It seems to me that one should get a pilot’s license before buying an aircraft, but not everyone does it that way. So be it. My story is that I had been flying on and off for many years before taking the plunge. One day it occurred to me that I was not getting any younger, and if I was going to be an airplane owner I had better get on with it.
There are several ways to look at such a proposition. Yes, airplanes are expensive. Flying has always been expensive, and will remain so. That is a fact of life we cannot change. There certainly are ways to make it more expensive or less. The assumption is that you have to be rich to own an airplane. “Rich” is relative. Owning a recreational vehicle, boat, or vacation home can be just as much or more of a financial commitment. Does that make one “rich?” I suppose it depends on who you ask. All of these things are luxuries, but taken together they are not all that uncommon.
So let’s say you have worked through those issues and your life situation allows you to seriously consider purchasing all (or part of) an aircraft. Begin by asking yourself what sort of flying you intend to do: solo or with passengers? If with passengers, how many and with how much baggage? Will you most often be staying in the local area or going cross-country? Do you want to do aerobatics? Do you need IFR capability? How many hours per year do you expect to log? What is your operating budget?
Answering these questions honestly is the key to figuring out the range of possibilities for specific makes and models. Speed is certainly a factor when wanting to go cross-country, as is IFR capability. When I was shopping I was given some very sage advice: “Anything that adds speed to an airplane also adds cost, so don’t buy any more speed than you really need.”
If you expect to fly less than 100 hours per year then renting or fractional ownership may make more sense, but these are not without problems. Rental selection is limited in smaller metropolitan areas. Frequently used rental aircraft often become unavailable due to the required 100-hour inspections. Then there is the minimum-hours-per-day thing plus whatever other operating rules are imposed. Fractional ownership is great if you have exactly the right partner(s), but I have heard horror stories.
I will be limiting my discussion to the purchase of used aircraft, since that is the only realistic option for most of us. Airplane prices seem to make no sense whatsoever at first glance. Upon closer examination, it eventually becomes apparent that market prices are driven by several factors such as
- Make, model, and year of manufacture
- Engine and/or airframe modifications
- Time on the airframe
- Time on the engine since new, rebuilt, or overhauled
- Type of avionics installed
- Interior and exterior appearance
- Damage history
Your acquisition budget and personal preferences will determine the tradeoffs between these factors. A fixed amount of money will buy either an older but more capable aircraft, or a newer but less capable one. An airplane that is both newer and more capable will be significantly more expensive.
The operating budget must cover both the fixed and variable costs of ownership. The fixed costs are those which do not depend on the number of hours flown per year. These include things like hangar rent, insurance, and base rate of the annual inspection. Variable costs are tied directly to operation of the aircraft, such as fuel, oil, and reserve for engine overhaul/replacement.
There will be a certain amount of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance as well. If you are going to fly 100 or more hours per year you can get a rough idea of the total hourly cost by looking at rental rates for the type. Obviously you can save money if you do the maintenance work yourself, but there are regulations governing what an owner can and cannot do without an A&P license.
Choose carefully when it comes to engine or airframe modifications. In aviation the well-travelled road is the safest one. I personally would not consider any aircraft with a “one-off” type of modification. This can inadvertently be created when two separate mods are combined for the first time. On the other hand, there are many after-market mods with an established track record. Take the time to learn which is which for a particular make and model.
A factory-rebuilt engine is considered superior to an overhaul, but it does not seem to make much of a difference in market value. It is common to see “SFRM” in a listing, which stands for “Since Factory Re-Manufacture/” Engine parts can only be manufactured once of course, but the engine can be rebuilt. It is worth noting that the chance of engine failure is greatest in the first few hundred hours after entry into service. One might be better off buying an engine that has been running for a while.
The beauty of avionics is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. Most used personal airplanes offered for sale are equipped anywhere between first-generation solid state and Garmin G1000. An airframe more than twenty years old should have had at least a partial avionics upgrade somewhere along the way. Garmin GNS 430/530’s are by far the most common. Again, it depends on what sort of flying you intend to do. One does not need an all-glass cockpit with a fully-integrated autopilot to go around the pattern on sunny days. Nonetheless I would recommend avoiding the panels that are filled only with boat-anchor gear.
An aircraft with a damage history is not necessarily a nonstarter, but questions must be asked and answered satisfactorily. What type of damage occurred? When did happen? Are the repairs fully documented in the logbooks? How many hours have been flown since the repairs were completed? Some prospective buyers will automatically reject an airplane with a damage history, so that is a resale issue to be considered. If a listing claims there is no damage history (NDH) it should be verified.
The market value of a given aircraft is a combination of many factors which must be weighed both relative to one another and against other aircraft. There is no magic formula for this. Conventional wisdom says to buy the airplane with the features you want already installed rather than pay to install them yourself. The closer you can get to this ideal the better. Once you know what you want, start camping out on the aircraft-for-sale sites. Many aircraft are also sold by word-of-mouth, so it can’t hurt to ask around. Be ready to move as quickly as possible if a strong candidate shows up.
There are two major prerequisites for closing an aircraft deal: a title search and a pre-buy inspection. The title search is to make sure the owner is really the owner. There are various firms around the country who will do this for a nominal fee. It is cheap insurance. A somewhat more expensive form of insurance is the pre-buy inspection, but this too is money well-spent. There can be tens of thousands of dollars in needed repairs lurking beneath the surface. Any experienced airframe and powerplant mechanic is likely to have a story or two about someone not doing a pre-buy inspection and ending up with the proverbial lemon. Find one who is knowledgeable about the make and model of interest, but has no association with the seller. The mechanic will expect to be paid whether the deal goes through or not.
An important part of the inspection is going through the logs. I was a bit overwhelmed during my purchase process when presented with a box fill of various papers and books. The prevailing philosophy seems to be the more paper the better. Having lots of manuals and invoices may be nice, but the log books need to be in there somewhere. Are they complete? Do they tell a consistent story? Have all of the applicable Airworthiness Directives been addressed? These are some of the questions you are paying your mechanic to answer.
There are a few other things that can tip you off to steer clear even before shelling out for a pre-buy. How much has the airplane flown in the last few years? The biggest threats to mechanical condition are abuse and lack of use. Every pilot is taught to avoid abuse, but lack of use can be just as bad. Oil drains off of cylinder walls, seals dry out, batteries and tires go flat. I can actually tell when my plane has been sitting too long. Things just don’t work quite as well at first. A good rule of thumb is at least one hour in the air every thirty days. Is the annual inspection current? An expired annual means the airplane is legally grounded until the inspection is performed or a ferry permit is issued to get it to a maintenance base. Where has it lived for most of its life? Beware of saltwater environments. They eat aluminum.
Airplanes are no different from most other purchases in that you usually get what you pay for. Markets change, and some folks are better negotiators than others, but a sale happens only when the buyer and seller get together on price, so be realistic. Once an agreement on price has been reached the sales contract can be drawn up. I imagine these get more elaborate as the amount of money involved increases. It should for sure include a provision for successful completion of a pre-buy inspection. There may have to be further negotiation if the pre-buy discovery produces a list of previously unknown repairs needed.
Beware the tax man when buying an airplane. Every state is different when it comes to sales, registration, and property taxes. You may find it is advantageous to take possession somewhere other than where the aircraft is currently based. Make sure you understand the tax implications of ownership in your home state.
A relationship begins once you find the bird of your dreams, but you first have to get it home. It is a good idea to have someone with you who is already comfortable in the make and model. If you are taking out hull and liability insurance the underwriter will dictate what constitutes “comfortable.” After that, the relationship involves the care and feeding of both airplane and pilot. As the owner, you will be responsible for both. A big part of that equation is flying enough to stay reasonably proficient. After all, that’s a part of why you became an owner, right?
I tell people that I have learned more about flying in the time I have owned an aircraft than all the years before. Do your homework, and the day you become an aircraft owner will likely be one of the happiest of your life without another being the day you sell it!