The Great Debate: too old to fly

We have had the debate on pilot age and it goes on. Review that article and add your comment. For this one we are talking about airplanes.

The last year in which a lot of airplanes were built was 1979. There was big production in the few years before that and if memory serves me, the last time production numbers were as low as they have been recently was 1952.

The result of this is that the great majority of the fleet is 33 years old or older. So when considering used airplanes, most are old. The good thing about this is that the asking prices are quite low when compared with new airplanes. The bad news is that the maintenance costs will be in relation to the value of the new airplane, not the old one. A friend put over $30,000 into routine maintenance over 12 months. His airplane is an old light twin, probably worth only about five times as much as that shop bill.

Airplane in scrap yard
When is an airplane too old to fly?

Other factors to consider include the age of the airplane. Some contend that airplanes never wear out but that is true only if you have an unlimited amount of money to spend on them. The USAF B-52 and KC-135 fleets come to mind. The DC-3 too. They are seriously old. I doubt if you can fine many, or even any, pilots flying these airplanes that are not a lot younger than the airplanes themselves.

The USAF has spent lavishly on keeping B-52s and KC-135s airworthy and up to date because it could. The airplane boneyards are full of old airline and business jets that were retired because they were no longer viable. This is often because the engines fitted were real gas guzzlers and the scrap heap made more sense than an expensive engine retrofit.

That is not true of piston airplanes. If anything, the older airplanes are as or more fuel efficient than the new ones because of the use of turbochargers and high cruise power settings on the more sophisticated new piston airplanes. When I was flying a Cessna 400 I was amazed at the high fuel flow when operating in the go-fast mode.

I think that most of the airframe (wings, fuselage and tail) will last a long time if corrosion is properly managed. The airframe accounts for only about a quarter of the total airplane when it comes to manufacturing cost and it probably accounts for even less of the maintenance cost.

The big money for maintenance goes into the engine and the systems. Over the years this goes up a lot in terms of dollars and by even more in relation to the value of the airplane.

The cost and complexity of keeping an old airplane going are made more difficult because of parts. Most of the older airplanes built by companies still in business are reasonably well supported but you do hear some horror stories about parts for them. Parts are also quite expensive.

Most accessories are available only as rebuilt units and this is fraught with peril.

To rebuild things shops must be FAA approved. That, though, guarantees very little. Some do a really sloppy job of rebuilding systems and accessories. The result is that you have to be really careful when using these items. If an owner or shop doesn’t have personal knowledge of the ability and integrity of a rebuilder, all manner of strange things can happen to those parts with the magical FAA approval.

Before getting to some questions for debate, the question of risk v. airplane age has to be addressed. In general is there more exposure to risk when flying around in older airplanes?

I have done research on this a number of times and there are no clear-cut answers. There is just no way to know the relationship of hours flown between new and older airplanes so nothing can be quantified about accident rates.

Accidents are a matter of record, though, and the incidence of mechanically-related accidents in older airplanes has always been higher than in newer ones. Poor or inadequate maintenance is often cited as a cause, especially in older airplanes.

My feeling on this subject is clearly illustrated by the fact that after flying my P210 for 8,963.44 hours in 28 years, five months and 13 days, I retired the airplane and sold it for scrap. I felt like the airplane was worn out and the risk of flying it was increasing.

That was a complicated pressurized airplane. A simpler regular 210 would have been a different matter. If I had had one of those, and the old dude flying it had been ten years younger, I’d have probably flown it for at least ten more years.

So what do you think? Will our fleet of older airplanes fly on for five more years? Ten? Forever? Will airplanes be euthanized because of calendar age, flying time or burgeoning expensive maintenance requirements? Do you feel as comfortable about mechanical reliability in an older airplane as in a newer one? Your turn.

27 Comments

  • I fly an experimental that I built. Similar questions about maintenance come up in accident reports frequently with experimentals. I think that the older aircraft will be flying for years to come if for no other reason than they are affordable to more people. Some of the older twins and more complex aircraft like the P210 may be the exceptions. They are too expensive to maintain and therefor end up less affordable than the newer equivalent aircraft. As for the basic Cessnas and Pipers etc. I think they will continue to fly as long as someone can afford to buy gas and maintain them well enough to be safe.

  • The steel-tube-and-fabric aircraft will fly forever, as long as there’s fuel and wood for new spars. They are easily stripped down and restored to as-new condition. My 1946 Aeronca Chief has been completely rebuilt at least 3 times, and I am aware of other like aircraft (J3s, Champs, Taylorcrafts, etc.) that are in condition better than when they left the factory decades ago. I do fret about the older all-aluminum aircraft that haven’t had wings removed for spar inspection since Eisenhower was president!

  • The old simple airplanes can be kept in good shape, at reasonable cost, for as long as some of the high wear parts, like engines, exhausts, windshields, props etc are available new (not rebuilt). After market companies, like Univair, do a good job of keeping those parts available for many old planes; better even than some new plane support.

    Old complex airplanes are a problem. New parts are not always available so inferior rebuilt, used or repaired parts get installed. Also, the number of potential problem areas are beyond what normal inspections can uncover (complex wire bundles for example). A normally wealthy person could not afford to have these complex airplanes rebuilt by a good shop; thus high end complex airplanes end up in the bone yard.

    I have a 56 year old Piper Pacer that I feel quite comfortable with; it feels as solid as an old brick house. And the primarily steel structure, although subject to rust, is not as prone to fatigue as aluminum. But I have had and continue to have high wear items replaced with new on a regular basis. If, for example, new exhaust systems became unavailable, I would send the airplane off to the bone yard as Dick did with the P210.

  • I began flying in a 1946 Aeronca 7AC. I flew a lot of “newer” airplanes enroute to my commercial and ATP certificates, e.g., a 1955 Piper Apache, a 1955 Cessna 310, etc. “Old” aircraft were the norm then.

    For my first duty assignment as an airline captain, I flew all of the airplanes in a fleet of about a dozen Douglas DC-3s, the newest of which was built in the early 1940s; the oldest rolled out of the Douglas plant in 1939.

    While for the last dozen years of my career, I have flown mostly new aircraft, of less than ten years of age, I never once experienced an age-related problem in an older aircraft, and never gave the aircraft’s age a moment of thought. Those aircraft were routinely overhauled and maintained to the highest standards.

    I didn’t worry about it then, and still don’t–I fly a 1953 Taylorcraft, which is two years older than I am!

    Maintenance and thorough inspections are the key to these remarkable longevities. I hope to see the immediate post-war light airplanes flying indefinitely.

  • Dick, I wholeheartedly agree with you on the basis of maintaining older planes is more expensive than simply buying a new one. While I am not an aircraft owner, I have flown in some trainers that looked like they had seen better days. The biggest appeal to me, I guess, is the sturdiness of the airframe. I’ve gone through my logbook, and while I’ve accumulated a paltry 49.7 hours total as a student pilot, I’ve come to notice that I had quite a relationship with one particular Cessna 172: the good ol’ 17Hotel. I’ve soloed in that particular bird, and have fallen in love with it even though it had a somewhat worn-out interior. The radios worked great, but the headset connections had their gremlins.. I fondly remember my solo XC trip, and landing in Lancaster, PA with the pilot side headset connection immediately quitting on me. That forced me to have to connect on the copilot side, and reach across the cockpit to toggle the PTT switch each time I used the radio. While that’s a no-no while operating an aircraft (several things could have gone wrong with my headset cord stretched across several controls in hindsight), I elected to fly 17Hotel back to its base of Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, MD. I also fondly remember being forced to modify my takeoffs and landings on one flight due to the nosewheel strut losing its hydraulic fluid (which is odd because NONE of the 7 landings were aircraft carrier landings). I was then forced to fly a newer C172 on my final flight, and I can quite honestly say that I prefered the older model to the newer one because of the simplicity of the systems. I guess I could chalk that up to familiarity of the older steam gauges. The only major dislike I had about the newer 172 was that it seemed that I had to do more to manage the fuel… Great memories, and I do hope to get back in the saddle sometime in the future. Only difference is that there would be more “newer” planes used for training, and I’d have to get used to it.

  • Almost new — I’ve never understood why there are not companies buying up the older cessna’s 172,182’s or piper PA28’s stripping the down and building almost new airplanes that would be the best of both worlds, cheaper upfront cost than new, but operational cost close to brand new airplanes. Would be great for flight schools.

    On a non pressurized airplane they could use systems for checking for fatigue and then start building the airframe back up with new fuel systems, control cables and wear items (hinges, pulleys guides etc) and a new power plant, instruments, and radios.

    Unfortunately this would be hard to do in the current bureaucracy since you would have to have all the STC’s or own the type certificate to do it. But if the FAA had some type of certified airframe re-builder certificate that you could get for the specific types this would be feasible. Although the manufactures wouldn’t like it.

  • Older planes do require more maintenance, but they are a lot cheaper than the newer models. The 2 “simple” airplanes I fly are 47 and 36 years old, both paid for. For some of their systems, the cost to maintain is the same as the cost of newer planes – things like engine, prop, battery, tires, brake pads as examples. I do worry about the systems that deteriorate – wiring, interior plastic trim and rubber, windows, and the aforementioned cables and pulleys. I also fly a new G1000, and quite frankly, the cost to maintain that is more than the cost to maintain a six-pack. But given the overall cost of the airplane, it is probably less expensive to keep the old planes flying. Granted, you will not have all the new stuff like air bags, BRS’s, and soundproofing, but other than having to be careful about deterioration and corrosion, flying an older plane can be perfectly safe.

  • How about a section especially for us Helicopter pilots because as we all know to fly is heavenly but to hover is divine 😉

  • I thought about this question extensively when I bought my plane. I looked for several months for a 172 that was in good shape and within my budget. What I found was that while age was important, the owner was even more so. If old planes are properly taken care of and kept up to date, they should fly for many more years. And as a benefit, they look cool and are often a lot lighter than there modern versions (at least the Cessnas are)!

  • I owned a 1967 Piper Cherokee 140 from 1995 to 2008 and flew it for 2000+ hours and when I sold it (with frest rebuilt engine) I was sure it would fly forever. I made sure it was properly maintained and that is the key–don’t ignore anything and fix it when discovered, inspect frequently. I now fly a Flight Design CTLS and I(we) love it, it is faster than the Piper and has better instruments, including an autopilot. I threat the CT as I did the Cherokee and I expect it also to fly forever.

    • I owned a 1968 140 for a number of years and loved it. My favorite thing about it was the “window crank” trim knob on ceiling!

  • My son and I have

    (1) a deHavilland Chipmunk of 1952 vintage, and,
    (2) a deHavilland Tiger Moth of 1942 vintage.
    BOTH are ‘working aircraft’ i.e. ‘on line’, in the Charter Category, at our local aero club.
    ‘Tis a bit like Ole Grandad’s favourite axe,….5 new handles and 3 new heads – but, it is still Grandad’s favourite axe…

  • Most are discussing older, day type, VFR aircraft. Wonder how they would like to fly them in IFR conditions (really clag) with icing a possibility and snow on the ground or in mountains terrain. Different conditions might make us rethink skimping on maintenance or flying marginal and older aircraft. An older aircraft can be brought up to new standards, but is the cost worth it?

  • Cessna has led the way towards keeping older airplanes airworthy by creating Supplimental Inspection Documents (SID’s) for its legacy single and twin engine piston aircraft. Compliance is not mandatory (yet) for Part 91 operators but it is overseas and for some Part 135 operators. These inspections are so detailed (at least for twins) that I am more than confident that compliant aircraft can continue flying safely for decades. The question then becomes economic: Is it worth the roughly $100,000 cost of inspection for, say a Cessna 414, to keep it flying for another 25 years?

    Inspections for single engine aircraft are a little less intrusive, and costly, but the same logic applies. They can be safe forever, but at a cost.

  • I fly a 1966 Cessna 182 with 4,900 hours TT that I have owned for 13 years on IFR flight plans en route and approaches with a Garmin 43//530 stack. The key to maintenance is to keep ahead of the little things. When my IA tells me that a control surface hinge or bearing is nearing replacement, I have the part replaced immediately. The reason is that I feel it is better to take care of little things rather than getting overburdened with a lot of items coming due at one time which will mean a whopping maintenance bill. A little here and there is much more digestible.

    BTW the Cessna Supplemental Inspection Document is detailed but nothing more than good safety practices for our safety and well being.

  • Richard

    Your decision to scrap your P210 is timely in light of the FAAs intention to make C-210 lower spar caps inspections mandatory on 5 June 12. So far I see little data to back the decision to ram that down our throat, and they want inspection results reported back to the FAA and not Cessna for further action. This article by John Deakin addresses concerns some of us have: http://www.avweb.com/news/pelican/182086-1.html

    The only data I’ve seen is from CPA, who reported that the decision is based on reports from Australia, and we haven’t seen any smoking holes or bodies to substantiate it. There is a discussion on the spar cap AD going on at Flying: http://www.flyingmag.com/blogs/going-direct/new-cessna-ads-surrounded-suspicion

    As one who decided to put an airplane to sleep, perhaps you could detail your decision a bit for us.

    • Hi Tom: There is nothing to detail. I decided the airplane was about worn out so I retired it. I have written several times about this and frankly I am tired of people wanting me to explain something that I have already explained. On the spar cap AD, I think it is an FAA knee-jerk reaction to the Australians reaction to a perceived problem. If you eliminate the airplanes with STC aux fuel in the wingtips and the ones flown in low-altitude survey work, I don’t think there would be any left on the list. On the wingtip fuel tanks, when I was adding extra fuel to my airplane, I asked a Cessna engineer whether I should go with a fuselage tank or wingtips. He said they suspected that in time the wingtip tanks could cause wing structural problems. The 337 Skymaster had a similar “problem” some years ago and it turned out to be restricted to airplanes flown in low-altitude survey work or to ex-military O-2 aircraft.

      • I find it interesting that there’s a small express, Part 135 operator that flies 210’s regularly, and I’m sure they have a lot more than 9,000 hours on them. They are not P210’s, but my understanding is that the pressurized models have a more stout airframe, than the normal 210’s. I find Mr. Collins’ decision to scrap his airplane intriguing. I would think the airplane would have some value on the used market.

    • You got THAT right!!! There’s just NOTHING more DIVINELY EXHILERATING than hovering!!!! I sometimes hover for a good hour and a half in my Bell Long Ranger!!! Hovering is EVEN MORE EXHILERATING than flying!!! HOVER ON BABY!!!!! OH YEAH!!!

  • I know this is an old thread, but am fascinated by it anyway. The sad fact, Mr. Collins, is that American society as a whole just isn’t what it was 40, 50, or 60 years ago. We want new, we want shiny, and we don’t care if it’s junk, cause in 3 years we’ll want new again. I can still remember the 70 something LTD my father drove when I was a kid in the 80s. It was a rock, and it was, by the standars of the time, a poor quality car. Appliances, vehicles, computers, and even airplanes it seems these days are all built under the “planned obsolecense” approach, to ensuring consumers return to spend more money. As consumers we have been duped by the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” types who took advantage of social and behavioral psychology studies to get us to actually want a piece of equippment that “craps” out after a short time so we can keep getting the newer “better” version.

    I think this is an under examined cause of the rising cost of GA aircraft and the continued depletion of popular interest in GA. Everyone thinks the plane that looks like the family minivan but performs like a Ford Mustang will revitalize aviation…I think it just makes aviation that much more expensive. (Is it even possible to buy a new aircraft with perfectly capable and safe steam guages anymore?). By the way, the modern Ford Mustang…Junk!

    I have flown the SR22 and the DA40, I think they’re capable aircraft with a lot of interesting and gee whiz features and safety capabilities. However, even though I was born in 1980 I will continue to fly my 1975 Bonanza F33A because I know it has stood the test of time and will continue to do so under the watchful eye of this owner.

  • As a chew chief of B-52s and KC-135 and a owner/pilot of a 1960 V-tail Bonanza I say “fly them till they fall out of they sky” of course what i mean is, fly them till they can’t pass inspection so they don’t fall out of the sky. I am 39 and love my plane even though I recently put 1/4 of its purchase value into it for maint.

    I was flying on a KC-135-R’s over Afghanastan less than a year ago and after seriously inspecting them and flying on them, I found I trust them better than a new plane.

  • Dick: I’ve been reading your articles since you flew a 172 and I couldn’t afford one. Boy oh boy did I want one badly! First, I just want to say thanks for a lifetime of great advice. You have inspired and influenced me greatly. At 64 I still fly often, and own a steam gauge Mooney along with a G-1000 206. It takes a lot of money to maintain either one of them properly, but I do and the reward is a plane that works all the time and that is safe. If I had a tight budget, I would buy an old 172 and make it safe, sound and beautiful by taking my time and choosing the parts and shops wisely. I love having a near new 206 since it requires so very little from the shop, and yet the older Mooney looking just as new with more care is very satisfying to my flying soul. By the way, the only sad part about your 210 is that it did not end up in the Air & Space museum at Dulles. Thanks again so much for your lifetime of devotion to our love of aviation.

  • Our company operates three Cessna 206’s and a couple of Beavers on floats. Our newest aircraft is a 1980 206, with about 5,000 hours total time, bought and rebuilt last year. My boss never considered buying a new 206, for several reasons. First, Cessna wants almost half a million dollars for their new model, while good used ones can be had for 1/4 of that. Second, Cessna’s 206’s have gotten so fat that commercial operators won’t touch them with a 10-foot pole! Cessna had a new one at the Aviation Trade Show in Anchorage a few years ago, and, after reading their literature, I decided I had to look inside to see where they’d stashed the lead bars because the useful load on wheels was considerably less than our 206 on floats. Because of this, I don’t know of a single air taxi operator in Alaska that is operating a new Cessna 206. It’s sad, but we’re operating old aircraft because the new ones just won’t perform as well. You’d think manufacturers would be figure this out.

    • I agree with Dave on the fat of new planes. My late model 206 has tip tanks which give it a useful load of 1291 pounds. Otherwise it’s in the low 1100s…not much useful for a six place plane. If I were a commercial operator, I would look to the older ones also. Any of the older planes with strong construction like a 206 will go a very long time without breaking the bank. Just don’t lust after fancy improvements or the financial advantage will be lost.

  • As an A&P, IA for the past thirty years I have been told the whole time that General Aviation will be dead soon. I have made a career of this “dying” industry for thirty years.
    My take on this is that the old airplanes can be kept flying for many years to come provided they are properly maintained. That’s where things get tough. After forty or fifty years of little more than routine maintenance, Annual Inspections, etc., these old airplanes don’t just need to be maintained- they need to be restored! The problem here is that 99% of these airplanes are owned by people who can afford to maintain them. Only about 1% are owned by people who can afford to restore them. More and more of the airplanes I maintain are beginning to experience aging issues that are far beyond the scope of regular maintenance and far beyond the limits of their owner’s pocketbooks. Couple this with the fact that Cessna is no longer supporting many of their older aircraft I can comfortably say that keeping these old machines flying has become more challenging than ever before and it will only get worse. I believe the days of private aircraft ownership by middle-class people are coming to a close. General Aviation will change a lot. Probably lots of multiple partnerships, a rebirth of flying clubs, and aircraft rentals will become the order of the day in the near future.

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