From renting to owning – and reluctantly back to renting

I’ve been an airplane nut practically all my life. I grew up on a cotton farm, and one of the highlights of my youth was watching the ag planes as they sprayed our fields and those of our neighbors. One of our neighbors had a field positioned such that the plane, an early Air Tractor with a big old radial in the nose, would make his turn right over our house.

I always hoped he would get lots of bugs in his cotton. No matter what I was doing, much to the consternation of my dad and brothers, if an airplane flew overhead, work stopped until I had spotted the plane and it was out of sight. My feet may have been in the cotton patch, but my mind was in the clouds. The guy who sprayed our fields bought an old Tri-Pacer and gave us a ride once, and the dream having become reality, I knew that was something I wanted to be able to do myself.

We were poor, but I managed to come up with a little money in college to start taking flying lessons. Over a couple of years, I managed to log enough time to almost be ready for the checkride, but that final hurdle eluded me. A wife then came into the picture, and priorities were diverted for a while, but after a 10-year hiatus, I decided it was time to pursue the dream again.

Viking
The Viking is a fun airplane to fly, but there is a learning curve.

Four of us bought an old Cessna 150 for $6,000. We kept it a year, finished our licenses, and sold it for $5,800. It was then on to bigger and better things. The group bought a 1964 Bellanca Viking. Going from a 150 with a top speed of 100 mph to a Bellanca with an approach speed of 100 mph was a stretch, and probably not a wise one, but I managed to survive long enough to learn to handle the speed and power of the Viking. Partners came and went in the group, but I was always around.

During that period, I managed to use the plane quite a bit for work. I had a number of clients who lived in a small town that was a one-hour flight and a four-hour drive, and this being the good old days when gas was only $2.00 a gallon, I could make the flight for a hundred bucks. There was a courtesy car at the airport, and I made that run about once a month. It made sense, and the plane actually had a practical purpose. I could leave at 7:30 am, get my work done, and be back by early afternoon. It beat eight hours in the car.

As time went on, though, I found myself going there less. There were some other business trips, but not many. Most of the other trips I made were 100 miles, and the practical side of me got in the way. By the time you go to the airport, get the plane ready to go, make the flight, get a car, and drive to town, you could drive the whole trip in the same time, and with avgas having gone to $5.00 instead of $2.00, it was certainly cheaper to drive.

I found my use of the plane went down significantly. Sure, I could use it any time I wanted to, but it was hard to force myself to just go bore a hole in the sky for no reason. By this time I had two kids in college, so funds were not as free as they had been. I realized that I no longer had a rational reason to be in the partnership. For the time I was flying, I could have rented far cheaper. But I really liked the guys who were my partners, and there was just something about being able to go to the hangar and open the door and think, “That’s mine.” Even if I wasn’t flying it, I knew I could. I would fly enough to keep current, sort of.

A few times I went past the 90 days, but when I went out to do my landings to get legal, I always felt competent. By this time we had upgraded the Bellanca to a 1974 Super Viking which was much nicer. As nice as it was, though, when I got the $50 gas bill for just making three landings, it took a lot of the fun out of using it.

The Super Viking aged, as all things do, and it was needing some work. The ECI cylinder AD note hit us, and with 1600 hours on the engine, it didn’t make sense to not do a major, which would have been 30 grand. We needed some radio upgrades, which would have been another 20 grand. In addition, it really needed to be painted, which would have been another $20,000 or so. We would have invested $70,000 in an airplane that probably wouldn’t have been worth that much. We decided it was time to punt.

We found a gentleman willing to give us $29,000 for the Bellanca. He wasn’t planning on overhauling the engine, just replacing the cylinders. It wasn’t what I would have done, but then it wasn’t my airplane anymore. We found a nice, well-quipped Mooney 201 for right at $100,000. Using the proceeds from the Bellanca sale, we were still out $70,000, but that was no more than we would have been out had we kept the Bellanca. The Mooney was better equipped and gave the same speed on less gas.

Even though the Mooney was cheaper to operate, I still found myself reluctant to play with it. Truth be known, I really never got that comfortable with it. Just a few months after we bought it, my wife and I made a decision to move to Tennessee to be closer to our children and grandson. My partners bought me out. I had a little money, but for the first time in over 30 years, I didn’t have an airplane that I could look at and say, “That’s mine.”

Airplane for sale
It’s painful, but sometimes you have to say goodbye.

I’ve been in Tennessee for about 9 months, and haven’t touched a yoke yet. I do have a valid excuse. Things were a little hectic getting settled, and about the time we did get everything put up and organized, I had my left shoulder replaced. It’s a little hard to manipulate the controls with a bum left arm. But now that’s over, and my excuses have just about run out. My plan all along was to rent. There hadn’t been justification for owning a plane for years, if there ever was. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve identified where I’m going rent. I just haven’t taken the plunge.

The first step will be to get renters insurance. I thought that was going to run about $300, but I’m getting sticker shock in actually looking at it. Then I have to pick which plane I’m going to fly. The flight school has a Cherokee and a 172. I have a fair amount of Cherokee time, so that makes the most sense, but if I’m going to be sightseeing, which will probably be the main thrust of my flying out here, the high wing makes sense too. I have very little 172 time, so it would take longer to get comfortable. Either plane is going to be a step down after what I have most of my time in. It’s probably going to set me back $500 or so just to get the insurance and a checkout. And that’s just to get started. Of course, I was paying more than that a month in debt service and fixed costs for the Mooney.

You can say what you want to about renting versus owning. I fully understand the fact that if you’re not going to use a plane regularly, you can’t justify owning one, even in a partnership. I’ve known for years that I could have been flying more for less money if I just rented. But now that I’m faced with renting, the reality of scheduling and not having a fast, capable airplane to fly is staring me in the face.

Even though I can appreciate better than most renters what it really costs to operate an airplane, it’s still going to be hard to bring myself to pay over $2.00 a minute to rent one. Of course, on the other side of the coin, the Mooney just got out of its annual inspection, and for the first time in over 30 years, I didn’t have that sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach when I saw the envelope with the bill for that in my mail, wondering how bad it was this year. I don’t have to wonder which thousand dollar item is going to break on it this year, in addition to the annual. In fact, I just got an email from my brother, who is still in the partnership, with a picture of the broken compression ring on the number two cylinder. Owning an airplane has its rewards, but sometimes it’s anything but fun.

So I will get it done. It’s time to give up ownership. I know that, and I’m resigned to it. Once I get checked out, I’ll arrange to go out either with my son or some friends and enjoy the Smoky Mountains from above. There will be new airports to fly into to add to my logbook. I’ll make friends with a new plane. When I was flying Cherokees before, they seemed really fast. Since I’m trying to slow my life down anyway, maybe the Cherokee will be just the right speed after all.

18 Comments

  • This article hit home! I’ve owned a 73 Cherokee for 23 years. Got new paint, interior, engine back around 2000. The engine has 1900 hours, the paint and interior are worn and now I need adsb out. I used to fly 150 hours a year, now it takes effort to get 50. This planes been a member of our family for almost 1/4 century. But can I justify spending 40k+ and wind up with an airplane that’s probably not worth even that much? Wish I could go back to when my addiction to aviating was so much stronger. Decisions were easier then!

  • Pretty much everything in life takes money. Some are necessities, some are not. Family vacations, birthday gifts, weddings, hobbies etc. all cost money that doesn’t necessarily have to be spent, but memories, relationships, joy and satisfaction are usually worth the price. We all know GA never really pencils out a as cost-effective transportation option, though we try hard sometimes to justify it that way! It’s a tough call when the price tag of plane ownership starts outweigh the intrinsic benefits…

  • There is a lot to be said about the convenience of ownership. Expensive, yes, but the more prominent drawbacks of renting is finding the availability of dates to rent when dodging student pilots, maintenance issues and 100 hour inspections. When successfully confirming dates, often the weather doesn’t cooperate which adds to the frustrations of finding open dates/times to fly. Ownership allows me the complete freedom to be an active flier on any day. One other advantage to ownership is the education you receive about maintenance and other things to look for prior to flight. For me, convenience overrides the cost of ownership.

  • I enjoyed Jay’s insightful and wistful article. Tom’s, Mike’s, and Al’s postings certainly hit home with me. As a previous owner of a DA 42 (for about 10 years), I too had to make the decision of staying with single ownership of a great flying machine that gave me many wonderful memories. Alas, I sold it and resorted to renting. At close to $400 per hour (wet), long driving distance to home airport of Diamond Twins, aggravation with scheduling, and several experiences with some maintenance issues, I did not feel I could justify this.

    I am currently in pre-buy of a pristine Cessna T310R with a glass cockpit, air-conditioning, on-board radar, etc. It was quite a plunge, but with 3 other partners I can justify it. As with other things in life, the two major regrets are words we didn’t say or things we didn’t do. My aim is to have as few of these as I tote up the score in my later years.

    • Find a club, or create one. I’m in a club with 12 other people in a 172. Availability is actually pretty good. Price is right. Online scheduling let’s us book the aircraft easily. Renting sucked, I could never get the aircraft when I wanted it, and there was always some complication from weather, etc. Building an experimental is another option, I’m about 80% done with mine. Oh, and if you think owning and maintaining an aircraft is expensive, go buy a 40+ft boat. The 172, even owned outright, would be cheaper than the last two big boats I’ve owned.

  • I agree with all comments above. With rare exceptions, I don’t think that one can logically justify owning an airplane. (Note: I own a 1967 Cessna O-2A/M337B, with prior ownership of a PA-28-151 and a 1961 Barron 55.) Renting has its own problems. In addition to scheduling, there is always the concern of uncertain maintenance, and prior users leaving the plane in an unsatisfactory condition. I fly with the CAP which is about as good as you can get for flying someone else’s plane that is excellently maintained, relatively recently manufactures, and wonderfully equipped. Scheduling to use it when you would like is a major problem, and I often find myself banging up against losing SEL currency. Ownership lets you fly when you want (except for maintenance periods) configure the plane when you like, and if something was left amiss, you know exactly who to blame. But justifying the cost is not a matter of logic, but emotion. Sometimes, emotion is logic enough. Like the emotion you get when you raise the hangar door and look at YOUR personal magic carpet.

  • I too experienced the good & bad of owning a plane for about 15 years, a very nice Cessna 177. However, as time went on it became very apparent that ownership was not going to continue and I was headed to the renters market. I was fortunate to find an owner that was not interested in selling a share but wanted to put a bit more time on his plane and share some of the cost. So I pay a flat rate per hour and cover half the cost of insurance (which I was added to), Tie-down and XM fees. As I am not the owner, I do not pay for annual or other related costs to the aircraft. Hope you find a solution that works well for you.

  • What a well-timed article! I’ve entered a couple of drawings from charitable organizations to win myself an airplane, with another drawing coming soon.

    I’ve tried to convince myself that ownership will be less expensive than renting, although that conclusion requires some serious massaging of numbers. Between insurance, hangaring, fuel at upwards of $5.00/gallon and maintenance costs, there’s no way that a 66-year-old guy with 5 years of flying behind him can find enough sunny days (no instrument ticket) can make the numbers actually work.

    Like the author and with the help of this article, I’ve resigned myself to being a permanent renter and allowing the FBO to handle the hassles of upkeep and upgrades.

    Thanks for adding your realistic perspective!

  • This article hit home for me. Owning my ’65 Champion 7ECA makes zero sense financially. I fly it about 50 hours a year, mostly just around the pattern and within 200 miles of “home”… It’s going to need recovering soon, and I may be in the same position as Jay was with the Bellanca: recovering will cost more than the plane will be worth. So I have to keep it in a hangar, and anywhere close to home, that’s a huge expense. I’m currently sharing my hangar with two other guys, but hangar expense exceeds the cost of insuring the plane. I will keep it as long as I can, because the annuals are inexpensive, and fuel and oil costs are pretty reasonable (at 4.5 gph, and basically zero oil consumption with the O-200).

    Someday, I’m sure my wife will ask me what it’s actually costing me on a per hour basis to keep the plane, and I’ll have to actually sit down and do the math… When that day comes, I’m sure I won’t be able to convince her that it makes any financial sense to keep the plane. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying flying low and slow, and learning a little more about tailwheel flying with every landing.

    Hmmm. I’ve got an A&P/IA friend who offered to “observe” if I recover it myself. He’ll also assist ($$) as necessary, then sign it off when I’m done. I’ve retired, so maybe that’s the best way for me to be able to continue flying. Where’s that aviation supply catalogue…?

  • I rented after I got my ticket and I hated it. Availability was awful, and it wasn’t cheap. So I joined a club. Much better availability and so long as I fly at least twice a month, it breaks even with renting, based on my average flying times. Still, I purchased an 80% completed experimental kit that I’m now picking away at. Why? Can’t really say other than I want my own plane, and the satisfaction of doing at least some of it myself. Life is about choices. I’ve never heard tell of anyone on their deathbed saying “I should have spent more time at work”. So do what you love, as long as it’s not putting you in the poorhouse, you’ll have lots on interesting stories to tell when you can’t “do” anymore.

  • Having bought my first plane, a ’73 Bellanca Super Viking (in beautiful shape and well accorded), I’m beginning the journey through ownership myself. I’ve tried the rental thing, but as a pilot by profession the “miracle of manned flight” is a bit old news for me. I want to go to where I’m going and get there quick! Rentals are just not good for that.

    I know nobody buys a personal plane to save money, that’s for sure! It’s a matter of realizing the freedom of travel by flight, and cringing and bearing the cost of the convenience/pride that comes with it.

    I’m sorry to hear you’ve left the Bellanca community, but I’m sure it still has a place in your heart. Good read! Fly safe!

  • In my experience, anyone who is serious about flying at least 5 hours per month needs to own their own plane instead of renting. If you can afford to rent consistently for 5 hours per month, you are so close to spending the money of owning that it is time to sharpen your pencil and find a way. I have owned two airplanes and owned shares in three airplanes. I have also flown professionally and flown for CAP. Professional flying and owning are the only two situations over the past 36 years of flying that kept me in the air regularly. Every time I relied on renting, the cost at the register combined with other rental issues dried up the enthusiasm. Owning keeps me active in aviation in a way that renting never could. Flying for pleasure and owning for pleasure are connected in my psyche.

  • As I get close to retirement, I too have to start looking at cost/benefits of my hobbies, toys and projects. But, as mentioned above, walking into your hanger and seeing that device as your own is rewarding. Mine’s a ’72 Cherokee 140, so although it isn’t fast, it gets me and the Missus around pretty well. Some of the things that reduce costs is, an Auto Fuel STC which saves me $2-$3 a gallon, my hanger is a three sided which saves lots of monthly costs. Now I live in Oklahoma, so the winters aren’t as harsh as other places. I just wanted a place to keep most of the sun and hail off of the hull. I also was a mechanic and an electronics technician for many years, so with the help of very cooperative A&P’s and IA’s, I do a lot of the maintenance and repairs myself. I was very fortunate to find a low time air frame, 2500 TT, and 490 hours on a fresh motor, so major costs have been next to nothing. Just normal maintenance, uneventful annuals, and an occasional upgrade here and there. My monthly costs calculate out to less than a a normal car payment of the 90’s, so I think owning will have a tolerable cost factor. I have a hard time “sharing”, so I do like the freedom to look at the calm weather, nice day, and say, let’s go fly! Part of this freedom is also getting to introduce new people to the sport. Took my 8yo grandson up for the first time last week, and the grin went from ear to ear! That experience can never be cost calculated. I think I will keep my “mistress” as my wife calls it.

  • Don’t forget that there is a middle option between renting and owning – joining a flying club. I have been in a flying club since I got my ticket in 2012. It is an equity-club so I do own a part of our airplanes. Currently we have 70 members and 5 airplanes: a 2002 172S, a 1984 172RG, a 2000 182S, a 2004 182T, and a 2001 SR22. Hourly rates wet span from $104 for the 172S to $187 for the Cirrus. We build in reserve costs to our rates so there is no special assessment when we need an engine or prop overhaul or when we upgraded our avionics to GTN-650s and installed ADS-B. While it’s not always possible to get an airplane every time I want one (because someone has it scheduled), I have 5 airplanes to choose from, so normally it’s not that big of an issue. This is definitely the way to go for me!

  • Timely article. I recently sold my 1/3 share in a C182 and went back to renting. I miss the spontaneity of being able to pop down to the airport when a patch of blue sky opens up and go buzz around for a bit. Also planning a long trip now takes way more coordination it mostly doesn’t work. I need to get back into my own plane soon!

  • I combatted the cost issue by buying old but sound airplanes and doing legal maintenance by myself or with a partner. Renting was a drag– always something inop, doggy paint and interiors making passengers give the side-eye, and never knowing what damage the last renter did. Even on unflyable days, it was pleasant to spend time in the hangar with MY airplane, cleaning up, adjusting things, just enjoying being part of aviation– what my wife called “petting your airplane.”

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