How To Lower The Cost of Airplane Ownership

Money-saving tips to fly more for less.

FLY0514 Airplane Ownership

FLY0514 Airplane Ownership

A new private pilot, who had big dreams but not big money, was contemplating purchasing an older Mooney. He had limited mechanical skills and no concept of the potential cost of maintaining a complex airplane. He just liked the looks of the plane and its performance. Roger that. Many people buy their first aircraft for the same reasons. To his ­credit, he asked questions and ultimately decided not to purchase an airplane until he had a plan for maintaining it. Good decision.

When you own your own airplane, you get the priceless benefits of flying wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go, but you're also responsible for the aircraft's maintenance. Please don't let that discourage you. In 40 years of flying, I've owned seven airplanes — four power planes and three gliders — and being solidly middle-class, I learned very quickly how to minimize my costs and maximize my fun. If you are well heeled and cost is less of a concern, don't stop reading: Being directly involved in your airplane's maintenance can contribute to safety, and why pay more just because you can? Here are some of the ways I've saved bundles of bucks on owning an airplane. Fasten your seat belts, and let's fly through them.

BUY WISELY

Consider the most expensive component of the aircraft — its engine. If the time on the engine is near or beyond TBO, no matter how low the aircraft's selling price, an engine overhaul is not going to come cheap. Explore the cost of an engine overhaul upfront; check out companies such as Air Power Inc. and local engine shops. Don't let the eye-popping prices discourage you from ownership; rather look at them to determine how much you should be saving per hour of flight so you can afford an overhaul when it's due.

On metal airframes, look for corrosion; on fabric birds, age of fabric and condition; on both, damage that hasn't been repaired well. You must also consider several other factors, such as avionics, interior and so on. Of course, you'll generally have to pay more for an aircraft with a low-time engine and solid airframe, but it is worth it in the long run.

If you currently own an airplane but it's expensive to operate, think about trading it in for something more affordable. If you're flying a more powerful fixed-gear model, look into trading it in for one that's more fuel efficient and a little faster to boot.

Above all, think simple. A simple airplane (fixed gear, single engine, basic avionics) costs less to maintain than a complex one, especially if the aircraft is old. A pilot friend of mine who bought a '60s-era Twin Comanche doubled his trouble — not only in engine maintenance, but also in replacing worn-out parts throughout, such as the gear operating system and avionics. Fortunately, he loves the airplane and is also able to foot the bill.

CONSIDER A PARTNERSHIP

One of the quickest ways to save cash on the ownership of an aircraft is a co-ownership agreement with one or more pilots. Your costs are immediately and dramatically reduced. Know in advance: The least experienced pilot usually determines your insurance policy rate. There are many pros and cons to co-ownership, but first and foremost, each partner must have the financial resources to meet the fixed costs, and the “chemistry” of the partnership must be positive. I know two pilots whose partnership outlasted both their first marriages, while I saw another partnership blow apart because of a costly restoration on a poorly maintained Cessna 170.

Here are more money-saving ideas: Lease back, rent or flight instruct in your aircraft, if you're qualified. But be aware that many times these options look good on paper, but not so much in practice. If you're offering tailwheel endorsements in your Citabria, for instance, your insurance is bound to be much higher, possibly erasing any benefits. On the other hand, if your lease-back is seeing high usage or you have enough students to cover the increased costs of flight instruction, you can come out ahead. For some people, breaking even is enough — the airplane pays for itself, and they get the fun of flying. Best flight plan: Do the math before you take off with one of these options.

**RE-EXAMINE YOUR INSURANCE **

Before you buy or renew your insurance policy, read Pia Bergqvist's excellent article "How to Save Money on Insurance" in the January 2014 issue of Flying. Here's another suggestion: If you fly a relatively inexpensive airplane — say $45,000 or less — and you have hull insurance, consider dropping it after the first year of ownership or when the airplane is paid off. You could save thousands of dollars over a few years. Since you are now the insurer, you must manage your risk more carefully. Stay really, really current. Fly at least once a week. Avoid situations in which you are more likely to have an accident, such as landing in gusty crosswinds or on unknown, unimproved strips. Always tie down your aircraft, even if there is not a breath of wind or a cloud in sight. Never, ever let anyone else fly your airplane — no exceptions.

To further manage risk, you might want to purchase ground hull only (coverage when the airplane is not under power) if you are making a long cross-country trip, say from the West Coast to Oshkosh and the plane will be tied down outside — it's a route where thunderstorms, hail and even tornadoes are possible. However, if you want to share your aircraft with other pilots, or you're in a co-ownership agreement, it's best to keep full hull insurance. As with any insurance, deciding on coverage and reducing risk based on it is a complicated calculus that only you, the owner, can ultimately decide upon.

When it comes to maintenance, be sure to shop around for a mechanic you can trust. Finding the right one can save you thousands over the long term. (Photo: Ryan Photography Co.)|

CUT YOUR MAINTENANCE COSTS

Maintenance is the scariest part of owning an airplane. You have nothing to fear if you're willing to learn about your aircraft and take the time to find ways to cut costs without sacrificing safety.

Use an independent mechanic. Working with the right person can save you thousands of dollars over the years. Before you hire anyone, make sure the mechanic has good references from pilots you know first-hand. That way you'll know exactly who's working on your airplane; you won't have to pay for overhead; and you can buy your own parts and save, save, save. The same is true for avionics professionals. I recently had a radio installed in my airplane for about $150. An avionics shop wanted $1,000, and the higher price is no guarantee of a better job. Be sure to ask the mechanic for a time estimate, and be prepared to pay the mechanic a fair fee.

Shop for a repair shop. If you can't find an independent mechanic — and unfortunately, this breed of professionals is rapidly shrinking — or if you prefer to go to a shop, check out the shop's business practices as well as its mechanical prowess before you entrust your airplane to it. For example, inquire about its billing practices. I've heard of a shop that buys an assembled part and then charges the customer for each piece of the part separately (nuts, bolts, cotter pins, etc.), greatly inflating the price without any benefit to the aircraft or customer. Check the prices of parts yourself. Most can be found on the websites of suppliers such as Aircraft Spruce and many others. If you have time, chase parts yourself, especially on straightforward items such as aircraft batteries and tires.

Learn preventive maintenance. Performing your own preventive maintenance can also save you big bucks — and it can be a valuable learning experience. At the very least, learn how to change the oil. As of this writing, an oil change in a Cessna 172 at a shop near my home costs about $176. Changing the oil yourself adds up to only about $70. That's a $106 savings you could spend on avgas or put toward a new instrument. And there are many other tasks you can do that not only save money, but also give you the opportunity to learn more about your airplane. CFR 14, Appendix A to Part 43 (c) lists a surprising number of tasks most pilots are allowed to do, including changing tires, replacing a battery, and replacing and cleaning spark plugs. If you haven't done these tasks before, it's wise to have a mechanic check your work the first time you do the job. Builders of amateur-built aircraft and/or owners of light-sport aircraft have a wider range of options, including eligibility for a Repairman Certificate (CFR 14, 65.104). For complete information on what you can and can't do on your airplane, consult CFR 14, Part 43 and Part 91 Subpart E before starting any work. You'll find all the CFRs online at www.ecfr.gov.

Remember, if you're flying a certified aircraft, you must use approved parts. These are available through many suppliers, original manufacturers and pilot shops. Be wary of well-meaning pilots who tell you that car parts are “good enough” or “better.” That may be so, but they're not legal to use on a certified aircraft.

Understand the annual inspection. The annual inspection is perhaps one of the most misunderstood requirements of aircraft ownership. Required by the Code of Federal Regulations CFR 14, 91.409, the annual doesn't have to ground your airplane or your bank account. The inspector/mechanic will provide you with a list of squawks for your aircraft. These squawks could range from serious ones, such as a cracked cylinder, to minor ones, such as a tire that's a bit worn. The inspector/mechanic should give you a list of what has to be done before he will sign off the aircraft and return it to service. However, the inspector/mechanic does not have to do the repairs. You can hire a more reasonably priced mechanic or, with supervision, do some — or all — of the work yourself.

Some shops offer owner-assisted annuals, where you can do time-­consuming chores such as removing and replacing inspection plates and cowlings and other tasks. In the end, the safety of your aircraft is in your hands. Pick a professional mechanic whose judgment and integrity you trust, and follow his or her advice.

**PLAN AHEAD **

There are several other things you can do to take the stress out of airplane ownership and keep your costs more manageable. For example, clean your airplane yourself. Although it can be a dirty job, someone has to do it — why not you? When you clean the oily belly and dust the wings of your aircraft, you will get more familiar with your airplane, and you might catch small problems, such as cracks in the gear, loose nuts, missing screws or torn fabric, before they become big ones. When you clean the propeller, you're more likely to notice any nicks and cracks on the front and back than during your preflight inspection.

If you're thinking about a maintenance issue, fix it. Don't wait for something to break before you replace it. For example, my 10-year-old battery was working fine, but I replaced it rather than risk getting stranded somewhere and paying far more to replace it, not to mention the hassle.

Purchase aviation staples, such as oil, in bulk. When you buy directly from a distributor, you can save on oil and other supplies like solvent. If you don't live near a distributor, you can still buy oil by the case. I also buy oil filters ahead of time, usually two at a time from an online supplier, so I always have one on the shelf, and I don't have to rush out and get one and inevitably pay more.

A simple way to lower your costs in the long run is to hangar your aircraft. Exposing your aircraft to the elements may be OK for the short term, but sun, hail and wind damage could wipe out any savings, and if you own a fabric-covered aircraft, a hangar is a must. An added bonus: Your hull insurance could be lower. If you can't afford a hangar by yourself, you could share a larger one with one or more pilots and even rent the space under your wings or in the corners of a box hangar to pilots who need storage.

If available, join a type club for your airplane. Club websites can give you a heads-up about recent FAA airworthiness directives and provide a wealth of additional information through online forums. They're also helpful when it comes to researching problems. If you have a squawk, someone else probably has had it too, especially if the airplane has been around a while. When I had my Cessna 140, I found great information about several issues, including where to look for rust and corrosion. If nothing else, you can be more informed when you talk to your mechanic, or you may be able to deal with the problem yourself. The clubs can also help you find parts and give you access to type-specific products you won't find anywhere else, such as the indispensable sun shield I bought for my airplane.

Finally, purchase products out-of-state to minimize sales tax. You'll save a bunch on avionics and parts, and it's as easy as going online or making a phone call. Before purchasing, confirm the supplier does not charge sales tax for your state, and factor the cost of shipping into your equation.

There is a surprising number of ways you can make the math of aircraft ownership work for you. One is by being smart about expenses such as fuel.|

FLY FRUGALLY

Although it sounds contradictory, flying more can save you more. If your fixed costs are about $3,000 a year, for example, and you fly only 10 hours, your cost per hour is (gulp!) $300. Up your time in the cockpit to 100 hours per year, and it's only $30 per hour. Also, you don't have to go to a destination to enjoy your airplane. Take a short flight to look at a magnificent sunset or give a few rides and possibly awaken someone's inner pilot. After all, the more folks who fly, the more affordable aviation is for all of us.

Of course, you'll want to fly efficiently. Use fuel-saving power settings. For my airplane, cruising at 5,000 feet at 2,500 rpm and 23.6 MP (80 percent power), the engine burns 10.1 gph with a true airspeed of 120 knots. At 2,500 rpm and 22.5 MP (75 percent power), the engine burns 8.7 gph with a true airspeed of 117 knots. Cruising at 75 percent power, I sacrifice a mere 3 knots, but I save 1.4 gph. At the current price of $5.31 a gallon at my airport, that's a savings of $7.43 an hour. On a typical round trip of four hours, I'll save almost $30 — the price of lunch for two. You can also fly higher to boost fuel efficiency. You might want to rediscover the economy and range advantages noted in your Pilot's Operating Handbook.

Plan your flights to airports with lower fuel prices, but please don't let your efforts to economize interfere with the safety of the flight. You might want to skip fuel stops at larger airports with generally higher prices and ramp fees. Small airfields can be more fun anyway, and there is often less need to taxi long distances, so you'll save a little fuel there too.

If you want to spend more time in the air, you may have to cut back on other things. For example, drive a car that gets good mileage versus a gas-hungry one. Check out Edmunds True Cost to Own calculations (edmunds.com/tco.html) to compare the total cost of ownership of vehicles. You might be surprised: The difference between models over five years can be in the thousands — money you can put toward supporting your airplane. Also, cut down on the frivolities, such as expensive coffee drinks that can cost almost as much as a gallon of avgas.

Now that you're saving money so effortlessly, you can reinvest some of it in your aircraft. Perhaps you have been lusting after a new GPS, radio or Garmin watch. Or, if your airplane is older, you might want to overhaul key instruments, such as your airspeed indicator and altimeter. I recently had my G-meter overhauled, and I plan to get a new fuel pressure gauge next. More pluses: These items can add safety, utility and a whole lot of fun to your flying.

Finally, stop worrying about money! The joy of flying your own airplane is priceless.

ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES AND SAVE.

CFR Appendix A to Part 43 (c) lists 31 tasks you can tackle on your aircraft. Here are 10 of them. Don't feel shy about getting advice from a qualified mechanic, and remember, you must enter any work you do in your aircraft's logbook. You can also perform maintenance not included in section (c) if you are working under the supervision of a licensed mechanic. Before you go full throttle to your tool chest, check CFR 43.3 (d) for details.

  • Remove, install and repair landing gear tires.
  • Replace elastic shock absorber cords on landing gear.
  • Service landing gear shock struts by adding oil, air or both.
  • Service landing gear wheel bearings, such as cleaning and greasing.
  • Replace defective safety wiring or cotter keys.
  • Replenish hydraulic fluid in the hydraulic reservoir.
  • Replace safety belts.
  • Replace prefabricated fuel lines.
  • Clean or replace fuel and oil strainers or filter elements.
  • Replace most hose connections.

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