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Tips for saving money while flyingTips for saving money while flying

Five ideas to maximize enjoyment, minimize expensesFive ideas to maximize enjoyment, minimize expenses

After months of flying with an instructor, then solo, and finally with a designated pilot examiner to earn your pilot certificate, your wallet has seen a lot of action. But did you know there are options for maximizing your flying fun on minimum funds? Here are some ideas for increasing your aviation enjoyment on a tight budget.

Joining a flying club is just one of the many ways to minimize expenses while getting the most out of your newly acquired pilot certificate. Photo by Christopher Rose.

Ride in the back seat

I’m an instrument student looking for ways to soak up some extra knowledge while keeping the piggy bank full. I hopped into the back seat of a Cessna 182 while AOPA Pilot Information Specialist Carlo Cilliers practiced instrument approaches with AOPA Pilot Editor at Large and fight instructor Dave Hirschman. The hourlong flight from our headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was perfect for me to observe these two pros at work—and best of all—Cilliers was paying for it! I had plenty of time to scribble notes that were very useful for me in my own instrument training. The flight was informative because I wasn’t under the gun, and it gave me additional local familiarity. Cilliers passed his instrument checkride in March, so now it's my turn to start training in the left seat.

Act as a safety pilot

My Atlanta buddy Bryan Eastman is an instrument-rated pilot who had access to a pristine Piper Arrow based at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Georgia. We flew together several times, and I acted as a safety pilot while he practiced instrument holds, approaches, and landings. I was a required crewmember while Eastman was under the hood because he needed an extra pair of eyes to perform VFR “see and avoid” duties. I gained valuable instrument experience and familiarity with the IFR environment while Eastman sweated it out—and he paid for the flight time so, once again, my money stayed in my pocket.

Join a flying club

Don’t tell my family, but I’m preparing to join a flying club here in Maryland that is centered around a well-maintained Cessna 152 Aerobat. The demands aren’t too painful on my wallet, either. The aircraft is owned by AOPA Flying Clubs director Steve Bateman who taught in the same aircraft out in California, so he knows its history. There’s a one-time membership buy-in fee, and the monthly dues are $100 plus $80 per flight hour. A club credit card is designated for fuel and oil purchases, and members are billed monthly for flight hours. Another benefit of the club is to share similar interests while learning new skills, and I’m looking forward to a lot of fun for less than $100 an hour! I have to blame Tennessee’s Ace Aerobatic School spin specialist Catherine Cavagnaro for my being bitten by the Aerobat bug. In advance of the 2015 AOPA Fly-In at Tullahoma she had so much fun demonstrating to me spins and advanced maneuvers in her beautiful Aerobat named Wilbur that I’ve been secretly scouring the want ads ever since.

Enter a partnership

I’ve also gone the partnership route, which was a great deal at the time. Leonard Harris, former owner of Wings and Things Pilot Shop (now Pilot Stuff), invited me and a couple of friends to split expenses four ways on a sweet Cessna Cutlass 172RG that Harris had acquired. Since I was familiar with a fixed-gear Skyhawk from most of my primary training, the retractable-gear aircraft was both a welcome platform and a valuable stepping stone to future retractable-gear models. Our monthly costs covered the aircraft loan, insurance, and tiedown fees. The hourly rate that we charged ourselves included engine, propeller, and avionics reserves—plus funds we set aside for the annual and other inspections. An online scheduler made aircraft reservations really simple, and we followed up with phone calls if there were changes.

Put an airplane on leaseback

My experience with the Cessna 172RG led me to the purchase of a Mooney M20F and then a Mooney M20C. Because I was the sole aircraft owner, I juggled the fixed costs of ownership including loan payments, insurance, and tiedown fees. Many aircraft owners can tell you that maintenance on a well-loved legacy model certainly has its ups and downs. I budgeted accordingly until my income dropped by half so I explored a leaseback option with Skybound Aviation in Atlanta. The idea was that the IFR-equipped retractable-gear Mooney Ranger (which the flight school named Jasmine) would be approved only for advanced training so I didn’t need to worry about the potential wear and tear from primary students. Under the arrangement I received an hourly fee that really helped balance my books. The Mooney saw a lot of time in the air during the leaseback—and that was a good thing. However, the flip side of its popularity meant that routine maintenance was more frequent, and therefore, costlier to the owner (me). I was pleasantly surprised when the first few months went from a break-even point to a slightly positive cash flow. The financial return on the leaseback allowed me to pay all of my fixed expenses, keep the aircraft in good working order, and fly Jasmine whenever it was available. In my case the leaseback option was a huge help; it came right when I needed it the most. If you are a potential aircraft owner thinking about a similar setup, you should definitely do the math to see if a leaseback option is right for you.

These are just a few options that allowed me to keep expenses in check while I pursued the freedom to fly more frequently. Will one work for you?

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Aircraft, Financial, Flying Club

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