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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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