Taking Wing: The Penny-Pinching Pilot

Confessions of a flying cheapskate.

Taking Wing Cessna

Taking Wing Cessna

I've been an airplane nut and have longed to have one of my very own for nearly as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I have also been an inveterate cheapskate since childhood. Aviation is a fine vocation for a tightwad; if not quite a job requirement to begin with, frugality is at least one of very few ways in which a piloting career might improve a young man's moral character. An aviation hobby, on the other hand, requires a certain willingness to throw one's money down the rathole with little regard to efficacy. Most aircraft owners will readily admit that sole ownership is an expensive way to fly. From a purely financial standpoint, relatively few airplanes are flown enough to justify their high fixed costs. Armed with such reasoning, thus far I have resisted the impulse to buy my own airplane, and have managed to scratch my flying itch in various other ways that don't offend my cheapskate sensibilities.

At least I came by it honestly: I grew up as one of six hungry mouths born to a homemaker mother and a part-time preacher, full-time carpenter father who made $30,000 in a good year. We never considered ourselves poor. "The Lord will provide," declared my devout parents, and indeed our burgeoning family never suffered for lack of food, clothing or shelter. An airplane, however, was a distant, unattainable luxury. My dad and I talked and dreamed of buying a vintage taildragger or building an economical homebuilt, but even then I realized that "affordable" airplanes still require more cold hard cash than a prudent man would dare ask of the Almighty.

Here's a game that most Flying readers can beat me at; I call it "flying was cheaper when ... " When I began taking flight lessons in 1994, it cost $38 per hour to rent a Cessna 150 and another $20 per hour for the instructor. That translates to a dual rate of only $92 in 2015 dollars, and I still thought it was obscenely expensive. Like countless airport rats before me and since, I traded my services as a line boy and airplane washer for bits of precious flight time. After my solo I convinced Sun Aviation's owner, Jerry Graham, that it was far more efficient to dry the planes off after washing by flying them around the patch, and free tenths-of-an-hour peppered my logbook. No wonder I was thrilled to take a $10-per-hour CFI job a few years later — at least someone was paying me instead of the other way around!

Obviously, the cost of renting has only gone up since then. Between the diminished number of FBOs and the increased prevalence of ­career-oriented flight schools, there are fewer rental aircraft available to the recreational pilot. Of these, it can be tough to find a basic, economical two-seater for rent at many airports. It's the sort of airplane only cheapskates fly, and most FBOs would rather have the sort of clientele that demands a glass-cockpit four-seater. Adjusted for inflation, avgas is three times more expensive than it was in 1994. Aircraft parts and shop rates have nearly doubled. Insurance is hugely expensive for flight schools. The result is that, in many areas, there aren't any airplanes available for less than $120 per hour. And then you still have the well-known downsides to renting: scheduling limitations, uninspiring airplanes and uncertain maintenance. I continued to rent sporadically for years after I started flying professionally. Renting actually makes sense for someone who doesn't fly that much. But about five years ago my wife, Dawn, and I began to fly GA more often. When the old Cherokee 140 I was renting went up to $110 per hour, I just couldn't justify paying that on a regular basis and began to look for alternative arrangements.

Fortunately, I soon stumbled onto a sweetheart deal. Two guys in my area bought a 1949 Cessna 170A for times when it wasn't practical to fly their early 182 on straight floats. However, the 170 saw little usage during Minnesota's long winters, and the partners flew the floatplane as much as possible during our short summers. For years I'd been marveling at the number of small planes that sit idle for months at a time. There's nothing tougher on a piston aircraft engine than disuse. It would make a great deal of sense to loan one's plane to the aerial equivalent of a dog walker once or twice a month, but few owners seem inclined to do that. Dave and Scott were the exception; I actually found them via Craigslist. I put gas and oil in the 170, paid my own insurance, and chipped in some money for maintenance. I took friends, family and Young Eagles flying every nice weekend, occasionally ferried my nephew to his grandparents, and flew into Oshkosh twice. It was great — like owning my own airplane at a fraction of the cost! After a couple of years, though, the owners wised up to the fact that they were losing their asses on a plane they never flew, and sold it. I haven't had any luck with my dog walker pitch since.

Around that time, my friend and co-worker Logan Weck moved back to his hometown of Chicago and offered me his one-twelfth share in the Yellow Cub Club. Logan had given me my tailwheel endorsement in its 1946 Piper J-3 a few years prior, and I'd been on the waiting list for the club ever since. I (and nearly every other aviation writer) have spilled so much ink extolling the Cub's virtues that I won't repeat how much fun I've had flying it. I will say, however, that few airplanes will get you in the air cheaper, especially in a 12-person flying club. We charge $50 per month for fixed expenses and $50 per tach hour — wet! Even at these rates, the club built up robust reserves, which recently allowed us to replace our well-used J-3 with a nicely restored 1940 model.

Dawn and I budgeted a mere $200 per month for flying, which covered three hours of Cub time. Flying clubs make great sense for people like me who fly between 20 and 70 hours a year. The hourly cost is competitive with renting, and the more you fly, the cheaper it gets. Scheduling is usually much more flexible, allowing you to take your airplane on longer adventures. There's a communal aspect to both the flying and the maintenance. People take pride in an airplane they own, even when it's just a share, so club airplanes get treated better than the average rental while enjoying greater utilization than most owned aircraft. I suspect that if flying clubs were more common and visible, it would put flying within reach for a much larger slice of the middle class.

And yet … as much as I love the Cub, and as much as flying clubs appeal to my thrifty nature, I missed flying the C-170. It gave me a peek at the upsides of ownership: always having an airplane available for the spontaneous sunset cruise, being able to take off on a weeklong adventure without stepping on someone's toes, or simply being able to say of a pretty old bird, "it's mine." I missed having four seats to take up friends and their kids. Perhaps most of all, I missed the cross-country capabilities of a solid 100-knot airplane. You can take a Cub cross-country, but it's not well suited to the task, a point driven home when I raced the Cub in the AirVenture Cup Race. When I talked to Dawn about these things, it turned out she felt exactly the same way.

If there had been a flying club nearby with a vintage four-place taildragger I would have joined it, but there wasn't. Instead I found myself looking at online classified ads and perusing type club websites. I ran the numbers and concluded that $1,200 a month would cover a loan, insurance, hangar rent, maintenance, and fuel and oil for 10 hours of flying. I know that amount is small change to many pilots, but where I come from, $14,400 per year is a heck of a lot of money. Perhaps I'm finally shedding my cheapskate ways, because the old me wouldn't have even considered it. Here's what I'm coming to realize as I get older: my most treasured possessions are the wonderful memories I've made exploring our fascinating world with the people I love. I have never once regretted spending money on a good adventure. Flying 120 hours a year, I expect to have a lot of great adventures, and in the end, I'll never miss the cash. I'm a lucky man, for Dawn readily agreed and gave her blessing. Thus resolved, we began to search in earnest for a classic little airplane to call our very own.

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