The Bear Bites

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I’ve always figured there were two theories of aircraft ownership: the magic carpet school and the ticking time bomb philosophy. The former gets tangled up in the romance and passion of airplanes as a means of justifying virtually any aircraft-related expense, no matter how irrational or how large. The time bomb view, which is what I subscribe to, holds that at one level, the airplane is always poised to rip a giant hole in your bank account when you least expect it. The wise owner plays constant defense.

For our little Cub partnership, the bomb detonated last week. Quite out of the blue, it needs an engine. As is often the case in these things, we were cruising along the beach in J-3 Nirvana one week, and puffing smoke out the exhaust the next. It happens. If I’m counting and remembering accurately, this is the fifth engine event I’ve been through in various ownership iterations; only one of those was foreseen and planned. In my experience, there are five stages of my-engine-just-crapped grief: shock, denial, acceptance, resignation and write the damn check. Having been through this before, this time, I skipped the warm up and just went straight to the check-writing phase.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. When I pulled two cylinders to actually clap eyes on the problem, I found one cylinder with a corroded bore whose piston had a seized compression ring. That explained the smoke, at least. Briefly, I thought we could get by with a top overhaul, but then I started wiggling connecting rods, one of which had enough end play on the crank pin to make an audible clunk. In a brief nod to denial, I drove to the hangar the next day to check it again. Surely I was imagining that end play. Sadly, I wasn’t.

So, a new engine. And this brings up two more theories of ownership: pay now or pay later. I have always preferred the pay now strategy, whereby as you fly the airplane, you pay into a reserve fund and keep your mitts off that money to mitigate the downside risk of the unforeseen engine expense. I know some owners who do this as sole owners or who otherwise set aside funds for the unplanned. I suspect that most people who can afford sole ownership don’t need to do this, however, and reason that their money is better employed working in some investment instrument to be withdrawn only when needed.

The advantage of multiple ownership is that when the big nut comes due, you either have the money in your reserve account or the partners just cough up their share. This can be an imperfect process. I once owned a Mooney in a two-way partnership. Three months after the purchase and before any reserve had been accumulated, the engine tanked with a cracked crankcase. I spent quite a few days in the denial phase on that one, but I learned. When we replaced that airplane some years later, we borrowed enough money to charge the engine reserve account to near the amount it should have had. Two years later, when the cylinders went soft, we had 80 percent of the money we needed for an overhaul, making it relatively painless as these things go.

With four partners in the Cub, even the major expense of an engine is hardly a deal breaker. Everyone just has to come up with three grand or so, a mere pittance in an age of $30,000 avionics upgrades and half-million dollar new airframes. If we had billed the airplane on actual cost, the hourly engine reserve should have been $12, but even at that, we would have had only about 20 percent of the total cost of the engine. Hardly worth the bother. I’m sure I wouldn’t feel that way if the overhaul cost $30,000 instead. On the other hand, I wouldn’t get myself into a partnership or ownership structure with that kind of expense exposure. Which is another way of saying that the Cub is more of a loud firecracker than a time bomb; it’ll get your attention, but it won’t take your arm off.

I’ve argued this before and I think our engine replacement proves it: A legacy LSA in a multiple partnership—or even a newer LSA—is still the most affordable way to own and fly an airplane and its expenses can be low enough to not cause monthly budget agita. It certainly doesn’t for me. And without the threat of medical loss looming, what’s not to like?

So when people tell me that they can’t find any way to afford flying or owning an airplane, I tell them they’re not trying very hard. There are always ways to make it work. Just pay attention to that ticking sound and you’ll be just fine.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (5)

Nice article.

I think that for some people, the idea of sharing an aircraft is so hard to imagine and so unpleasant that it causes them to think they'd rather do without! It's true that I get a bit possessive of my car - I like knowing there'll be enough change for a coffee in the ashtray. I think it's natural to have some sort of personal relationship with the little craft that gets us safely and excitingly from A to B. And if it's not necessarily going to be there when you want it, I understand how that can make people think, "What's the point?" I get that, if it's true. As with boats though, given how much these things sit around in any given month, it just makes sense to suck it up and go in with other people. Losing some spontaneity but either gaining lots of spare cash or simply being able to afford ownership seems like a pretty good trade to me.

Posted by: John Hogan | August 19, 2013 7:15 AM    Report this comment

"As is often the case in these things, we were cruising along the beach in J-3 Nirvana one week, and puffing smoke out the exhaust the next. It happens."

Sounds like it didn't end with anything broken, though I'd be interested to hear about the details.

"So when people tell me that they can't find any way to afford flying or owning an airplane, I tell them they're not trying very hard. There are always ways to make it work. Just pay attention to that ticking sound and you'll be just fine."

That's exactly what I keep trying to tell people. Unfortunately, the public mis-perception of general aviation is hard to break, so this message doesn't always seem to get through.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 19, 2013 10:21 AM    Report this comment

I was once in a three way partnership in a Piper Warrior. I can't recall a single conflict. Seems we all had different preferences for flying times. And when two cylinders cracked it sure was nice to have someone to split the bill with!

Posted by: Donald Purney | August 21, 2013 11:05 AM    Report this comment

I was once in a three way partnership in a Piper Warrior. I can't recall a single conflict. Seems we all had different preferences for flying times. And when two cylinders cracked it sure was nice to have someone to split the bill with!

Posted by: Donald Purney | August 21, 2013 11:05 AM    Report this comment

I've been lucky as I have a great partner - my wife. If anything goes wrong, no argument, I fix and pay.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 31, 2013 8:44 AM    Report this comment

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