Tuesday, June 22, 2010

So Why Buy an Airplane?

There are some good reasons for owning an airplane. So let's consider them.

1. You want to go places that you can't take a rental airplane. Most rental operations have restrictions on what type of airports you can use. If your favorite destination is an unpaved field or a private strip or under 3,000 feet in length, you may find it hard to rent an airplane to go there.

2. You want to fly someplace frequently for the weekend. For most rental operations, their busiest time is the weekend. They will be less than thrilled if you take their prize bug-smasher for those days.

3. You want to make extended trips. Some may let you do that, but you have to pay the equivalent of three or four hours of flight time each day. If you're not planning on flying 20 hours on a five day trip, this will cost you a frigging fortune. And if you get weathered in somewhere for a few days, do the math.

4. You want to fly something other than a Piper Archer or a Cessna 172. Oh, you can find places that will rent Beech Bonanza or a Citabria, but they are harder to find. If your heart is set on renting a serious classic or an antique, your search may be a lot more difficult. You may fly into an airport with a 172 and everyone will ignore yuo, but fly in with an old tailwheel airplane or even a biplane and you will get almost as much attention from the ramp rats as if you'd flown in with a turbine.

5. You want to fly when you want to fly. Even a club might not help here. Owning your own airplane means that as long as the weather cooperates and the airplane isn't being worked on, you can go when you want.

6. You are tired of dealing with other people's stuff/messes. As you feel secure about it, you can leave a lot of your stuff in your airplane. Maybe you need to just lock it in the luggage compartment or just in the cabin, but you can leave headsets, charts, manuals, whatever. And if you've ever gone to go flying and you've gotten a 172 that reeked of puke because some kid an hour ago blew his lunch over the back seats...

7. You want to know what you fly. This is a corollary to the old rule of "beware a man who only owns one gun, he knows how to shoot it". Accumulate enough time in one airplane and you don't fly it so much as wear it.

8. As a friend pointed out, you may want to know the quality of what you fly. There can be some real dogs in the rental fleet and the "dogginess" of them may not be readily apparent. You might not know that the spiffy Piper on the flight line has a very tired engine or that the #2 comm radio has a tendency to not work when you need it. You'll know all of those things in your own airplane and you get to choose what you will live with and what you'll fix or upgrade.

All this comes at a cost, beyond the basics. If you want to fly a tailwheel airplane, figure that your insurance is going to run 4% or better of the hull value. The cures for that are tailwheel time and time in type. Once you start getting well into the triple digit range for both without an accident or claim, your insurance costs may drop a bit.

There are few things in life that are more fun than going to an airport, jumping into your own airplane, and flying to wherever you feel like.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"If It Floats, F*cks or Flies, It's Better to Rent"

That is the old wisdom, which is particularly appropriate to aircraft ownership. If you own an airplane, you are the one who pays all of the fixed costs: Maintenance, insurance, and hangar/tiedown rent. Those costs have to factored in before you buy a single gallon of 100LL and go flying.

When you run the numbers for a lot of airplanes, you may find that ownership is a better deal if you can fly 100 to 150 hours a year or more. Below that, the fixed costs will drive the per-hour cost sky-high.

Let's assume that you buy a simple airplane, maybe a mid-1960s Cessna 172. You may find one with a mid-time engine for $35,000.

Insurance: If you have a fair amount of time in 172s, you will probably pay about 3% of hull value for insurance, which includes liability and in-motion/non-motion coverage. ("In-motion coverage" insures you for the loss if you crack it up. "Not-in-motion" coverage insures you if some nimrod smashed into your parked airplane.) So figure on $1,000 a year, minimum for insurance.

Tiedowns/hangar rent is very much dependent on three factors: Location, location, location. At some airports close to major cities, an open-air tiedown will cost more than a hangar at a distant airport. Hangar rent also depends on whether the hangar is a dedicated use one (your airplane alone) or a shared hangar or whether the hangar is enclosed or open-air. Tiedown cost depends on whether the airplane is sitting on grass or asphalt. Outside of rural areas, plan on between $50/month for a tiedown to $400 or more for a hangar. Cheaping out and you will pay $600 a year.

But wait: If you keep your airplane outdoors, you will need two things: An engine cover or plugs (to keep the birds out of the cowling) and a cabin cover, to keep UV from aging your interior and overheating your avionics. If you need both for your airplane, that will run $700 or so, and they need to be replaced every three years or so, as UV and weathering will slowly eat them up. So add $200/year to that $600.

Now the biggie: Maintenance. This is very much location-dependent; the higher cost of your area, the higher the cost of maintenance. First rule is this, and I cannot stress it enough: Never ever take your airplane for an annual inspection to an aircraft shop that works on turbine-powered airplanes. Jet shops have a far different view of what a "reasonable cost" is from the average owner of a piston-engined airplane.

Second rule: Ask around. Some shops are known to be "aggressive", some are not. Try to find a shop that will work with you and stay away from shops that have a reputation for charging off and doing work without authorization. If you are handy with tools, you may find a shop that lets you do the prep work, such as removing cowlings and fairings. If you have your own hangar, you may be able to do a lot of the work and hire a freelance mechanic to oversee you and do the heavier stuff.

Still, for a Cessna 172, $1,000 to $1,500 is a good rule of thumb for a "nothing unusual" annual. But if you have a cylinder on your engine with a bad valve seat or needs rework, that'll run $1,000 per cylinder or more. Older airplanes are capable of a few "zOMGs" at an annual that will shock you. Still, you are saving on not having retractable landing gear or a controllable-pitch prop.

Note that when you add the costs of insurance, tiedown/hangar and maintenance, you are at $3,000 a year or better and that is before you go flying. If you don't live close to your airport, an hour's worth of tooling around the countryside will take you three or four hours of time, which will work to limit the amount of flying that you do.

This is why people say that renting is cheaper.

But there are solid reasons to own an airplane, which I will get to in another post.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


I am mulling over whether to sell my airplane, N333C. I have owned it for 20 years. I love flying it, don't get me wrong, but my personal economic situation requires that I consider making some changes. When it comes right down it it, this airplane is, at least for me, more of a toy than a tool.

I will, as I get around to culling and editing them, put up a number of photographs. I will also write some thoughts on owning and flying personal aircraft.