Eating the elephant: Charting a course to aircraft ownership

April 10, 2014

I didn’t grow up in an aviation family. In fact, my family didn’t even know anyone involved in general aviation. So, when I expressed an interest in small airplanes as a teenager, it was a natural response for my parents to explain that recreational aviation wasn’t something I was likely to experience anytime soon. It wasn’t that they discouraged it per se; they just assumed that it was something available only to the very wealthy.

Jeff SimonIt wasn’t until the age of 22 that I met my first private pilot, a consultant I was working alongside at my first job after college. He became the first in a series of mentors who helped me along the path from aviation enthusiast, to pilot, to aircraft owner, to mechanic (and hopefully soon to homebuilder). The guidance of these mentors made this possible without my being exceptionally wealthy or having the time for a full-time aviation maintenance curriculum.

My experience produced something else as well: It set me on a lifelong mission to help others realize their dreams of aircraft ownership. Quite frankly, it’s the reason I became an aviation writer/video producer and the reason I wrote this article for you.

For all its regulations and costs, there are options out there to make the dream of aircraft ownership a reality for most pilots. Our growth as aviators doesn’t have to be limited to a progression of pilot ratings; it can also include the ability to maintain and even create the aircraft we fly.

“How do you eat an elephant?” the saying goes, “One bite at a time.”

You can own an aircraft

With few exceptions, aircraft ownership isn’t something you justify by financial analysis any more than you would justify taking up downhill skiing as a cost effective means to get from point A to point B. You can run the numbers until your fingers bleed, but that would be avoiding the simple truth that it isn’t about justifying the cost of ownership versus renting.

Owning an aircraft (or part of one), in itself, can be a fulfilling and educational experience. Just as adding an instrument rating can take your flying skills to the next level, owning an aircraft can increase your understanding of the how airplanes work in a way that renting rarely does. Over time, you inevitably learn how everything works and form a bond with the aircraft that adds a new level of safety and satisfaction to your aviation experience.

There are a variety of options to ease the financial burden of owning an aircraft, such as partnerships, leasebacks, etc. But I’d like to focus on the management of the costs themselves; and that starts with choosing the right aircraft. Browsing the aircraft classifieds makes it obvious that it’s possible to purchase an entry-level aircraft for about the same as a new car. That doesn’t mean that it will meet your needs, but it does mean that there are reasonable ways to get started with your first airplane. After all, if you only fly two to three trips a year with more than two of you in the airplane, you can always rent a four-seater for the rare occasion. Remember, we’re talking about ownership for ownership’s sake and the experience that comes along with it.

The key for that first aircraft is to prioritize buying a solid, well-maintained aircraft that is a foundation to be built upon over time. It’s far better to buy less aircraft, but in better condition, than to find yourself bottom feeding in a class of aircraft beyond your reasonable reach. As a friend of mine likes to say: “Even if you got a Ferrari for free, you’d still have to maintain it.”

As far as recommendations go, think simplicity. There are plenty of options for limited funds.  My personal favorites include the Grumman AA-1 and AA-5 series, as well as the venerable Tomahawk, Cherokee, Cessna 120, 140, 150, 152, 170, and 172. It’s not about age, or even airframe hours; it’s about condition. That said, don’t tie yourself to “modern” aircraft either. It’s hard to beat the J3 Cub, Tri-Pacer, or Ercoupe for value and maintenance simplicity.

The topic of choosing the best “starter airplane” could consume volumes, so we’ll leave it at that for now. Next time, we’ll focus on the next step: learning about your new airplane and starting you on the path of maintenance education. Until then, close the classifieds, leave the office, and go fly!

Social FlightJeff Simon is an A&P mechanic, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 14 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance as a columnist for several major aviation publications and through his how-to DVD series: The Educated Owner. Jeff is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps over 10,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the web at www.SocialFlight.com.