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The Golf Jet

Finally, Aimer contends that Eclipse has done things the right way, both in construction and in training. "I have an aerospace engineering background," said Aimer, whose company also runs Turnkey Management, a mechanical servicing operation for private aircraft owners. "So far, I'm impressed with what I've read and seen as far as safety. The one-piece design, which reduces the possibility of cracks, is pretty sound." He also praised Eclipse's pilot training program, performed in conjunction with United Airlines in Denver, that essentially educates a pilot from scratch, and he lauded the company for encouraging less experienced pilots to fly with a mentor pilot aboard. Then again, Aimer observed, given the amount that insurance companies such as Lloyds of London charge to insure inexperienced pilots, it can actually be less expensive to hire a veteran pilot.

Gates is one step ahead. "We know a retired commercial pilot [Cecka] who we hope to convince to fly us full-time at an hourly rate," he said. "If that isn't feasible, we will hire a pilot on a salaried basis. I would guess our yearly pilot cost will be in the $30,000 to $60,000 range." Gates and Hughes agree that the expected overall operating costs per partner will be around $60,000 to $70,000 per year, assuming the plane is bought outright and an annual individual usage of 100 to 150 hours. "The key to meeting these numbers," said Hughes, "will be keeping passengers in the plane while it's flying. In other words, cut down on dead legs."

One thing the Desert Mountain boys are not worried about is an increase in congestion at major airports; their intention is to steer their plane to prime golf treasures by using underutilized smaller airports. So where's the first place they'll go?"We won't fly together too often," said Gates. "There's not a tremendous amount of legroom and Dave is the baby of the group at six-foot-two, 230 pounds." Indeed, the other three are each six-foot-four, one of the reasons Gates, Hughes and Laughlin were motivated to make a trip to the Eclipse factory in Albuquerque three months into their adventure, to see if they could squeeze in the four of them plus golf bags. They did, with little room to spare. "That and one twenty-five-pound duffle bag each is the limit," Gates said.

There is no written plan at this time for how the foursome's plane will be shared, though no one is worried. "We hope to enlist the help of paid consultants who are experts in airplane partnerships," said Gates. "Our initial thought was that each partner would have first claim to the use of the plane on a weekly rotating basis. There will be many issues to hash out, including time-sharing, hardware options, deadhead expense allocation, etc. But we'll work it out."

Hughes, a poker buff, said his first trip will most likely be to Las Vegas to play Rio Secco, where Butch Harmon teaches. McCarty wants to go to Castle Pines in Colorado, and he promises he'll be home on time. "Last time I was at Pinehurst," he said, "there was a bridge being built and somebody got stuck in the mud on the road to the airport. I missed my plane and couldn't get out until the next day. Missing flights is no longer going to be a problem."

By Propeller We Play

A Jet Alternative: Buy and Fly Your Own Prop Plane

Short of buying a jet, what's the best way to get around to the coolest resorts in the country?For many golfers it's owning—and piloting—a prop plane. Props cost far less than jets and, because they don't require much of a runway to land, they can make use of tiny airstrips often closer to resorts than even the nearest regional airport. And it's becoming more common for high-end resorts and private clubs to have their own airstrips on-site.

Brand new single-engine props cost anywhere from $200,000 for a four-seater to $3 million and up for a big six- to nine-seat turboprop. But most new models are in the $350,000 to $600,000 range. The one I fly, a Cirrus SR22-G2, cruises faster than 200 m.p.h. and can go from my home in Austin, Texas, to Orlando, Florida, in just over five hours with one fuel stop.

To fly your own airplane you need a private pilot certificate and regular training. An instrument rating lets you fly in the clouds, making these light airplanes even more useful. Typically it takes a serious would-be pilot a couple of months of regular flying to get a rating and a couple of years to build substantial flying time and experience, though much of this can be done with the accompaniment of an instructor or mentor pilot to speed along the learning process. For further information on obtaining a license and learning to fly, the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (aopa.org) has a helpful web site. —Robert Goyer

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