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Saving Money

Buying and Operating a Used Aircraft

Let’s face it—flying isn’t cheap. Not only do you have to buy the airplane you want, but you need to tie it down someplace, put fuel and oil in it, insure it, and maintain it. There are methods available to defray some of the costs of ownership, though; let’s explore some of the ways that you can have the airplane of your dreams and still afford to go fly it!

A lower purchase price doesn’t always equal savings

When you are considering buying a used aircraft, the first cost that comes to mind is the biggest number of them all: the purchase price. When you are searching through the used airplane listings, the polar opposites will stand out; aircraft of the same type that look alike in the photographs can vary wildly in price. What accounts for the price differential? Can you ever go wrong by buying the cheaper airplane?

Well, buying the lowest priced used aircraft can end up costing you more—much more—down the road. Aircraft with “too good to be true” prices tend to be just that. When you are shopping for a used airplane, you’d be wise to look at the actual purchase price as simply an indicator of initial cost. The smart way to shop is to carefully examine the airplane’s condition, then price out the total cost of ownership for the length of time that you plan on owning the aircraft.

Say you are in the market for a Cessna 182, and you’ve found two nice looking examples. One aircraft is listed at $115,900. The other is listed at $89,000. That’s a no brainer, right?

Well, not so fast. There is probably a reason that the other aircraft is cheaper. It turns out that it is less than 500 hours away from the engine’s TBO, it’s been kept outdoors, is five years older, and has a little bit of light hanger rash that will have to be dealt with. That engine overhaul could cost you $20,000 or more, and who knows what the dents in the airframe will cost to fix. The point is this: Decide on a budget, bring your list of needs and desires in line with that budget, then go out and pay for the best used airplane you can find that meets those needs. The money you “save” buying a less optimal aircraft may end up costing you many times the savings in maintenance costs down the road.

The place to save money is in making sure that you’ve bought a well maintained used aircraft that is suitable to your needs, not in the bottom line purchase price.

Consider the type of airplane, too

Insuring your used aircraft is a fact of life—you can’t avoid it. Some aircraft cost considerably more to insure than others, so make sure you have an understanding of what the rates will be for your airplane before you sign on the dotted line. A non-complex light single engine aircraft will be the cheapest to insure, sometimes less than $500 per year. The cost goes up exponentially as you add things like retractable landing gear, floats, big engines, or controllable pitch propellers. You may love the idea of cruising around the patch in a classic taildragger, but understand that your insurance premiums will reflect the higher statistical risk associated with non-tricycle gear airplanes. So, if flying on the cheap is your goal, going with the least complex aircraft that is suitable to your average mission will keep a little more money in your bank account.

Shopping around for insurance rates helps too. For light airplanes, you’ll want to find a broker that will solicit quotes from a few different companies—often the proposed premium rates can cover a wide range. If you are looking at turbine powered used aircraft, you’ll really want to engage the services of an insurance broker; they can make sure that your coverage and your rates fit the needs of your individual operation. The only thing more expensive than an exorbitantly priced policy is a policy that doesn’t cover what you need it to if you have to use it.

Saving on Fuel

Once you start operating your used airplane you’ll have to put fuel in it. If you fly a lot, that can add up to some pretty eye popping fuel bills. There are some things you can do to cut down on the cost of the gas and the amount you use that can make a real difference.

How you care for and operate the airplane can add up to savings when it comes to what you spend on fuel. Keeping the airplane clean reduces drag and can reduce fuel burn. If you fly a piston engine driven aircraft, using good leaning techniques can save you a ton of fuel. Here is where investing in some digital engine monitoring equipment can really pay off. Flying cross country at optimal altitudes for fuel burn helps, too. Whether you are flying piston or turbine powered equipment, playing with some different cruise altitude and fuel burn scenarios can end up saving you at the pump.

Some airplanes just burn less fuel than others. If you want to go fast and you purchase a Cirrus SR20 or Mooney Acclaim, you have to plan that you’re going to burn some serious gas. Light sport aircraft equipped with diesel Rotax engines sip fuel, often achieving fuel burn rates of just three or four gallons per hour. Deciding what you want to spend of fuel is just as important to your budget as the initial purchase price of your used airplane.

What you put in the fuel tanks can have an impact, too. If you operate an airplane that runs on 100LL, you may want to consider getting an automotive gasoline STC for your aircraft. Sure, hauling the gas cans around is a pain, but maybe it is worth the savings of a dollar per gallon or more.

Finally, there is where you choose to buy your fuel. Shopping around the area for better fuel prices can pay dividends; fuel prices are often highly variable within a given geographic area. Be wary of always flying elsewhere for fuel—the additional time in the air is costing you hours on the tachometer and wear and tear on your airplane. Just make sure what you are doing is really worth it.

Saving on maintenance

If you aren’t flying for compensation or for hire, FAR 43.3 allows you as the owner to complete your own preventative maintenance. So long as you complete an appropriate maintenance logbook entry, you can do things like replace tires, pack wheel bearings, change oil, fill hydraulic fluid, fix busted cotter pins, and replace light bulbs and spark plugs. This can save you money when it comes to your maintenance bill—just make sure that you are comfortable with your mechanical acumen before you take on this work.

When it comes time to complete the aircraft’s annual inspection, some owners opt for what is known as an “owner assisted annual inspection.” You’ll still need a mechanic with an inspector authorization to check your work, but doing the grunt work on your own can save you anywhere from 20% to 50% on the final bill.

Saving on parking

Where and how you store your used airplane can add up to a major expenditure. A hanger can cost you thousands of dollars per year, while a city tie down at your local airport might only cost you $100 per month.

If your goal is to keep your airplane in a hanger, make sure you shop around at your local airports for the best rates. Also, consider sharing a hanger with another pilot’s aircraft. Sharing hanger space is a good way to cut down on the monthly bill. Your airplane will get more wear and tear if it is kept outside, but if you invest in a quality aircraft cover you can protect the interior and avionics against the effects of prolonged sun exposure.

Sharing your aircraft can save you cash

You can use your airplane to generate some revenue for you or you can share the cost with others through a partnership. If you own a light airplane, leasing your used aircraft back to a flying club or flight school can defray some of the significant costs of ownership, all while allowing you to fly your airplane when you want. Buying your aircraft in partnership with one or more other pilots can accomplish the same thing; you’ll have the same upkeep costs, but they will be spread out among the members of the partnership.

Turbine powered airplane owners can derive many of the same benefits. Having the aircraft managed by air charter provider allows them to use the aircraft for revenue generating activities when you aren’t using the airplane. You’ll get a cut of the profits, which can help offset the cost of ownership—you might even find your balance sheet shifted toward the positive side of the number line. Leasing your aircraft to fractional ownership providers can have similar positive effects.

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