Frugal Flyer: Gotcha covered

Protecting your investment

March 1, 2009

A hangar is the best way to keep an airplane out of the elements. But what if none is available, or affordable? What can aircraft owners do to protect airplanes living outdoors? Canvas canopy covers, and even whole-airplane covers, are a compelling option.

A new canopy cover made to protect all windows and doors in a typical single-engine airplane usually sells for about $400—or about one month’s hangar rent at my local airport. Such covers virtually eliminate sun damage to windshields and do a great job of protecting aircraft interiors from excessive heat, and the cracking and fading that come with it. The avionics also benefit from being in the shade, and the covers usually offer some protection from rain, snow, and wind- or blast-driven debris.

“There’s a hidden cost to avionics from excessive heat, direct sunlight, and water that can seep into the wiring and create problems,” said Tom Blaine, a sales manager for Bruce’s Custom Covers in Palo Alto, California, which manufactures about 10,000 aircraft covers annually. “Aircraft owners used to buy covers to protect their windshields and interiors. But as they’ve added more sophisticated avionics, protecting those investments has become more critical.”

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In an ongoing effort to squeeze more flying out of our aviation dollars, AOPA is seeking your tips on frugal flying. Have you found creative ways to operate your aircraft more efficiently? Better manage maintenance, training, hangar, tie-down, or insurance costs? Or buy aviation-related goods in bulk or at lower prices? E-mail the author at [email protected]

A generation ago, fabric-covered airplanes seldom merited hangar space. The rationale was that, since the fabric had to be replaced periodically anyway, there was little point in keeping low-end, fabric airplanes inside. But since today’s lifetime fabrics can last indefinitely—and the cost of recovering such aircraft has gone up significantly—there’s more interest in protecting their exteriors. Wing and even fuselage covers are becoming increasingly common for fabric airplanes.

“We ask a lot of our Decathlon and want to keep it, and its gorgeous green paint, in top shape,” said Evanthe Papastathis, owner of SkyBound Aviation, a flight school at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta. “I spent $1,500 on a whole-airplane cover, and it was money well spent. The cover’s not easy to put on on a windy day—but it’s doable.”

Composite airplane owners also have been buying full aircraft covers to protect their airplanes from prolonged exposure to sunlight’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Full-airplane covers for single-engine airplanes typically cost between $1,500 and $2,000, and one person can usually put them on in about 15 minutes and remove them in about half that time.

A new paint job on a typical single-engine plane can easily top $10,000. But aircraft owners who save $3,000 or more annually by keeping their airplanes outside, and covered, could get their airplanes repainted every five years or so and still come out ahead.

E-mail the author [email protected].

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.