Seizing the day

New owners who couldn't resist a historic buyer's market

July 1, 2010

The dismal data confirm a grim, well-known reality: 2009 was a disastrous year for aircraft manufacturers—and owners felt the pain as the value of used aircraft plummeted, too.

Less visible, however, was the fact that some bargain shoppers recognized the down market as a chance to snap up deals on highly discounted aircraft. Here are three individuals who took advantage of the historic drop in aircraft prices to realize their dreams of owning and flying their ideal aircraft.

Whether they sought a Light Sport airplane for local-area flying, enhanced avionics, or a multiengine cruiser for international trips, they acted while others stood on the sidelines.

There are signs that the worst of GA’s unprecedented pullback is over and the markets for both new and used aircraft have stabilized. But the damage done in 2009 was severe. Total GA deliveries for new aircraft fell a whopping 42.6 percent to 2,276 units, and piston-engine aircraft sales fell to their lowest total in 13 years. Among new-piston singles, Cessna, Cirrus, Diamond, and Piper deliveries all dropped by more than half.

The number of piston twins delivered last year dwindled to just 70 aircraft, a 60-percent drop-off. Turboprop sales were off 17.6 percent from 2008, but two manufacturers—Pilatus and Quest—actually manufactured and sold more airplanes last year than the previous one. Jet sales were off 33.7 percent, but Cessna had a bright spot with the Citation Mustang, delivering 125 last year—up from 101 in 2008.

Used-aircraft sales were equally depressed according to Fletcher Aldridge of Vref, an authoritative aircraft valuation service.

“Last year was absolutely horrid, dismal,” he said. “It was aviation’s darkest hour. But people who bought during that time were able to get tremendous bargains. And now that we’re beginning to realize the world hasn’t come to an end, we’re at least seeing more activity in the marketplace.”


New-technology airplane

Time To Buy

Aircraft owner Howard Joe regarded falling aircraft prices as an opportunity.

We can help

AOPA has extensive resources for new and used aircraft buyers, including detailed aircraft reviews to help buyers find the airplane that is right for them as well as valuations, operating cost, and tax estimation tools. Once a buyer decides on a particular aircraft, AOPA offers a range of services including title searches, prepurchase inspection chekclists, samople sales contracts, financing assistance, escrow services, insurance, and registration. Follow this direct link to all of these valuable tools.

He had long wanted a glass cockpit, but the Garmin G1000 avionics suite he sought always came attached to a new airframe he couldn’t afford. Joe was considering an avionics makeover for his 1981 Bonanza F33A when he saw a chance to trade his airplane, plus cash, for a 2007 Mooney Ovation III with a G1000 panel.

“All big-ticket items were dropping in value,” said Joe, 46, an Atlanta-based finance executive. “If I was ever going to make the switch to a new-technology airplane, this was the time.”

The Mooney had sold for $575,000 when it went out the factory door. Two years later in 2009, Joe paid $350,000 for it—a 40-percent discount. The airplane was still covered by a factory warranty. He sold the Bonanza he had owned for 12 years for $140,000 and paid the difference.

“My Bonanza was extremely well equipped for a 28-year-old airplane,” he said. “It had two VORs, a King radio stack, and an HSI, and I’d added a Garmin GNS 530 with XM Weather. But I’ve always been attracted to new technology, and I was interested in a glass-panel airplane with synthetic vision and an integrated autopilot. The G1000 was an easy transition for me because I already had lots of experience with the 530.”

Joe is an instrument-rated private pilot with about 1,700 flying hours, and he’s owned an airplane since 1995 when he bought a used Cessna 182. He is married with two teenage children, but the entire family rarely flies together. Joe’s records show that about 25 percent of his flights are for business and 75 percent are personal, and the vast majority of both are solo.

“When I looked back over my past 100 flights in the Bonanza, there was only one time that all four seats were occupied,” he said. “There were two flights with three people aboard, and two flights with two people. The other 95 were just me.”

Joe said he only considered Standard-category aircraft, and he was seeking a normally aspirated engine, air conditioning, and retractable landing gear.

“I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of fixed gear and they have a lot of merit,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of my maintenance expense over the years has been gear-related. But I really like having retractable gear, and the additional insurance cost is minimal because I have so much time in complex airplanes.”

Joe said he researched AOPA’s online aircraft reviews, AOPA Air Safety Foundation accident analyses, Vref aircraft valuation information, and AOPA title services before making his purchase.

He said he recently flew a rainy night approach into his home field, Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK), adding that such flights have made him feel good about his purchase. The automation, reduced pilot workload, and constant graphical weather updates made the trip less stressful than it would have been in his previous airplane.

“I’m not sure I would have attempted the flight without the G1000, and that would have meant being gone an additional three days,” he said. “The glass cockpit allows you to see the big picture and make informed decisions based on timely information, and that makes all the difference.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.


A Baron for the Bahamas

By Thomas A. Horne

Time To Buy

Words can be powerful. And their effects surprising to their writers. I know, because shortly after my article “Bound for the Bahamas” appeared in the December 2009 issue of AOPA Pilot, up popped an e-mail from Dave Lawlor. For Lawlor, vice president of finance at The George Washington University, the Bahamas article was a tipping point. “That did it,” he said in a phone call. “I asked myself, ‘what am I waiting for?’ and committed to buying an airplane. Two weeks after reading the article I contracted to buy a 1976 Beech B58 Baron.”

We can help

Pilots interested in flying internationally can find out how to cross borders and clear customs smoothly with AOPA's online resources. AOPA has a special section online dedicated to flying to and from the Bahamas and it includes a list of documents pilots and passengers must carry; aircraft requirements and paperwork; information about Customs and Border Protection decals; eAPIS guidelines; and more. Follow this direct link to these online resources.

Although Lawlor’s decision may have seemed rapid, the initial motivation came years earlier. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Lawlor immigrated to California in 1996, earned his pilot certificates (he’s also a CFI and AGI), and then became active in the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. Meanwhile, his family grew to include four children.

Three years ago, with dreams of owning a B58, Lawlor began gawking at Trade-A-Plane and other sales venues. But each time the urge to buy arose, he suppressed it. Until “Bound for the Bahamas” landed in his mailbox.

“It put me over the edge,” he said. “I mean, I turned 40, had the kids, and was thinking about just working and doing what I always did. I became worried that one day I’d be 50, 60 years old and look around and say, ‘Well, I should have bought an airplane way back when, and flown my family to the Bahamas and had a good time.’

“So the Baron purchase became my Christmas project. I went through the motions and the necessary steps, half believing that I’d find another way to talk myself out of this. My wife was incredibly supportive and spurred me on.

“So I did it. I found a 1976 B58 Baron, started my pilot initial training at SimCom on Saturday, January 9, and then on Monday, January 11, flew out to Missouri for the prepurchase inspection. After the squawk list was finished I picked the airplane up on February 1 and flew it back to my home field at Frederick, Maryland. As an interesting side note, the Baron’s previous owner moved up to a jet—a Cessna Mustang.”

Of course, the economic climate did its share in convincing Lawlor to buy; prices of used piston twins are at all-time lows. The pressures to not buy were also there, but from Lawlor’s perspective they meant little in the grand scheme of things.

“Coming from Europe, it never ceases to amaze me how fortunate we are,” Lawlor said. “There’s so much negative talk of gas prices, user fees, and so on—but we don’t know how good we’ve got it. I’ve flown a rented Seminole from the East Coast to the West Coast, and back, and didn’t pay one cent for landing fees or ATC usage. In the process of buying the Baron I found friends from the aviation community all across the country, as well as help from the amazing group from the American Bonanza Society and other Beech owners’ groups.”

Lawlor’s first mission in his Baron was to visit the Bahamas he’d read about. In early April he boarded his family one morning, took off from Frederick, and ended the day at Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island. “It was awesome,” he said. “Just the right amount to do. I played golf at the Abaco Club—and had the course to myself—but the highlight of the trip was the day we spent at the beach at Treasure Cay. Amazing! We’ll definitely do it again.”

At its core, the decision to buy an airplane is an emotional one. But as Lawlor’s experience proves, even larger forces can be hard at work. In his case that force may be summarized by that well-worn Latin phrase: Carpe diem.

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.


Too good to pass up

By Dave Hirschman

Time To Buy

Don Cheek learned to fly in 1969 but had never owned an airplane until last year.

We can help

Pilots interested in aircraft partnerships can find valuable AOPA resources online, including sample co-ownership agreements, frequently asked questions, and co-ownership checklists. AOPA’s Guide to Co-Ownership is a great way for pilots in search of partnerships to gauge their compatibility and solve potential problems—and avoid misunderstandings before they arise. Follow this direct link to these online resources.

Cheek, 61, is an A&P mechanic with inspection authorization, and he started working on airplanes soon after joining the U.S. Air Force in 1967. He worked on supersonic fighters ranging from F-100 Super Sabres to F–15 Eagles for most of his career, but his heart has always been in general aviation aircraft such as the Bellanca Citabria he flew in the early 1970s.

Last year, Cheek had the opportunity to buy a 1946 Piper J–3 Cub through a four-way partnership, and he jumped at it. He already knew the airplane and its owners because they had hired him to perform some maintenance on their aircraft.

“I always had a love for flying and I’ve made my living working on aircraft for 41 years,” he said. “But I was never in a position to own my own airplane because family and work obligations came first. When the chance to buy into this partnership came along, it was too good to pass up.”

The stock, 65-horsepower Cub has been hangared at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK) in Atlanta for 20 years. Cheek flies it primarily within the local area, and takes his grandchildren flying at Air Acres, a grass airstrip with adjoining homes in nearby Cherokee County. Cheek works at PDK during the week, and his close proximity to the Cub means he can fly on just about any nice day.

“Flying a Cub is so much more enjoyable when the sun is shining and the winds are light,” he said. “I’m at the airport and like to fly on weekdays. My partners mostly fly on the weekends, so there’s rarely, if ever, a scheduling conflict.”

Cheek has been a welcome addition to the partnership because he monitors the Cub’s health closely, and he has made many improvements to the aircraft such as adding seatbelt shoulder harnesses and an external radio antenna. He’s also planning to overhaul and upgrade the engine.

“The partnership arrangement has been a terrific benefit for me—and my partners,” he said. “I get to fly the entire aircraft and only pay one-fourth of the costs. And my partners know that an A&P/IA is watching over their airplane, maintaining it, and flying it. That gives them added assurance that everything about it is going to be right when they come out to the airport to fly.”

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.