Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Buying Your First Airplane

Navigating the purchase maze

Buying your first airplane is exciting and confusing, all at once. There are so many airplanes out there, and so many factors weigh into the decision of what’s best for you. We’ve put together a short checklist to help you find your way through the maze.

Define Your Mission
Figure out what you want to do with an airplane and, more importantly, how it will fit into your family and lifestyle. Far too many first-time buyers focus entirely on the hardware without giving enough consideration to the way they’ll actually use it as defined by the realities of their life. Unfortunately, our daydreams don’t always match our realities. Wannabe purchasers have to be brutally realistic when analyzing their lives. Things to consider include:

• Family demands. Are your kids at an age where your after-work time and weekends are eaten up by soccer games and school plays, or are the kids out of the nest, and your time your own?

• A family airplane versus a “you” airplane. Is your significant other airplane friendly? Will they fly with you, or will you be flying solo most of the time? The degree to which the airplane will be a family airplane drives many of the decisions, especially the size of the airplane.

• Available time. Are the demands of your job such that you have blocks of time when you can disappear for three or four days for cross-countries, or will family and job limit your flying to Sunday-morning hamburger runs? This factor drives the speed decisions, and in many cases, an LSA makes more sense than a turbocharged fast runner.

• Trip profile. How long will the cross-country trips be? Under 500 miles, speed becomes relatively unimportant, except for bragging rights. A rule of thumb about speed: On a 500-mile trip, the difference between 160 mph (fixed-gear C-182) and 200 mph (Cirrus) is only 37 minutes. How much is that 37 minutes worth to you in fuel burn, maintenance and overall complexity?

• Average load. How often will you be filling all four seats on long trips? If you have to off-load fuel to fill the seats, remember that just one stop for fuel completely negates any kind of speed advantage. And a 10 mph difference between airplanes will barely be measurable on anything but the longest trips.

• Runway types. Are you going to be landing on a lot of reasonably short, unimproved (grass or gravel) runways? If so, you don’t want to be flying a rocket ship that’s optimized for high cruise speed at the expense of slow-speed handling and touchdown speeds.

• Anticipated topography/geography. If your airport is at 7,000 feet MSL and surrounded by mountains, you’re going to want a bigger motor and the airplane to go with it. Flatland pilots aren’t going to be as critical in those areas.

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