Mark E. Gunnisonwww.MGCPA.com  
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What it Costs to Fly
Flying is not just for the wealthy

If you are like most non-pilots I meet, you probably think owning an airplane is too expensive for the average person. I have friends who own RVs (recreational vehicles not Van's aircraft) and spend more on their RV than I do on my plane. Yet somehow owning an RV is something any middle-income citizen might do while only the wealthy own planes - according to the general public. I've compiled this page to show that the average middle-income person who has a passion for flight can fly for about the same cost of owning a decent auto. Flying is not cheep but it is also not so expensive that only the wealthy can afford it.

First let's look at what it costs to purchase a good starter aircraft.

Type of Aircraft:

Just as your first auto was probably not a new Cadillac or Lexus, your first plane will probably not be a Mooney or Cirrus. You will most likely be looking at a Chevy or Ford or in plane terms a Cessna or Piper. Most small trainer aircraft have from two to four seats and fly around 100 to 135mph. Although a plane may have four seats, don't expect to take three of your 200 pound friends along with full tanks of fuel. Also keep in mind a Cessna 140 will burn about 60% of the fuel a 172 will. You may only have two seats with a 140 but you can also fly longer for the same cost. Besides, you can always rent a larger airplane with the money you save.

I will not go into detail here but another consideration is weather to purchase a conventional (tailwheel) or tricycle gear aircraft. I learned in a taildragger and can't tell you how many pilots tell me they wish they had learned in a taildragger.

Used Aircraft:

According to the AOPA the average age of single-engine general aviation aircraft in the U.S. is over 30 years old and is expected to continue increasing. One of the reasons aircraft age more gracefully than autos is the required maintenance. Aircraft are required to undergo an annual inspection by a licensed mechanic. This inspection includes everything from checking the engine's compression to verifying that the required labels are on the seatbelts. In addition to the annual inspection, engines have a TBO (to be overhauled) time. Once an engine reaches TBO, around 1,800 hours, it is recommended the engine be removed and rebuilt. Due to required maintenance, an aircraft that is forty years old should be in the same mechanical condition as an aircraft that is five years old. The most noticeable difference between an aircraft that is five years old and one that is forty years old is the electronic navigation and overall look/style of the aircraft.

The largest single maintenance expense of aircraft ownership is the engine overhaul. It is recommended that most piston aircraft engines be rebuilt every 1,800 to 2,000 or so hours. This TBO time is set by the engine manufacture. Overhaul costs can easily run around $18,000 so an aircraft with a run-out engine will cost quite a bit less than one with a newly rebuilt engine. The good news is most pilots who fly for recreation fly fewer than 100 hours per year. As I recall, 35 to 50 hours per year is more typical. Therefore, an average pilot can expect to fly for well over 20 years on a rebuilt engine. As you can imagine, the time SMOH (since major overhaul) drastically affects the value of aircraft.

Next to SMOH, avionics is generally the second biggest factor that affects an aircraft's value. Most of the advances in aircraft design over the past thirty years have been in aircraft avionics. When my 1950 Cessna was new, radios were considered optional equipment. I could easily spend $10,000 to $20,000 updating the avionics in my 1950 Cessna if cost was no object and I was not interested in keeping it at least fairly original - I have a $600 radio. Therefore, an aircraft with a fancy GPS navigation system will cost more than one with just a radio.

Keeping this in mind, the following aircraft values are based on aircraft with basic avionics (radios and maybe VORs) and engines at the mid point in their TBO (900 to 1,000 hours). I selected aircraft that I thought someone on a budget might enjoy that were average in age for each of the models selected. I obtained all of the following information in September of 2007 from the AOPA's Vref web page.

1970 Cessna 150K
Cost $15,300
Cruise 125mph
Seats 2
Engine 100hp
Engine overhaul cost$16,000
Engine overhaul time    1,800 hours
View photos on Airliners.net
Cessna 150-152 Club
      
1948 Cessna 120/140
Cost $18,000
Cruise 104mph
Seats 2
Engine 85hp
Engine overhaul cost$14,000
Engine overhaul time    1,800 hours
View photos on Airliners.net
Int'l Cessna 120-140 Association

1962 Cessna 172C
Cost $23,000
Cruise 129mph
Seats 4
Engine 145hp
Engine overhaul cost$20,000
Engine overhaul time    1,800 hours
View photos on Airliners.net
Cessna Pilots Association
      
1970 Piper 140C
Cost $23,500
Cruise 135mph
Seats 4
Engine 150hp
Engine overhaul cost$17,000
Engine overhaul time    2,000 hours
View photos on Airliners.net
Cherokee Pilots' Association

1952 Cessna 170B
Cost $29,000
Cruise 120mph
Seats 4
Engine 145hp
Engine overhaul cost$19,000
Engine overhaul time    1,800 hours
View photos on Airliners.net
Int'l Cessna 170 Association
      
1972 Cessna 172L
Cost $34,000
Cruise 131mph
Seats 4
Engine 150hp
Engine overhaul cost$17,000
Engine overhaul time    2,000 hours
View photos on Airliners.net
Cessna Pilots Association

Now let's look at what it costs to operate your new aircraft.

As can be seen from above, purchasing an airplane can be less than the cost of purchasing a used auto or boat. Unfortunately, you can't park your airplane in your back yard and perform all of the required maintenance - unless you live on an airstrip and are an A&P. Aircraft must be stored at the airport and require maintenance.

Parking:

At the airport where I park my plane it costs $35 per month to park outside or $235 to rent a hangar. The hangar is large enough that in addition to the airplane, I store a car, motorcycle, furniture and boxes of stuff that used to be in our garage. Basically the hangar is almost free if you view it as a large storage unit and workshop.

Annual/Repairs:

The annual inspection should run around $1,000 per year although if something needs to be fixed it will be more. One disadvantage of aircraft ownership is you will want to fix your airplane when the mechanic informs you he needs $5,000 to repair it. On the other hand, you would probably just sell you car if it needed similar repairs. For some reason the general public is willing to purchase an auto for $28,000 and then sell it seven years later for $8,000 and think nothing of it. By comparison, aircraft maintenance is not that expensive.

Insurance:

I am a low time pilot flying a tail-wheel aircraft that I have insured for $30,000 and my insurance runs just over $1,000 per year.

Fuel:

Aviation fuel does cost more than auto gas. However, planes travel faster than autos - which reduces the cost of a trip. Even when factoring in the additional cost of fuel, my 170 costs slightly less to fly on a 250 mile trip than it costs to drive my Mitsubishi Montero. My fuel cost is basically the same as an auto that gets around 18mpg.

Other Costs:

Before you can have fun flying your family around you will need to get a pilot's license. This typically costs around $5,000 for someone who is renting an aircraft. Instruction at the airport I learned at is $35 per hour. I received 48 hours of instruction. I spend another $300 to $500 on ground school, books and DVDs. This was spread out over two years. My check-ride and knowledge test ran another $500 or so.

I have also purchased headsets, a used handheld GPS, and other miscellaneous items that I would not have purchased if I was not interested in flying.

Conclusion:

Flying is not free. But it is also not out of reach of the average middle-class US citizen. As you can, see it can be a lot cheaper than purchasing and vacationing in an RV. The cost could also be comparable with someone who boats or snow skis regularly. Yet when someone learns I have a plane they assume I'm wealthy. I wonder how many people would enjoy flying if they only realized what the true costs are.

There are even less expensive alternatives.

Renting:

There is no doubt I would save money if I was to rent as apposed to own. I could rent a 172 or Cub at my local airpark for $85 per hour which includes fuel. Assuming I fly around 50 hours per year, I could rent for less than it costs to hangar, insure and annual my 170. The problem is I would not fly as often. I will sometimes go for a quick flight in the evening and spend less than $20 on fuel. At $85 per hour, I would be much less apt to swing by the airport for a quick flight. Additionally, the trouble of stopping off at the FBO and renting a plane would discourage me from taking quick flights. As a result, I would not be as safe due to lack of seat time.

Partnership:

Clearly owning an aircraft with a friend or group of friends makes the most economic since. The vast majority of time my 170 sits in its hangar doing nothing - even when the weather is perfect. I'm sure if I had a partner we would occasionally both want to use the 170 at the same time on the occasional perfect Saturday morning, but for half the cost that would be a small price to pay. In addition to spreading the cost, I would also have a friend to share my passion with - that alone would be worth more than the occasionally missed Saturday morning flight.



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Last modified 09/12/07