Airplane Sales Go Haywire

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One staple of 1990s aviation journalism—a dubious one, I might add—is that used airplanes were appreciating so fast that if you bought one, the gains realized when you sold it would pay for it. In other words, if we tired of flogging the runway turnback argument, we could always rustle up some numbers to show airplanes were a good investment. And here’s where I toss the editorial head back and collapse in paroxysms of snorting, coffee-spewing laughter.

While it is true many owners bought right and sold righter on certain airplanes, the overall drift of the airplane economy was that airplanes cost what they always had, took obscene bites out of ready cash and threatened the kids’ college funds just to stagger from one annual to another. If you were investing, you had money in the tech-fueled stock market and if you waited a few years, you could buy a nice used airframe hungry for upgrades and tender care. If you were Jeff Bezos, you eventually bought a fleet of jets and eventually added rockets. But you weren’t going to retire on the sale proceeds of your used Bonanza.

Still true, that, but there’s enough crazy money out there to turn some handsome appreciation for people selling airplanes—and maybe just about any airplane. The problem, as CubCrafters’ Chip Allen explained to me, is that lots of people have lots of money and enough of them want to buy airplanes to build a red-hot fire under the market. This has actually been going on for several years now but the pandemic turbocharged it, perhaps because people just weren’t spending money on vacations and other stuff and now, with the prospect of the grim reaper hurling a COVID grenade over the transom, many of us are acting on bucket list items and, well, why not? You can’t take it with you.

Nor, necessarily, can you find a place to spend it if an airplane has advanced to the top of the list. Waiting lists for new airplanes are, for at least some manufacturers, longer than ever and bidding wars have erupted over desirable used models. Chip Allen told me an insistent customer wanted his only demonstrator and when he demurred and demurred some more, the customer wasn’t deterred by a stratospheric sticker price. Now Allen has to wait along with everyone else for another demo. CubCrafters, for one, can’t keep up and has a two-year backlog.

Supply chain issues at all levels, labor shortages and delayed deliveries have distorted the normal market forces, if they could have ever been said to have been normal. Lookit, I got over flying being for the rich years ago. It just is and it always has been. Those of us who exist in the aviation margins do so with older or less capable airplanes, we spread costs through partnerships or we consent to ownership for short periods, allowing an airplane to consume only so much wealth. Or, for the around-the-bend passionate, just devote a large portion of net worth to owning an airplane and don’t worry about.

We have made a sport of heaping scorn on manufacturers for allowing prices to soar to unreachable heights, the corollary being that if they weren’t, more airplanes would sell and more people would fly. If I ever believed that, I don’t now. Case in point: The bestselling piston airplane today is also one of the most expensive: the Cirrus SR22. Nudge me if you’ve noticed any inexpensive new airplanes flying off the factory floor and not in the literal sense. That segues into case in point two: the Vashon Ranger.

I ran into Vashon’s Kurt Robertson at the DeLand Sport Aviation Showcase last week and he told me the company has about 66 in the field now, since 2018. That’s it? Apparently it is. You may recall that the Ranger was developed specifically to be a high-value, low-cost entrant into affordable aviation. It is that, too. The airplane is a good performer, it’s pleasant to fly, will do rough field work and is designed to be slept in by two people for camping. At $120,000-ish, it’s at the bottom of the LSA price tier.

Yet for 2020 alone, CubCrafters sold 64 airplanes, most of which cost twice as much as the Ranger, if not three times as much. So clearly, price alone isn’t much of a determiner here. So why the difference? I’m sure there are reasons, but one is that CubCrafters has been plying the Super Cub niche for years, knows the buyers and the airplanes and has developed a loyal, monied following. Even with a skilled, experienced sales force, which CubCrafters has, it takes time to build that marketing ecosystem.

I don’t get the sense that Vashon has done this. Nor has it done much promotion and marketing that I can see. Perhaps that’s one problem with a narrow margin airplane; you don’t have a lot of resources to promote, and price alone may not be enough for people to beat the proverbial path. There could be other things would-be buyers don’t like about the Ranger, like its fairly low useful load. This wouldn’t bother me much for kind of flying I’d do in it. In fact, pushing some numbers around on a spreadsheet, my financial advisor says I could actually afford one. A new one.

Really? Let me see where I put that bucket list. I’ll need to find it before sanity intrudes.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Oh, for the airplane days of the ’60s and early ’70s. 1963, bought first Aeronca Champ for $1200 and a new overhaul A65 for $350 to go with it. Next Champ in ’72, big upgrade to a new rebuild and a C85, $2400. Cessna selling C150s new for $6K. Used GA all over the ramp for the 2K to 3K price range. Wow, I got to live through that. True inflating would now adjust those prices. Not sure what all that means….but good memories anyhow.

    • In 2020 dollars: 1963, bought first Aeronca Champ for $10,278 and a new overhaul A65 for $2,997 to go with it. Next Champ in ’72, big upgrade to a new rebuild and a C85, $15,205. Cessna selling C150s new for $38K. Used GA all over the ramp for the 12K to 19K price range.

  2. “Those of us who exist in the aviation margins do so with older or less capable airplanes, we spread costs through partnerships or we consent to ownership for short periods, allowing an airplane to consume only so much wealth.” –
    Paul, dead nuts accurate, as usual. We (wife and I) bought a ’76 Archer II (looked at clubs, partnerships, etc., none of which seemed to be a good fit for us), earned my Instrument in it and flew it over 1,000 hours in five years, and finally let it go a couple months ago because it was consuming more time and money than we could continue to provide. But we have great memories, and those are ‘priceless!’

  3. Re: Flying has always been expensive. Somebody can correct me if this is wrong but I seem to remember that Lindbergh learned to fly in a Jenny. Rent was $17 per hour and logged 5 hours prior to (soloing/certification?). That was in about 1917 and a good daily wage in those days was $3.50 IIRC.

  4. I’ve owned a desirable M model Skyhawk for 36 years. When it was 10 years old, I purchased it for $13.5 and later spent another $13.5 to put a left over brand new 160hp engine in it in the early 90’s (one of the engines that were built for the Piper Cadet but they couldn’t pay for — shoulda bought 3!). With ADS-B, I have maybe $30K in the thing (plus O & M). It’s all the airplane I need for MY mission so it soldiers on. Every time I mention what I have to someone who is in the market, the first thing they say to me is, “Do you want to sell it?” NO! And I’m fortunate to be an A&P so maintenance costs are minimal for me. Without that advantage, I’m not so sure I could afford or justify keeping it in retirement. NOW, with a low time airframe in near original condition, it’s ripe for a total overhaul by someone when / if I ever do sell it. But the point is, that when that does happen — and as you opined — it will likely have cost me nothing to own it including inflation. In like manner, the two hangars I’ve owned will also wind up costing me nothing. I doubled my investment on one out west. My ONLY regret … I shoulda bought a Skylane back then.

    Around 1981, I advised and helped the Edwards AFB Aero club to find a used Skylane RG instead of the 172RG they wanted. to buy new. I found one with 600 hrs TT in LA for — get ready! — $43K. I bought it for the club and it’s STILL there 40 years later ! It’s been updated but probably has over 12K hours on it and costs $155/hr wet now. The USAF Test Pilot school uses it in their curriculum, in fact. Around that same time, I had an opportunity to buy a T-6G for $25K.

    I’ve also recently seen for sale listing saying, “Accepting bids.” Geesh … if we’da only known !!

    • Wow Larry… I have 250+ hours in 1668R myself… it may have 10,000 hours on it by now! But I don’t recall TPS using it except maybe for some of their Test Management Projects. They use the C-172s for a curriculum event called Airmanship to get the non-pilot students some economical cockpit exposure before exploding their heads in the jets.

      • Small world, Doug! I don’t recognize your name. I flew that airplane until I retired in 1988 and thereafter until the late 90’s sporadically. The T-34A was MY favorite machine. BTW: I personally had those tiedowns at southbase installed after we lost the two large hangars to the big black airplane there.

        This article propelled me to contact the Club today to determine how many hours ARE on it. Turns out, it’s right in the middle of your 10K and my 12K … almost 11,000 hours. Connie told me that it’s been painted four times and is now getting it’s fifth or sixth engine. She said that SHE thought it came to the Club in the late 80’s but I told her, “No,” … it was 1981. So I checked my logbook and — sure enough — it showed I looked at it at Santa Monica on May 10, 1981, the Board then voted to buy it based upon my recommendation and we went to get it on June 5, 1981. I personally flew it back to Edwards when the Club was still in the WWII “X” hangars before that little hangar. On July 1, 1981, I flew it to take some nice pics … I’d like to send you one … I’ll ask Paul to release my email to you. Email me back and I’ll fill you in some more privately so as not to bore everyone here.

        Getting back to the premise here, a $43K investment over 40 1/2 years is only $88 per mo but it’s likely worth $100K now so … helluva investment … just like my 172. But WHY didn’t I buy that T-6G ? 🙂

  5. Paul,
    Did you forget about the DIY option to build your own? Trade off some time and sweat equity for money. The builder doesn’t have to spend a lot but can in order to fly sooner. So you have to be careful or you can spend too much and defeat your goal if you’re at it to save money.

    • I seriously considered the homebuilt route. But it wasn’t “some” time it was a LOT of time. I’ve read that most homebuilders spend more hours building the airframe than they will flying it. It’s an option, and one I hope to try in retirement, but for now certified fits my available time and resources.

      • And you need a place to actually build it, which is something I don’t have at the moment. You can build it somewhere other than at your house, but the statistics of builders who don’t build at their home have a very low completion rate, unless it’s a group build (like part of an EAA chapter).

    • I’m pretty sure that is the only way I’ll ever be able to afford a plane again.
      When I started flying it was $15 hr with an instructor in a C150. A C172 was advanced and so much bigger. People didn’t really rent them for training.
      The same was for the R22 helicopter, only $90 hr with an instructor. It was / still is basically the C150 of helicopters. It is now around $300 to $350, which isn’t bad when compared to fixed wing prices now. I’m to big for the C150 and R22 so I have to fly the more expensive R44 and C172. When comparing inflation with them the price rise seems more equal. A R44 around Atlanta is $550, a C172 is around $200 now.

      • At least with the R44 vs R22, besides the additional power and payload you also get a helicopter that is much easier to auto-rotate in. I was able to do all my transition (fixed-wing to rotorwing) training in the R22, but while I felt I could survive a real auto if necessary I was never confident enough to take a non-rotorwing pilot with me. I feel much more comfortable with the R44, though. And I’m fortunate that the R44 where I rent/train from is only $100/hr more than the R22 was (the R22 has since been sold since it wasn’t generating enough revenue).

  6. I owned an H model Skylane for 35 years, put one Factory Reman and a paint job into it as well as the usual and necessary VFR A/C repairs/replacements over time, and flew it about 2500 hours. I offered it for sale last spring on a national site with pics and info at about six times what I paid for it in 1986, and was immediately absolutely flooded with folks who wanted to buy it, some sight unseen for the asking price, which was in retrospect probably too low. Good used airplanes are scarce these days. If you decide to sell “taking bids” might not be a bad way to go.

  7. One problem with airplane makers is like restaurants – everyone wants to have their own.

    What is the value proposition, to use a buzzphrase?

    What is unique or better about the product?
    The Vashon Island thing you mention has sleeping length you say, an attention getter. Which should help with getting publicity so more people are aware – a real challenge for startups.
    There are ways to get publicity at low cost, though some take a person’s time.
    Vashon’s positioning line is good: “Fly an airplane you can actually afford.”, but other lines might help as well.

    How will the product be supported?
    (Seems to me there have been several airplanes come out of Arlington WA area, though perhaps I am thinking of two or more different Glassair companies or a bankrupt and reborne one, the first having several models including the high wing Glastar. They have sold many kits. (Vashon’s flight center is at Everett airport to the SW, Woodinville is to the SE.)

    While the new owner of Glassair is quoted by Bertorelli: “Fang said the Glasair buy is “the first step in a very long journey” that will result in fulfilling the dream that he says many Chinese have: to fly personal aircraft around China, unhindered by regulation and security considerations.” Yah, sure, I say.

  8. Thank you Paul for that great “existing in the aviation margins…… … allowing an airplane to consume only so much wealth” portrayal. It describes me to a tee and reassures me that I’m not alone in my slightly unjustifiable airplane proposition. It’s not that I don’t have more disposable income to spend on my habit, but rather there comes a point when good stewardship of resources declares that enough is enough if not already too much.

  9. Vashon did some things right but not all. I messaged the company to find a demo flight on the east coast. Crickets. Had I known they were going to be at Deland I would have driven down for a demo flight which is the best marketing tool to sell a plane. Opportunity missed Vashon. The useful load is well not very useful. I cannot see any flight schools buying that. It would be hard to be legal unless you can hire 100# flight instructors. Hopefully Mosaic fixes that issue and Vashon bumps the gross weight to 1500# or higher. The continental O200, as bullet proof as it is, was a mistake. Rotax offers greater HP options for those willing to pay for performance ( Cubcrafters selling point is takeoff performance with high HP) and offer it at a lighter weight (ie more useful load). Perhaps UL Power with ASTM certification will be a future option for a more “traditional” powerplant similar to the continental. In summary, increased useful load and the option for increased HP plus getting a few more demo planes out there would greatly increase Vashon sales.