas

I read JWR’s books Patriots and“How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It” with interest and have been thinking and acting on them since. In particular, I was struck by the concept of using aircraft post-TEOTWAWKI for various purposes as illustrated in Patriots. I’d like to submit the following for your review, and for posting on Survivalblog if you feel it worthy.

I’ve been a commercial pilot (not airline) for about six years and have amassed flight time in aircraft as light and simple as a Van’s RV-7 (experimental) up to Beechcraft King Air-sized airplanes in various missions across the continental US. I have personally guided aircraft across 40 of the continental States, from the flats of Texas to the peaks in Colorado. I don’t pretend to have the vast breadth of different experiences like Alaskan bush pilots or the years of experience of senior airline pilots like Captain Sullenberger (of Miracle on the Hudson fame), but I do believe I can offer some pointers on the use of light aircraft for survival, retreat, and Get Out of Dodge (G.O.O.D.) purposes.

Why bother?
The fact is that airplanes are expensive to own and operate, regardless of whether it’s an Experimental or Certified aircraft. Even heavily-used models cost as much as a really nice new truck and require much more upkeep than a vehicle. The training to become a pilot is expensive, and just like marksmanship, flying requires continual practice to stay competent. The money spent on an airplane could easily go to preps that have more lasting value like your deep larder, hardening a retreat shelter, or any number of other purposes. There are a couple advantages, however, for those who have their retreat fully stocked and ready or- more likely- are considering bringing an aircraft owner or pilot into a retreat group.  

Speed. In a G.O.O.D. event, speed is of the essence, particularly for those prone to procrastination. The 28-hour nonstop drive from my current location to my family farm/retreat takes perhaps 8-10 hours in a light airplane, including the time spent to land and refuel. If I make this flight in the summer with a tailwind, I could leave after breakfast and land at the airport nearest the retreat before dinner. In a G.O.O.D. scenario, this drive could take a week or more depending on how bad things get on the ground- and it’s quite possible I might not make it at all.

All-terrain. Regardless of what happens to the infrastructure on the ground, an airplane can get you over it. Road blocks, traffic accidents, gridlock, etc are no longer a factor. Even if most airports close, an average light airplane only needs 1/4-1/3 of a mile of straight road or pasture to land and take off comfortably. Many measure their take-off and landing distances in hundreds, rather than thousands, of feet. Extremely light aircraft (like the ultralight aircraft in Patriots) can take off in 200 feet or less.

Reliability. Airplanes are built to keep flying. With proper maintenance, engine malfunctions resulting in a failure due to design and construction problems are next to none. Further, in an EMP event, I believe virtually every light aircraft would still be flight capable. The ignition systems in these aircraft are magneto-driven (think: distributor on an older car), so the engines would likely continue to run. Even the newer fuel-injected aviation piston engines use magnetos and mechanical fuel injection which are impervious to EMP. The communication radios, GPS and navigation radios would be fried, but with a map and a compass you’d still be able to get to your retreat- or at least to the nearest airport or road. The engines and systems on light aircraft are very simple and a typical light aircraft can go 10 years or more between engine overhauls at normal utilization rates.

Aircraft Types and Limitations
There are two aircraft types I wish to discuss: light single-engine (FAA-Certified) and light single-engine (experimental). I specifically ignore large, complex, and multiengine aircraft due to their cost, complexity, and the more expensive and intensive training program that comes with these aircraft. They also have much higher fuel consumption and need much longer runways on the order of 4,000-6,000 feet in length.

Certified (or certificated) aircraft offer a number of advantages. They are (relatively) mass-produced, leading to some commonality of parts among various types and models, and their mechanical systems and designs are well-proven and nearly every airframe and powerplant (A&P) technician in the world can work on these aircraft. They include the ubiquitous Cessna and Piper lines, and the less common and more-expensive varieties such as Beechcraft, Mooney, Cirrus, and others. Used prices can range from $10,000 for a used Cessna 150 to $500,000 or more for barely-used Cirrus SR-22s. Generally speaking, the more cash you shell out, the more speed and load-carrying capacity you will get in an aircraft, along with more fuel burned per hour. Some good G.O.O.D. aircraft could include the Cessna 150/152 for one person, the Cessna 180 and 185 for more than one person, and even some modified Piper PA-18 and PA-20-series with short takeoff and landing (STOL) kits installed. A converted C-150/152 with conventional landing gear and larger engine is an ideal bug-out vehicle for one person with a get-home kit. These aircraft are currently selling for less than the cost of a good grid-tie wind turbine and tower kit.

Certified Advantages
Besides the advantage of being “common” aircraft that don’t attract much attention at a local airport (assisting in OPSEC in a G.O.O.D. situation), certified aircraft offer the advantage of having manufacturer parts support and lots of certified aircraft mechanics to work on them in normal pre-TEOTWAWKI conditions. Besides an aviation mechanic’s license, no specialized mechanic training is required, and costs tend to be fairly predictable with these aircraft. They also don’t require any special pilot training (though type-specific training is always recommended) and can legally be flown by anyone with a private pilot license.

Certified Disadvantages
Problems with certified aircraft aren’t many but can pose serious challenges. Because these aircraft are supported by manufacturers who are exposed to absurd levels of product liability, parts tend to be unbelievably expensive due to the liability insurance attached to each one and the “one-off” nature of certain parts. For example, new “crate” engines from GM, Ford, and Dodge can be had for as little as $1,000-$2,000, depending on type, whereas even the smallest aircraft piston engine costs upwards of $20,000 new from the factory. Additionally, these aircraft tend to be on the “heavy” side, with interior trim, autopilots, extra radios, air conditioners, and other creature comforts leading to “fat” airplanes that cannot carry as much as their size and cost would seem to indicate. To avoid fat airplanes, potential buyers should focus on those built before the end of general aviation aircraft construction in the mid-1980s. Those built after 1994 (when aircraft building started again) tend to be significantly heavier than the same models built earlier due to the reasons mentioned above.

On the other side of the coin is the Experimental category. These aircraft are exactly like the name implies- not factory-produced, and assembled by the builder for his or her educational and recreational purposes. As a result, you can literally build whatever you want so long as the FAA will approve it to fly- that is, grant it an Airworthiness Certificate. There is also the ELSA/SLSA- Experimental Light Sport and Special Light Sport categories which are not FAA-approved but fall under a different set of rules altogether. These are closer to certified but still do not undergo the same process as FAA-certified models. Also, ELSA/SLSA aircraft are limited to lower speeds and restricted to two seats. The advantage to Light Sport aircraft is their low fuel consumption and better factory support, as compared to Experimental aircraft.

Several manufacturers offer experimental aircraft kits which allow a builder to have some factory support and design/parts commonality that can increase the safety and reliability of these aircraft and greatly reduce builder errors and construction time. For example, Van’s Aircraft, which is based just south of Portland, Oregon, builds a number of designs all cut from the same cloth and have received numerous awards for efficiency and performance. A Van’s aircraft can take off in a few hundred feet and cruise at 200 mph. Several other manufacturers offer similar kits, all with varying capabilities. An additional benefit to buying a kit-built aircraft is the large builder community that tends to come with the purchase. For example, Van’s aircraft has recorded more than 7,000 flying aircraft since they started selling kits, outpacing many Cessna factory models, and every Van’s builder has the support of the entire community of builders and pilots. The community of experimental builders is truly huge, numbering in the tens of thousands, and many share the same values and sense of community that preppers do. Besides kit aircraft, there are many designs available solely as plans, from which a builder creates the airplane from blueprints. This is the least-expensive and most labor-intensive method of building your own airplane, and also requires the largest investment in tools–all of which would be left behind in a G.O.O.D. evacuation.  (But the knowledge you gain goes with you.) As an example, the Thatcher CX-4 single-seater can be built from plans for less than $5,000 (and lots of ‘sweat equity’) with a VW-derived engine on the front end, cruises around 100 mph, and burns 4 gallons of fuel per hour.  

Experimental Advantages
As mentioned above, cost is a major advantage for Experimental aircraft. Whole-aircraft kits for experimental models cost a small fraction of a similar new factory-built airplane, and the builder has the advantage of keeping the airplane as simple as he likes or going “all out” to build his dream airplane. As a result, these airplanes have the potential for better carrying capacity than similarly-sized certified aircraft, allowing them to carry more “stuff” for the same takeoff weight. Costs are also controlled because the builder can service the airplane himself- assuming he follows the FAA paperwork when building the airplane to receive his repairman’s certificate. Engines are not restricted to certified models, and in fact many light experimentals fly with modified VW and Corvair air-cooled engines, whose parts can be sourced from any auto parts store. Some higher-performance models run with Ford or Chevrolet V-6 and V-8 engines, as well, which also helps with keeping parts costs down.

Experimental Disadvantages
Like certified aircraft, experimental-category aircraft have disadvantages as well. Because of the nature of the Experimental category, these airplanes do not undergo the long and expensive proving process that FAA-certified models do. This means that structural flaws, design errors, construction problems, and other issues can be discovered the hard way by the builder or owner because they were not found during the certification process. Also, these designs have little or no parts stocks available and replacements would have to be hand-built should something break. Should you buy an experimental airplane second-hand, you also take the risk of possible errors in construction from the original builder. As a rule, experimental aircraft experience more accidents related to construction and design than any other type of flying machine.

Aircraft Use: Post-TEOTWAWKI
What then is the potential for aircraft use post-TEOTWAWKI? There are several practical uses that come to mind:

Bugging out. As previously mentioned, using an airplane to get to a retreat is a good option, particularly if you’ve established a retreat on a remote lake or other area with no roads (or maybe impassable roads due to flooding or snow cover) leading in. A floatplane can get you safely onto shallow lakes or rivers, and an airplane with good takeoff performance could land on a small stretch of field, road, or pasture next to your retreat. Outfitters in Alaska and Canada drop off hunting and fishing parties to remote lakes using float planes and bush planes every day for exactly these reasons. [JWR Adds: See the SurvivalBlog archives for other posts about bugging out via light aircraft, STOL planes, and retrofitting planes with Tundra Tires.)

Surveillance. Assuming quality high-octane fuel is available post-TEOTWAWKI, some aircraft engines can be modified to run safely and legally on motor vehicle gasoline instead of expensive and rare leaded avgas, and so surveillance flights could be made using an airplane if your retreat has a stabilized fuel cache. This could include surveillance of conditions in the local community at large, scouting expeditions for food crops and wildlife herds, performing surveys of floods, snow cover, forest fires, etc, or simply seeing what the world outside your retreat is doing in your absence. If your retreat follows JWR’s location criteria, finding out what is going on in the outside world using a vehicle could take days or weeks and expose you to roadblocks and accidents (as described in Patriots). In an aircraft, this type of survey could be done safely in an afternoon at altitudes that put you out of range of most small arms.

Transport. Again, assuming fuel is available, emergency transport for very ill individuals to a better-equipped locale is possible using an aircraft. Retreats that are connected to one another via radio could coordinate medical care efforts and essentially establish an air ambulance system should such a system become necessary. Additionally, critical supplies or gear can also be relocated quickly using an airplane to stranded members of a retreat who have problems with a vehicle or run into other trouble. As the American Redoubt grows, such a service could be valuable indeed on the day TSHTF. Note that the FAA has strict requirements in place for such air ambulance activities in the present day.

Communications. Altitude is the friend of radio transmitters and a relay system could be set up with an airborne aircraft relaying signals from hundreds of miles away to a ground location under the aircraft. COMSEC when using this method is poor since there are hundreds of thousands of aviation radios out there and no encryption system is available, but it is an option to consider. This concept is of particular value in mountainous terrain, in which an aircraft operating over the peaks can relay line-of-sight signals from one side of a mountain range to the other.

Power. The alternators of most light aircraft can produce usable power for charging alternative-energy system batteries (28-volts between 60 and 100 amps) and if the airframe itself became unusable the engine can be removed and used as a ground power station (with appropriate modifications). In fact, some small military ground power units and generators use aircraft piston engines in exactly this way due to their simplicity and relative efficiency.

Some tasks will not be practical post-TEOTWAWKI:

  • Close air support. As illustrated in the novel Patriots, these aircraft are built for light weight and low fuel burn, not for slugging it out in a combat theatre. The fuel lines, control cables, fuel tanks, and crew compartments are completely unshielded from attack and lack the self-sealing fuel tanks and fire suppression systems found on combat aircraft. They also leave the pilot or crew totally exposed to light arms fire and these aircraft would be easy prey for the most modest military aircraft or ground-based antiaircraft system. A weapon as simple as a belt-fed machinegun can destroy a light aircraft in a single burst. At best, these aircraft could be used in combat for scouting and communications relay while avoiding attention from hostile ground and air assets.
  • Hauling a family of five and bags across the country. Light aircraft are exactly that- light. At best, a couple people with light BOBs can fit in an airplane that would meet a prepper’s requirements. There are simply no aircraft out there that can land on short runways while carrying lots of people and bags, at least on a prepper’s budget, which is why JWR’s recommendation to live at your retreat is such a sound concept.

There are a number of factors to be considered that simply can’t be covered here without re-writing a flying handbook. Light aircraft offer advantages to the prepper but should be dead last on the “list of lists” for preps, if they make the list at all. For those of us fortunate enough to own or have legal access to aircraft, they could be a boon to the prepper living far from a retreat, or in a post-TEOTWAWKI situation to assist in specific capacities. Bringing a licensed pilot who owns an aircraft into your retreat group could be a consideration when deciding on the skill sets and equipment needed at your retreat.