Hello, can I schedule a lesson for Friday afternoon? No? You don’t have an airplane available? How about Saturday? Okay, then how about Sunday? Alright, so exactly when do you have an airplane available for me to take my next lesson?”
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Too often, that’s the soundtrack of traditional flight training: You’ve wanted to learn to fly for years and finally have the money to jump into it, but you find you’re dancing to the tune of the flight school’s schedule, not the one that fits yours. Is there an alternative? Some folks think so: They bypass the often-tired rental aircraft and buy one of their own. Then they hire an instructor, sometimes from the local flight school, and then have their own private flight training operation that matches their schedule. However, other than allowing the student to dictate the schedule, do the numbers really work out, and are there other advantages and disadvantages to the concept of owning to learn?
Nothing is perfect and, in exchange for a much looser schedule, the owner/student becomes the captain of their own ship and must take over not only the financial aspects of ownership, but the care and feeding of their new steed, as well. This includes many factors that are totally invisible when going the rental route. As a renter/student, all of the background support expenses are buried in the per-hour cost. A nonowning student isn’t thinking about finding hangar space (often a major ownership obstacle with costs of $200-$500/month), developing a relationship with a trustworthy mechanic or shop to keep their bird healthy ($2,000/year average for annual, plus $200/month for miscellaneous maintenance), or tracking down the best deal in insurance ($1,500-$4,000/year or more depending on airplane). The “normal” student walks in assuming the airplane is ready to go, blissfully unaware of all that has been accomplished to make that aircraft available for them.
One thing that should be mentioned concerning the finances: If a used airplane is bought, used for training, then sold, the acquisition cost of the airplane is almost always completely returned. The costs of learning are then limited to those involved in supporting the airplane during training. Unfortunately, you then don’t have an airplane to fly after you learn. A hard decision!
Owning to fly isn’t for everyone. There’s a carefree convenience attached to renting and being able to concentrate 100% on learning to fly and not giving the airplane a thought once you’ve climbed out of it. However, to certain individuals, owning and caring for an airplane include pluses not available with rental aircraft.
An owner knows exactly what condition his airplane is in and whether it has seen hard landings prior to the upcoming flight. Some owners enjoy the understanding they develop of their airplane that comes from simple tasks—like washing it or helping do some of the routine maintenance.
To Zach Bryson, a 25-year-old captain of a 149-passenger ferry that carries fun-seekers from mainland California to Catalina Island, part of the definition of ownership is getting your hands dirty. And, in his eyes, it’s one of the good parts of ownership.
“I had been in a small airplane only once for 30 minutes when I bought my Tiger. It was used and, although it fit the profile of what I wanted exactly,” he says, “low-time engine and fully equipped for IFR, it was out of annual. So, I got in there with the IA and had him direct me through doing many of the steps required to get it licensed. I learned a lot about the airplane in the process, which I think is important. This way, I knew everything there was to know about the airplane, plus I knew it was well maintained and I didn’t have to worry about it.
“When I started training, we’d jump in the airplane and fly all around the area, visiting other airports. I was getting a lot of experience I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. In fact, by the time I soloed, I was signed off for almost every airport in the area, so when the local pilots went somewhere for breakfast, I could go along.”
Zach says, “I’m sometimes asked whether it worked out financially and, although I’m not done compiling all the numbers, it looks as if it cost about $10,000 to get my PPL, but by the time I got it, I had something over 100 hours, so, if you factor that in, the cost of my PPL via my own airplane wasn’t that much different than going through a commercial school.”
Quite a number of people decide to buy their own airplane after they’ve started training and base their decision on what they’ve experienced during that training. Bobby Preddy, a chicken producer from Carthage, N.C., was one of those.
He says, “I was flying a 172 at the local airport and had actually soloed, but it wasn’t working out with my instructor. For a number of reasons, I really needed someone else. About this same time, I heard about the Allegro and the sport pilot license. I bought an Allegro from B-Bar-D Aviation in Sanford, N.C., and picked up where I left off and finished my sport license in a very short time. I then went back and got my PPL, since there really isn’t that much difference.
“As far as the cost aspect of learning to fly in it, I really don’t know and don’t care. The older 172 was like flying an antique compared to the Allegro. The little LSAs all look and feel modern. To get that in a regular airplane would have been much more expensive. Besides, it took less time to get the light-sport license, so that saved some money, but that’s not why I went this route.
“To me, the thrill starts as soon as it leaves the ground, so I didn’t need to go anywhere in the airplane to achieve my goal. I just wanted to fly, and the LSA approach made it happen sooner, and owning my own airplane gave me complete freedom to do that.”
Many pilots learn to fly for very specific uses and, in the process, seek out airplanes that will serve that purpose. Although Ken Shannon was born and raised in Wichita and worked at Cessna during his college years, he didn’t decide he would learn to fly until he had such a purpose.
“We bought a house on Table Rock Lake, which was a solid four-and-a-half hours by car, and I didn’t have to think about it too hard until I decided to learn to fly. I started out in rentals, but before I soloed, I decided it made more sense to spend money on my own airplane rather than someone else’s.
“At the same time, I reasoned that I wouldn’t buy that airplane until I had the landings worked out. I wanted to put those first hard landings on someone else’s airplane, not mine.
“As a college student, I had driven the company van for Duane Wallace, then president of Cessna, so I knew his widow Velma. I mentioned to her that I was looking for an airplane, and she referred me to a 1984 182 that Duane had given her and was subsequently sold. The current owner had it for sale, so I bought it.
“From that point on, all of my training flights were in the 182. As part of my flight training, we would fly down to the Table Rock and do my training in ways that mirrored what my use for the airplane would be. That way, when I got my license, I was very comfortable in making trips like that. In fact, right after I got my PPL, I took my wife on a trip to Sedona, Ariz. By that time, I knew the airplane really well and was very comfortable in it.”
The confidence gained from training in their aircraft, or one exactly like it, is often mentioned by those who buy to fly. This includes Anisa Shahin, a Los Angeles corporate tax attorney, and her Cirrus. Shahin was one of the featured aircraft buyers in the May 2010 issue of Plane & Pilot.
“I had been exposed to general aviation early with an uncle who was an aviation medical examiner and pilot, along with childhood experience flying in light aircraft. It always interested me and, when I started finding myself waiting in long lines at airports or making long, tedious drives (such as between L.A. and San Francisco), I knew it was time to take the leap and learn to fly.
“I researched various airplanes to see what would suit my needs and found a flight school that trained their students in the Cirrus, which was the airplane to which my research had led. I wanted to gain familiarity with the airplane before making the leap.
“Once I got my PPL, I purchased a Cirrus SR22 and quickly discovered that I really needed my instrument rating to make flying more reliable, particularly out of Santa Monica, my home base. Doing my instrument training in my own plane gave me an incredible level of comfort as I was already familiar with the systems and I had fewer things to try to figure out, while training in the crowded airspace around Los Angeles.
“Plus, in using my own airplane for the instrument training, when I was finished, there was no transitioning to another airplane. I was ready to file instruments immediately and was totally comfortable doing so. Looking back, I would have done it no other way. I am looking forward to doing most of my commercial training in my SR22, as well.”
Rent Or Buy?
The buy-to-fly concept has a huge number of advantages and a significant number of disadvantages. Many of the advantages, such as scheduling and familiarity with the airplane, are intangible and don’t necessarily reduce costs. The disadvantages would appear to increase the costs to the point that it’s, at the very least, a wash when compared to renting, or maybe a little more expensive.
The intangibles, however, often override the hard, cold financial facts, giving the student something that pure numbers can’t quantify. So, the decision becomes one that’s very personal and will change with the individual and his or her situation. There really is no “wrong” decision.
Finding The Right Airplane
|The Internet has made finding a new or used airplane much easier than in the “old” days. Here are three great sources for finding aircraft: