It’s a workday ritual usually defined by traffic and obnoxious radio DJs, but Jim Thomas’ commute is the highlight of his day.
He’s one of a handful of Mother Lode residents who trade in four wheels for a pair of wings every time they set off for work.
Five days a week, if the weather cooperates, Thomas flies his Piper Super Cruiser airplane from Pine Mountain Lake Airport near Groveland to his job as director of the Columbia Airport.
“Most people go to their garage in the morning,” Thomas said. “I go to my hangar.”
There are a number of local residents that find it easier or more fun to fly to work rather than drive, he said. Some have jobs in the Bay Area and are able to cut their commute times in half by flying. Others live, work and fly within the county.
Flying private aircraft on a daily basis becomes more cost-effective over long distances according to Benet Wilson, spokeswoman for the Aircraft Operators and Pilots Association.
“We call it a time machine, because being able to use your own plane to commute from point A to point B gives you more time to do the things that you want to do,” she said. “If you’re flying from Columbia Airport to a municipal airport out in the Bay Area, it’s pretty much a straight shot.”
She said another benefit of private aircraft is that pilots and passengers in small aircraft often skip security checks and baggage claims.
The AOPA has roughly 400,000 members, many of whom fly more than 100 hours a year, she said.
Thomas said he flies 200 hours a year and the trip from his home to work takes only about 15 minutes by air. The same distance by car takes 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic and the weather. It also doesn’t hurt that his home and office are both located next to airports, he said.
But you don’t have to work at an airport to commute by air.
Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost commuted from her home to work by air for several years.
Her companion, Mike Shaver, is a private pilot and the two would fly from their home near Groveland to Columbia Airport. Provost left her car in Columbia so she could make the extra four-mile trip from the airport to the courthouse in downtown Sonora.
She said the 15-minute flight and eight-minute drive didn’t cut down dramatically on commute time, but that wasn’t the main reason she flies.
“It wasn’t a significant time savings, but it was a lot more fun,” Provost said.
She stopped commuting by air recently because of the skyrocketing price of aviation fuel and because their tri-pacer airplane is in need of repair.
With the price of aviation-grade gasoline above $5.30 a gallon, flying on a regular basis remains a costly proposition. Thomas said flying costs about $60 per hour when you factor in fuel, insurance and maintenance costs over a year.
“This is my passion,” Thomas said. “This is what I choose to spend my money on.”