Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be rich to buy an airplane. The Plane Tales Plane, for instance, cost waaaaaay less than most new cars (and less than many used ones, come to think about it). Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of planes that you do need to be rich to buy, but plane ownership should not be confused with country club membership. It’s not an exclusive club when it comes to airplane ownership. While it’s possible to spend a couple of million on an airplane, there are also planes to be had for ten grand.
I don’t know how airplane owners got the rep of being rich. I really don’t. People don’t assume the guy with the bass boat is rich. Or the neighbor with the big hulking RV in his driveway. People spend their “disposable” income on all kinds of recreational toys than rival or exceed the cost of buying a plane without being accused of being exorbitantly wealthy.
I suspect it’s jealously.
It pisses me off sometimes, although I suspect my wife actually likes the faux status of “rich” that owning a plane confers on us.
Anyway (for myth busting) buying a plane doesn’t require a lot of money, plus if you want to finance, even old planes often have 15-year terms on loans, so you’re not looking at much out-of-pocket each month. And flying a plane isn’t as expensive as you’d think, either, especially if you are careful about the plane you choose. I was admiring a surprisingly cheap for-sale jet warbird in my mechanic’s shop a few months ago, and one of the workers actually snorted, “That thing will burn more gas taxiing out to the end of the runway than your Ercoupe will burn in a year!”
In our case, we usually burn just under five gallons of gas per hour. With Avgas at $4.70 a gallon at our airport, and a small bit of oil thrown in, I fly for about $25 an hour. What else can you possibly do that is this much fun for twenty-five bucks?
But there is one aspect of owning a plane that just plane hurts the pocket book. Oh. Wait. I meant to say just “plain” hurts. And that’s airplane maintenance. Pretty much anything that needs to be done on a plane must be done by licensed mechanics who are able to command fees that make licensed plumbers and licensed electricians look like bargain-basement minimum-wage workers by comparison.
And there is always maintenance to be done on a plane, even when its working perfectly. Federal law requires every plane to undergo an annual inspection every 12 months. An annual is no mere pop-the-hood-and-check-the-oil operation. It’s a major tear-down that peers deep into the plane’s guts to make sure all is working as it should, and that nothing has worn out, worked loose, or fallen off. Even if absolutely nothing is found that needs to be taken care of, my annual runs me a hair over one grand. But annuals can easily run double, triple, quadruple if some “squawks” are found.
Hence my annual angina over my annual. I’m never sure how much it’s going to cost, or how long it will take. (And I start having withdrawal symptoms if I’ve not flown in over a week.) This year, I already know the annual will be more than double of last year’s when the only thing they found wrong was a burned-out light bulb on the right wing. Our funky antique Stromberg carburetor is developing a personality and needs to be sent out to a specialist to be rebuilt, at a cost nearly equal to the annual itself. And our engine needs some work. As does our prop, which is handled by a different kind of licensed airplane mechanic. The left aileron has a bit more play in than I’d like. We have some nose gear shimmy on landing. The vertical speed indictor is off. There’s a loose rivet on the belly. And on it goes.
(Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pilots… Fer’ God’s sake send them off to plane mechanic school instead!)
Now I know that the older the plane, the cheaper it is to buy, but the more expensive it is to maintain. And the newer the plane, the more expensive it is to buy, but the cheaper it is to maintain. An actuary—like my nephew—would tell you to buy new(er). So why didn’t I? Partly because that wasn’t an option for me, but largely because I had no clue what I was getting into.
Anyway, it’s that time of year again. Next week on Tuesday, weather gods permitting, I’ll fly Tess over the hump of Rowe Mesa into Santa Fe, and turn over the keys and my wallet to my mechanic. Then I’ll have to hitch a ride back to our empty hanger at SXU to pick up my (more expensive than my airplane) Jeep.
The hangar sure is going to feel empty this December while the mechanics are working on Tessie. But I guess that will only serve to remind me that while I may not be rich when it comes to how much money I have in my bank account, my life could not possibly be any richer.