HOW TO CHOOSE AN AIRPLANE
A STEP-BY-STEP APPROACH TO FINDING THE AIRPLANE THAT MAKES YOU HAPPY
Buying an airplane can be one of the most exciting, and the most terrifying, experiences you will undertake in your flying pursuits. It’s important to choose an airplane that will serve your needs for the foreseeable future without breaking your pocketbook. If you get it right, expect to become emotionally attached to this prized possession. We’ve all heard pilots say it: “Oh, I wish I had never sold that airplane.”
Apart from scratching the flying itch, the right airplane can help you spend more time with your family, with the ability to travel efficiently to and from meetings or vacations in faraway places. How much is it worth to be able to return home in time to tuck your kids in every night?
So how do you choose the right airplane for you? Whether you’re looking for a small $100-hamburger airplane or a business jet, here are some tips on how to choose an airplane you will love.
One of the biggest factors in choosing an airplane is your budget. Don’t let the airplane become a source of financial stress. Evaluate how much money you can set aside for flying activities each month and stick to that number.
Realize that the initial purchase is only the beginning. The cost of the airplane may in fact be the least expensive part of your ownership experience. You need to factor in costs such as insurance, taxes, parking, financing, upgrades, operating costs and sales tax depending on where you live.
Another potentially substantial and unpredictable cost that many airplane buyers overlook is depreciation. Like with cars, new airplanes are most susceptible. If you have a business need for the airplane, depreciation and other costs can in many cases be written off. Aviation tax specialists, such as Advocate Consulting Legal Group in Naples, Florida, and Aero and Marine Tax Professionals in Elk Grove, California, can help, and those tax incentives might allow you to stretch your budget.
The cost and availability of financing can have a big impact on the amount of money you spend on your airplane. The financial market was tight after the recession that began about a decade ago, but money is now available from a variety of lenders at very competitive rates, says Louis Seno, chairman emeritus of Jet Support Services.
For the lower end of the market, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s finance department is what Seno refers to as a “value added broker.” “They take your application, they look at your credit worthiness, they look at your airplane and, rather than waste your time calling a bunch of banks, they tell you immediately whether they have a home for your application,” he says.
The National Aircraft Finance Association (NAFA) is also a good resource, providing information such as what types and sizes of transactions lenders offer.
For the turboprop and jet markets, there is a lot of money available, Seno says. “If it burns kerosene, it pretty much opens the market,” he says. “If you’re borrowing money today on a turbinepowered airplane, there are a number of sources.” Bank of America, PNC and Wells Fargo are just a few examples.
Get preapproved for a loan, if you need one, before you start looking for an airplane so that you have an idea of how much money you can spend.
Once your financing and budget are straightened out, focus on your needs. Will you use the airplane for business or strictly for fun? Would you like to fly as a single pilot or do you need a crew? How many people do you need to accommodate in the cabin?
Performance capabilities, such as speed, range and utility, must be considered. Will you mostly take the occasional local flight for lunch with a friend? If so, a two-seat piston-powered airplane might work for you. If you live in Oregon and do regular business in the Midwest with several executives, you will likely need a turboprop or jet, which will provide greater speed, comfort and reliability. If you plan to fly in the backcountry, look for a taildragger, a piston airplane that can take a beating or a utility turboprop, depending on your needs for useful load and range. Also, remember that the carrying capacity of most airplanes doesn’t allow for filling all of the seats. If you need to bring four adults, for example, you will most likely need a six-seat airplane.
If your planned missions vary, focus on the most common trip. In some cases, you might need two or more airplanes to suit your needs. For example, if you do aerobatic competitions on the weekend and take regular business trips with a couple of employees during the week, you can’t satisfy your needs with one airplane. You’ll have to budget for two, though renting is also an option for the airplane that doesn’t work for your primary mission.
Speed costs money, and you might not yet be in the category of pilots who can afford a Cessna Citation X, which nibbles on the supersonic range. Although speed improves productivity, stick to airplanes within your budget. For smaller airplanes, speed can come at a cost other than dollars. Air-race airplanes are hardly built for comfort. Unless you are competing, find the right balance between speed and comfort.
Another important performance consideration is the takeoff and landing capability. Make sure it doesn’t stretch any safety margins. It would be a shame to do the flight planning for the first trip home with your new airplane only to find out that you can’t safely land at your home airport.
If you travel infrequently but want the flexibility of ownership, a partnership might be a good solution. Partners in Aviation (PIA) specializes in putting co-ownership deals together that eliminate many of the problems that can be associated with shared ownership. You can set up a contract with PIA to help you find a partner and structure an agreement. The retainer fee is refundable if a satisfactory match is not made, says Tom Bertels, PIA’s co-founder and chief marketing officer.
Finally, when you’ve found an airplane that fits your budget and your needs, make sure it fits your hangar too. Some airplanes’ dimensions are either too wide or too long for a standardsize hangar.
REALIZE THAT THE INITIAL PURCHASE IS ONLY THE START. THE COST OF THE AIRPLANE MAY BE THE LEAST EXPENSIVE PART OF THE OWNERSHIP EXPERIENCE.
IF BUDGET IS NO ISSUE, A LACK OF TURBINE EXPERIENCE WON’T PROHIBIT YOU FROM GETTING YOUR DREAM AIRPLANE RIGHT AWAY.
The airplane type is just one factor in choosing a specific airplane. Round gauges and VOR navigation used to make the transition from one airplane to another pretty straightforward. But, the complexities of navigating through the different menus in glass cockpits make avionics a big component of choosing an airplane.
“Someone who’s been flying an older Cessna 421 for the past 20 years is probably going to be just fine going into an older Citation with round gauges. But if it’s an owner-pilot coming out of a Cirrus SR22 G5 with Garmin G1000, and that’s all he or she has flown, that pilot is probably not going to be comfortable going into a platform without a fully integrated flight deck,” says Cyrus Sigari, co-founder and CEO of JetAviva.
An airplane with traditional instruments will be less expensive. But a glass panel provides much greater situational awareness, and once you know the system, it will undoubtedly make instrument flying much easier. Traffic and weather data on the screens also provide invaluable data. Some insurance companies even provide discounts to glass-equipped airplanes, says Jerry Clemens, founder of Clemens Insurance Agency, of Parsons, Kansas.
Garmin has cleverly simplified the transition between a wide variety of aircraft types by introducing similar avionics suites into multiple aircraft categories. Going from flying a light piston with a G1000 system to a jet with a G3000 is undoubtedly easier than transitioning to an airplane with a Honeywell Primus Epic system. However, the toughest transition is from analog to glass, or vice versa. Learning a system’s buttonology is not nearly as challenging.
Another major consideration is the ADS-B mandate. If the airplane you want to buy is not equipped, expect a fairly hefty avionics invoice sometime before January 2020, especially for larger turbine-powered airplanes.
Are you planning to fly your new airplane single-pilot? As a low-time pilot, it’s easiest to build experience in a less complex airplane and step up gradually.
If your mission absolutely requires a jet, don’t fret. Other than the obvious (cost), the type of flight experience you have, your recency of experience, your age and your learning ability all factor in. “We’ve had a few clients with about 200 hours who bought a Phenom 300,” Sigari says. You’ll need to fly with a mentor pilot for several months before the insurance company will let you off on your own, and of course, you’ll have to budget for a type rating, which will set you back several thousand dollars. But if budget is no issue, a lack of turbine experience won’t prohibit you from getting your dream airplane right away.
Regardless of what airplane or airplanes you are considering, call your insurance agent to make sure it makes sense. Aside from the price quote, be clear about the amount of training that will be required before you are insured to fly solo.
Evaluating the expected operating costs for an airplane can be difficult. Fixed costs, such as parking, insurance and taxes, are predictable, but many aspects of aircraft ownership are not.
Do your best to prevent paying for bigticket maintenance items by studying the engine time. An engine overhaul can cost more than the airplane itself. The same goes for the paint and interior. Look at how many hours the airplane has flown in the recent past. Hangar queens are generally maintenance pigs.
Ask a mechanic about the approximate cost of an annual inspection for the model you are interested in. Then factor in at least a couple of maintenance events each year. Inquire about mandatory and recurring service bulletins and airworthiness directives, as these can be costly. For example, although they provide a nice safety option, ballistic parachutes have to be repacked every 10 years, which costs several thousand dollars.
Fuel will likely be your biggest variable cost. Realize that the per-hour fuel burn is only one part of the equation. Calculate the fuel burn over the average mission. While
the hourly fuel burn on a light-sport aircraft is dramatically lower than that of a high-performance piston or a turboprop, the time it would take for you to reach distant destinations in an LSA may cost you nearly as much in fuel, and certainly a lot more in lack of productivity.
Frequency of maintenance can also be a big question mark. If dispatch reliability is important, a new airplane from a reputable OEM might be the best choice since it comes with a warranty. Many higherend OEMs, such as Gulfstream, have rapid-response service teams that will quickly help you get airworthy if you are grounded. They may even be able to provide transportation options if you need to get somewhere before the airplane is fixed.
One-offs and small-scale production airplanes have ramp appeal. But the fun ends as soon as you break a unique part. Getting someone to manufacture that one part can take months and be very expensive. Unless you are inclined to produce your own parts for a homebuilt airplane, buy an airplane that can be supported by general maintenance facilities around the country.
For jets, maintenance costs are generally wrapped into set plans, such as engine programs, that are paid through a monthly fee. Operating costs for these airplanes are easier to predict. But remember to factor in additional fixed costs such as recurrent training and possibly salaries for a mentor pilot or other crew members.
If you are having a hard time evaluating the total operating cost, get help. Type clubs, such as the Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association (MAPA), Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) and Citation Jet Pilots (CJP), can be very helpful resources. Some airplane models, such as the Cirrus SR22, for example, have gone through many modifications and upgrades, and it can be confusing to know what you’re getting when you buy used. A specialized broker, such as Aerista in the case of the Cirrus, that specializes in the models you are interested in can be very helpful in finding the right model for your budget and needs.
Once you've homed in on a few potential airplane models, there are several resources on the internet that can help you find your dream airplane. Controller, Trade-A-Plane, Barnstormers and Aircraft Shopper Online (ASO) are the most commonly used websites.
Figuring it all out can be a daunting task. But the good news is there is a lot of help to be had. An acquisition agent, an unbiased expert who will charge a flat fee for helping you find the right airplane, can walk you through the steps and help you stay within your budget.
Cost and mission profile aside, make sure that the airplane you choose makes you happy. Does it look good? Is the interior comfortable? Does it give you the speed you need? Does it have the bells and whistles you really want? And before you pull the trigger, ask yourself one final question: When you open up your hangar door, will that airplane make you smile?
BUDGET MISSION Calculate how much money you can spend and stick to that number. Evaluate your most common flight profile and find an airplane that fits it.
OPERATING COSTS AVIONICS EXPERIENCE What equipment are you most comfortable flying behind? Will you be able to fly the airplane, and can you afford the training you need? What fixed and variable expenses can you expect?