HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY NAVIGATE THE YIN AND YANG OF AIRPLANE OWNERSHIP
Few events in life compare to the thrill and excitement that come with earning a pilot certificate. A close second, though, just might be owning your own airplane.
For me, it seemed at first like aircraft ownership might merely be a natural progression to the commercial pilot certificate I was already working on. The taildragger I eventually bought, however, became more of a friend — a pal who shared my deep commitment to flying. The airplane, a Champion 7ECA Citabria (that’s “airbatic” spelled backward, by the way ) sported a big “For Sale” sign when I first saw it. I thought, Why not? I had a job. And I owned my own car. I quickly pictured myself taxiing around the airport, giving a thumbs-up to people I passed. Then there was the fun I knew was waiting at places distant and times future.
Of course, I knew nearly nothing about owning an airplane, short of writing a
check and adding gas and oil before launching into the sky. The owner was asking $2,500. I thought for a few seconds and simply said, “OK.” No one else looked at the airplane before I handed over the money. Why would I be concerned? The owner was an A&P mechanic. He’d never sell the airplane if it had a problem, right? I saw the real problem being I had no idea how to fly a taildragger. There was much to learn.
I knew I needed insurance and a place to keep it, not to mention I would be dealing with the maintenance issues surrounding a fabriccovered airplane, of which I also knew nothing. There was no Google to ask in those days either. Over the years, most of my lessons were good, luckily. Of course, that also speaks some to the people with whom I dealt, most of whom were plumb honest. Life’s a bit more complicated these days.
What I lacked in ownership knowledge, I nearly made up for with good luck that stayed with me until I sold the airplane a few years later for a thousand more than I’d paid, having logged nearly 500 fun hours along the way. Today, any person buying an airplane like this isn’t lucky. They’re acting foolishly. There’s no reason to purchase an airplane with your fingers crossed. There are simply too many things that could go wrong, and such great resources available for the asking. The following pages contain a useful ownership checklist to keep you from making the same mistakes as many others before you.
I chose to talk to experienced people I respected for helpful answers to a few well-chosen questions. Now, I realize it’s important to think not only about what you’re buying, but why. As I learned, the rational side of aircraft ownership can sometimes become lost in the swirl of emotions surrounding the entire idea. I only learned years later that there were better and less expensive ways to handle almost every aspect of owning an airplane.
Ford von Weise, president of the National Aircraft Finance Association and director of global aircraft finance for Citi Private Bank, has watched firsttime buyers’ behavior closely over the years. “We often see clients who don’t truly understand the real cost of owning and maintaining an aircraft. It’s not just the purchase price,” von Weise cautions. “The care and the maintenance of an aircraft can be very, very expensive.” Aircraft can also suck up a lot of an owner’s free time. “It’s not like a car you simply put in a garage and forget about,” he says. To get people thinking, von Weise says most financing options today call for roughly a 20 to 30 percent down payment for small GA aircraft loans amortized out as long as 15 years. Another possibility could be paying for an airplane through a still tax-deductible home equity loan, but talk to your accountant.
Aircraft definitely don’t like being forgotten about and are known to last longer when they fly regularly. A&P technician Howard Siedlecki has run Sunshine Aircraft Repair in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for 27 years and says an aircraft that’s seldom been flown isn’t necessarily a gem. “Tires are subject to dry rot and cracking from being parked too long.” An aircraft flown very little is also “subject to corrosion on switch contacts, as well as batteries that run down. An idle engine can develop rust and corrosion on the cylinders, even if the airplane’s flown 50 hours a year,” which he concedes isn’t very much. Important too, while there are certainly commonalities between A36 Bonanzas or Piper Arrows, each airplane has been treated differently during its life and must be judged so. That means a deep look under the cowling and inside those inspection holes before closing the deal.
Von Weise says it’s nearly impossible, these days anyway, to finance an airplane that hasn’t been through some kind of prebuy inspection. One stumbling block is the lack of official guidelines for what’s included in a pre-buy inspection. Siedlecki says his pre-buys begin by “looking at the high-dollar items like the engine and propeller.” Finding a good pre-buy mechanic demands better research than simply typing “aircraft maintenance” into an internet search engine. Ask people at the local airport for recommendations, but also ask why they favor a particular shop over another. Don’t get too hung up on the hourly shop rate. Siedlecki recommends never using the shop suggested by a seller. “I don’t even deal with sellers on pre-buys,” he says. “I prefer the seller drop off the aircraft and just leave,” noting the impossibility of performing a no-holds-barred inspection on what might ail an airplane with someone looking over his shoulder.
INSURING YOUR INVESTMENT
The right insurance protects a major asset against nature and pilot-induced problems, Wendy Wenk says. A pilot herself, Wenk runs Wenk Aviation Insurance, the agency her grandfather started in the 1930s by selling policies to the likes of Merrill C. Meigs, for whom Chicago’s former airport by the lake would later be named.
When her dad, Chuck, ran the company, Wendy saw him as a conservative pilot, someone who moved up gradually in aircraft size and performance over the course of his lifetime, a philosophy that translated into how he dealt with thousands of customers over the years. “He felt a responsibility to tell clients when he thought they might be taking on too much airplane too quickly, even if it meant he might lose them,” she says.
An aircraft buyer today shouldn’t approach the insurance market blind. A few insurance basics reveal the most common aircraft policy includes a $1 million maximum with $100,000 per passenger split into three categories: property damage, bodily injury — people on the ground or in other aircraft — and, finally, passenger liability. When it comes to deductibles, Wenk says, “Each insurance company deals with those on their own, but an increased deductible almost never affects the premium like it might on a car.”
Consider the Cessna 182 pilot who wanted a Beech Baron. “He was patient with the insurance requirements and got the training they required,” Wenk says. “He flew the Baron 100 hours the first year and watched his premiums decline nearly 30 percent the second year.” Additional training can also be valuable. “Underwriters feel it’s important to reward pilots who take specific training,” Wenk adds. Forum attendance at the recent TBM owners convention in San Antonio resulted in hull premium savings of nearly 10 percent for some owners, not to mention the added benefit of networking with a hundred other pilots who fly the same aircraft.
KEEPING YOUR AIRPLANE HEALTHY
Unless you’re also an A&P technician, you’ll need help taking care of your airplane. Maintenance, in fact, tends to be the most expensive part of aircraft ownership, often because of those unplanned problems that pop up.
Should you use the shop on your airport or fly
somewhere else for repairs? Research again begins by asking other pilots at your new airplane’s current home. The shop on the field might be fine to get the battery charged or change a tire, but if people make strange faces when you ask whether the shop can handle more complex tasks, you probably need to head elsewhere for more complex problems. The trip to another airport might cost more in time and money, but could be well worth it based on the quality of the work alone.
Let’s repeat this advice. Flying your airplane regularly is important. Simply running it on the ground for 10 minutes a month is not the answer and can actually do more harm by drawing extra moisture into the system that won’t have a chance to evaporate. Idle moisture can lead to corrosion.
Part 91-operated airplanes require only an annual inspection to be legally airworthy. But legal doesn’t always mean safe. Regular oil changes should be the minimum maintenance to keep an airplane running smoothly. Be certain you understand the minimum oil level your engine demands before heading out on that 2½-hour crosscountry flight. If the airplane uses an oil filter, Siedlecki says changing the oil every 50 hours is fine. “If an older airplane has only an oil screen, however, every 25 to 30 hours is a better option.” Be sure to check the viscosity of the engine oil too. Heavy-weight summer oil can make starting a cold engine even tougher.
Find a shop with experience on your aircraft type. A cherry Piper PA-22 might seem like just another airplane, but it demands a shop that understands fabric-covered airplanes. Joining a type club like the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, or the International Cessna 120-140 Association, as a couple of examples among many, puts you in touch with people and parts resources that will cover the cost of membership 10 times over. There’s always a member somewhere who has already run across the problem you’re facing today.
HANDLING THE PAPERWORK
Imagine you’ve owned your new-to-you Cirrus SR22 for a few months. You love the bird, as does the family, and your friends are simply beside themselves with envy. Then one afternoon, while you’re rubbing on a third coat of wax, a couple of people arrive, claiming they’ve come to repossess your airplane. It happens — and often because the buyer failed to demand a title search to ensure the seller actually had the right to sell the airplane.
In this case, the seller had suggested a major tax advantage if the buyer simply assumed control of the LLC under which the Cirrus was originally being operated. The buyer liked the idea, and flew off after closing the deal. Unfortunately, the seller pocketed the money and never paid off the first note. The seller was also nowhere to be found at repossession time. It became a very expensive lesson, says Clay Healy, owner of AIC Title Service in Oklahoma City. He reminds clients a title search is “to be sure the buyer knows who really owns the airplane versus who they think owns it.”
An FAA list shows nearly two-thirds of the title companies in business are located in Oklahoma City, to be near the agency’s information hub there. Healy suggests buyers do their homework by asking if the title company has actual seats at the FAA research desk or is simply borrowing one, which might indicate a part-time effort. He said the National Aircraft Resale Association also offers a comprehensive information resource for buyers, as does simply asking other aircraft owners or, of course, the selling broker.
FINDING A GOOD HOME FOR YOUR AIRPLANE
A vitally important part of aircraft ownership is deciding where to keep an airplane. It’s actually a question in need of an answer long before placing a deposit on the plane of your dreams, whether you choose to buy new or used. Like buying a home, location can be more important than the price and airport amenities.
Metropolitan areas usually offer the greatest number of options, from grass tiedowns to hardstand parking to T-hangar storage or even a large common hangar. Think about the driving time in traffic to reach your airplane. The longer the drive, the less you’ll use your airplane, no matter what you tell yourself in the beginning. This is why Siedlecki counsels new owners about the higher costs of an airplane that doesn’t fly much.
A T-hangar with running water and electricity just a 45-minute drive from home might well be worth it when the alternative is a hardstand exposed to the elements 365 days a year. If the former runs $400 per month and the latter $125, deciding can seem easy, but dig a bit more. A visual representation of the pros and cons might help.
Draw a circle on a Google map that represents the driving distance under a variety of conditions, perhaps a 15-minute, a 30-minute and a 45-minute radius. Now identify the airports within each circle and rate them with one to four stars. Consider ease of entry and exit, price of fuel and available help if, say, your battery’s flat.
The more important amenities can also depend on where you live. During summer, a hangar helps keep the temperature inside your airplane from reaching 100 degrees, not to mention saving your aircraft’s paint, avionics and interior from the harmful effects of sunlight. As winter approaches and temperatures plunge, starting an engine when the airplane’s been exposed to outside air can be more difficult, especially if the battery is weak. One solution, even if the airplane’s outside, is installing a Tanis preheat system under the cowling. For about a thousand bucks, the engine’s kept nice and toasty all winter long — if your hangar or tiedown has a nearby electrical outlet, of course.
Sunshine Aircraft’s Siedlecki says the real beauty of the Tanis system is it keeps not only the oil, but the cylinders warm too. Starting a warm engine demands less battery power and creates less wear and tear. Some people leave their Tanis systems on all the time, others don’t. But again, without electrical power nearby, that option’s off the table.
Still struggling to decide on your airplane’s new home? Sometimes the best option is just to pick one for a short-term test. If the airport agrees, sign a sixmonth lease for some real-world experience. If you like it, problem solved. If not, try the next closer option until you find the best balance.
No owner can plan for every eventuality, but hopefully our checklist will start you off on the right foot. If there’s any advice I wish someone had offered me when I bought my first airplane, it would be to create a cash kitty to draw on for the unexpected. Hopefully, your mechanic has convinced you of the need to maintain a cash reserve for engine, prop and avionics work. You’ll need it.
But smaller, less expensive issues just pop up, such as equipping for the demands of the ADS-B mandate by the end of 2019, or the deductible when someone swipes a pair of Bose headsets out of the airplane you forgot to lock. The late Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner explained the ups and down of life — and aircraft ownership — best: “It’s always something.” Yes, ownership means work, but there’s nothing quite as much fun as owning your own airplane.
SUCCESSFUL AIRCRAFT OWNERSHIP DEMANDS RESEARCH, TIME AND MONEY. BUT NOTHING ELSE QUITE COMPARES TO THE EXHILARATION OF AN EARLY MORNING LAUNCH IN YOUR OWN AIRPLANE.
OWNERSHIP INSURANCE MAINTENANCE PAPERWORK The ownership journey begins by asking questions of people you trust. It’s important to research all of the basics of aircraft insurance. As the owner, it's crucial to understand maintenancerelated issues. Before signing any papers, be certain of who really owns the airplane.
FINANCES A regular review of aircraft expenses can help you avoid nasty surprises.
STORAGE Where to keep your airplane? Too much driving means too little flying.