For many of us, the initial steps toward aircraft ownership begin at an early age. Sitting in a stuffy grade-school classroom and being presented with the finer points of the New Deal, the parallelogram, and mitochondria, our eyes wandered to a sliver of blue sky visible in a window, and our minds followed.
Perhaps our daydreaming was buoyed by the distant murmur of a small airplane, and before long, we were envisioning ourselves escaping everyday life in one of our own.
Ownership plans, scenarios, and strategies were hatched and analyzed as only a fifth-grader could; if I were to someday need to transport my future race car across the country, only a C-130 Hercules would do. Similarly, a jaunt to my oceanside lair would require a seaplane, and the Grumman Albatross certainly looked suitable for the task.
Zombie apocalypse? That’s a job for the trusty Douglas DC-3.
But it was well-worn, dog-eared copies of Flying surreptitiously borrowed without consent from my uncle that opened my eyes to the notion that regular people could actually purchase and fly their own airplanes. The 1980 Buyer’s Guide listed dozens upon dozens of various types with three-view diagrams and performance specifications of each.
This issue soon became my hallowed bible of aviation. Poring over those stats proved to be far more interesting than any subject matter mandated by the Michigan Department of Education, and I studied them as intently as my classmates studied baseball stats or, indeed, actual study material necessary for graduation.
Most teachers afforded me an unspoken immunity, looking the other way when my magazines came out so long as I was subtle about it and kept my grades up, which I did. Magazines could be concealed within open textbooks, and frankly, none of my classmates could tell whether I was drawing isosceles triangles or Convair F-102 Delta Daggers in my open notebook.
As time went on, classrooms became university lecture halls and later, various workplaces, but the aviation daydreaming remained, consuming more than its fair share of focus and concentration from day to day. Decades passed, and although I went on to earn my private pilot certificate and other ratings and endorsements, aircraft ownership remained a distant, foggy concept, stashed away in the dusty, little-used shelves in the back of one’s mind labeled “One Day”.
It was social media that snapped me out of the funk and motivated me to get serious about becoming an airplane owner. On a cold winter morning at home in Wisconsin, I sat on my couch with my feet up, a black cat passed out in the sun on one leg and a laptop displaying airplane classified ads on the other. I thought the cat looked pretty ridiculous, so I snapped a photo of the scene and chuckled to myself.
Just a few days later, I was browsing my “memories” on a social media site—a compilation of photos and posts I shared on the current date in past years. And I saw it. The very same scene that amused me earlier in the week—a black cat on one leg, a laptop with airplane classified ads on the other—was one that I had shared eight years prior.
As I clicked on the photo for a closer look, it dawned on me that in eight years, I had made exactly zero progress toward airplane ownership. And here I was, browsing the same classified sites with the same wistful dreams and the same lazy cat.
I reflected on this complete lack of progress for a couple of weeks. My frustration fermented into motivation, and I made a phone call to a trusted friend and very successful business owner. I explained my stagnation, and asked for his help to set some financial goals and develop a monthly budget that would eventually transform me from airplane dreamer to airplane owner.
I was not going to allow another eight years to pass without achieving my goal.
The Hard Work Began
The following 18 months were spent working nearly 500 hours of overtime, taking on odd jobs, and monitoring my airplane savings with the scrutiny of a bookie working at a horse track, all while combing the airplane listings to continually assess the market and follow the values of my most desired types. The spreadsheets that resulted would make any fantasy football player green with envy.
Finally, in July, I achieved my childhood goal and bought my first airplane–a 1953 Cessna 170B in its original, scruffy paint, conveniently located 1,600 miles from home. As I write this, I’ve only owned it for a few months. Still, that short time has been punctuated with some of the highest highs and lowest lows an airplane owner could ever hope to experience.
This column will serve as an exploration into airplane ownership as well as a means for you to come along on the adventures—and misadventures—of a first-time airplane owner.
We’ll explore the various steps involved in finding one’s first airplane, from identifying the mission to narrowing down the vast selection of types. We’ll take a look at concerns that are often put off until after the purchase, like hangar rental, ongoing maintenance challenges, and insurance pitfalls.
We’ll profile various first-time owners, learning from their mistakes and celebrating their victories. And we’ll have a look at how individuals and families alike have integrated their first airplanes into their day-to-day lifestyles, from trips to new vacation destinations to the good times and good friends that revolve around $100 hamburgers.
Along the way, I’ll share some of my own insight into my progression from grade-school daydreamer to humble first-time owner in the hopes that you follow suit and join me. Because after all, that grade-school dreamer remains within each of us, and we sure don’t want to let them down.
Jason McDowell is a private pilot and Cessna 170 owner based in Madison, Wisconsin. He enjoys researching obscure aviation history and serves as a judge for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association. He can be found on Instagram as @cessnateur. You can e-mail him with any questions or comments you have.