Four of the last five airplanes that I bought were new. The one that wasn't new had but 500 hours on it. That was years ago, the last being in 1979. Still, I know the real thrill that comes from getting a brand-new airplane and being the only person, other than the test pilot, who has flown it. Today, the new high-performance single-engine airplane (over 200 horsepower, according to the FAA) buyer is a lot different. Most new airplanes are now bought by relatively new pilots. Old pilots will just tell you that they buy used because you can get a comparable airplane for a lot less money. True, but there is more to the argument than that and saving money is not always the same as a lower purchase price.
To begin, a huge factor is whether or not you have business use for the airplane and your business activity has enough cash flow to cover the airplane. This is strictly between the individual and his tax person (and the IRS). Sure, some airplanes are sold to folks with no business use, but most new airplanes have an attachment to a business activity checkbook. It's a very different proposition to pay for an airplane with before-tax dollars, than it is to hand over what's left after the government's cut.
Before looking at airplanes, what kind of money are we talking about? Few buyers are just going to go under the mattress and come up with the cash. Most will finance, be it through a finance company or a bank. And many will use a line of credit instead of using the airplane as collateral. There are also lease deals available.
Looking at new high-performance singles, and looking at the best available financing, you might think in terms of 10 to 20 percent down (of an average price in the high $400,000 range) and from $3,000 to $5,000 a month as the required cash flow to own an airplane in roughly the middle of the price range of the high-performance singles that we are considering here. As a rough rule of thumb, and depending on the deal, about 1 percent of the retail price would come fairly close to the monthly payment. Some lease deals don't require the substantial down payment. There are many different finance plans, some going out for 20 or more years. Fuel, insurance, hangar and maintenance add on to that monthly payment for the total cash flow requirement.
One thing that has to be considered is the possibility of being "upside down" in the airplane if one of the most liberal finance deals is used. This simply means that a quick sale of the airplane wouldn't yield the amount of the note. The difference would have to come out of your pocket. From looking at values of 2005 Skylanes, Cirrus SR-22s and Columbia 400s in Vref and Aircraft Bluebook, it appears that wholesale prices of 2005s are about 80 percent of retail. That would mean that if you paid 10 percent down and had to sell quickly, you'd have to write a check. I'd add that there is more variation in values of these airplanes between the two sources than I have ever seen. An accountant can show you how the liberal depreciation rules in the federal tax code can help on that cash flow when the airplane is used primarily for business. The interest on the loan is also deductible. In most cases, the cash flow for an airplane used in business is actually positive for a while because of the tax benefits. But, again, the use of the airplane has to be related to business activity and the cash flow has to be there for this to work. When a person buys a used airplane, it is with a requirement to stash some cash for surprises. Every airplane owner is familiar with these and they can run into the thousands of dollars. New airplanes come with a warranty, so the new buyer is shielded from major and expensive surprises for the term of the warranty. That is a big advantage, as are some incentive plans that are offered on new airplanes from time to time. A while back some airplane manufacturers were offering free fuel, but $4 a gallon probably cured that.
The fact is that you can buy a new airplane and accurately project costs for the term of the warranty. You can't do that when buying a used airplane.
Something else that tips the scales heavily in favor of new airplanes is the glass cockpit. If you want a fully integrated glass system you have to buy new. Garmin's retrofit G600 system will allow a primary flight and multifunction display with an AHARS and air data computer for the retrofit market, enabling owners of existing airplanes to get rid of the vacuum system and the gyros and modernize the panel. The retail price of this is just under 30 grand and we won't really know the installed price until the equipment is being delivered and installed. The complete new glass cockpit systems are simply too complex to be economically retrofitted to an existing piston airplane, so if you want the best, and the big screens, so far it has to be a new airplane. All the new airplane buyer has to evaluate here is which airplane/avionics combination is the most desirable. Airplane selling is a highly competitive business and any salesman will try to convince you that his airplane is the only one that you should consider. You have to live with the airplane, the salesman doesn't, so you have to carefully weigh what is available against your needs.
Also, when you take a demo flight, consider how the engine is operated during the flight. If the airplane is a turbo and it is climbed at full power, that looks great in rate of climb, but in the long run it might reduce engine life. Likewise, how much fuel is burned at cruise? Some of the new airplanes, especially turbos, are demonstrated at quite high cruise power settings and the new engines, especially the turbocharged Continentals, will generate more than rated power. It is not uncommon to see a cruise fuel flow of 25 gallons per hour in a turbo single, and that equates to more than 300 horsepower at an average specific fuel consumption. That is roughly 100 percent of the horsepower rating of the engines.
High-performance piston singles (over 200 horsepower) currently in production range from the Cessna Skylane at the lowest price point to the pressurized Piper Mirage at the highest. Those are two great airplanes with a lot of interesting ones in between.
Speed is often foremost in every pilot's mind when buying an airplane. But how important is it? That depends on how far you fly. If most of your trips are 200 to 300 miles, then speed isn't the most important issue. The longer the trip, the more speed counts, especially when there is a headwind, which there will statistically be more than half the flying time. Even though an extra 10 or 20 knots of true airspeed will save only a few minutes on an average trip, I'd bet that most pilots put speed pretty high-if not at the top-on the list. We buy airplanes to move about, and the faster the better. Speed is expensive, though, and a 30 percent increase costs more than 30 percent more money.
Range might be second only to speed as a performance factor important to most pilots. It is often said that the average trip in a business jet is about 300 miles. For some reason, in singles pilots tend to want to fly farther, as in getting from where it is cold to where it is warm in the winter. An airplane that will do this without a fuel stop is highly desirable. Actual useful range has to be carefully calculated because the range and speed superlatives cited by a salesman might not go together. An airplane might fly fast and fly far but not do both at the same time.
If you have a specific trip in mind, it is a good idea to get information from a pilot's operating handbook and feed the trip through a flight planning program on a number of different days to see how often it could be done without a stop. The computerized flight planners plug in the forecast winds for the day and give you a very precise estimate, but you can also enter your own estimates of wind based on experience over the route. In either case, wind must be considered because the no-wind range of an airplane is an interesting but almost useless number, particularly at single engine speeds where the wind can add or subtract a large percentage of the actual true airspeed to or from the groundspeed.
Range also has a direct bearing on what you can carry in the cabin. Most new four-seaters excel at carrying full fuel and two people and baggage, which is a fairly standard load. If every heavy option is added then the choice of a passenger might be limited to someone who is not bottom-heavy. Maximum range trips with full seats are just not possible in any of the new high- performance piston singles.
There are other performance matters to explore. The climb rate and the airfield performance might be more important to some than to others, for example.
Turbo or not turbo is a big question for the new airplane buyer. I could sit here and write many words about why turbocharging is not really worth the expense on an unpressurized airplane flown in the eastern U.S., but I'd be just as out of step as I always managed to be in close order drill. When airplanes are offered with the choice, buyers often vote in favor of the turbocharged airplane. An exception is the Cessna 182 where the normally aspirated airplane has been outselling the turbo by a lot, but even that is changing. The 206 turbo far outsells the normal. The turbo version of an airplane will fly higher, go faster up high, burn more gas and cost more to maintain. The warranty deals with the latter for a while. And while it is hard for a pilot to "hurt" a normally aspirated engine, because once it starts climbing there is less available power, it is easy to trash a turbocharged engine that will make gobs of power well up into thinner air. There is no fadec on new turbocharged airplanes yet. When it comes, any turbo advantage will be enhanced.
A normally aspirated airplane will almost always beat a turbo when an upwind and downwind round trip are compared. The reason is that the naturally aspirated airplane is typically faster down low, so it spends less time on the upwind leg than the turbo saves by climbing into stronger winds on the downwind leg. So the turbo has to be attractive for other reasons. These might include smoother rides in the middle altitudes, better tailwinds eastbound and a little better shot at getting on top of the clouds, though that is pretty elusive no matter how high you fly. Most turbocharged airplanes have a built-in oxygen supply, though getting the system recharged is not something that you can do at every airport. And a lot of pilots don't think that flying above 18,000 feet even with supplemental oxygen is such a good idea. There are certainly cases on record of higher-flying pilots becoming incapacitated. A strong advantage of the new normally aspirated big-engine singles is their ability to be operated in the mid-teens to snag a big tailwind. No, they won't go as fast as a turbo at 15,000 feet, but when you are enjoying a 60-knot tailwind the difference in groundspeed won't be all that great and the fuel flow will be a lot lower without the turbo.