Flying is expensive. In fact, recent initiatives by the FAA and AOPA list the cost of flying as one of the reasons people either opt not to learn to fly, or stop taking lessons once they start. A little further digging reveals that, more than anything, flying has a high cost of entry. But once that’s surmounted, the ongoing cost is on par with boating or various other pursuits (though the general public still maintains it’s an activity only for the rich). Although flying may never be considered cheap (it never has been, save for the years following World War II when you could buy a surplus warbird for pocket change), it can still be affordable for those with the passion to seek it out.
Affordability is a touchy subject in these tough economic times, so rather than trigger a barrage of letters fuming about how I could dare call aviation “affordable,” I want to show you how you can make flying simply less expensive. Presented here are ideas to lower your cost of flying, and perhaps spark in our youngest readers a sense that, for anybody bitten by the flying bug, there will always be a way to do it; that, with some ingenuity and sweat equity, anybody can fly.
To give some sense of reference, in 1981, it cost about $25 dollars per hour to rent a Cessna 152. The instructor added $8 per hour. A gallon of avgas ran about $1.50. But even in those Reagan years of economic gain, people considered flying to be expensive. I’m sure most of us would happily set the way-back machine to 1981 for a few flights without complaint. But short of finding a time-traveling DeLorean and 1.21 gigawatts of electricity, what can we do to bring down the cost of pursuing our favorite activity?
1. Buy To Learn
Since the first hurdle is learning to fly, finding a way to do it for less than the $10,000 it typically costs today is good. A few pilots have discovered the wisdom of the “buy to learn” idea and its beautiful simplicity: Buy an airplane and learn to fly in it, then sell it for a profit (or at least not a loss). The benefits are obvious: You spend only the variable costs of the airplane—fuel and oil, tie-down, insurance and some very minor maintenance (if any).
The key to this is the kind of airplane you purchase. A used, older Cessna, or a Piper with steam gauges that looks its age, can be had for under $30,000 with a little bargain hunting. Such an airplane has depreciated about as much as it can. If one is wise and chooses an airplane that burns four to six gallons per hour, an hourly cost of $20-$30 is realized (based on $5-per-gallon avgas). Even adding the cost of a year’s insurance and an outside tiedown, the total cost of 60 hours’ flight time to get your private certificate is somewhere around $3,200. Add an instructor for 40 of those hours at $50 per hour, and you’re still under $5,500. If you sell the airplane at even a slight profit, your training ends up costing little.
2. Share Ownership
While the idea of shared ownership is nothing new, few pilots realize the economic impact of adding even just one owner to the airplane. First, your acquisition cost is immediately sliced in half. All the big-ticket expenses are shared. Even the burdens of unexpected maintenance are shared. There really is no better way to own an airplane, and most pilots would be surprised at how well a partnership works.
The instant objection (I can hear you saying it) is that “shared ownership is no good because nobody takes care of my airplane like I do.” That’s simply not the case, and I know from experience. I own an airplane with four others, and it has been a truly pleasant experience. My partners treat the airplane exactly as I do. They baby it, sweep the hangar, and pitch in on maintenance. They’re safe, conscientious pilots. A great partnership can be found, though it could take many interviews, lots of looking and a serious heart-to-heart with prospective partners. But you’ll enjoy flying for a fraction (that you decide) of what it costs you today.
3. Buy A Classic
There are certain aircraft that are amazing purchase deals. In today’s “buyers’ market,” that’s even more apparent. Some of these make excellent trainers or even long-term keepers, but are priced below market because they’re fabric-covered, or they have a tailwheel, or are just very simple airplanes. All can be had for around $20,000. These include the 1940s Cessna 120 and 140, Piper PA-16 (Clipper), PA-17 (Vagabond), PA-20 (Colt), PA-22 (Tri-Pacer), the Ercoupe, some of the Luscombes (the 8A), Taylorcraft BC-65, Stinson 108, and even more if you choose to get a little more obscure. The thing to take away here: These are wonderful airplanes to learn in or own, and they represent some of the best deals in the sky.
4. Exchange Goods And Services For Flight Time
This is an innovative idea I learned from two different pilot friends for whom it works famously. Everybody has something they do that’s unique. Maybe you’re a photographer, a painter, a carpenter, an electrician or web designer. These—and a bazillion others—are skills that are valuable to somebody. That somebody can be an FBO or a freelance instructor. Arrange a trade of your goods or services in exchange for a fixed amount of flight instruction. Or, if you already have your certificate, you could get aircraft rental out of the deal. Or even bargain with an owner who may not fly his or her airplane often and would welcome “exercising” the airplane.
You’d be amazed how many people will take you up on it. One pilot I know trades oil paintings for flight time. Another is an excellent photographer, and provides portraits and commercial shots to an FBO. I’ve heard of others who design and maintain entire websites for FBOs in exchange for a few hours per month. Creativity is the key here, and is only limited by your imagination.
5. Civil Air Patrol (CAP)
The CAP is essentially a nonprofit volunteer organization that’s fully funded and supported by congress as an official civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The CAP’s job is to perform search-and-rescue missions, administer disaster relief and aerospace education, and Uncle Sam pays all the flying costs. Recently, the CAP added Homeland Security and drug-enforcement missions to their responsibilities. The CAP owns and operates some 550 aircraft—mostly Cessna 172 and 182 aircraft—with 18 Gippsland GA8 Airvan aircraft, some Cessna 206s and a few Maule MT-235s thrown in as well. Styled after the military, pilots are civilians who are over 18, and are in charge of all the flight operations. Cadet members range in age from 12 to 21. Each is eligible for 10 “orientation flights” flown by CAP flight officers in CAP aircraft. With the unique opportunity of building hundreds of flight hours at no personal cost, the CAP is truly one of aviation’s best-kept secrets. Visit www.gocivilairpatrol.com.
6. Flying Clubs
Flying clubs take the idea of shared ownership to new levels. The idea is similar to a credit union in the banking world, where many members share assets (in this case, airplanes). There are both equity and nonequity flying clubs, where you may or may not have an ownership in the aircraft. Regardless, there’s usually a modest up-front fee to join a flying club, monthly fees and a very affordable per-hour rental fee for the airplane(s).
Some flying clubs own one airplane and some multiple. In either case, rental rates are half—or less—of those at standard FBOs. Typically, you can find flying clubs by looking on airport bulletin boards, asking around the field, or looking in aviation newspapers like Pacific Flyer or Trade-A-Plane.
The leaseback idea is simple: A typical owner-flown airplane flies less than 100 hours per year, and thus the fixed costs of ownership are insanely high. In a leaseback, you allow an FBO, charter operator or flight school to rent out your personally owned airplane. In return, they do the maintenance and repairs, clean the airplane, and handle the scheduling. The owner gets tax breaks and gets to offset the high cost of ownership through the leaseback operator, via having the airplane flown well over those 100 hours.
Marc Lee has a five-way partnership in this classic Great Lakes biplane. Partnerships allow pilots to fly at a fraction of what it would cost them as sole owners.
Airshares Elite is a company specializing in Cirrus aircraft, including fractional ownership and leaseback. The program for leaseback owners places airplanes in a “low-impact” environment (read “gentle use”) with highly trained pilots. With a fleet of aircraft nationwide, Airshares Elite gives leaseback owners increased access to their or other airplanes since, even while their plane is out earning revenue, owners can fly other similar airplanes in cities around the country. The company maintains the leaseback aircraft, and represents an advanced approach to leaseback.
Some things to consider in leaseback arrangements include true costs, insurance, finding the right FBO, cash-flow projections, tax implications and contract negotiation.
Leasebacks allow FBOs to offer nicer, higher-performance aircraft without
the financial outlay of an outright purchase. Owners get to have an airplane at their disposal for less money each month (and theoretically let the airplane earn them a profit). Leasebacks should be researched, and AOPA offers a great primer for members at www.aopa.org/members/files/guides/aclease.html.
8. Owner-Assisted Maintenance
Helping your mechanic swing the wrenches is a big money saver. Most maintenance facilities and independent mechanics will give a discount for owner-assisted maintenance. Things like 100-hour inspections and annuals are perfect opportunities for owners to get more involved with their airplane. My partners and I discovered we could shave nearly $1,000 off our annuals by doing all the basic work ourselves. This includes removing (and later replacing) all the inspection panels, cleaning and greasing the wheel bearings, servicing struts, replacing light bulbs, cleaning spark plugs and even doing all the oil changes (with a mechanic inspecting). We save a bundle, and it’s a fantastic way to get intimate with the aircraft.
9. Fractional Ownership
Fractional ownership is different from partnerships and flying clubs in that you own “shares” in an aircraft (usually an expensive aircraft, but not always). It’s geared toward business aviation, and includes some form of “aircraft management” service. Typically, a fractional ownership starts at a minimum 1⁄16 share of an aircraft, and includes some specific number of hours of use (starting usually at 50 hours per year). Owners pay a fraction of the original price of the aircraft, a usage fee per hour and a management fee.
Lately, a company called LetsFly.org has begun offering “cooperative” ownership in small piston aircraft (for example, a Cessna 162 Skycatcher) for affordable prices (the Skycatcher will require an initial investment of $2,900, a monthly investment of $307 per month and an hourly fee of $38.00 per hour). Combining the best of partnerships and flying clubs, it’s an idea worth looking into.
it can still be affordable for those with
the passion to seek it out.
10. Small Changes Add Up
There are minor things that, when done together, add up to considerable savings. Changing exterior aircraft lights to the new-generation LEDs saves money in the long run. LEDs last up to 60,000 hours and pay for themselves in a few years. They also run cooler and take less current. Using vinyl graphics instead of new paint will save you thousands. If you have the space, sharing your hangar with another owner makes great dollar sense.
Some owners have installed lifts in their hangar to accommodate a second airplane—an idea that pays for itself quickly. And what about consistently flying at higher altitudes to enable greater fuel economy? There are many simple ideas that yield big results.
While flying is never really going to be “cheap,” there are things we can do to make it less extravagant. From partnerships to trading, creativity and ingenuity (and patience) are key skills. For students, there even still exists the time-honored practice of working at an FBO in exchange for flying time, or washing airplanes for instruction. There are pilots out there doing things like this every day. Get creative, get your hands dirty and start thinking. You’ll be amazed at what you can come up with if you really try.