The Bear Bites


Ive 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 Im counting and remembering accurately, this is the fifth engine event Ive 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 thats 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 wasnt.

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 dont need to do this, however, and reason that their money is better employed working in some investment instrument to be withdrawn only when needed.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. Im sure I wouldnt feel that way if the overhaul cost $30,000 instead. On the other hand, I wouldnt 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; itll get your attention, but it wont take your arm off.

Ive 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 doesnt for me. And without the threat of medical loss looming, whats not to like?

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

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