The ding of the email hitting my inbox brought with it an exciting headline. “Hey, you wanna buy a plane?” It was from a friend of mine who is looking to become a Private Pilot. He heard about a couple of people in the area looking to buy an airplane together. I explored aircraft ownership a few years ago, but decided the time wasn’t right. But maybe this was my chance. I set out to do my homework and figure out if it was feasible. It’s certainly not for everyone, although I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you don’t have to be rich and famous to own an airplane. So is it better to rent or is owning realistic? Let’s dig in and find out.

 

The Big Picture
When you search around and look at what it takes to become a Private Pilot, you might find a general estimation of the cost per hour and the number of hours it typically takes to compete. Along with this estimation is an idea of the equipment, costs and commitment needed. In the same spirit, this exercise is intended to explore the big picture of aircraft ownership, at least as far as I can research it as a pilot looking to make the leap into a purchase. There are a bunch of airplanes to choose from, and each kind serves a specific purpose. The number of seats, cruise speed and useful load are all important to consider along with the cost. By looking at places like AeroTrader or Controller, you can start pricing some out. For this exercise, we’re looking to buy a basic, reliable training airplane like a Cessna 172.

Cessna 172 On Ramp

This Cessna 172 is a common purchase for both training and utility.

 

Fixed Costs
The biggest requirement for becoming an aircraft owner is the airplane. It’s the first fixed cost to consider, and it will likely be in the form of a financed monthly payment. I found a listing for a 1979 Cessna 172N for $60K. Using the AOPA loan calculator, I might expect to pay around $400 per month on a 15 year 5% loan with $10K down. Look at it like a new car payment. After the plane, getting insurance from a place like AOPA might cost around $100 per month. And since we can’t fly it 24/7, we have to consider either renting hangar space or tie-downs. Hangaring an aircraft is much better for it than keeping it out in the elements (much like a car in a garage), but the additional cost reflects the additional protection. In my area, I was able to find hangar space for around $200 per month.

Single Engine Airplane On Ramp

Using airplane tie-downs is a cheaper option than a hangar, but it leaves the airplane constantly vulnerable to the elements.

 

Real Time Hourly Costs
Now that we have our plane, let’s go flying! But bring some cash, because it stays pretty thirsty for fuel and oil. On a conservative estimation of 10 gallons per hour, we can expect to pay around $50 per hour for fuel. Oil is about $6 per quart, and every three flight hours or so will require a quart of oil, so that adds a couple bucks per hour for the oil.

Shell Aviation Fuel Athens Airport

The cost of fuel per hour can vary from airport to airport, but build a conservative estimation into the operating cost, and consider that many rental aircraft include fuel in the rental price.

 

Maintenance Costs
Have you ever had a car that you never had to put much maintenance into? Aside from changing the oil and keeping tires on it, some cars only need attention when something breaks. That’s not a great approach to an airplane, though. There are three basic required maintenance actions for this airplane. First is the annual inspection. The airplane is required to go in the shop each year for this routine inspection that covers a number of preventative repairs. I’d plan on $1000-$2000 to cover it, depending on what exactly needs addressing. Next is the engine overhaul. One of the reasons that airplanes run so well is because of how the engines are cared for. Every 2000 flight hours or so, depending on the particular engine, an overhaul will be required costing in the ballpark of $17K. True, that’s pricey, but keep in mind that the average pilot files somewhere around 100 hours per year, meaning that the overhaul might not happen for up to 20 years. Knowing that the cost will happen every 2000 hours will allow you to put aside $8-$10 per hour as you fly to prepare for the engine overhaul. A propeller overhaul needs to be accounted for as well, which could be either every 6 years or every 2000 hours. This will cost several thousand dollars, depending on the prop, so a few extra dollars per hour alongside that engine overhaul fund is wise. Finally, setting money aside into a general maintenance fund is a good idea. Like with owning a home, there will be unexpected costs that pop up, and having the money ready for that is a necessary step.

Checking Oil Cessna 172

Some of the basic maintenance like changing the oil are possible to do as an owner and pilot, but the overhauls and big stuff need to be handled by an aviation mechanic.

 

Comparing The Cost To Renting
As you can see, getting a solid cost per hour for owning an airplane is a little complicated. Some costs are truly per hour (like the gas/oil), while some costs are monthly or every so many flight hours. This breaks down to “the more you fly it, the lower the cost per hour.” From a cost perspective, you can determine a break even point for renting vs. owning. This is an estimated number of hours you must fly per year to make the cost of owning the airplane cheaper than renting. For instance, if you crunch the total cost for 50 flight hours in a year, it might be a lot cheaper to just rent a plane. If you fly 200 hours a year, it might be a lot cheaper to own. When I run the numbers, the break even point for me comes in somewhere around 100 hours per year.

Flyin Twin Engine Airplane

Weigh the costs of renting versus owning, including the opportunity to fly various aircraft that renting brings.

 

The Utility of Ownership
Cost is only one factor to look at for aircraft ownership. By owning your airplane outright, you have complete responsibility for the cost, but you also have complete control of its agenda. When you rent an airplane, you have to book it around other renters who fly it as well. Depending on the establishment, struggles with securing the airplane when you want it may limit your practical use. As a renter, you only pay for the Hobbs time, which is measured when the airplane’s master switch is running. However, most rentals require that a certain number of hours are flown on the airplane for every day you have it. Three hours per day is a common figure. For example, having the airplane away for two days would require that you fly 6 hours on it. Various companies may be flexible with those minimum hours or even not count the day you leave and/or the day you return. You might even find a sleepy airport without a minimum who sends you off with a sack lunch and tells you to “bring her back in one piece – have fun storming the castle!” But if you fly an hour to the beach and stay for a week, the flight school probably won’t appreciate having their airplane unavailable all week in exchange for only a couple of hours flown on it. Hence the minimum. Owning your airplane gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want, for how long you want.

Clemson Stadium From Cessna 172

I flew my wife up to her alma mater of Clemson to grab lunch on her birthday.  Consider the type of trips you’ll be taking as it compares to the utility of renting versus owning.

 

Sharing The Cost
For some pilots, being the sole owner of an airplane is feasible and perhaps necessary for business or personal needs. But a popular path to aircraft ownership is a partnership of two or more individuals who share the cost of the plane. There are a bunch of different ways to set that up, but by having several owners of an airplane, the costs are lower because they are shared. I’d caution you to go into this sort of scenario with the right person(s) as well as making the process clean by drafting up the necessary documents to ensure everyone’s interests are protected. While adding more people to a partnership lowers the cost, every person added also potentially limits the utility and freedom that was originally sought by becoming an aircraft owner. For instance, if all the owners like to fly on the weekends, will you be fighting with each other over who gets to fly it each weekend? You would want to do some homework to design the scenario that is best for you. A scenario I’ve seen is one where each pilot pays monthly into an account for the note on the plane, perhaps to a designated treasurer. The pilot flying then covers the fuel and oil when they fly, but then a specific amount per hour flown is paid into the account to build up an allowance for maintenance costs.

Stack Of Cash Dollars

Ownership may save you money, but the decision to own is likely more than just a discussion of cost.  Freedom, utility and responsibility should all be considered carefully.

 

Conclusion
This is just a starting point. If you’ve gotten this far and feel that buying an airplane might be right for you, keep in mind that even different models of the same aircraft can vary greatly in their cost. If you are ready to play around with some costs, consider using a calculator like the one I created below when crunching my own numbers – the Clayviation Aircraft Ownership Operating Cost Worksheet.

Talk to an aircraft owner and get their perspective about what matters most when looking at a plane. For example, you might find that you’re willing to pay a little more for an airplane that’s had a recent overhaul and has the avionics you need rather than finding a better deal and having to immediately put a bunch of cash into it. As far as my situation goes, I’ll plan on staying a renter – for now. But when I do make the leap into aircraft ownership, you’ll be the first to hear all about it.

Do any of you aircraft owners have any bits of wisdom for us? Share it in the comments below!

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8 Comments

  1. John

    I bought my own plane after 15 hours of training. I never regretted it. My money was paying for my own plane instead of a rental. I could leave my basic flight gear in the plane. The convenience of owning is worth it, if you intend to do more than just local flying. I flew my Skyhawk to 14 states. Your $60K figure for the purchase is on the high side. You can buy a mid time Skyhawk with basic avionics for half that. Learn how to do as much of the maintenance as you can legally yourself. A well cared for Skyhawk is very reliable and won’t need too many big ticket repairs. The insurance is expensive as a student. It goes down dramatically after you finish training and build time, assuming it is accident free time! Buy a mid time plane, maintain it well, and you will get a lot of your money back when / if you decide to sell. I flew mine for over a thousand hours and sold it for almost as much as I paid for it. As you mentioned, overhauls are very expensive. Learn the different engines. Many will go well beyond TBO if they are maintained. Many won’t make it to TBO. Research the engines before purchase. You can fly beyond TBO as long as it passes the annual inspection and you are not flying for hire. Many new cars cost more than small planes. I don’t understand why more people don’t fly.

    Reply
    • Clay

      You’re right, John – I don’t understand why more people aren’t flying either. Thanks for sharing your experience with us! True, planes can be found for lower than 60k. I’ve known people to get a little Cessna 150 to train in for around 20k!

      Reply
  2. Shary

    $60k for a ’79 172N. OK.
    Where are you coming up with the $10k to put down?
    You assume that your spouse is going to let you dip into emergency funds for a toy? You aren’t going to trade in your car to get the down payment.
    Also, expect any newly purchased plane to require at least an additional $10k for meeting airworthiness (unless you are already paying 6 figures for that same ’79.)
    Also, this is 2017 — the new owner has 2-1/2 years to get ADS-B Out installed (why do you think the seller was getting rid of her?)
    You have to be serious to expect ONLY $200 per for hangar space. $500 per is closer to the national average — and with a wait to boot.
    And a LOT of potential buyers aren’t interested in mere boring holes around the pattern, so appropriate XCTY avionics and Wing Loading will be a must (forget Citabrias and their ilk) — going cheaper won’t cut it

    Reply
    • Clay

      Thanks for the insight and perspective, Shary. The intent is not to give precise figures on the numbers. Some might use the AOPA calculator with a down payment, and others might not. Every situation is different. There are folks commenting on this article in various forums who express that for them, such an endeavor is actually cheaper than I suggest. The idea here is to help people who might be looking into aircraft ownership with the kinds of costs that go into it. From there, pilots can do a little research on their area and plug in their numbers. I have provided a worksheet to download and input those numbers for anyone who might like to use that tool. And you are correct, meeting the ADS-B requirements is a decision that must be considered with any purchase. And yes, I’m keeping my emergency savings intact for now 🙂

      Reply
    • John

      It is funny that you mention a ’79 172N. That is exactly what I bought after 15 hours of training. It was nowhere near $60K. As I mentioned above, stick to renting if you are going to just do local flying. However, if you do much flying at all and use it for travel, then owning your own becomes worthwhile. It was more than a toy. It was convenient transportation. Even thought the Skyhawk was slow compared to other planes, it beats driving any day!

      Reply
      • Clay

        John, I’m glad to hear they are cheaper than what I came across! Now I just need to find the reasons to need it to travel to justify it as a necessity, right?

        Reply
  3. R Burkhart

    I bought my plane outright, did not have to expend any extra money to meet airworthiness standards and pay $60 per month for my hangar (and that includes the electricity), I do pay the taxes on the hangar annually. So you can own and operate your own airplane. The benefit of having the keys in YOUR flight bag and ability to go where and when YOU want is tremendous. I participate in an owner assisted annual and do as much maintenance myself as possible

    Reply
    • Clay

      That sounds like a great setup – thanks for sharing! What kind of background does one need to participate in an owner assisted annual?

      Reply

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