“Simple,” I replied, “the owner can afford to fly it anytime he wants. We see him out here all the time, right? Suppose you could have that airplane and fly all you wanted — would you take it?”
“My own airplane? Sure! I’d take it in a second!”
As we walked away, both a bit more respectful of the ancient Cessna’s owner, I pondered whether we aviators adequately educate new pilots on affordably continuing their flying adventures once training is over.
My son is certainly not alone in his desire to fly something sexy — pilots naturally lust over sleek and fast airplanes gracing airport ramps and magazine covers. But how many have realistic expectations of what they can afford? Most pilots strive for the most advanced aircraft they can imagine themselves flying, and as a result often conclude they can’t afford to fly, or financially suffer after buying beyond their means. Either way we lose them from our aviation community.
The fact is that most anyone who can manage flying lessons is within reach of owning an airplane, or part of one, anyway. Our challenge is educating pilots that the best plane for them is one they can easily afford to purchase and operate.
Among the challenges is that prospective pilots often assume they’re gonna go out and buy a new airplane like they’d buy a new car. For most people that’s dauntingly expensive for sure. But right now you can purchase an older but still capable airplane for a song. Look at it this way: if everyone thought they could only be a driver by owning a new Mercedes or BMW, far fewer people would drive. But most of us start with older used cars and work our way up. Better that pilots invest in a well-used steam-gauge 150 and upgrade as circumstances permit, then to buy a speedy new Cirrus before they can afford it and we lose them as pilots forever.
Part of the problem is that airplane ownership cost is far more complex than just the purchase price. Similar dollars will buy anything from a new Skyhawk to a long-in-the-tooth King Air turboprop. Novice buyers often tend toward the higher-performance end of that scale, with an eye toward faster and more glamorous travel, at “the same price.”
But operating and insurance costs for various aircraft vary across the spectrum, so given a similar budget the 172 buyer may fly all she wants at a cost she can easily afford, while the King Air owner goes broke a month after buying it. Aiming too high is why so many people conclude, “I can’t afford to fly.” What they actually can’t afford is to fly beyond their means, which unfortunately is what many pilots try to do.
We need to be more creative and helpful in keeping our new pilots aloft, if we want to retain them among our ranks. That means educating them to all the options for independent flying, with the “American dream” of ownership topping the list. That’s not so tough as it sounds. A friend of mine recently sold a serviceable Cessna 152 for $18,000. Legendary flight instructor Bill Kershner did most of his teaching in 150s and 152s, and noted aviation author and speaker Rod Machado flies one for his personal airplane.
Sure, you might need to forego glass cockpits and the smell of new, but given the choice, who wouldn’t rather fly a nicely-aged 150 or Cherokee or 172, than sit at home reading about jets?
Photo: Legendary flight instructor Bill Kershner’s Cessna 152 Aerobat, on display in the National Air & Space Museum.
PS: A great place to begin investigating used aircraft models is via Aviation Consumer. (~$70 per year.) Subscribers can instantly download their thorough and unbiased used-airplane reports covering virtually all ages and models at no additional charge, including breakdown of features and design changes by year of manufacture.
©2011, 2017 Gregory N. Brown
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Greg’s book, Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane. Autographed copies available!