Flying, it’s an everyman’s hobby

"Yeah, I own an airplane," said any working person, anywhere in the U.S.

This is the follow-on to last month's post. It's the real story of flying these days and how it really is possible for many more families in America than anyone realizes to take part in the adventure of aviation.

BLUF: it's possible to buy a plane and take your family flying every weekend for just $2,500 down and $600 per month.

You read that right. Just $600. That's about the cost of the lease and insurance on a new Honda Pilot. Heck, you'd still have money left over to install a Garmin G5 and a used IFR GPS.

Here's how this works, and sharing the costs is the key. Used Cessna 172s (I'm going with certified for this example since experimental aircraft aren't for everyone) go for around $60k with average paint, interior, and avionics. Shared with three other people, you could finance your $15,000 share if you needed to, for about $2,000 down. That's $100 a month over 15 years, if you needed that kind of term. Keeping it on the ramp will probably cost $40 per month in a metro area, or another $10 for your share.

Then there's the maintenance--annual, periodic, etc.--which for easy (and generous) math I will budget at $3,600 per year, or $75 per month for your share.

So far it's just $185 per month to keep your airplane sitting at the airport. Not too bad, really.

Finally there's the variable costs--fuel and engine reserve. If you've bought a mid-time engine you're going to want $20 per hour for the overhaul when the time comes. Fuel burn on an O-300 or O-320 will be around 9 GPH average, and fuel these days is around $5 per gallon in a metro area.

So here is the bottom line, well, at the bottom: you can fly 1.5 hours every weekend--enough to get to a lunch spot or sight seeing and back--for just $400. Add that to your fixed costs, and your grand total to enjoy the pleasure of flying every weekend is right at $600 per month. That's about the same price as renting that new Honda for three years, and loads cheaper than renting that same 172 at the local FBO. I'd take that deal any day.

Of course, you'll have to get your license, so maybe that aforementioned extra money should go to your instructor and not a shiny new Garmin. And you have to share your airplane with other folks and you have to pick good partners, but the reality is that they probably won't fly as much as you. If they do, then your airplane will likely thank you for all the consistent use. And if so you'll probably get to fly at night and some other fun times you normally wouldn't. In short, the costs, financial and intangible, are very, very worth it.

To put this into perspective, Americans bought more than 2.7 million pickup trucks in 2016. If my time in Texas is indicative of who buys pickup trucks, then there are a lot of people with shiny new trucks--average transaction price with tax, title, and license of over $50,000--in a state with a median income of $64,000. In other words, there are lots of folks living on less than the U.S. median income with a car payment around $1000. I think that money could be better spent at the airport than the auto dealer.

So, you want to trade in that 3-5 year-old car for a shiny new one but also have always wanted to pursue that flying dream? Now is the chance. I'd bet your "used" car will continue to serve you well if you try (and if you bought a pickup truck or Honda to begin with). Now, just skip that next bad financial move for what *some* consider a poorer one--buy an airplane. I used to tell my students to spend lavishly on travel in their vacation after graduation, and the principle is the same--it may be bad financial advice but it's fantastic life advice.

I know it's a bold assertion when so many people are still struggling financially over a decade after the depths of the Great Recession, and in the early months after the pandemic. But it's no different than any other financial decision: life is all about tradeoffs, and I vote for skipping the new car in favor of an old airplane.

P.s. If you and your partners are mechanically inclined and like to do your own airplane work, buying something like a Bede BD-4 would drop the maintenance costs some, but the per month cost would still be close to $500. On the other hand, if your mission is to fly for fun and take one kid or one friend flying once in a while, sharing something like a Pietenpol AirCamper or a Quickie or a Sonerai (and you're about 5'7") will cut the up front costs considerably and the monthly flying program outlined above to just $250. I bet some people spend more on Starbucks per month than that.


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