March 1, 1996
By Peter A. Bedell
You've heard about the inevitable stings of aircraft ownership: taxes, insurance, maintenance, and hangar or tiedown rent. But it's the unseen aspects of aircraft ownership that lessen the monetary moans and groans and heighten the overall experience of owning an airplane.
Having an airplane classifies you as a member of an exclusive fraternity. It's intriguing to know that you can simply get into your airplane and go somewhere on your own schedule. No need to be back before the next renter. You can take the airplane for a week, a weekend, or a month at a time. It's your airplane — you make the rules; you make the schedule.
Like the freedom you felt when you got your first car, the airplane can open up territories that were previously unexplorable with other forms of transportation. A 400-mile trip is a little far for an overnight getaway in the family wagon. But now an airplane allows you to make trips like this without being tied to the schedules of alternate methods of transportation. It's a neat thing to be a pilot and an even neater thing to own an airplane. But does owning an airplane make you a better pilot? Sure, there are aces out there who've never owned an airplane and there are aircraft owners who just don't have the right stuff. But there are arguments that ownership definitely has its advantages.
Having an airplane can make you more aware of operational considerations. For example, that's not just any engine under the cowl — that's your engine, a reliable, simple, but extremely expensive piece of machinery. You want to treat it right so that it will provide the years of fail-safe service it is designed to give.
When the temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit and a preheat costs $15, will you think twice about the internal perils of starting that frozen engine? You betcha. Do you think that the renter is going to pay the FBO an extra $15 to have the engine preheated? Maybe...or maybe not.
Throughout every flight you take care to treat your airplane with the utmost respect. You don't allow the airspeed to get into the yellow arc in turbulence or near the redline, and you don't make abrupt throttle movements that could eventually fling counterweights off your engine's crankshaft. You'll learn to fly your airplane smoothly, comfortably, and smartly.
Proper operation has its rewards, too. Maintenance costs will be lower because operational limitations haven't been challenged or pushed. Passengers — and other pilots — will enjoy flying with a smooth, responsible, and safe pilot who has clearly mastered his or her airplane.
Learning to fly in your own airplane can prove to be economical, not necessarily in terms of money, but in terms of the experience and knowledge gained in all aspects of aviation. While students who rent aircraft are learning how to fly, the student who is learning in his or her own airplane is simultaneously learning how to fly, manage, and maintain an airplane. The experience is probably richer than what the renter receives.
Probably more so than any other aspect of airplane ownership, maintenance can teach worlds about proper aircraft operation and care. For example, after owning an airplane for a few years, you'll know how much life to expect out of an alternator or vacuum pump. You'll also realize the value in replacing such accessories before they fail.
Owners should seek out mechanics who participate in owner- assisted maintenance. If you're new to airplanes and ownership, let him know. Don't try to act as though you know all there is to know about airplanes; it only makes you look ignorant. Together with your mechanic you can observe and partake in the inspection of your airplane and understand its inner workings. When a problem is discovered, ask your mechanic what can be done to avoid future occurrences. The problem could have been brought on by something you did.
When the annual or 100-hour inspection time comes for rental aircraft, it just disappears from the line for a week or so, then magically reappears sometime later with a fresh sign-off. You may not know that a cylinder had to be replaced as a result of low compression or that new engine mounts were installed because of cracks. Since you weren't there and don't pay the bills, you couldn't care less — as long as it flies when you want it to.
When it's your airplane, though, the annual inspection takes on a more critical meaning. Everything from changing burned-out light bulbs to replacing a cracked cylinder teaches you more and more about aircraft systems and their operation. When a mechanic informs you that your engine needs to have a cylinder replaced because of low compression, ask him what options there are in getting a replacement. Would it be advisable to get steel, channel chrome, Cermichrome, or Cerminil cylinders, considering the type of flying you do? What kind of cylinders does the airplane have now? Your mechanic can answer all of these questions and give you the advice that you need to make the right choice.
Believe it or not, owner-assisted maintenance can be cost- effective and extremely gratifying. One reason many mechanics do the job they do is the satisfaction gained in troubleshooting, discovering, and ultimately fixing a problem. Their creativity is challenged by perplexing maladies and, through witnessing their work, you can learn more about the process of locating and fixing a problem. Although it may seem that pilots and mechanics are as separate as church and state, the interaction through owner- assisted maintenance will probably develop into a mutual respect and possibly a friendship with a mechanic — a good friend to have indeed.
If your airplane has a type-specific club, such as the Cherokee Pilots Association or the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Assocation, join. These clubs often have informative newsletters that arrive every month with tips specific to your make and model of airplane. In addition, many of these clubs have conventions at which seminars are given regarding all aspects of owning and operating those aircraft. Vendors will also be there, peddling products designed for your airplane.
While at these conventions, simply hobnobbing with other owners of the type can teach you worlds about what could happen to your airplane in certain situations, whether regarding maintenance or flight characteristics. Will the addition of vortex generators aid in the handling of your new light twin, or is it just another expensive snake-oil remedy? Ask a large sampling of owners — the results might be surprising.
So can ownership make you a better pilot? Not directly, but you will certainly be a more knowledgeable pilot as long as you take a hands-on approach to ownership. Hands-on means getting involved with the maintenance, ensuring proper operation of systems, and never getting complacent about how well you know the airplane (i.e., not using checklists). A knowledgeable pilot who can always admit that there is more to learn will probably make a better pilot.
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Bob Enos is the weekly winner in Lightspeed Aviation's $500 Burger Getaway sweepstakes. The package includes gift cards for avgas, rental car, dining, and lodging.
For pilots, the 60,000-plus-member Civil Air Patrol readily comes to mind when an aerial role in a rescue is launched.
AOPA thanks our members for their continued support in protecting the freedom to fly.