Plane & Pilot
Monday, September 1, 2008

Fuel’s Gold


Sometimes cutting an expense costs more in the long run


fuel's goldAre we now seeing apocalyptic signs that the world, as we know it, is about to collapse in on us? I checked my avgas price this morning (yeah, I know, dumb move) and it was $6.72, which means, at present rates, by the time you read this, it’ll be over seven bucks.
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grassroots
CRISIS AT THE PUMP. As gas prices hit the roof, it’s hard to maintain your peace of mind.
Are we now seeing apocalyptic signs that the world, as we know it, is about to collapse in on us? I checked my avgas price this morning (yeah, I know, dumb move) and it was $6.72, which means, at present rates, by the time you read this, it’ll be over seven bucks. That sure feels as if the sky is quite literally falling, doesn’t it? Filling the 24-gallon tank on my little airplane costs more than my first three cars combined. With numbers like that, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question, “When will costs strangle me to the point that I can no longer afford to fly?” And therein lies one of the most common thought patterns in aviation today: “Gas is too expensive, I’m going to quit.” And, in so many ways, that’s the wrong way to think. Basically, I feel that there’s too much “I remember when…” thinking going on; people aren’t assessing their realities correctly.

Okay, it’s hard to argue that $7 avgas isn’t a heart stopper. So, what can we do about it? We can’t avoid it, but there are ways to moderate the damage, most of which are based on basic common sense.

First, don’t go into an airport that has bizjets parked wingtip to wingtip and expect to pay four dollars per gallon for fuel. Ain’t gonna happen. If an airport looks high-priced, it generally is.

Even though every operator pays nearly the same wholesale price for fuel, there will always be at least one oasis of price relief in aviation, just as there will always be “blingy” FBOs that generally have to pass along higher local taxes (and pay for the tinsel and neon they use as bait) to their customers. Price shopping in some locales really works. Here’s a website that lets you check aviation fuel prices in your area: www.airnav.com/fuel/local.html. You may be able to fund part of that $100 hamburger by getting cheaper fuel at your destination.

We also have to keep efficiency in mind. For one thing, getting lost wastes a lot of fuel. The straighter the line, the less the time and the lower the fuel bill. Also, even though you’ll burn less fuel at higher altitudes, you have to think about the entire energy equation: Is the leg so short and your climb rate so low that you’ll burn more fuel getting up to the higher-efficiency altitude than you’ll save?

If just getting into the air is your goal, rather than flying cross-countries, don’t forget about classic and smaller homebuilt aircraft. There are lots and lots of airplanes out there that can be purchased for a reasonable dollar and burn 4 to 5.5 gph (e.g., the ever-present C-150, C-120/140 and many new light-sport aircraft). And there are small-engine homebuilts that give terrific performance at a low cost: a Wittman Tailwind, for instance, with its original O-200 engine will cruise at a solid 135 to 140 mph on five gallons, and they’re readily available.

At the root of this, however, is a need to carefully analyze what causes the psychological effects that accompany ballooning fuel prices. Ask yourself, “Is the difference between what you’re paying now versus what you were paying a few years ago a good enough reason to stop flying?” I vote no, it isn’t.

If avgas prices have doubled in the last two years (that’s an unverified guess), going up $3 per gallon, what’s the actual personal effect? The final number, $6 per gallon (assuming you don’t live in a big city, $7, if you do), may be frightening, but if you’re burning 8 to 10 gph, which is typical, that’s “only” an increase of $30 per hour. And, if we’re going to be brutally honest, how much time do you actually fly yearly? Fifty hours? A hundred hours? Very, very few of us fly as much as 100 hours, and the national average is closer to 35. But, let’s say we’re flying 100 hours. That’s a $3,000 increase over years past, which is an amount that’s too big to be ignored (for most of us). Making it worse, incomes aren’t keeping up with the soaring costs, avgas being just one of them. So what do we do? Better yet, what don’t we do?

First, if you love owning an airplane, there are several things you should never (as in never) do, chief amongst them is figuring out what it actually costs per hour to fly. None of us fly enough to get that figure down to anything less than a catastrophic number. Second, don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “I don’t fly enough to justify owning the airplane, so I’m going to sell it.”

Forget about justifying airplane ownership: It can’t be done. And quite often, whether you fly it or not, just having a bird sitting out at the airport offers a peace of mind that’s worth every dime paid to support it. If flying is your passion but you give in to financial fear and sell out, the airplane will no longer be out there waiting, like your favorite dog, just to lick your nose and make you feel better. In a situation like that, there may be a sense of loss that does far more damage than the cash outlay would.

We’re living in very unsettling times in which peace of mind is hard to come by. This can’t be overemphasized. So before you decide to do something drastic, go out to the airport on a nice day, pull up a lawn chair beneath the wing and just sit there. Don’t even open the airplane’s door. Just sit there for 15 or 20 minutes and be with your airplane. Then drive home and see if you don’t feel better. Bottom line: Many times owning an airplane is much cheaper than hiring a shrink or funding a divorce. And flying it once in a while inevitably becomes icing on a very satisfying cake.

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.



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