How To Keep a ‘Bargain Jet’ Flying

John and Martha King have learned many lessons while owning and flying their older Falcon 10 twinjet. Courtesy King School

There are plenty of reasons to want to own and fly a jet. Jets are made for capable, reliable transportation. They come equipped ready to do the job with pressurization, anti-icing and deicing, and substantial turbine-style cockpit displays and avionics. Most important, they come with jet engines.

There is nothing better than jet engines. They never miss. They never run rough. They just deliver smooth power. And oh, the power. To a pilot with a piston-powered background, there is no greater thrill than transitioning to jets.

You are flooded with excitement and sensations. The thrill of hearing a jet engine wind up on start, so full of promise, the semi-sweet smell of jet fuel, the exhilaration of hearing jet engines following you wherever you go. And, ah yes, the power — oh, so much power — all at the command of your hand.

With old, out-of-production jets selling at a mere fraction of the price of new jets with similar performance, the purchase of an older jet seems like an irresistible bargain. It is exactly that line of reasoning that has resulted in our owning and operating old, out-of-production jets for the past 34 years. Sometimes we are slow learners.

It will be no surprise to you that we soon found that, while the capital cost of old jets is far less, the operating costs can be far higher. After all, there must be a reason why these old jets are out of production and so cheap.

Plus, while the value of a newer jet might actually increase after purchase, the higher costs of operating an old jet mean that as the aircraft ages, you would be wise to count on the value of your jet going down — eventually to virtually zero. At some point every out-of-production jet will become economically obsolete — it will become just too expensive to maintain.

But the higher cost of operating these old jets and their declining value is not close to the entire story. The complexity of managing the maintenance of them might be the most important consideration.

When we bought our first jet — a Citation so old that we called it a Citation Zero because it was made before they started numbering them — we had no idea how much personal management was going to be involved in maintaining the airplane.

In fact, at first, we flat out weren’t qualified to maintain a jet. If it hadn’t been for our jet mentor and good friend Harry Metz, we would have been overwhelmed. Although we realized that an annual inspection each year wouldn’t be enough to make us legal, we didn’t begin to understand the complexities of the progressive maintenance programs required for jets.

New jet owners learn that with a jet, you are required to follow the manufacturer's maintenance program or get your own program approved by the FAA.

For our old Citation, Cessna’s maintenance program requires as many as 13 different inspections. These inspections all come due at different times, and with differing requirements, based on the service bulletins that have been applied to that specific aircraft.

We soon began to realize that it is virtually impossible to keep a jet — particularly an old one — safe and legal unless you subscribe to a computerized service that keeps track of the inspections required for your aircraft based on the equipment installed and the service bulletins applied to it. For the Citation we used Cesscom, and for the old Falcon 10 that we now have we use Avtrak.

These services seem to be always a little behind in their reports because there is a lag between the time an event is reported and when it shows up on the printouts. So, to schedule our inspections around our need for the aircraft, and to keep from having a required inspection catch us by surprise, we also maintain our own spreadsheet to keep track of major events coming due by date and aircraft time.

Because the manufacturers of both of the old jets that we have operated are still in business, parts have always been available for us — at a price. OEMs that are still building airplanes, such as Textron Aviation and Dassault, do a pretty good job of supporting even out-of-production airplanes. After all, they don’t want to be seen as abandoning their products, even if they are out of production.

We have been lucky compared to some operators who own aircraft from manufacturers who are no longer making airplanes. In this case parts might not be available at all. This leaves cannibalization of older airplanes and overhaul/exchanges as their only sources of parts.

Even if the manufacturer is still supporting your old airplane, all the factors seem to conspire against you to make your airplane more difficult and expensive to maintain. In addition to all the required inspections, you have to periodically meet government mandates such as the one for ADS-B. In fact, the ADS-B mandate is only the latest.

The easily accessible avionics bay in the Falcon 10 has facilitated implementing multiple avionics mandates over the years. Courtesy King School

As jet owners, over the years we’ve had to meet hundreds of thousands of dollars of mandates, requiring such things as a cockpit voice recorder, a terrain awareness and warning system, and reduced vertical separation minimums capability.

And with the technological evolution involved with the NextGen air traffic control system, there will probably be more, as yet unknown, mandates coming.

Meeting these mandates has not only made us safer and legal, but as jet owners we’ve often felt we’ve been special beneficiaries beyond that. Transponders with Mode C have not only enabled our air traffic control system to provide far better service to all comers, but they’ve helped enable RVSM, which has virtually doubled the airspace available to jets flying between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet.

For piston airplanes, the current ADS-B mandate is not particularly onerous and is getting less so. Solutions have been rapidly getting cheaper and simpler, including one that involves replacing a position light with a new LED position light and an entire ADS-B solution for less than $2,000.

But for jet operators these low-cost solutions simply aren’t available. To fly above 18,000 feet our transponders have to be 1090ES transponders rather than the UAT transponders used by the less costly solutions.

When we started researching solutions for our Falcon 10, our first quote was for more than $150,000. It was a really beautiful dual Garmin GTN 750 installation. But in addition to the cost, and a big delay before we could get started, what really killed the deal was the airplane would be down for at least a couple of months — and probably much longer. That would definitely send us into jet withdrawal.

It was clear to us that we wanted to meet the requirement before the deadline — without ADS-B our old jet would become useless. Besides, we wanted the things that would come with a WAAS GPS, such as LPV approach capability, sooner rather than later.

We had a Garmin GTN 725 installed by Neal Aviation, a shop at Gillespie Airport in San Diego where we have the airplane maintained. It was a lot quicker and less expensive than the luxurious dual-750 installation. The whole thing cost us a little more than $65,000, including some required modifications for compatibility, and took a little less than a month.

Despite the good deal we got on the Garmin installation, owners of an old jet can, in general, expect parts to cost at least as much as they would for a newer jet. If the airplane today would sell for $2 million, the prices of the parts will be no less than they would be for a new $6 million airplane.

This makes sense. Why would the manufacturer discount the parts just because you have an old airplane? Parts will probably be even more expensive for out-of-production jets because as the fleet size decreases, the smaller market makes it less profitable for manufacturers to produce and maintain the parts inventory.

Also, manufacturers have little incentive to take risks on a maintenance program for an aging airplane. So as problems begin to reveal themselves, inspection intervals get shorter, and the number of mandatory inspections increases. Life limits on parts are reduced, and there are more requirements for non-destructive testing such as X-ray and eddy-current testing.

Plus, there is a limit to the number of times you can overhaul a part. Eventually cores reach that limit, and you have to buy a new part or search aviation salvage yards for an acceptable core. In other cases, parts might be superseded by a new design, rendering the old core useless and forcing the purchase of a new part.

You can replace the avionics in an old airplane, but you will still be largely left with old wiring, switches, relays and gauges. As the airplane ages, these begin to cause intermittent problems — which make trouble-shooting an ongoing nightmare.

Despite all these problems, we are still happy with our purchases of our old jets.

We recognize that the old airplanes do dramatically increase management complexity, but if you are willing to put in the work, the lower capital costs can make up for all the extra hassle and operational expense.

We are extremely lucky that we have the availability of Circle Air Group, our maintenance and avionics shop. They are based at Gillespie, just a few miles from our home airport in San Diego, and are more than willing to work with us in meeting the challenges of maintaining older airplanes. Our maintenance technicians even went to FlightSafety in Dallas to take training in the maintenance of our airplane.

Rather than automatically putting new parts on our airplane, they always conduct a thorough search for the possibility of an overhaul or an exchange and present us with alternatives. When a core is no longer suitable for an overhaul or exchange, they will purchase a core from a salvage yard if possible. Without the willingness of Circle Air Group to work with us, we don’t believe it would be possible for us to operate our old jet.

It is also critically important to shop around for your major inspections. Our Falcon 10 has a C-check required every six years. This inspection can cost from $60,000 to $600,000 depending on the problems uncovered, who conducts the inspection, and what the charge is for remedying the problems.

We have used shops that specialize in these kinds of big inspections, the latest being Aviation Maintenance Group in Chino, California. Their primary business is the performance of major inspections. We are convinced they have saved us tens of thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, there is always the risk that at a major inspection they will discover some major defect such as corrosion that simply would not be economical to repair and would permanently ground the airplane.

If you are considering the purchase of an older jet, our advice would be to find your equivalent of shops such as Circle Air Group and Aviation Maintenance Group before you buy the airplane. It is critical that you and these folks have a clear understanding of the ground rules you will be operating under so you know what you are getting yourself into. Plus, we suggest that you talk to other owners about where they do their maintenance and major checks, and what their ground rules are.

The bottom line is that, when you consider the capital costs you are saving, you can operate an out-of-production jet, but it means much more management, more down-time for maintenance, and a higher hourly cost of operation.

In our case, we have been willing to put forth the considerable personal effort required to operate these old airplanes — but then, flying is our business and our passion. Besides, as we said, sometimes we are slow learners. If flying is just transportation to you, and you don’t want to put that much effort into managing your airplane, maybe a “bargain” jet is not for you. But if you desperately want to smell jet fuel and hear turbine engines following you around, go for it and follow your passion. We’ve never regretted it.

Martha King and John King take turns writing Sky Kings. They have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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