Will My Airplane Last A Century?

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At the end of Sun ‘n Fun, as I was shooting this video with P-51 owner Louis Horschel, I was marveling at the fact that with only about 100 of these aircraft still flying, it’s still supportable. As Horschel explained, parts are findable, if not readily available, and the economics allow the manufacture of some parts. Mustang owners know where to find them, too.

Horschel figures he’ll own the airplane for another 20 or 25 years, by which time it will be essentially a century old. Boy, I thought to myself, that’s really something. Then the other day, tooling around in the Cub with my partner Bob, I realized that mine’s even older; the J-3 will reach the century mark in 2038, 21 years from now.

I’m certain of one thing. By then, I’ll neither still own it nor be flying it. The horizon is in sight, so to speak. But will the airplane itself still be flying and still be supportable? It’s a tantalizing question with a number of factors to ponder. First, what will the state of GA be by then? Hardbitten though I may be, I’m not the type to clutch my pearls and sniffle about the death of the industry at the hands of evil regulators and wingtip-wearing suits in Wichita or maybe Beijing. I can summon neither defeatism nor delusion. Call the middle ground optimistic realism. But either way, my beer will remain free of tears.

Of course GA will exist. It will always exist because although the numbers might be diminishing, there will always be enough people passionate about flying to maintain it economically in some form. But what about the micro-communities that support small-population types that are no longer manufactured? In the case of Horschel’s Mustang, that’s a monied crowd and there are no more than a couple of hundred on the entire planet who have both the wealth and predilection to own and fly a World War II fighter. But there are enough to keep it perking along.

A Cub, or a Champ or a Luscombe costs pocket change to own and operate, at least compared to a Mustang. Herschel burns in an hour what I use in a couple of months of flying. What makes these small owner communities work is to have enough people involved with the airplanes to sustain the Univairs, the Wag-Aeros, the Groves and a handful of other companies that support them. So far, so good. Of about 20,000 Piper Cubs made, some 5000 are still on the registry if not flying. That represents a serviceable population.

Casting forward, what would threaten the continued vitality of airplanes like the Cub, as they approach the century mark? Maintenance skills for one. Finding people who can do good fabric work is a challenge, but it’s not a deal breaker. The Continental A-65 engine and its variants are currently reasonably well supported. We’ve never been beached for lack of parts. Stuff like cables, turn buckles, fasteners, hoses and the like are standard aviation items.

But 20 years from now? Hard to say what the Cub ecosystem will look like. Some of it may depend on the continuing market value of the airframes and I think higher is better than lower. While I’m convinced there will be plenty of people participating in flying in some form two decades from now, it’s just as possible that they won’t be as interested in the kind of flying the Cub and airplanes like it represent. It’s nostalgia now. In 20 years, it will be ancient history. We're already finding that locating a new partner to fly the machine has been difficult. 

The best I would hope for is a resurgence in interest in vintage airplanes from younger pilots coming into the fold. Old taildraggers might enjoy a panache of sorts not shared by whatever is new in 2038. And there will be something new. I’ve been known to place a wager or two and I would put my money on that very thing happening, at least to the extent of keeping a few hangars populated by classic yellow taildraggers. But there might be a lot fewer of them than I'd like.

Comments (13)

Exactly the reason I own two of the most prolifically produced spam cans. Parts ARE available. The cost -- so far -- is somewhat palatable. And, the designs have proven to be both reliable and rugged. Most of us are lucky to be even able to do that ... much less own a high end anything.

That said, it's getting harder and harder to sell anything but pristine and desirable airplanes at anything above giveaway prices. As each of us hangs up the headsets, it ain't gonna get any easier, either. I often feel like we're commiserating among ourselves while we rearrange the deck chairs on the Andrea Doria ... rammed by a ship full of bureaucrats and plunderers who just don't "get" it. I am actually thinking of donating my airplanes for a charitable write-off.

With Airventure just over a month away, another sea of aviators and aviator wannabees and enthusiasts will flock to that hallowed airport next to Lake Winnebago. Reenergized, the enthusiasm will wane rapidly and we'll be back to business as usual. It's getting tough to remain optimistic.

There's another side to your story, however. That we'd HAVE to be flying 100 year old airplanes says much about the industry. How the heck did such a vibrant industry until the early-80's just wither and almost die? Never mind ... I already know. And, to those entrepreneurs who persist in helping us keep what we have going ... thanks !!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | June 16, 2017 8:05 AM    Report this comment

I would like to help and buy a newish plane (say, 2000+ model year) for my flying club, but part of the problem is that the new planes are down on payload and sometimes also performance compared to the older models of essentially the exact same airframe. With the exception of the $800k+ planes, the newer models often seem to be lacking compared to their older siblings, with the exception of a spruced-up interior and avionics (much of which can be done to the older planes anyway).

As an example, the older Archer II carries more and performs better than the Archer III. The only advantages to the Archer III is more soundproofing, 28v vs 14v, and a slightly better designed panel layout. But you lose a whole 100 pounds or so of useful full-fuel payload for that, which effectively turns it into a two-place plane. You would think for $400k or whatever the newest Archer LX costs, they could at least figure out how to gain back some of that useful load (they did it in the past, why can't they do it now). Until that changes, the older planes will continue flying.

Only in aviation are newer models both more expensive and less capable...

Posted by: Gary Baluha | June 16, 2017 9:05 AM    Report this comment

Sometimes my son and I like to sit around and play mind games with time spans and years. For example Paul, did you realize that when you roll out that 1938 J-3 and take it for a spin, it's comparable to rolling out and flying a 1918 Curtiss Jenny in the year 1997? How many people routinely owned and operated an original Jenny for casual everyday use in the late 90s? Wow, it makes you think about the true age of these things.

Posted by: A Richie | June 16, 2017 9:32 AM    Report this comment

William Piper sold aircraft, some 20,000 J3s, with the philosophy that low-cost and simplicity was better. Mr. Piper's concept is gone and so are new aircraft deliveries. Refurbished aircraft will rule. The industry has priced itself out of its comfort zone.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | June 16, 2017 9:39 AM    Report this comment

With apologies to Rod Serling, "For your consideration:"
Current-manufacture airplanes are, and always have been, a reflection of the demographic that buys them. It doesn't take fighter-pilot eyes to see that today's new-airplane buyers are nothing like their Greatest Generation forebears.
But for any given characteristic, any population presents a bell curve. To Paul's point, how many future outliers will exhibit characteristics that will intersect with peak-production-era aircraft? The ubiquity of weekend operators of original Model T Fords might provide a clue.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 16, 2017 9:45 AM    Report this comment

Homebuilding, the true roots of all aviation (ask the Wrights), will always be there. Suggestion for Paul - start a build of your own - it will change your perspective on airplanes and flying forever.

Posted by: Ken Keen | June 16, 2017 10:24 AM    Report this comment

it's comparable to rolling out and flying a 1918 Curtiss Jenny in the year 1997?

Chronologically yes, aerodynamically no. Piper benefitted and applied quite a bit of engineering knowledge learned between the wars, especially with regard to engines. The bigger shocker is comparing the pre-war Cub with the post-war Champion. The Champ is a much better flyer.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 16, 2017 11:23 AM    Report this comment

With apologies to SNL, "The Question is Moot."
Considering privatizing GA airports and/or ATC, ADS-B equipping, lack of interest from younger generations to learn to fly, drones, autonomous aircraft coming, airports closing everywhere, costs escalating, increasing NIMBY influence, drones, and now, apparently, one of my bucket list destinations to fly to Cuba erased, Tom's bell curve - where/how will these ancient freebirds fly?

It's all one can do to be an 'optimistic realist.'
But yeah, of course, I'll try.

Posted by: Dave Miller | June 16, 2017 6:58 PM    Report this comment

Old airplanes are sort of like the wood cutter's comment that he is using his grandfather's ax. " I only had to replace the head 3 times and the handle 5 times." As long as we keep up with them and replace every part, except the data plate, we will keep the old girls going for over a century.

Why do we do this? Because it is cheaper in the long run than forking over well in excess of 1/2 a million $ for a new spam can or plastic plane.

Paul, I find your plight in finding partners curious. Here in the Peoples Republik of Connecticut, it is very difficult to find a tail wheel aircraft for rent, let alone a partnership.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | June 17, 2017 7:47 AM    Report this comment

Leo: Here in the neighboring People's Rebublic of Massachusetts, we sold the club airplane that we had operated for 28 years with a wait list, due to lack of interest. Flyers are quitting, and almost nobody wants to learn.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 17, 2017 9:18 AM    Report this comment

"Will My Airplane Last A Century?"
Airplanes are not supposed to last forever! P-51's were not expected to last even 2 years.
Hail, corrosion, tornadoes, engine failures, brake failures, deer, buzzards, training mishaps, spar AD's etc. It's almost a miracle to have a 40 year old light plane that has avoided all the hazards and can still fly.

Fly what is available and what you can afford. Same as it ever was.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 17, 2017 10:01 AM    Report this comment

Richard Collins penned some interesting thoughts on the subject of light aircraft longevity, when he retired N40RC. Worth a read. Google it or search for it on AirFactsJournal dot com.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | June 17, 2017 1:30 PM    Report this comment

The airplanes will last as long as there are people willing to take the time and spend the money to keep them flying. But, the numbers will dwindle as we cannibalize the dying to keep the remainder flying. I'm talking about the planes, not their pilots. ;-)

Posted by: John McNamee | June 18, 2017 7:29 PM    Report this comment

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