Should Airplane Sweepstakes Give Non-Owners an Edge?

Now that he owns an aircraft, this pilot thinks that luck and fortune should smile on aspiring owners.

The EAA Aviation Foundation is giving away a 1946 Piper J-3C-90 Cub. [Courtesy: EAA]

For most of us, winning an airplane is the stuff of dreams. But for a lucky few, it’s a springboard to become an owner with virtually no effort. And the aircraft that comprise the sweepstakes, contests, and raffles that entice us most as pilots often fit the profile of the organizations that promote them–and the owners they hope to be.

Take the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), for example. The EAA Aviation Foundation hosts a raffle each year to support its outreach efforts, and the prize reflects the grassroots nature of the association overall. This year? EAA’s giving away a 1946 Piper J-3C-90 Cub. 

The Grumman AA-5 Tiger to be awarded in this year’s AOPA sweepstakes is the stuff of a future owner’s dreams. [Photo: AOPA/Chris Rose]

And this year’s Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) sweepstakes airplane is a beautiful Grumman AA-5 Tiger, and in a matter of days, it will be awarded to some lucky winner. It has been thoroughly restored with a stunning new paint job, a factory-rebuilt Lycoming O-360 engine, a custom leather interior, and a full Garmin panel. It’s far nicer than it was when it rolled out of the factory back in 1978, and it probably flies amazingly well.

Despite all of this, I hope I’m not selected as the winner.

“I wouldn’t be opposed to the integration of some kind of system that gives non-owners a better chance of winning.”

Mainly, I’m staying true to a position I took many years ago, long before I ever owned an airplane of my own. As I scrimped, saved, and dreamed of airplane ownership, it killed me to see an airplane from any contest or sweepstakes awarded to someone fortunate enough to already own their own airplane. As an airplaneless dreamer, this seemed like a great cosmic injustice to those of us striving so hard to become an owner and spending our days wedged into schedule slots that were as tight as the interior of the clapped-out 150s we were forced to rent.

The peak of my sweepstakes airplane lust occurred back in 2014. The AOPA sweepstakes airplane that year was a 1963 Beechcraft Debonair. Like the Tiger, it had been fully refurbished with a new paint job, engine, and panel. It was a thing of beauty, and I was convinced fate would step in and award it to its rightful owner: me.

At the time, I belonged to a fantastic flying club in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The club had seven aircraft, one of which happened to also be a 1963 Beechcraft Debonair. The club’s Debonair was nowhere near as nice as the example AOPA was giving away, but I was able to fly it a handful of times and had been bitten by the Beechcraft bug.

Every year, various organizations hold raffles, contests, and sweepstakes. The chances of winning are miniscule. But the payoff can be life-changing. [Photo: AOPA/Chris Rose]

Compared to the Cessnas and Mooneys I had been flying, the Debonair—a less-expensive version of the legendary Bonanza—easily lived up to all the Bonanza hype. Every control you touched had a feeling of total quality. Compared with the often flexy and creaky feel of the other types, the Beechcraft’s controls seemed like they’d been machined from solid blocks of aluminum and felt like they rolled on precision needle bearings.

Whereas other singles make you feel like you’re sitting on the floor with your legs stretched straight out ahead, the Debonair’s seating position was tall. You were provided with a proper seat that felt like a chair and made even taxiing a stately and distinguished affair. I fell hopelessly in love with that airplane, and I was convinced the sweepstakes Debonair was destined to become mine.

Destiny, of course, had other plans. My name went unnoticed in the drawing, and the Debonair was awarded to a guy who already had an airplane of his own. My ownership hopes thoroughly shattered, I cursed him extensively before eventually admitting to myself that he’s probably a really great guy who will take better care of the Debonair than my own meager finances would have allowed.

Now, as the current owner of my Cessna 170, I look back on my former frustration—and my feelings aren’t all that different. Over the years, I’ve entered a fair number of contests, sweepstakes, and raffles in the hopes of winning an airplane. And although they seem to have been administered in a manner that’s fair to all entrants, I wouldn’t be opposed to the integration of some kind of system that gives non-owners a better chance of winning.

Maybe entrants who can somehow be verified as non-owners would be given a multiplier of some kind. Maybe they could be provided with two chances of winning while those of us fortunate to already own airplanes would be given just one. Something to tip the scales in favor of those still striving to join the ranks of ownership for the first time.

Admittedly, part of this selfless position stems from the lack of attachment to any of the current airplanes available to win. That Grumman is a beautiful airplane, and I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve got flying a different AA-5, but it doesn’t have the inexplicable draw that I felt pulling me toward the Debonair. So in this sense, it would be easier to give up some of my chances of winning.

And the selflessness isn’t actually that deep, anyway. I can’t honestly say I’d pass the Grumman up if my name was selected as the winner. But rather than keep it and fly it, I’d sell it to fund the purchase of a modest airpark home—an almost realistic goal I’ve got that I’ll explore in depth in a future article. Maybe I’d give the buyer a good deal to pass some of the good karma along.

This year’s AOPA sweepstakes Grumman Tiger has a panel that, all by itself, tops the value of many very nice airplanes. [Photo: AOPA/Chris Rose]

I think it’s worth occasionally tossing some money at raffle and sweepstakes airplanes, though, particularly if you’re still working toward your first airplane. There are always a handful of them going on. The Ernie Hall Aviation Museum, for example, is currently raffling off a 1948 Cessna 170, and the Alaska Airmen’s Association recently raffled off a Carbon Cub. For EAA’s raffle, only 3,000 tickets will be sold—and they must be purchased in the state of Wisconsin; call 888-500-5600 to find out all of the locations where this is possible, including EAA AirVenture. The chances of your success improve a lot in these smaller contests.

In all of those examples, the money raised goes toward a not-for-profit organization that furthers general aviation in its own unique way…so losing the raffle is still a win for GA. Best of all, organizations like these hold airplane raffles regularly, so if you spot an airplane that speaks to you like that Debonair did to me, it just might be worth tossing $50 or $100 bucks in and buying a few tickets.

After all, someone has to win.

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.

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