Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Getting Creative: 10 Ways To Fly For Less

Flying doesn’t have to leave your wallet empty

Flying is expensive. In fact, recent initiatives by the FAA and AOPA list the cost of flying as one of the reasons people either opt not to learn to fly, or stop taking lessons once they start. A little further digging reveals that, more than anything, flying has a high cost of entry. But once that's surmounted, the ongoing cost is on par with boating or various other pursuits (though the general public still maintains it's an activity only for the rich). Although flying may never be considered cheap (it never has been, save for the years following World War II when you could buy a surplus warbird for pocket change), it can still be affordable for those with the passion to seek it out.

Affordability is a touchy subject in these tough economic times, so rather than trigger a barrage of letters fuming about how I could dare call aviation "affordable," I want to show you how you can make flying simply less expensive. Presented here are ideas to lower your cost of flying, and perhaps spark in our youngest readers a sense that, for anybody bitten by the flying bug, there will always be a way to do it; that, with some ingenuity and sweat equity, anybody can fly.

To give some sense of reference, in 1981, it cost about $25 dollars per hour to rent a Cessna 152. The instructor added $8 per hour. A gallon of avgas ran about $1.50. But even in those Reagan years of economic gain, people considered flying to be expensive. I'm sure most of us would happily set the way-back machine to 1981 for a few flights without complaint. But short of finding a time-traveling DeLorean and 1.21 gigawatts of electricity, what can we do to bring down the cost of pursuing our favorite activity?

1. Buy To Learn
Since the first hurdle is learning to fly, finding a way to do it for less than the $10,000 it typically costs today is good. A few pilots have discovered the wisdom of the "buy to learn" idea and its beautiful simplicity: Buy an airplane and learn to fly in it, then sell it for a profit (or at least not a loss). The benefits are obvious: You spend only the variable costs of the airplane—fuel and oil, tie-down, insurance and some very minor maintenance (if any).

The key to this is the kind of airplane you purchase. A used, older Cessna, or a Piper with steam gauges that looks its age, can be had for under $30,000 with a little bargain hunting. Such an airplane has depreciated about as much as it can. If one is wise and chooses an airplane that burns four to six gallons per hour, an hourly cost of $20-$30 is realized (based on $5-per-gallon avgas). Even adding the cost of a year's insurance and an outside tiedown, the total cost of 60 hours' flight time to get your private certificate is somewhere around $3,200. Add an instructor for 40 of those hours at $50 per hour, and you're still under $5,500. If you sell the airplane at even a slight profit, your training ends up costing little.

2. Share Ownership
While the idea of shared ownership is nothing new, few pilots realize the economic impact of adding even just one owner to the airplane. First, your acquisition cost is immediately sliced in half. All the big-ticket expenses are shared. Even the burdens of unexpected maintenance are shared. There really is no better way to own an airplane, and most pilots would be surprised at how well a partnership works.

The instant objection (I can hear you saying it) is that "shared ownership is no good because nobody takes care of my airplane like I do." That's simply not the case, and I know from experience. I own an airplane with four others, and it has been a truly pleasant experience. My partners treat the airplane exactly as I do. They baby it, sweep the hangar, and pitch in on maintenance. They're safe, conscientious pilots. A great partnership can be found, though it could take many interviews, lots of looking and a serious heart-to-heart with prospective partners. But you'll enjoy flying for a fraction (that you decide) of what it costs you today.

3. Buy A Classic
There are certain aircraft that are amazing purchase deals. In today's "buyers' market," that's even more apparent. Some of these make excellent trainers or even long-term keepers, but are priced below market because they're fabric-covered, or they have a tailwheel, or are just very simple airplanes. All can be had for around $20,000. These include the 1940s Cessna 120 and 140, Piper PA-16 (Clipper), PA-17 (Vagabond), PA-20 (Colt), PA-22 (Tri-Pacer), the Ercoupe, some of the Luscombes (the 8A), Taylorcraft BC-65, Stinson 108, and even more if you choose to get a little more obscure. The thing to take away here: These are wonderful airplanes to learn in or own, and they represent some of the best deals in the sky.


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