Writing a Reality Check

When you buy an airplane, be prepared to pay far more than the purchase price


No matter what youre flying, chances are youve thought of trading up to something faster, or more nimble, or with a bigger payload. Pilots never have problems thinking ahead of the airplane when theyre looking so far ahead theyre seeing the next airplane theyll own. As one pilot once told me, Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.

Conventional wisdom says that aircraft selection should match the mission of aircraft ownership. In other words, once youve figured out what you really want to do with an airplane, selecting an adequate model should be a piece of cake. If you plan to haul a family of four plus luggage over the Sierra Nevadas in the summertime in a typical 4-place Wichita spam can, youll be spending a lot of time calculating weight and balance and takeoff distances only to stay on the ground until its cooler.

A low service ceiling can pose problems even with light loads and cool weather. Last spring, a group of six airplanes belonging to a local flying club took off from Death Valley bound for the San Francisco Bay area with stiff westerly winds and moderate upslope cloud build-up on the 10,000- to 14,000-foot peaks. Although we all successfully completed the trip, the four higher performance airplanes simply hopped up and over the mountains while the two Cherokees bumped along in turbulence to find a suitable place to cross, more than doubling the normal three-hour trip time.

Its easy for a pilot to grasp the idea of flying sufficient airplane for the job at hand. It may be more difficult to accept your own limitations. Factors such as ability to afford the purchase price, ongoing cost of ownership, airplane maintenance needs and your own skill level factor into the aircraft selection equation. It makes no sense to buy an airplane that can do what you want to do if you arent up to the piloting skills needed or the loan payments leave you scrimping to cover the note.

What Will It Really Cost?
Its tempting to look at your bank balance and use that as your baseline for how much airplane you can afford. In reality, the real cost of ownership comes after the sale, and if you buy all the airplane you can without some plan for maintenance and flying costs youll end up with a fancy hangar ornament that you cant afford to fly safely.

We know one pilot who moved up from a Bonanza to a Baron, only to end up driving on 500-mile trips because the cost of flying the Baron was so high.

Maintenance costs also vary by type of airplane, something that is often factored into the sales price of the airplane. It cuts both ways. A plane that has a good maintenance record may be prohibitively expensive, while a low-priced bargain may do nothing but help your mechanic make his car payments.

Brand-new airplanes arent exempt from maintenance costs – even if theyre under warranty. New Cessna 172R models quickly earned a shelf full of ADs, necessitating downtime and trips to the shop. Piper Malibus had their share of early problems, too. One owner we talked to says his Malibu was great and Piper had been great about fixing things under warranty, but most of the hours he put on the airplane were flown wearing a groove between home and Vero Beach.

As a starting point, most singles will cost about 10 percent of the purchase price per year in fixed costs to shelter and care for an airplane. Then theres the cost of flying, including fuel, oil, maintenance, AD compliance, and training. Youll probably want to set aside some money for big-ticket items such as a future engine overhaul or a new paint job, although not all owners do.

Remember to check any modifications to make sure they were done legally and if not, find out what it will cost to make them legal. For a truly accurate cost assessment, you also need to figure the opportunity cost of using the money for an airplane rather than some other investment.

A rough financial analysis will allow you to look at an aircraft purchase in two different ways. First, can you afford to buy, fly and safely maintain this particular airplane at all? Second, how does purchasing this particular airplane compare to renting, or to owning your present airplane? If youre currently a renter, you may be surprised by how many hours you need to fly each year to make ownership cheaper than renting. (On the other hand, the convenience, familiarity and, lets face it, snob appeal of ownership can quickly make up for many of those dollars.)

Your financial fitness for ownership will also be affected by your pilot qualifications. If youre trying to buy an airplane you can grow into, expect to pay a premium for insurance and take some initial and possibly recurrent training. Insurance underwriting statistics and Air Safety Foundation figures show that pilots with low total time are more likely to have accidents, as are more experienced pilots with low time in type.

If you look risky, the insurance company may require 5, 20 or 50 hours of dual instruction before they will write a policy for you, and you arent going to have much choice in the way of policies. In researching this article we asked several pilots with a few hundred hours total time and a few dozen hours tailwheel time to solicit quotes on insuring a Pitts S1. In each case, the insurance company required them to complete 5-10 hours dual instruction in a two-place Pitts, with a specified minimum number of full-stop landings (usually around 25-30).

If the insurance quote is high or the training requirements before flying solo are strict, take this as a sign that you might want to reconsider your aircraft decision. While the insurance companys motivation is money, dont be so blinded by your desire for wings of your own that you put your safety on the back burner.

We talked with one insurance broker who is also a CFI. He advised beginning pilots to hold off on moving right in to ownership of complex or high-performance airplanes. Instead, he recommended working toward their instrument rating in a rented Arrow or Cutlass, thus building complex time as well as earning a rating that insurance companies like to see.

There are, of course, student pilots who want to learn to fly in their own Bonanza, Ovation or Malibu Mirage – some of them even brand new. Although there are some arguments in favor of such an arrangement, such as a large amount of time in type before flying unsupervised, generally the workload of such high-performance airplanes is too high for beginners.

Getting Up to Snuff
If you have unlimited funds – or at least have done the math and determined you can afford to buy that dream plane and maintain it well – its time to ask yourself: Are you up for the task of flying it? If your first thought is, Of course, I could fly a two-by-four if you slapped some wings on it! you might want to get a second opinion.

FAR 61.31 details the minimum training necessary to move up to complex, high-performance, pressurized or tailwheel aircraft. But even if you have the necessary endorsements, you may not be ready to move up.

If youve been flying only one type of airplane a long time, or if your overall experience level is low, just working off the minimums for a logbook endorsement may not qualify you to fly your dream airplane safely.

Specifically, the FARs dont specify any minimum level of training for aerobatic flight, for instance. Or your eyes may be firmly fixed on a vintage airplane with decidedly distinct flying characteristics. How and where can you prepare to master your machine?

Interestingly enough, you can take a clue from the way the FAA approaches airworthiness. Because many common GA aircraft were orphaned when their manufacturers went out of business, the FAA turns to type clubs in an attempt to provide a consistent basis for AD issuance. In its risk assessment methodology for small aircraft, the FAA relies heavily on the expertise of type clubs that have taken the place of manufacturers as storehouses of type-specific information.

Such type clubs can be your best friend if youre moving up to a higher performance airplane or a vintage treasure. Aside from the camaraderie of hanging out with folks who own a plane like yours, many of them offer tips on maintenance and performance and offer referrals to qualified instructors. For example, the American Yankee Association has developed the Pilot Familiarization Program, a volunteer-run effort to identify interested and qualified instructors and to provide a syllabus appropriate for pilot transitions to Grumman family aircraft.

The American Bonanza Society and the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association have more formalized pilot proficiency programs that offer members scheduled, multiple-day initial and recurrent training courses at various locations.

Be aware that, while some type clubs are not-for-profit organizations with elected officers, many are actually run as an adjunct to businesses that provide parts, repair or STCs for a particular type of airplane. Some types, such as Mooneys, have more than one type club, usually because the clubs were formed for different purposes. You should be able to tell if a particular type club will be valuable to you by corresponding with the contact officers or looking at the club Web site.

Keep in mind that if you are at a smaller airport and want to train in your own airplane, you may need to base your new airplane at a larger airport with better access to instructors until you meet the insurance requirements. I know one retired Navy pilot who based his vintage biplane in a warbird-rich community several states away in order to get the training he wanted.

The National Association of Flight Instructors, an EAA affiliate, maintains a list of CFIs and Master CFIs on its Web site. And companies such as Flight Safety, Simcom and Recurrent Training Center offer advanced simulator environments for both the initial transition and recurrent training for airplane types from Cessna 172s to big iron.

While those efforts will help you learn how to operate the new airplane, one of the greatest risks is also the most difficult to gauge.

The endorsements generally deal with the mechanical skills of operating the airplane. Learn wheel and three-point landings in a taildragger. Learn how to set power and handle retractable landing gear. Demonstrate knowledge of high-altitude physiology. Left unmeasured in most cases is whether you have the experience or judgment needed to know when to scrub a trip or tactics for handling the changing weather a long-distance traveling machine may run into.

Thats where researching the accident record of the particular type can pay dividends. If the airplane youre considering has a large number of ground-loops, for example, it indicates that you should spend more effort on aircraft control. If VFR into IMC has been more of a problem, you need to be prepared to alter your own behavior accordingly.

In addition, the accident record will help you identify trouble spots that may influence your decision to buy. A high number of fuel starvation accidents, for example, could indicate unreliable components or a problem with the design of the fuel system.

When all is said and done, the financial equation is only part of the equation to measure which airplane is right for you. After you write the check and satisfy the insurance company, the rest is up to you.

Your attitude will be the biggest factor in whether you can get up to speed in the aircraft type you want to fly – and stay proficient over the long term.

If you do it right, motivation should be no problem. Number one reason why I bought a Pitts? says one new S1 owner, Ive wanted one for 30 years. If everyone could reach down into their heart and find that one thing that they wanted to do or they wanted to own, well, the Pitts was my thing.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “How Will It Cost Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.”

-by Nancy Hattaway Miller

Nancy Hattaway Miller loves her Piper Archer because she can afford to fly it.


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