Getting started — Make your first aircraft choice the right one

The single most consistent mistake I see first-time owners make is that they buy too much airplane. Learning about airplane buying should be like learning about airplane flying. For example, let’s say you know that your goal is to be the pilot of a corporate, twin-engine airplane. You still go to school and learn to fly in a small single engine plane. Then, as you gain experience, you can move up to the twin. Yes, I realize that you could learn right off the bat in the twin, but only the most affluent could afford that. And not withstanding money, it would also be a formidable undertaking to use that approach.

Buying your first plane should take a similar same path. You may know that your ultimate goal is to own that big, high performance single or a light twin, but your first buying experience should stay with the small and simple. Of course, if you are affluent, making that one big leap is much easier to do.

I can think of many owners who started with more plane than they could handle on the first try, then ultimately sold that plane and never owned again. I can think of far fewer first-time owners who bought small and worked up to their dream plane and then sold out. It’s all about experience.

And it’s all about money. The dream of most newly rated private pilots is to own their own airplanes. And they normally want more plane than they trained in. The logic may be, “Well, now that I have my license, I want to own that four-seater so I can take my friends along and travel farther.” Nice thought, but how often will you do that? You usually don’t really know.

And that’s the point. You are going to be a student owner so act accordingly.

Can you really afford it? How do you know? One initial test is to ask yourself if you can afford to fly a minimum of 15 hours per month in your favorite rental trainer. If you were renting a Cessna 152 at say $60 per hour, can you afford $900 per month? If the answer is no, then stop right here. If it’s yes, then go to step two.

Buy the cleanest, simplest plane with the lowest engine time you can find within your budget. If you learned in a 152, why not learn about ownership in a 150 or 152. Learn about insurance, storage, paperwork, annual inspections, service bulletins, airworthiness directives, surprise maintenance, avionics repairs and general upkeep using the same type plane in which you learned about flying. Although it would be nice to own a plane that is more capable, I will bet that in most cases you will quickly find that you are flying alone or with just one other person at least 80 percent of the time. And for those other times, you can always rent.

What will it cost? You can do a quick rule of thumb cost analysis on any plane by first taking the fuel consumption of that plane and multiplying it by the highest price per gallon you know of. Then double it. For example: let’s say a Cessna 152 burns six gallons per hour and the price per gallon of that fuel is $3.00. Your direct operating cost (those costs that only occur when you fly) to fly that plane will be at least $36 per hour.

This does not include insurance, tie-down or hangar fees, taxes, or interest on the airplane or loss of interest if you pay cash. These are fixed costs that occur even if you never swing the prop.

Taking our base line $900 per month budget we mentioned above and subtract the direct operating costs for 15 hours ($540), we are left with $360 per month for all of the other stuff. And if you’re financing, you have to factor a payment in there too. Trust me, the budget gets trashed fast. And that’s the whole point.

Step in gently and treat this first plane as a learning experience. You are not committing to anyone that the first plane is going to be a final “keeper.”

If you consider that I have owned 18 aircraft over the past 27 years, someone might say that I can’t get it right. Well, actually by following my own advice, I find that it’s proper to change planes as my needs change. Above all else, the plane should be selected to fit your most predominant mission. Not every mission, but the most predominant mission. For me, a past mission switch meant going from a 152 to a Commander 114. I’ve gone from a Commander 112 to an Enstrom helicopter. I have gone from a Cessna 310 to a fixed gear Cardinal. My current Cardinal RG, which I have now owned for three years, came after another Cessna 310. This RG might actually be my “keeper.” But then again, “who knows?”

But your mission, as a first-time owner who actually has to adhere to a budget, is to learn about ownership first-hand while minimizing your exposure to financial disasters. Believe me, it is much nicer to be enjoying the ownership of an aircraft that might be a little less of a machine than you’d like to have than being the owner of too much machine that you wished you didn’t have.

Guy R. Maher is a business owner and aircraft appraiser with more than 12,000 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters. He is an independent buyers agent and flight instructor for type specific initial and recurrent training. He can be contacted through the above email address or by calling 704-287-3475.

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