Waypoints: The places you can go

September 1, 2008

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines has been an aircraft owner for more than a decade and has been involved in the purchase of nearly 20 airplanes.

The cockpit is quiet for a few minutes, the droning of the big Continental engine merely white noise to the three of us lost in our own thoughts.

Occasionally the hollow-voiced Cleveland Center controller punctuates our cocoon, causing AOPA Pilot Editor Mike Collins in the right seat to listen up in case the call is for us.

“This is great,” says Associate Editor Ian Twombly enthusiastically from the backseat. “We’re going to be home in record time. Think about what we’re doing here—traveling nearly halfway across the country nonstop and landing right next to the office. What a great use of an airplane.”

I smile, glad that I’m not the only one who recognizes the utility of general aviation flying—even at a time when avgas prices are averaging $5.83 a gallon. We’re on our way back from EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh to Frederick, Maryland—actually from Appleton, Wisconsin, where I land, to Frederick. Over the three-hour trip we’ll burn about $250 worth of fuel. On the way to the show, we burned a bit more than that because of a 25-knot headwind. Operating lean of peak (see “ Waypoints: Saving $4,000 in Fuel,” August AOPA Pilot), our roundtrip fuel cost was around $500 and we could arrive and depart whenever we wanted. We landed next to our office, allowing the three of us to spend half a day working. By the time you add in taxes, baggage fees, and $2 for a Coke on the airlines, we would have each spent close to $400 on roundtrip airline tickets. And none of those would have been as convenient using GA airports. At our departure end it would have meant an hour’s drive to one of the metro Washington airports, arriving 90 minutes in advance, and going through the strip-search routine. And $10 a day minimum for parking. Instead my car was parked securely inside my hangar while we were gone.

Anyone who has owned an airplane knows there’s more to it than the price of fuel, but most of the other expenses are fixed. My hangar rent, insurance, and aircraft payment don’t vary whether I use the airplane or not. Yes, there are engine, avionics, and other reserves you should be funding as you go, but if you’re using those as a reason not to fly, you shouldn’t own an airplane.

The three-hour tour

I like to think of GA utility in the form of a three-hour circle. Most GA airplanes can easily fly three hours with reserves and that’s about the right-sized trip for the average bladder, too. Using AOPA’s Real-Time Flight Planner I can easily calculate three-hour legs in all directions from Frederick as a graphic demonstration of how valuable an airplane can be. As they say in the car business, your mileage may vary, but for a Bonanza based at Frederick, I can reach as far northeast in three hours as Bar Harbor, Maine. Going north it’s Val-D’or, Quebec—which is really God’s country. To the west, Chicago is a great town to explore at three hours and four minutes, according to RTFP. To the southwest I can experience country music in Nashville in two hours and 57 minutes. Southern hospitality awaits me in Savannah, Georgia, in two hours and 54 minutes.

You could spend years exploring the amazing places scattered around inside your own three-hour arc, using your airplane for three-day weekends to places simply not possible to see any other way. Aside from maybe Chicago and Nashville, which have frequent and direct airline flights, the places I mentioned—and millions of others in between—are not practical for a long weekend via any other means of transportation. You’d spend most of the weekend driving if you attempted to make the trip by highway. If you’re taking the family along, airline travel will break the bank—and crunch your time for the weekend too. I can leave Frederick at 8 a.m. and be enjoying “lobstas” in Bar Harbor for lunch.

Many pilots look at rising fuel prices as a reason not to fly. And were it happening in isolation, it would most certainly be a reason to cut back. But it’s not happening in isolation. Airline fares are going up quickly at the same time airline service is going down—both in the number of available flights and seats and in the customer experience. Auto fuel has increased at a rate even faster than avgas with the delta between the price of auto fuel and avgas narrower than it’s been in decades.

For aircraft owners, at least, the value in GA may be higher now than it has ever been. Several pilots I have spoken to recently have said that their flying is actually up because the airlines have either stopped serving the locations they frequent or flights have been cut to the point that it’s not feasible for them to come and go on any reasonable schedule.

Renter pilots still face the challenges of rising rental costs and in some cases flight schools and FBOs reducing their fleet sizes or simply closing up operations. If you’re experiencing such issues, now may be the time to jump into ownership. The prices of used airplanes are declining, making this a good time to buy. Meanwhile, as Twombly points out in his series this month, “ The Key to Ownership” (page 64), there are many ways to own part of an airplane that provide nearly all the benefits of individual ownership. Take a look for yourself and then begin creating your own three-hour circle. You’ll be amazed at the places you can go.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.