Affordable flying is something of an oxymoron. World War II aviator Jimmy Doolittle is credited for uttering the phrase, “How can it be said that there is no money in aviation? That’s where I left all of mine!” I’d bet that all of us who try to fly regularly feel the same way. Some 60 years since Doolittle’s day, flying gets exponentially more expensive each year. Fact is, the cost of flying is frequently cited as the number-one reason why people don’t take flight instruction to begin with. With the economy in the tank, many of us are squeezing out ways to keep flying.
In my case, renting had taken its toll. I was renting a little clipped-wing Piper Cub—a rarity at any FBO in Southern California. Because I’m in the Los Angeles area, the rental was expensive for a 1941 bird, and I soon realized that I was spending well over $1,000 a month just tooling around at 80 mph. Availability was an issue, since I flew mostly when the FBO had already closed. Lots of pilots liked the Cub, and last-minute or weekend rentals were a pipe dream. Maintenance issues sometimes kept it grounded for months, and some students treated the old gal poorly. As much as I loved the Cub, it was frustrating and getting increasingly expensive.
Like the guy in the “Pina Colada” song, I decided to place an ad in the newspaper, with no expectation of anything but people calling to say I was nuts. To paraphrase, I said I was looking to fly for free (or close to it). I wrote that I’d trade work, split costs, keep the oil warm, clean the hangar, but I couldn’t afford much. I added one catch: I was looking for a biplane or a taildragger.
After my pilot friends stopped laughing, they suggested I forget the whole thing. Nobody with a biplane or vintage airplane was just going to let me fly it. If anybody even considered it, they’d surely be based at some faraway, podunk airport that cost a tank of car gas to get to. But why not? With the economy in dire straits, I knew people who owned airplanes and were looking for creative ways to keep them flying. I’ve always believed that anything is achievable.
Indeed, the very day my ad came out, the phone rang. It was a guy from the same airport as the Cub I rented. He had a biplane—a Great Lakes—with a couple of other guys. But it had only flown 33 hours last year—not good for a vintage airplane. Nobody helped with maintenance, and as a mechanic, he was looking for someone willing to help with oil changes, annuals and hangar upkeep. He offered an hourly cost based on tach (not Hobbs) time that included hangar, insurance and fuel. We flew the bipe several times and came to an agreement. It ended up being a small fraction of what I had spent on the Cub, and today, I’m a part owner. My success with the little newspaper ad got us wondering, and we asked you—Plane & Pilot readers—what you’re doing to make flying more affordable.
Today’s economic doldrums have led pilots to look for more creative and less expensive ways of flying. Some are purchasing vintage airplanes, such as a Cessna 120 taildragger (above); others, like Marty Sacks, are joining volunteer flying groups such as the Civil Air Patrol (below).
Marty Sacks grew up in a flying family. He earned his private certificate and, six years later, his instrument rating, but he ran out of money and left flying to raise a family. Twelve years later, he was looking for something he could do with his teenage son and decided that flying would be a great activity. Flying with his son led Sacks to the Civil Air Patrol (CAP).
All CAP cadets are eligible for five free flights until they reach the age of 18. The instructional flights are flown in CAP-owned airplanes and paid for by the U.S. government. The pilots of the government-sponsored flights are CAP volunteers—mostly civilian certificated pilots. Sacks found that his previously logged 300 hours qualified him to be a CAP pilot. To date, he has logged nearly 400 more hours flying CAP cadets—without spending a dime of his own money.
“The CAP owns the largest fleet of Cessnas in the country,” Sacks tells me. “We even have glass 182s.” The CAP uses the fleet to conduct more than 90% of domestic inland search-and-rescue (SAR) operations. Add training to the sorties, and it’s plain to see that volunteering for the CAP is a great way to fly for free.
“The thing is that I get more out of the cadet flights than the kids do,” says Sacks. “It’s incredibly rewarding in that I’m introducing many of these kids to a passion they’ll have for the rest of their lives.” While the flying can also be somewhat regimented, and pilots have to do a lot of paperwork, the result, says Sacks, is unbeatable: “I’m planting seeds for tomorrow. Any pilot who flies for this program will tell you it’s the best thing he or she ever did.”
“I had been renting Piper and Cessna four-place airplanes from my local ‘friendly base operator’ for many years,” says newbie aircraft owner Bruce Zellner. “But the cost of renting and fuel surcharges got outrageous.” So what did Zellner do? He bought a “cherry” 1946 Cessna 140 on eBay. “I looked for two years, and this is the nicest I’ve ever seen,” Zellner tells me.
He found that he could fly the 140 for about a third of the cost of the FBO airplanes. “It suits me because I’m almost always by myself anyway,” he says. “It comes out to about $40 an hour, fuel included!” Zellner says he rents a four-place from the FBO on the rare occasions when he needs more than two seats. The 140 feeds his love of tailwheel flying and keeps his stick-and-rudder skills polished.
Zellner also discovered a little-known secret: The number of pilots willing and able to fly a tailwheel airplane is diminishing, thus driving down the price of these aircraft. And to prove that flying tailwheel aircraft isn’t as difficult as people think, Zellner tells me he left flying for 25 years—like many of us—and picked it back up in only five hours. His time was spent in Citabrias, Cubs and Champs, and the instruction has been valuable. “You pick up airmanship that isn’t taught anymore,” remarks Zellner.
After 40 years of flying, this is Zellner’s first airplane. His advice to make flying more affordable? “Get yourself a good vintage airplane that’s inexpensive to fly,” he says. “I bet it will slash your rental costs more than half.” Zellner recommends that the airplane have a tailwheel. “Oh, there’s just nothing like landing a tailwheel on grass,” he smiles, “nothing.”
Give A Little
NAFI instructor Chester Smith believes in young students. So much so that he came up with a simple idea: He would cut his instruction rate in half, sometimes more, for any young student enrolled in at least one class at an accredited school. The student had to maintain a good academic standing and remain enrolled. Smith offered the deal to students looking to advance in commercial aviation and eventually work for an airline.
Smith isn’t wealthy. In speaking with him, it becomes obvious that he just wants to do his part to engage young people in aviation. “Both AOPA and NAFI are saying, ‘What are you doing to make flying affordable?’ so this is what I came up with,” says Smith. He believes that young people are the key to aviation. “I’m 60 years old,” he says, “I’m not going to be flying Airbus A380s and the new Boeings tomorrow: These young people are.”
Sometimes, Smith even finds jobs for young students who come to him. In many cases, he strikes a deal with them. “I tell them the cost of the airplane and instruction. Then I ask them what they can afford,” explains Smith. “They pay me what they can afford. You can’t do it with everybody all the time, but you can make arrangements.”
Smith isn’t the only instructor doing this. At Corona Airport in California, a CFI who owns a Luscombe sometimes gives young students flight instruction for just the price of fuel. He prefers to stay out of the spotlight. In fact, some don’t agree with the idea of cutting rates. Smith says, “There is contention. Some people say it undercuts the CFI. I say, ‘So be it.’ Really, if we don’t help these kids, who’s gonna fly tomorrow?”
Do It Yourself
Pilot Ed Baker claims he has saved $13,000 a year by digging in and looking at every angle of flying to save costs. For example, Baker is in a two-person co-ownership and decided to buy, rather than rent, a hangar. “The overall cost is less than renting,” notes Baker, “and the hangar property continues to appreciate in value, about 8% annually.”
The pilots do all the routine maintenance allowed by the FARs. Where A&P supervision of work is mandated, they call upon an A&P/IA counselor for guidance and logbook sign-off. The annuals are owner-assisted, with both owners swinging the wrenches and getting dirty. “Our maintenance costs are parts and outside shop work only,” says Baker. “We save about $2,000 a year.”
The two buy their fuel 25 miles away, where it’s cheaper than at their home base. Finally, Baker says their flight records are impeccable and all operations are done by the book, allowing them to be self-insured. Baker tempers this last point by telling me, “Going bare as far as insurance requires unprecedented risk management.” He adds, “These ideas are for people who enjoy aircraft maintenance as much as flying, to keep the costs down.”
There are many more examples of pilots finding alternatives to expensive aviating. There’s Bill Monroe in Hilo, Hawaii, who, like Marty Sacks, joined the CAP. He found a CFI who rents his 172 at a discount to CAP members; furthermore, the plane even has an autogas STC. “For Hawaii, I get it at a bargain,” he says.
David Montgomery expanded his ownership to include four pilots in a Piper Warrior II. “The main reason was to cover the cost to hangar the aircraft,” says Montgomery. He found that the additional members keep the airplane flying more, which is great for the engine. “Even with four partners, we’ve never had a conflict over scheduling,” he adds. “It’s working out very well for us.”
I know of an artist who trades his creations for flying. Another friend offers web programming in exchange for flying time. There are many more stories of economic innovation. The stories of pilots’ creativity in the face of economic difficulty is another example of the passion that fuels aviation. As the economy worsens and pilots find new ways to save money, opportunities open up for those willing to do a little work. I think of that often as the wind whispers over the fabric wings of my little biplane. And, finally, nobody leaves crumpled fast-food wrappers in the map pockets.
Cub Cooperative: An Affordable Way To Own
|American Legend Aircraft Company recently started a program that will allow pilots to purchase a ¼-share interest in a brand-new Legend Cub for about $2,900 down, with flying costs as little as $28 per hour. The “Cooperative Ownership Program” is being made available through LetsFly.
The Legend Cub is a two-place aircraft certified for both sport and recreational flying. It looks just like the famous Piper J-3, down to the color. American Legend improved on the original Piper design and now offers the new Cub with impressive performance, looks and handling. The Cooperative Ownership Program brings this fun aircraft to everyday pilots.
Created in 1999, LetsFly specializes in developing co-ownership programs for aviation. Its model significantly reduces the costs of aircraft ownership and addresses all the usual ownership challenges, including insurance, utilization and financing. LetsFly President Eldon Corry says, “By combining all the aspects of aircraft ownership into a single manageable package, we can offer an attractive solution to those who wish to fly often, but prefer not to rent.” Visit www.letsfly.org and www.legend.aero.