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Years ago in a sleepy college aircraft economics class, we learned the pecking order of items to consider when acquiring an aircraft. The short list included the usual items of damage history, engine time, avionics, operating costs and a variety of other factors making obvious sense. But one aspect of aircraft acquisition we weren’t taught is an issue that’s gained prominence in the current sales climate: The consequences of buying too much airplane.

With used aircraft pricing at an all-time low, it’s easy to get sucked into a convincing fantasy that the airplane of your dreams is also one fitting your skills, operating budget and mission. A quick scan of aircraft sales ads reveals temptingly sweet deals on aircraft once way out of reach for owners with low-end budgets. If such a carrot dangles in front of your eyes, here’s our advice to keep your dream and reality in check when stepping up to a bigger set of used wings.

Used Aircraft 101

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of handling a high-end aircraft upgrade, the buying process deserves some attention. Perspective buyers often call us for advice as they shop the bulletin boards and ramps of used aircraft for the taking. Although buying an aircraft can be a challenging effort, we’re often surprised at how misinformed some shoppers can be—selecting aircraft that are hugely maintenance intensive. Sadly, many of these owners get stuck with airplanes that stand true to their reputation—begging to be fed early and often in the ownership timeline.

We recall one fellow who traded his cherry Cherokee for a lemon because of the perceived speed and sex-appeal of a Mooney. It was an 80s-vintage M20J with a sharp red paint job but with an engine and avionics package that ultimately cost him upward of 20 grand in repairs—all in the first couple months of ownership. Had he hired experienced avionics people to eyeball the wiring and perform simple function tests of the autopilot and associated electronics, he would have passed on the airplane. The engine was neglected, too. A thorough prepurchase inspection could have uncovered exhaust, fuel system and other deficiencies ultimately sending the once-proud new owner to a sales broker to unload the airplane within six months.

Another owner of a high-performance single was blindsided during what should have been a routine avionics upgrade to include an Aspen PFD. When the panel was opened up, they found a wiring mess requiring complete re-work and nearly a month of downtime. Even the static system couldn’t pass inspection with broken and leaking static lines and fittings. This airplane was represented as having a fresh and modern avionics upgrade.

Bottom line is you’ve got to perform a thorough pre-buy inspection on any aircraft you buy—no matter how clean it looks on paper. This includes avionics inspections, too. What may seem like a state-of-the-art avionics upgrade could be a dangerous ball of wire behind the panel. 

Some sellers—particularly high-volume sales outlets—slap in modern gear to make the aircraft look desirable but our experience proves that many of the installs done on the cheap aren’t even airworthy. Wiring bundles chafing because they are wrapped around control surfaces, old wiring connected to new systems and installs lacking supporting paperwork are big risks to the new owner dazzled by sales ads.

Inspections should be accomplished by neutral parties. The folks that have wrenched the airplane for years shouldn’t be the ones performing the pre-buy because they are just too biased to offer advice you can take to the bank. 

Matching the Mission

It’s easy to fall in love with any flying machine. Maybe it’s sexy ramp appeal, raw speed or a big cabin. But buying an aircraft for all the wrong reasons could be the setup for disappointment. Like a mismatched personal relationship with a member of the opposite sex, a mismatched owner/aircraft relationship can be draining to your bank account and psyche. 

For instance, do you really need a pressurized 250-knot cabin class twin for local weekend hops to dinner? One owner and his wife were attracted to the sexy ramp appeal of the Piper Mirage. And the buyer’s market had them seriously considering one. But when it came down to it, they realized their Piper Archer was the perfect machine for their weekend vacations to the coast— missions well under 300 miles round trip. Why buy all of that airplane, and the big maintenance headaches its temperamental turbocharged Lycoming might demand?

Choosing an aircraft with the right engine for your mission can save you grief and money. Classic is the buyer who’s convinced he needs a turbocharged engine for flying low in the flatlands. Mountain flying and missions where you cruise in the teens is a different story. Otherwise, a normally-aspirated engine will likely be easier on your checkbook. The owner of a Turbo Centurion learned this lesson the hard way with a bank account drained by replacing the turbo, all cylinders, exhaust, crankshaft and numerous other unplanned breakdowns despite his engine’s time of 600 hours since overhaul. Rarely did he fly the airplane above 10,000 feet or on long-cruise flights.

Still, another T210 owner makes good use of his airplane: Flying well over 100 hours per year, flying in the teens when appropriate and using the airplane for long-distance travel over mountains. He’s an experienced ATP and knows how to properly manage his engine. For him, this airplane makes perfect sense for the mission.

Training and Insurance

You might score that high-performance airplane for a song but you could be singing the blues when it comes to insurance costs and training requirements. Consider the purchase of a Cessna 340, a high-performance cabin-class twin.

By most standards this is a lot of airplane and insurance companies know it. For low-time multi-engine pilots with, say, 1000 hours total time, insurance could likely run $7000-plus for the first year with a million dollars smooth liability coverage. You’ll also need professional training to qualify, which is a good and necessary thing. This is a complicated, high-altitude pressurized twin that demands skill and specialized training.

We spoke with a couple of experienced instructors who specialize in multi-engine training. All agreed that a cabin twin the likes of a 400-series Cessna, Piper Aerostar, and even the smaller but pressurized P-Baron isn’t the best idea for the first twin-engine airplane for low-time multi-engine pilots.

For some pilots, all it takes is a simple insurance quote to realize they couldn’t afford to keep the airplane they can afford to buy, if this makes sense. One owner was ready to write a check for a late-model Cirrus SR22 until his insurance company quoted him $13,000 for insurance. Despite his 1000 hours of total time, he lacked an instrument rating the insurance company felt he needed to effectively and safely pilot the aircraft.

And then there’s the dilemma of finding quality training. For many higher-caliber machines, you’ll need specialized training of sorts. You might not find this at a local flight school. You could, of course, train with the pros at Flight Safety International and SIMCOM, to name a couple. Major training centers like these offer focused training that will cost some real money. One respected training operation that’s one of the few insurance-approved initial and recurrent centers is Century Air in Caldwell, N.J. What makes them unique is their on-site simulators appropriate for a wide variety of high-performance twins and singles. They’ll also train you in your own aircraft.

Maintenance Matters

No matter how well-maintained a high-end aircraft might seem during the pre-buy process, there no doubt will be surprises surfacing during the first year of ownership. Some crop up in the first weeks of operating the aircraft. We’re amazed at the cavalier attitude of some buyers when it comes to the maintenance that’s required of complicated aircraft. While there are some exceptions, you can bet that operating a cabin-class twin will require more maintenance effort than oil changes.

For instance, consider the new owner of a clean Cessna 340 pressurized twin. His airplane was acquired through a respected broker and historically serviced by a maintenance facility versed in Cessna twins. He did everything right in the shopping and buying stage of ownership. He looked hard at maintenance records, stayed away from low-priced and high-time planes that were rough around the edges and took his time in the search. Still, as he was attempting to accomplish his training, the aircraft spent two months in the shop, costing $30,000 in unplanned maintenance. Then, once the warmer weather came around, he realized the finicky air conditioning system didn’t work. Imagine roasting in a pressurized cabin on a 90-degree day without air conditioning. This is far from cabin-class comfort.

When it comes to properly maintaining certain complex singles and twins, we've heard from more than one mechanic that the mentality should be to “start at the nose, work back to the tail, then start back at the nose”. Many new owners of complex cabin-class airplanes come from more basic models that are simplistic to service and reliable to own. It can be shocking to learn this isn’t the case with corporate-caliber aircraft—especially when the owner starts writing the maintenance checks.

Sister publication Aviation Consumer has a monthly Used Aircraft Guide covering model history, maintenance considerations, safety records and a host of other information on a given model. It’s also prudent to join an owner group to get a better idea of real-world experiences when it comes to maintenance and overall reliability. Some owners become so strapped by maintenance and operating costs that they simply stop flying the airplane. This can be exactly the wrong response because letting engines sit for long periods of time can do more harm than good. For some, it’s tough letting go of a prized aircraft— or maybe in a soft economy they can’t sell it—so the machine sits in a hangar (or worse, on a ramp out in the elements) for long periods of time. These are the used aircraft you’ll find at rock-bottom prices and they are usually begging to be serviced.

Ready to Buy?

From an acquisition standpoint, it’s never been a better time to upgrade to a high-end aircraft. Prices are unheard of and in many cases, buyers can name what they want to spend. But that’s where the value ends. Good, established shops certainly aren’t lowering their prices for quality maintenance, and we don’t know of any manufacturers who are deeply discounting replacement parts. And you’ll still need to buy the fuel for thirsty engines while skimping on training and maintenance is what disasters are made of. But if you match the aircraft to your mission, skills and budget, there’s no reason why you can’t handle that high-end aircraft you always wanted.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Aviation Safety Magazine.

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Owning an airplane requires a certain suspension of the economic rules that govern normal people, but on the whole, the airplane industry operates under an even more perverse logic: As sales soften, it raises unit prices, perhaps chasing away those buyers on the margins who might have been toying with pulling the trigger to buy a new airplane.

The result? Nearly everyone in aviation recognizes that the rise in new aircraft prices is all but dooming the industry and while they’re waiting for the nebulous solution to this problem, something curious and not unexpected has happened. A lively industry in refurbishing older airplanes to like-new standards has sprung up and it appears to be gaining market traction. The trend finds action in everything from modest piston singles, to turboprop twins to small business jets. Even the banks are beginning to notice.

While there is a move afoot to reign in new aircraft prices by streamlining FAR Part 23, those economies are several years in the future. Meanwhile, buyers who don’t want tattered airframes but either can’t afford or refuse to buy new, increasingly have a third choice: refurbished to like new.

How Bad?

The accompanying chart from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association shows the troublesome trend that would-be buyers sense and aircraft sellers confront every day. The relevant portion of the graph lies to the right of 2008. Unit production of general aviation aircraft in the U.S. plummeted from 3079 in 2008, to a little over half that in 2012. The bottom of the market was in 2010. Piston production dropped from 945 in 2008 to 415 in 2010 and it hasn’t recovered much since.

Yet just before 2008, as the orange line shows, billings continued to rise as production dropped and although billings declined too, they’ve since flattened out and may be rising again, even as demand remains stunted.

The detailed data behind the graph tells the story. Aircraft prices have risen briskly with falling demand as manufacturers have struggled to stay afloat. Some examples: In 2008, the venerable Cessna 172 retailed for $283,500; a 2014 model will sell for $360,000, an increase of 27 percent and almost a tripling of price since the model was reintroduced in 1997. The popular 182 has increased less, but still rose 8 percent during the same period. The 206 escalated by 11 percent.

Not to pick on Cessna, other manufacturers—Diamond, Piper and Cirrus—have posted similar price increases that, in some cases, far outstrip the underlying rate of inflation on other goods and services. A Diamond DA40, for example, sells for more than $400,000, up from $358,800 in 2008.

To be fair, some of these price increases account for incremental improvements, mostly related to avionics. And although it can be argued that these improve capability, they don’t really improve the airplane’s basic function or performance. Cruise speeds haven’t changed and most still use leaded avgas. Buyers are noticing and failing to see value in new aircraft. A certain psychological price barrier may have been passed.

“So at the higher prices, buyers are saying ‘I could do that. I get it.’ But they won’t buy. It’s not that they can’t, they won’t. They can’t justify it,” says Premier Aircraft’s Jeff Owen. Fort Lauderdale-based Premier specializes in late-model used Diamond, Mooney and Piper aircraft. Owen has years in the industry selling Cessnas, Diamonds and everything else and lately, he and Premier have launched their own response to escalating new aircraft prices: a refurb program of their own for Diamond’s popular DA42 twin.

What’s Out There

There’s nothing typical about the emerging refurb/remanufacture industry, other than that sellers and buyers are finding exceptional value in upgraded airframes brought to near new standards and selling for 50 to 60 percent of the price of new. The refurb industry sorts itself into two broad categories: Companies that offer remanufactured airframes with substantial upgrades such as engines or avionics and those that sell or customize old models with repairs, rework and sprucing up of the existing airframe.

In Premier’s case, the company’s refurb efforts grew out of frustration in trying to spark movement in the used DA42 market. Those aircraft were equipped with Thielert’s Centurion 1.7, the launch diesel powerplant that tarnished the airplane’s reputation when it ran into maintenance and warranty issues in 2007.

Premier primed the used DA42 market by buying up used airframes, gutting them and upgrading the engines to the Centurion 2.0. The airplanes get new interiors and paint, as necessary, and sell for half the price of a new DA42.

“The buyers are seeing good value in that they’re buying a near new airplane with 2.0 engines. That’s compelling,” Owen says. Premier has completed eight of the refurbs and Owen believes the market for used diesel twins will sustain.

Jack Pelton, Cessna’s former CEO and now EAA Chairman, is involved with a twin remanufacture project of his own (through Aviation Alliance LLC) in the Excalibur 421, a ground-up re-do of the Cessna 421. The Golden Eagle is a unique piston twin that remains in strong demand on the used market. Except when the Excalibur conversion is done, it’s no longer a piston airplane but a turboprop, converted to Pratt & Whitney PT6A-135s from the stock—and finicky--Continental GTSIO-520s.

Why not just buy a nice Conquest for a lot less money than the $2.5 million Excalibur will ask for its remanufactured 421? Maybe because the Conquest won’t cruise at 300 knots, the Excal’s claimed performance. Moreover, the Excalibur will be pitched as an essentially new airplane, with Garmin avionics, a state-of-the-art interior and improved brakes and de-icing. “This is really a new airplane,” Pelton told us, and given its range and speed, it fits into a market niche where the 421 cabin and payload finds little competition. Pelton concedes the price is the same as a new Mustang jet, but operational costs and pilot qualification and training will be substantially less.

And speaking of jets, Nextant Aerospace has had what can reasonably be called spectacular success in remanufacturing the Beechcraft 400X/XP into what it markets as the Nextant XT. Thus far, it has completed 32 aircraft with $175 million in orders still on the books. Nextant has been so successful, in fact, that it has achieved an important marketing milestone in every refurber’s ideal business plan: A line listing in Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest. That’s valuable because it gives appraisers and banks a hook on which to hang loan values.  

Nextant’s Jay Hublein says the company wasn’t launched with a single remanufacture project in mind and although he declined to name specifics, he told us the company is exploring more aircraft types to roll into its business model. Heublein says Nextant is convinced that new aircraft prices will remain too high for many buyers for the foreseeable future, meaning there’s plenty of headroom for companies mining the value in older airframes that can be brought to new standards.

There’s room for organized remanufacture at the lower end of the market, too. We’ve recently reported on Redbird’s Redhawk project, which converts an older Cessna 172 to a Centurion 2.0 diesel and adds Aspen glass, new paint and upholstery for a package that they hope to sell at the $200,000 mark. The Redhawk is aimed specifically at a narrow niche: the training market. But if the Redhawk idea soars, it’s easy to see how it can be applied to other airframes.

And at least one business is already doing that and has been for 10 years. Matt Kozub’s Pristine Planes—doing business under the Aircraft Sales, Inc. banner—refurbs airplanes of all kinds, from singles to light twins. Kozub told us Pristine Planes approaches the market in two ways: It restores popular models on a spec basis or will take on custom remanufacture under a program it calls Plan-a-Plane, which allows a customer to specify any level of upgrade or mod. While other refurb houses seem to specialize in specific models or types, Kozub does not.

“You box yourself in if you specialize too much. I’ve found over the years that certain models will get hot and cold,” Kozub says. Right now, six-place airplanes—Bonanza 36 series and Saratogas—are in demand and despite high avgas prices, Kozub thinks twins are coming back. Although lots of smaller shops are producing one-off refurbs, Pristine Planes isn’t one of them. The shop turned out 30 aircraft last year and expects more growth in the immediate future, especially if new aircraft prices remain high.

Can This Sustain?

While the size of the new aircraft market has diminished in both dollars and units, we couldn’t find any reliable sources to confirm the size of the refurb/remanufacture market, although there’s good evidence that it’s growing, perhaps briskly. And companies in the industry know it. Both Garmin International and Aspen Avionics told us the legacy fleet—and that’s what the refurb market is, after all—will continue to be a major business driver for them. Indeed, Aspen’s products are tailored for retrofit. Banks, too, are noting the trend and finding profitable business in loans for aircraft selling at four times their non-improved market value.

Says Jack Pelton: “If we open the discussion without getting specific about types of airplanes, I do think it’s a growing trend. It’s currently the only counter to deal with the exorbitant price of the new products that are out there today.”

This may represent a definite challenge for manufacturers trying to survive, much less prosper, in the new aircraft business. But will it dent OEM sales for the short term?

“I can’t tell right now,” says Pete Bunce, head of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. “I don’t think anybody has that good a crystal ball,” he adds. Still, he sees a trend toward refurbing older airframes as a net positive. “There’s value to be added to the chain no matter where you are in it. Money will go to the OEMs for parts and services and that business comes at a lower acquisition cost. The OEMs will make money,” Bunce says. He’s been forthright in explaining that the escalating cost curves for new aircraft have to be curbed if the industry is to prosper. GAMA thinks the proposed revision of FAR Part 23 will do that, once the final rules are promulgated and put in place by 2015. In theory, these will simplify certification programs and reduce time to market, thus reducing cert costs and, hopefully, new airplane prices.

“I don’t think there’s any question that this will help,” says Pelton. But the effects may a few years off, leaving high-value niches in the market for companies—and some individual owners—to bring aging airframes up to near-new standards.

“Unless somebody has a new airplane that’s providing performance, technology—say getting away 100LL or something truly unique--the value proposition is pretty tough to beat in going to a refurbished product versus a new,” says Pelton.

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What drives a person to attempt something no-one has done before, something that maybe is not even do-able, risking your life and your time and your money, for an uncertain end? It takes a romantic disposition, for sure, to even imagine that it would be a good idea to fly across the ocean in a lighter-than-aircraft of any kind. There is no practical reason to do it, it's not the kind of adventure that opens new frontiers, in the way that Charles Lindbergh's trip revealed aviation's possibilities. To fly across the ocean beneath a cluster of colorful helium balloons, simply to experience it, simply to prove that you can dream such a thing and then make it happen and share it with the world, is perhaps as much a kind of exploration-artwork as it is a kind of aviation-technology experiment.

I was glad to spend a mostly-sleepless night in Caribou, Maine, last week for the experience of helping to assemble Jonathan Trappe's one-of-a-kind aerostat. Dozens of other sleepless souls were equally glad to be there, having traveled from around the country and across the county, with their boots and raincoats. It seemed highly improbable that any of us should be there at all, given that just hours earlier the town was inundated by thunderstorms and hail. When Noah and I arrived at 9 p.m., having dodged the weather systems between Providence and Caribou in his trusty RV-7, the brightly-lit soccer field was soaking wet, and a cool fog hung just above our heads. The air was still, though, and that's always a good thing when handling balloons.

Hundreds of helium canisters were laid out in a grid across the field, each one holding just enough gas to fill one balloon. Trappe demonstrated the filling procedure, explaining a very simple set of steps, then set us loose to get the work done. The field sprouted a ghostly forest of round balloons, each one standing gracefully at the top of its eight-foot tether, reflecting the lights into the mist and casting circular shadows onto the green grass. It was a sight unlike any seen before, I suppose, and there was something serene and primal about it.

There's something primal too in the impulses that drive people to attempt such things. Col. Joe Kittinger, certainly an expert in trying things that nobody else has done, occupied a bench with a view of the activities, just about all night long. I was glad to sit by him for a bit, since I had spoken with him on the phone but never met him in person before. He told me he'd been helping out with advice during the project, and had encouraged Trappe to launch from Caribou. That's where he launched from, in 1984, he said, and the people there are special -- they can be counted on to come out at night on short notice and lend a hand. 

At 85, Col. Kittinger said he still goes flying often, in airplanes and balloons, and still lives in Orlando, where for many years he and his wife, Sherry, ran a balloon business. He sat there with Sherry through most of the night, till dawn approached and Trappe was in the gondola making his final preparations, then Col. Kittinger was there by his side, calm and quiet. He was the last one to shake Trappe's hand just before he launched into the morning sky. Col. Kittinger later would tell an Associated Press reporter that he and Trappe were inspired by the same thing -- adventure. He also said he had no qualms about the unusual balloon system, and if Trappe hadn't gone, "I would've flown it." 

Trappe's adventure, despite two years of planning, ended far too soon. Only 12 hours aloft! And during that time, he was unable to maintain a steady altitude -- the aircraft would climb, then descend almost to the ocean, then rise again, and he was using too much ballast in trying to control it. The weather window looked good, Trappe said, all the way to Europe, but the sun was setting and Newfoundland was his last chance to land. All the balloons were cut away, their expensive helium lost, unrecoverable. The flight didn't reach its destination, geography-wise, but adventure-wise, it delivered. And Trappe walked away, safe to dream again.

Others have tried before to cross oceans or reach new altitudes or break all kinds of records in aircraft of all sorts, and many have failed and learned and tried again. Many of those have reached their goals on their second, or third, or fifth or sixth try. Will Trappe keep trying? He hasn't said, but the itch to do something that's never been done before, the creative urge to expand our experience, can be hard to resist. 

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

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The moment I saw the conceptual art on Cessna’s new proposed twin-engine jet tactical aircraft—the Scorpion--three questions came immediately to mind. Is that thing stealthy? Can it be pilot optional? And last, huh? The answer to the first two questions might be mooted by the answer to the third: Since the Pentagon biting on this idea is a long shot, foreign sales may be what Cessna has in mind, along with its partner developmental company, AirLand Enterprises.

This is the sort of project you don’t see much anymore, given the cost escalation and vast profit margins in modern weapons systems and the R&D dollars it takes to create them. The Pentagon has not asked for such an airplane, so if Cessna wants U.S. sales, it will be cold calling. Sales in the emerging world may be a different matter, however. The defense export business has proven profitable for many U.S. manufacturers. Still, things are a little different now. The countries with money—Brazil, Russia, India and China—have their own emerging domestic aircraft industries and if light, cheap and unsophisticated is the selling point, couldn’t those countries roll their own and export the results? Cessna may be aiming to find out.

What the Scorpion is supposed to be is a cheap-to-operate, built-from-the-parts-bin reconnaissance and surveillance platform with some strike capability. But doesn’t that describe the $4-million-a-pop Predator UAV, not to mention the next generation of drones we don’t even know about? Is there really a need for a five-hour endurance jet to fly missions that UAVs are already doing? 

With budget cuts looming, perhaps Cessna and AirLand are counting on the Pentagon getting religion on less expensive—that’s not the same as cheap—weapons systems. Then again, when has it ever, at least recently? I suspect Cessna will need lots of friends in Congress to overcome the legions of supporters that Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have cultivated over the years. Although it’s sometimes forgotten, Cessna is no stranger to military aircraft. But its experience with the venerable A-37 Dragonfly, a Vietnam workhorse, is decades old. Textron (partnered with Boeing) does have military contracts in the V-22 Osprey and various subsystems. But Cessna was never in the league of a Lockheed, Grumman or McDonnell Douglas in the military realm. Perhaps that's a market advantage. Plying the competitive civil market for so many years, Cessna has had to be efficient and fast moving, bringing products to market on time and on budget, something not normally associated with military contractors. The F-35 comes to mind. In stepping out of the civil jet realm, Cessna is stretching. I hope it doesn’t distract it further from interest in the lowly piston airplane, something that’s fallen to a record low ebb.

But there’s one good reason to cheer for the success of this project. If it puts more of Wichita back to work, that’s a good thing.

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

Many round-the-world pilots are in a hurry to get the trip done, but Calle Hedberg of Capetown, South Africa is taking a different route.  He has eight months to do the trip in his kit-built Ravin 500, and he plans to savor every moment.  AVweb's Russ Niles flew with him after he got a float endorsement in Kelowna, British Columbia.

On the morning of September 12, 2013, Jonathan Trappe ascended from a field in Caribou, Maine, in an attempt to be the first pilot to fly a cluster balloon system across the Atlantic.  Twelve hours later, he landed in Newfoundland.

Bendix/King designed the hardware and Aspen Avionics completed the user interface for the KSN770 FMS. The end result is a powerful retrofit GPS navigator that has a sharp screen, liberal interface potential and a $13,995 price tag. Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano flew with the system to have a look.