Before you get serious about shopping for an aircraft, you need to decide what kind of aircraft to buy. This is where first-time buyers often stumble badly, because they don't take the time to define the principal mission of the aircraft, and then choose an aircraft appropriate to that mission. A veteran aircraft owner explains that instead of buying the aircraft you want, you're usually a lot better off buying the one you need.
December 1, 1997
a first airplane is every bit as much of a thrill for most people as buying a first car.
Unfortunately, most first-time airplane buyers approach their purchase very much the same
way as they do when shopping for an automobile. Typically, they first decide how much they
can afford to spend on an airplane it might be $20,000 or $200,000, depending on their
income, obligations and priorities and then they start scanning Trade-A-Plane
looking to find how much airplane that much money will buy.
Such an approach is almost a sure prescription for an unhappy ownership experience, and
likely a fast track to the poorhouse. Why? Because there's virtually no correlation
whatsoever between the purchase price of an airplane and what it will cost to own.
In today's market, $50,000 will buy anything from a
like-new Skyhawk to a middle-aged Skylane to an old-but-sound Bonanza to a runout Aztec to
a clapped-out Duke or Queen Air or DC-3, and just about anything in between. The direct
operating cost of your $50,000 airplane might be anything from $25/hour to $500/hour. The
cost of the first annual inspection might be $500 or $5,000 or $50,000 (or more).
Even if "money is no object" and you can afford to operate your acquisition,
your ownership experience might be a real disappointment. You might discover that nobody
will sell you insurance, or that the airplane is plagued with mechanical problems and
spends all its time in the shop, or that it isn't well-suited to your requirements, or
that it just isn't fun to fly.
Define Your Mission
Before you even think about pricing an airplane, you need to think carefully
about how you will be using it:
Will you be using the aircraft mostly for short trips or for long ones? How short or how
long? (Hint: most lightplane owners take the airlines when they fly transcontinental
How many people will you typically be carrying? (Hint: the typical occupancy of light
planes is similar to what it is in automobiles: somewhere between one and two people.)
How much cargo will you typically be carrying? (Hint: it's hard to beat the cost of
shipping by UPS or FedEx.)
How fast do you need to cruise? (Hint: a turbocharged retractable-gear airplane might
cost twice as much to fly as a normally-aspirated fixed-gear one, yet cut only 15 minutes
off the typical trip time.)
A Case In Point
A couple whose primary mission is to visit their kids (or their weekend cabin at the
lake) needs to make very different choices from a bush pilot who needs to haul hunters and
their trophies into and out of gravel strips, or a salesman who needs to visit customers
throughout an eight state area in all kinds of weather.
at my situation, for example. I fly at least two or three transcontinental trips a year in
my airplane. In June, I flew from my California home base to the Cayman Islands and back, with business stopovers in
Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida and Kansas. In August, I usually fly to Oshkosh. Every year or
two, I visit family in Boston. More than half of my flying hours involve long (over 1,000
NM) trips like this. So the 190-knot cruise speed of my Cessna T310R and its all-weather
capability are almost essential to me. (I've flown enough coast-to-coast trips in a
130-knot Cessna 182 to know.)
On the other hand, the six-seat capacity of my airplane is really a waste. I very
seldom carry more that two people (myself and my wife, or myself and a colleague). Nor
have I found the extra engine to be an essential. (See my article "Do You Really Want A Twin?") To be perfectly
honest, if I were buying an airplane today, knowing what I know now, it would probably be
a fast, four-place turbocharged single instead of a fast, six-place turbocharged twin, and
my cost of flying would be half of what it is now.
So why don't I sell the twin and buy a single? (Deep sigh.) Well, you see, I've owned
'38X for more than a decade now, and I know its systems so thoroughly that I can do all my
own maintenance, and it was on the cover of AOPA PILOT in 1995, and I really do love that
and I decline to answer further on advice of counsel.
I'm embarrassed to say that his is a perfect illustration of why it makes a lot more
sense to buy the airplane you need rather than the one you want. It's also
an excellent illustration of the well-known aeronautical principle "do as I say, not
as I do."
Figuring Your Costs
One of the most useful exercises you can perform before starting to shop for an
airplane is to do a detailed analysis of what the airplane is likely to cost you to own.
To do this, you need first to calculate the hourly direct operating costs such as
fuel, oil, 50- and 100-hour inspections. Here are some sample figures I worked up for
three different airplanes:
|Direct Hourly Costs
|Fuel @ $2.00/gal
|Oil @ $4.00/qt
|Scheduled 50-hour maintenance
|Total direct hourly costs:
You'll also have to figure the hourly indirect operating costs such as reserves
for engine overhaul, based on the anticipated cost of overhaul and the published engine
TBO. Even if you don't plan on owning your airplane long enough to have to overhaul the
engine, you need to figure this cost because the resale value of your airplane directly
reflects hours on the engine. (This is aviation's answer to the "depletion
allowance.") For example:
|Indirect Hourly Costs
|Miscellaneous engine maintenance
|Total indirect hourly costs:
|Total hourly costs (direct+indirect):
In addition, you'll have to come up with estimates for all the fixed yearly costs
associated with aircraft ownership: annual inspection, insurance, taxes, hangar rent,
reserves for prop overhaul, paint and interior, and recurrent training. You'll discover
that fixed costs are a major (often dominant) part of the cost of airplane ownership. For
example, a light twin like mine may cost more than $20,000 a year to own even if you
never take it out of the hangar! Take a look:
|Annual Fixed Costs
|Propeller overhaul @ 5 years
|Paint and interior @ 5 years
|Avionics maintenance, gyro OH
|Total annual fixed costs:
If you're financing the purchase of your airplane, you should include interest expense
in the annual fixed cost calculation. If you're buying a new or very late model airplane,
you should also include depreciation...but for most used aircraft in today's market, you
can probably ignore this because the aircraft will probably hold its value and might even appreciate
Finally, you need to estimate how many hours per year you will be flying the airplane.
Warning: most new owners overestimate here. The average owner-flown airplane is used
between 50 and 100 hours a year, and only a tiny percentage of owners fly as much as 300
hours a year.
To come up with a total hourly operating cost, divide the annual fixed costs by your
estimated number of flying hours per year, then add the result to the hourly direct and
indirect costs you calculated earlier:
|at 100 hours/year
|at 200 hours/year
|at 300 hours/year
Many experienced aircraft owners report that it's a good idea to keep these
calculations in a safe place where your spouse or significant other will not see them.
Can You Get Insurance?
Okay, so you've narrowed down the field to aircraft that meet your needs and aircraft
that you can afford. But wait! You're not ready to start telephoning on Trade-A-Plane ads quite yet. There's still some more important
homework to be done.
For one thing, you need to research the insurance situation. Call an aircraft insurance
broker (or three), tell them what you're looking to buy, describe your aviation
experience, specify what kind of coverage you need (both hull insurance and liability
coverage), and find out (1) if you can even get insurance, and (2) what it's
likely to cost.
It's not hard to get an unpleasant surprise here. I remember when I first bought '38X
ten years ago. I'd owned aircraft for the past 15 years, had 4,000 accident-free flying
hours, Commercial ticket, CFIA, CFII, and had never had an insurance claim, much less an
accident. It never dawned on me that I'd have trouble getting insurance.
But I had only 20 hours of multi-time, having just gotten my MEL rating. "We can't
insure you to fly your airplane solo until you have 50 hours in type," I was told.
Even then, my first year hull-insurance premium quote was totally outrageous (close to 10%
of the hull value). After discussing the situation at length with my broker, I decided to
self-insure against flight risks for the first year (something I was permitted to do only
because I'd paid for the airplane in cash
no lending institution would approve this),
and I was able to get my premiums down to something I could afford. By renewal time, I had
well over 100-hours in type and could obtain all-risks coverage at reasonable cost.
A good friend of mine who had nearly 20,000 hours after retiring from a career as an
Alaskan bush pilot ran into a similar situation when he tried getting insurance on his
Bonanza. The underwriters said he didn't have enough retractable-gear time! He finally
persuaded them to insure his airplane after he went through an expensive training program
at FlightSafety International.
The Fine Art of Lemon-Avoidance
You'd also be wise to research the "pedigree" of the particular aircraft
models that interest you. Some models and model-years have a reputation for being problem
children, while others are usually a real pleasure to own. For example, in the Cessna
fleet, the Skylane has a reputation as a "bulletproof" airplane, while the
Pressurized Skymaster is probably the most problem-plagued and maintenance-intensive
airplane that Cessna ever built. Among Beechcraft, the Duke and P-Barons have a bad
reputation, while Bonanzas and King Airs have good ones. And so forth.
An excellent way to learn about the reputation of the particular model that interests
you is to contact the owner association for that type. Two of the largest are the
Cessna Pilots Association and the
American Bonanza Society, but there are
dozens of other type clubs (many specialized to a
particular model). You can often obtain buyer's guides, model histories, and other
invaluable information from these associations.
If you're a first-time buyer, you'd be well advised to focus on a relatively simple
aircraft and stick with models and model-years that have a sterling reputation by all
accounts. As a new aircraft owner, you have a daunting learning curve ahead of you...so
make sure you can afford the tuition. Wait until you have a few years of aircraft
ownership under your belt before you look at more complex and high-strung machines. A
high-performance single is almost never a good choice for a first-time buyer, and a
twin is usually a total disaster.
Watch Out For Older Airplanes
Inexperienced buyers should be especially wary of older
airplanes, particularly older complex airplanes. You'll often see these advertised for
sale at enticingly low prices. There's a good reason for this: an older airplane can
easily turn into a money pit.
You may figure that if the selling price is cheap enough, you can afford to spend the
money to refurbish that older airplane into something really nice. Take an old,
clapped-out 1960-model Cessna 210, for example, that you see in Trade-A-Plane for only
$30,000. Add $15,000 for a zero-time engine, $10,000 for new paint and interior, and maybe
another $5,000 to replace those old tube radios with a modern comm and GPS. So for $60,000
you'll wind up with a first-class speed merchant, right?
But unfortunately, your "better than new" refurbished airplane won't be worth
anything close to the $60,000 you have invested in it. It might appraise at $40,000 at
best, so you'll be in a world of hurt if you have to sell it. (See Bill Hemmel's article
"What's It Really Worth".) It's generally
wise to avoid aircraft purchases that involve spending substantially more than fair market
value for the aircraft.
What's worse, 1960 was the first year that Cessna produced the 210, and that year
turned out to be one of those "lemons" that you might want to avoid: the
aircraft is saddled with expensive Airworthiness Directives and maintenance problems.
(Cessna learned a lot from building that aircraft, and later models of the 210 are
If you're an experienced 210 buff with an A&P certificate, this might make an
excellent project airplane. The rest of us would probably do a lot better spending that
$60,000 on a pristine '70s-vintage Skylane.