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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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....

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