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In the same way as most piston-plane-oriented pilots stick to used Skylanes, Bonanzas and Saratogas, flyers who are interested in a jet or turboprop to do some serious transportation flying most often look at the pre-owned marketplace, too. While the benefits of buying a used turbine are similar and parallel in most respects to those of buying a pre-owned piston plane instead of a new one, there are important distinctions you need to make and remember. That said, buying a used turbine instead of a new one is a smart move as long as you understand the economics behind it and buy the right plane to begin with.
Before talking about the costs, you need to be honest with yourself about your experience and abilities as a pilot. The planes we’ll be talking about here are all single-pilot models, but even these can vary in complexity tremendously, which is a subject for a different story. Suffice it to say for our purposes, stepping up to flying turboprops or jets requires us pilots to up our game.
For those who make the leap, there are great reasons for doing so, and buying used can be a great step into the world of Jet-A. By going used, a would-be turbine owner can buy an older-model turboprop or jet and buy way more airplane than they’d be able to swing if they were to buy new. This up-front savings isn’t the only time used equals savings, usually big savings, but it’s by far the biggest part of that equation.
The savings of buying a used plane can be very substantial, a million dollars or more on even an entry-level jet compared to a new one. Buyers of used CitationJets, for instance, can put a used CJ in their for about the same ratio of cost savings compared to buying as those of us who buy a piston plane. Note that I said “ratio,” because the actual dollar savings are, of course, far greater the greater the purchase price is.
In the piston world, a buyer who opts for a used, nearly 20-year-old Cessna 206 instead of a 2018 model will save about two-thirds the cost versus new—figure between $250K to $300K versus about $700,000. That ratio is surprisingly consistent between the segments. A plane shopper who picks up a 2001 CitationJet will pay around $1.5 million for an 18-year-old CJ1, this compared to the $4.5 million cost of a Citation M2, which is the latest iteration of the entry-level C525. It’s about the same percentage of value for both planes despite their vastly different sticker price.
The magnitude of the dollar differences are important to note, because just as that used Skywagon buyer is worried about having to overhaul that six-banger engine at some point, which will cost on the order of $30,000, or about one-tenth of the purchase price, the cost of overhauling a pair of Williams FJ44 turbines is, well, a lot, and again on the order of about a tenth of the sticker price, but that’s per engine. The good news is twofold. The TBO on the FJ44 is 5,000 hours, compared to a 2,000-hour TBO for the Lycoming TIO-540 in the 206. On top of that, most owners of turbofan aircraft pay into an engine warranty program offered by the engine manufacturer or a third party. The cost of that program for our 18-year-old CJ is about $150 per hour, per engine. But when it comes time to overhaul the engine, so long as there are no early surprises of the bad kind, the job has already been paid for. It’s not that it costs any less than it would have, but that it’s not such a nasty hit on the wallet when it does happen.
The point is that the cost of owning a turbine aircraft is not only reflected in the higher purchase price but also in the much higher direct operating costs as well, including not only the engine program hourly costs but the much higher hourly fuel consumption, too. Just as is the case with the 206, the direct operating costs of the used jet are around the same as they are for a brand new jet.
The advantages of buying new are equally great for either operator. While your fuel is just as expensive no matter what year your seats were installed, the same is not true for the maintenance costs. The cost of everything from regular maintenance events to unpleasant surprises comes out of the used-plane owner’s pocket, while new planes are covered by warranty, which can be as long as five years with some models. That’s a deal you’re not likely to get with an 18-year old 206. New piston planes and new turbines are typically both covered by warranties, but, again, the cost savings are very different. A warrantied repair on a jet can save the owner hundreds of thousand dollars in some unfortunate cases, whereas the cost savings are far lower for piston planes, the worst-case scenario being the need for an engine overhaul or new engine. This is more likely with a piston engine than with a turbine engine, as the latter are far more reliable, though their maintenance, when it does need to be done, is far more expensive. This is a common thread.
Direct Operating Costs
The costs associated with operating a turbine aircraft are traditionally broken down into fixed costs and direct operating costs. Piston plane owners can use this same approach, but in practice, few do. Still, looking at ownership in terms of the types of associated costs can be a useful exercise.
Direct operating costs (DOC) are usually broken down into the costs for fuel, maintenance, crew costs, landing and ramp fees, engine program fees and miscellaneous costs an owner incurs every time they go flying. AOPA published a story (for web—https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2015/november/16/hourly-operating-costs-of-45-jets-compared) a few years ago in conjunction with aircraft ownership costs experts Conklin & de Decker that listed the direct operating costs of a few dozen jets, from the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet to commercial airliners turned into personal palaces. We are interested in turbines that are flown by the people who own them, owner-pilots, and can only gaze with bemusement at the costs associated with owning a Gulfstream—the G-650 ultra-long-range jet costs around $5,000 an hour to go flying, a cost that represents more than an entire year’s fuel budget for some piston owners.
For those of us who own or have owned airplanes, we know that the direct operating cost calculus doesn’t scale the same way that fuel costs do. The cost of operating an older 172 is around $150 an hour if you figure conservatively. For a Citation Mustang, it’s around $1,000 an hour, which is 10 times the direct operating cost for a plane that costs about 50 times less. We owners of smaller planes get no breaks when it comes to DOC.
The good news is that it’s way less expensive to fly, say, a Citation Mustang than a G650, obviously—about 50 times less expensive, in fact. And the Cirrus Jet is almost one one-hundredth less expensive to operate, at less than $700 an hour, according to Conklin & de Decker, again.
In terms of direct operating costs, there’s nothing that beats a single-engine turboprop. They aren’t always the cheapest way to enter the turbine world, but they are the least-expensive way to stay there. The advantages of a single engine compared to two are obvious. You need to come up with the dough to feed and clothe one engine instead of two.
The other element of the cost equation is fixed costs. These include such things as hangar rent—you’ll pay more for a larger airplane, sometimes much more—loan costs, insurance costs and others that you pay every month whether you go flying or not. These costs are often identical whether you’re talking new or used, but not always. The cost of a hangar spot for a used Embraer Phenom 100 is the same as for a brand new one. The insurance costs and loan servicing costs are very different, however. And remember, because of the need to be recertified every year by doing recurrency training, you’ve got to factor in the cost of that training, too, and it can be expensive, thousands of dollars for a three-day course versus a few hundred dollars for a biennial flight review.
We’re only addressing single-pilot certificated airplanes here, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be crew costs associated with owning a turbine aircraft. A friend who’s a successful and incredibly busy business owner came to be passionate about flying later in life and, after a brief flirtation with high-performance piston singles, realized he needed something faster and more weather capable than piston planes can offer. Wisely knowing he was not experienced or skilled enough to make the jump to a turboprop single, he found a full-time mentor pilot to fly with him while he gained those skills. After flying with him for a year, he realized that it made sense to always fly with a second pilot, even when he was in the left seat, for that extra set of eyes and another viewpoint on in-flight decisions. And sometimes, he realized, he was just too busy to be able to devote his entire attention to the flight. This is not a unique situation, either. A lot of the people who can afford a turbine aircraft are just really busy people, and while those people are often the last ones to admit they have limits, they do have limits, and having an extra pilot around who’s devoted to the flying part of the business is arguably the best possible safety investment.
The cost uncertainty of owning any airplane is usually associated with unexpected maintenance events. As is the case with piston aircraft, the risk of owning a used jet or turboprop versus a new one is far greater. When it comes to jets specifically, there is an airframe age at which it makes about zero sense to buy an airplane. You can see this firsthand by browsing ads for older jets. Want an early ’70s Lear 24? You can get one for around $100,000 or even less. These older airplanes have a number of issues, including the need to get them certified for flying at altitudes 29,000 feet and above—in other words, where they need to fly in order to get anything resembling fuel efficiency. Also, the cost of updating one of these planes for ADS-B, a mandate coming due in around 18 months, will likely equal or surpass the purchase price of the plane. And there’s noise to contend with, too. Many of these early jets are too loud and need to get an approved hush kit or new engines altogether, which can cost a bundle. The reason these planes cost so little is that as soon as you buy one, they start costing obscene amounts of money.
This isn’t true in the same way for older piston planes, in general. I bought a 1964 Cessna Skylane last year, and with the exception of the purchase price, the cost of ownership for it was about the same or less in just about every way compared to a Skylane even 15 or 20 years newer. This varies from make to make, however, and one of the main reasons I bought a Skylane is because they are well known for their reliability. Moreover, just about every problem a Skylane will have is already well known and, in most cases, will have been taken care of long before you take it home.
While Cessna has built around 25,000 Skylanes and counting, these numbers are outliers even in terms of piston-powered planes and are unheard of in the turbine world. The Citation Mustang, for example, was a great seller for Cessna, which built fewer than 500 of them before it ended production in 2017. While Cessna is still going strong as part of Textron Aviation and will continue to support the Mustang for the foreseeable future, the same can be said for a number of turboprop twins, including the Piper Cheyenne models and Beechcraft King Airs. The same, however, is not true for every used jet or pressurized turboprop out there, though there are third-party companies that have made a place for themselves by taking on parts production or, in some cases, even buying the aircraft production certificate from the original manufacturer and making spare parts for the orphaned airplanes.
Be aware, too, that as is the case with piston planes, there can be substantial differences between dash-number models of turbine aircraft. The difference between the Piper Cheyenne II and Cheyenne IIXL are so great some have argued it deserved an entirely new name.
When it comes to pressurized turboprop twins, there are only two companies still making single-pilot models: Beechcraft with its B250 and C90 King Airs, and Piaggio Aero with its P.180 Avanti. The Avanti and King Air 250 are $7.7 million and $6 million airplanes, respectively, but the C90GTX goes for less than $4 million. You can get a good-condition 40-year-old C90 with mid-time engines and somewhat upgraded avionics for less than $1 million. It’s a great value, but because the C90 is not a particularly fast airplane at just faster than 200 knots at cruise, prospective buyers have to weigh cost versus performance before they buy. The latest 90-series King, the C90GTX, is faster, at nearly 275 knots best cruise speed, but these later airplanes are far more expensive, as you might image.
With piston engine-powered aircraft, regular maintenance as it’s usually done is pretty simple. In general most privately flown, non-commercial planes need to get an annual inspection. Then, if there are any recurring airworthiness directives (ADs), such as for inspections for possible corrosion or cracks, they need to get checked according to the schedule the FAA has determined. This can be anywhere from every few months for the most critical potential issues to every several years for those that are less common and strongly associated with aircraft age. For certain types of commercial operation, a small plane will need an inspection every 100 hours of operation.
While we think of inspections as being set in stone, it’s really not the case, and many turbine aircraft and turbine engines have inspection intervals that are determined by the manufacturer. You need to carefully check to see what requirements apply to your airplane and its engines. In the turbine world, there are four widely used inspection events, known as A, B, C and D inspection, commonly referred to as “checks.” These checks are increasingly intensive and expensive as you travel through the alphabet. Where the used turbine aircraft you’re looking at sits along the spectrum is a critical part of the cost calculus for your purchase decision.
Turbine engines have inspection schedules that vary a great deal from one model to the next even in the same model of plane from different years. The time before overhaul intervals for piston engines are typically between 1,500 hours and 2,400 hours, but with most non-commercially flown planes, there’s no need to stick by that TBO. If it’s still running fine, you can legally keep on flying it. With turbines, that’s typically not the case, though, again, it’s the manufacturer who determines the maintenance and inspection schedules, though the FAA might weigh in with other inspections based on known trouble spots with certain engines.
Likewise, avionics condition and government mandates can be a big deal, too. You can upgrade an older Cessna 206 with new avionics with remarkable capabilities, including flat panels, a digital autopilot and even envelope protection, for as little as $30,000 all up; the cost of doing that kind of upgrade in a more expensive, faster and more complex jet is far more expensive. As I mentioned previously, even something as innocuous-sounding as ADS-B equipage, which can be done on that hypothetical 206 for a few thousand dollars, can cost $25,000 or even a lot more depending on the type of aircraft and the avionics it already has installed. These are details you have to know before you sign that purchase agreement.
Almost every private buyer of a turbine aircraft uses a service that does thorough pre-buy inspections of candidate aircraft. This includes a detailed inspection of the aircraft and engine logs, AD compliance, future inspection timetables and the plane’s current condition. The cost of these inspections can be high, but if they uncover even one big problem with the plane or its paperwork, they more than pay for themselves.
Buying a used turbine aircraft is a big decision in terms of the piloting challenges, the financial obligations, the technical knowledge requirements and the use case for such a plane. For some, buying used makes sense, but for others, a new plane takes away a lot of the cost uncertainty of ownership while also providing that new plane smell. How much any of it is worth depends on you, your needs, your abilities and, let’s face it, your desires. Cruising along at 38,000 feet and 400 knots in a single-pilot jet is a feeling that few people get to experience in life. That feeling, as the popular ad campaign claims, is priceless, but buyers of turbine aircraft need to be mindful that “priceless” in this case is a metaphor. There are indeed very real prices associated with it. The key is to know what those costs are and plan accordingly.