Is It Time to Level Off?

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Never have I regretted spending money on airplanes. The costs for upgrades and maintenance may have been prodigious, but they always felt good. The airplane was either improved or restored. I never questioned these investments. Same for hangar, insurance and fuel. I wanted the airplane protected indoors, I wanted to protect the people flying in it and I wanted to use it. Even in the days when I had bought a new house and neglected to sell the old one and had a note on a Cessna P210, I wasn't scared and I wasn't desperate. The old house sold after a year, the note got paid off eventually and all during that time I was high and pressurized. I've liked looking at the logo of the Jeppesen bill or the invoice from Aircraft Engineering. Rather than a depressing recurrent expense of little recognizable worth like health insurance, say, I always felt good, solid, right about airplane costs. No doubt this kind of thinking could have been easily criticized from a financial point of view, but it was unassailable emotionally.

For the first time in my flying life, though, I've become concerned about money. I am not wealthy by today's standards, though I am rich (there's a difference). I've got more money now than I've ever had before. The kids are all married and out of graduate school. It is a very good part of life; sort like high-speed cruise. I'm 61. I still enjoy work and I am very well paid for what I do. I am lucky, very lucky. I have always sought to own the most magnificent airplane I could afford and, until recently, even our Cheyenne seemed a reasonable reach. But a recent hot section on a PT-6 engine and the price of fuel have prompted significant fiscal fretting.

A few years ago I wrote that I'd put a down payment on a Mustang. Soon afterward I discovered I didn't have $2.5 million. Reluctantly I asked for, and got, a refund from Cessna. I've followed the successful development and marketing of this gorgeous airplane from afar, as a nonparticipant. It's a little like driving by an old girlfriend's house to see if she's got a new boyfriend. I'm jealous of the new owners I hear about. Their baby can do 340 knots on less than 600 pounds of fuel per hour. The avionics are spectacular. The airplane is gorgeous. And I can't have one.

I frequently get letters complaining that I've got too good a life as it is. This is, in fact, true. I know I'm pretty far up on the airplane ownership tree. Our 27-year-old turboprop is an amazing machine and I love it dearly. It is more reliable than the Cessna 340 we had before this airplane, and the 340 was a huge jump up from the Cessna P210, which was a pretty remarkable airplane in its own right. I've been spoiled by 34 years of ever-advancing airplane ownership. As my career prospered, I was always looking for the next upgrade. It appears that I have now topped out and may soon be required to accept stepping back down the ladder rather than climbing up it.

That's the part that I don't like. I am no longer fantasizing that I might move from turboprop to jet; I'm thinking that I may not be able to hold onto the Cheyenne. I have no trouble with allocating every spare dollar to airplanes. I've saved for retirement. I have not been imprudent. I know people who are buying TBM 850s and I know people holding delivery positions on these magnificent VLJs. I'm just not one of them. It is too big a stretch and I will not make it.

There must be a break point in everyone's life that signals the turn. Racing up the corporate ladder, there comes a day when somebody else gets picked for the big job. Nobody's trajectory in life climbs to an infinite altitude. Even the president becomes the "former president." I've been spoiled by a great run, both personally and professionally. I am grateful. But I'd still like a Mustang!

The PT-6s on our airplane require an overhaul every 3,500 hours and a "hot section" at the halfway point, 1,750 hours. This hot section last summer pushed $40,000. I had been saving for it. I had planned on it. Still, it stung. That's a lot of money, even for Warren Buffet. Nonetheless, I had the same old feeling when I paid the bill: This is a good thing to do. There's a reason for the inspection. This will make the airplane safer and improve its value. This is rationalization in its most robust form.

You are certainly correct when you point out that a man who can afford a hot section on a turbine engine should spend his days sitting in the lotus position giving continual thanks. No doubt about that. This story is relative, though. That is, a wealthier man (or woman) may be whining right now that he or she can't afford that Citation X. He'll have to stick with the Beechjet. The kids will have to adapt. Or another pilot may be finding that he and his partners can't continue to afford that old 172. The maintenance and the price of gas just make it impossible.

Not long ago I flew from Tampa to Memphis. The trip up was marvelous; clear skies and even a little bit of unusual tailwind. The trip took about two and a half hours. I parked at Wilson Air Center for two nights and ordered a fill up with jet-A, which was 88 cents a gallon cheaper than at Signature Flight Support. I had a wonderful time visiting the University of Tennessee's Medical School and its Surgery Department. The bill was $994. I can't do that. A recent trip to New Hampshire was conducted on Southwest Airlines, not 2458Whiskey. Fuel at Lebanon, New Hampshire, was $4.70 a gallon and we would have burned almost 280 gallons to get there. Round trip on SWA was free-we used reward points.

Empty pockets: Rob Haynes, Dick Karl and Kent Roper after flying from Manteo, North Carolina, to Tampa.

So, what to do? I was lamenting about all this to my wife, holder of an MBA and a clearthinking person. She's always been supportive of my airplane habit. I put forward the argument that we should buy a used TBM 700. You can get a nice one for two million. I urged her to consider the great fuel savings that we'd enjoy by going faster and burning less gas. She is a big fan of turbine engines. She suggested that I "run the numbers."

The calculations were as follows:

To trade up would probably cost $1.5 million.

We flew 173 hours last year. The average ground speed was 212 knots as calculated on the utility page of our Garmin 430. Our cruise speed is 235 knots, so the average ground speed is about 23 knots less than cruise. Since most of the difference is due to climb, maneuvering and winds, I deducted 25 knots from the TBM's realistic cruise speed of 290 knots.

Using an average ground speed of 265 knots, I figured that we'd fly 138 hours to cover the 37,000 nautical miles that we managed last year in our Cheyenne.

I looked up time fuel distance charts for the TBM and Cheyenne. I calculated that we'd save 3,655 gallons of fuel a year. At $4 a gallon, we'd save $14,620 a year.

My wife quickly pointed out the return on investment: It would take us more than 100 years to break even. And she's supportive!

My Mustang dreams have dimmed, but my hope for the Cheyenne continues. It is a remarkable airplane, so dependable and so capable compared to every other airplane I've owned. I get on controller.com and browse. Could I go back to a Cessna 340? Sure. Could we adapt? No doubt. But the slower speeds and less reliable powerplants change the equation. Trips to Memphis would probably be done nonstop on Northwest airlines. Now, wouldn't that be a shame?

There is much complaint about our money-driven society. I'm urged by many to slow down and enjoy the meaningful, and free, things in life that really matter. I have no doubt that these sentiments are correct ones. I try, more and more, to be patient, to listen well, to savor. In all areas except for aviation, this works well and is pleasing. But when it comes to airplanes, I can't stop dreaming.

Why? I think it is because airplanes are so remarkable in the first place that it is hard to comprehend that they, too, have a finite ceiling. Like being president, what do you do if you own a Gulfstream? Get a Global Express? A BBJ? After the BBJ, what next? From where I sit in aviation, I see many, many rungs on the ladder above me. I can't believe that there is a limit to the ever increasing capability, speed and luxury that airplanes possess. I know intellectually that it is so, but I just can't let go of the dream. In all other parts of my life I have come to appreciate all that I have experienced, enjoyed, witnessed and done. I am at home with my job and family. They are wondrous and magnificent.

I will not win a Pulitzer, the Nobel or an Olympic Gold Medal, but I have enjoyed great positive reinforcement at home and at work. I know where I stand. In aviation I have lingering fantasies unlike any other part of my life.

Occasionally the Florida lottery gets up there enough that I play. I still drive to work mentally running the numbers. If we won $33 million, we'd get 21 right now and maybe net 12 after taxes. There's the Mustang. No, there's the Beech Premier. Forget about leveling off, we'd look good in that.