Declare your independence: Fly cheap

There are two kinds of GA pilots in the world. The first group is the experienced pilot who wants to continue flying as often and for as many years as possible. A major deterrent to meeting that goal is cost. Renting an airplane at $100 an hour or more is difficult for many of us. And let’s face it, $100 per hour has become a pretty attractive rate in many parts of the country.

The second group is the wannabe pilots. These are the folks who dream of flying, but are either dissuaded by well intentioned, but ill-informed, friends and family, or by what they perceive as the exorbitant cost of learning to fly.

It doesn’t matter which factor turns them away. This group represents the future of GA in the United States, and if we cannot appeal to them with a legitimate argument that dispels their fears, we will lose the battle for access to the skies. Case closed.

This is important because whether you agree with the idea or not, cost is undoubtedly, inescapably, undeniably a factor of considerable importance in the decisions people make. It matters when they buy a house, or a car, a motorcycle, a boat, or a country-club membership — all of which are purchased in large numbers on a continuing basis across the country.

You’ll notice a unifying thread in that last paragraph, too. I didn’t talk about renting, I suggested people buy, because they do. Yet we still encourage people to rent airplanes as a matter of course.

It’s time for us to wake up, change course and set our sights on success. The key to inexpensive flying is airplane ownership. It’s true. Owning is less expensive than renting. The math bears me out on this, too. Wanna fly for cheap? Buy an airplane. Wanna learn to fly for $5,000 or less? Become an owner.

A good, well maintained, perfectly airworthy Cessna 150/152 can be had in any corner of this country for less than $25,000. It will typically burn something on the order of six gallons of fuel per hour. Insurance is reasonable, parts are plentiful, and it continues to be the enjoyably docile a trainer it was half a century ago. For a slightly higher purchase price you can put a number of Piper, Cessna, or other venerable names on the ramp at your home airport. The fuel burn may be a bit higher, but the utility of the aircraft will be enhanced, too. Take your pick. The options are plentiful.

Now, take that purchase price, the insurance rate, the tie-down or hangar cost, and maintenance expenses. Add them all up, then cut them in half. Heck, cut the big number in quarters, or eighths. It doesn’t matter what percentage you pick. Find a fraction of ownership that works for your wallet, and call that your goal. Then go find partners, a flying club, or a fractional ownership deal that works for you. They’re all available, yet most of us never look for them, or recommend the option to our friends.

Consider the math however, and this less-than-traditional approach starts to make a lot of sense. Let’s say you want to learn to fly, but you can’t part with $10,000 or more for the privilege. So you buy a one-eighth share of a 40-year-old C-152. It’s well maintained with a mid-time engine, less than 5,000 hours on the airframe, and has reasonable radios installed.

Even in a full-equity partnership your share of the purchase price would be only $3,125. Assume $150 per month contributed to a common account for maintenance and fixed costs. You could operate that airplane for less than $50 per hour.

Hire a CFI independently at $35 per hour, which is more than most flight schools pay their CFIs, but less than they would charge the end user for his or her services, and you’re in the ball game. You’re learning to fly in an airplane you know well and feel increasingly comfortable in. Best of all, you can afford it.

The total? You can earn your private pilot certificate for $4,350. That assumes 50 hours of total flight time and 40 hours of dual instruction over a three-month period. Shoot for a sport pilot ticket and you can cut that cost down below $3,000. Those are absolutely achievable goals for most people who are motivated to fly. And best of all, that’s a price a high school kid with a part time job can cover without going into debt. A year of working at the local burger joint will put enough in the bank to learn to fly. Really!

Another tremendous benefit to this method is the new pilot has built-in access to a familiar and affordable airplane. Time building just got cheap.

Of course I left out one important figure in that math. I did not include the value of the equity share in the calculation. In this case, $3,125. And I left that number out for a very important reason. It’s recoupable. If the student quits, or loves flying so much they want to step up to a bigger, faster, more capable aircraft – they can sell their share and get every dollar of their investment back.

Yep, you really can learn to fly, or fly recreationally for a very affordable rate. It’s certainly not as effortless or immediate as walking up to the counter and renting an airplane. But then, did you drive to work this morning in a car you owned or a car you rented?

This discussion will continue. It’s time to change the GA paradigm. Let’s do it together, shall we?


  1. Mark C says

    There is one problem w/the article. While you can train for the Sport Pilot license in a 152, you cannot take your checkride in it nor can you legally fly it with a Sport ticket, as it’s not an LSA.

    • Aplson says

      Jamie you seem to leave out other realities . One major (expensive ) AD can throw those numbers all out of whack. With mandatory ADS-B compliance that 25,000 dollar Airplane will need 15,000 dollar avionics upgrade which will never be recouped

  2. Ed Seaton says

    I’ve been renting Airplanes in Newport,Ar since the early 1960’s.I still rent a 1971 Cessna 150L for $80.00 an hour.Since it’s STOL,it is a safer Airplane to fly than most of those new LSA’s.

  3. Dietrich Fecht says

    Very good post. Thank you. The title and the last sentence say the most important thing. Behind the U.S. Germany is the country with the most small aircraft for private flying on a low but now nearly stable level. When I see the reality in SW FL, I believe that we are already closer to the situation in Europe as we think. In the air over FMY I see only a few small private planes flying.

    But when I sit on my terrace near the approach path of SW FL International (RWS), and I see the many airliners with hundreds of passengers who pass very quiet and not disturbing over my home all two minutes for landing, I remember just uncomfortable a private Piaggio turboprop with terrible and unpleasant noise development. I wonder how the engineers could design such a noisy airplane and got it approved in today’s pollution sensitive thinking. Very rare I see a single engine with high RPM torturing the engine to keep up somewhat with the stream of airliners. Perhaps some faster SE airplanes make sense. I want to say in the current weighting of airliners and private aircraft traffic we could be at the loosing end if there is no change in sight.

    Without any doubt we have to come back to lower costs for private flying and have to provide a higher share of air traffic. But that needs cheaper private airplanes. How to get these? Can we build them ourselves while the industry fails? Perhaps.

    Maybe we think all too commercial. Private flying, especially if it is mostly a leisure activity has to become more fun and pleasure. Important is the time we spend together with like-minded. Perhaps we should put it more in the foreground. For this I would like to report from my experience in Germany, how it`s done there. Flying clubs are not primarily financially motivated syndicates of aircraft owners but social clubs that are based out of enthusiasm for the love of flying. Most clubs operate only voluntary. Often flight instructors work voluntary who are club members. In some clubs, the club member mechanics do the airplane maintenance voluntarily too. Other club members are volunteers at air traffic control, operation managment or bar tenders at the clubhouse. Or even in the construction of hangars and clubhouses. Sometimes even entire small airfields are built with the volunteer engagement of the club members. Many airfields operate completely voluntarily.

    A flying club in Germany I know has about 120 members who pay the regular monthly membership fee. Of these, approximately 80 are active pilots, of which only about 25 regular fly the club planes. Such a club typically operates 3 to 4 SE aircraft. These clubs work best when the club house is open every day, with low-cost beverage serving and with operating a small restaurant. And very important: A garden with tables from where you can watch the air traffic on the runway. And watch how students are doing their touch and go and see how the aerobatic expert in his Pitts is doing his training (and showing the crowd what he can and others not). And of course, waiting for the friends coming back from their day flight to an ocean island while enjoying a caffee latte or an ice cream. Frequently organized events are fun to club members and help to develop the clubs budged. New members who want to make a pilot’s license are trained regularly volunteerly as required for low costs until they have the ticket. The club planes are chartered to club members to little more than the cost.

    Membership in these many clubs is not a financial stake in a corporation but an idealistic group of persons mostly to their own charitable purpose. The goal is to promote sport and private flying. To enter into such a club only needs a small admission fee of about $ 500 to be paid.

    The clubs finance the purchase of new aircraft from the their assets, which are built by many years of membership fees, by aligning airfield festivals, flying for advertising purposes (f.e. banner towing), sightseeing flights and from the chartering of aircraft. Business profits are not made. At earlier times club aircraft were often made by the clubs themselves. Today, however, only sporadically own aircraft are built, mostly from kits.

    Each member normally has a voice in club decisions. The Executive Committee is elected and manages the business. It adheres to the Board of Directors, but which is hedged by insurance. With financial disaster, and if there is no fault of the Board each member is liable. But I have not heard that this had happened. If membership ends there are no further obligations and no money is paid back.

    Let’s not forget the camaraderie, an almost always open club house, the many pleasant hours among like-minded as at the EAA chapters and volunteer work, to make the joy of flying at lower cost possible.

  4. Rich says

    I have BT and DT.
    Partnership is the only way to go for the way most of us fly.
    If your gonna use the plane for business and be gone 2 or 3 times a week this probably isn’t for you.
    But for the majority of us that fly religiously once or twice a week this is perfect.
    I owned an Aeronca Champ with 6 other people for about ten years.
    Here is how we worked the scheduling and it is so simple and free it is a no brainer.
    Check your email.
    What? No email requesting the plane?
    Good, send out a group email stating your need to fly the plane from 4- 6 tomorrow afternoon.
    Everyone now checks their email before they take the plane up.
    Couldn’t be simpler.

    So much for the complicated scheduling.
    You could also use Yahoo calendar but why?

    The plane needs tires?
    Well the good news is that you are only responsible for a fraction of the cost.
    Sad to say I just moved away from where our little Champ was based and had to sell my share.
    But I bought in for 2 grand about ten years ago and sold my share for $2500.00
    We charged ourselves 25 bucks an hour wet and 125 per quarter to cover gas, hangar, insurance and annual.
    We never had to assess a fee to the members because there was always money building in the bank account.

    Now I am smack dab in the middle of Texas looking for a very nice Champ and already have 3 other folks ready to cough up.
    All we have to do is find the plane.

    Jamie you nailed it!!!

    • says

      Rich; You have it ALL figured out – only PROBLEM is the acknowledgement in your closing blurb; “All we have to do is FIND the plane” and all I have to do is find a home in Palm Springs (CA) or Alpine (NJ) for $200K!

  5. says

    I agree with some of Mr. Santee’s comments about the key to increasing general aviation activity. I disagree with most of his simplistic presentation which sounds very similar to presidential White House speak. A huge problem he failed to mention, beyond spiraling costs, is partnership scheduling. The larger the partner group the more unmanageable the challenge of scheduling. Scheduling is a nightmare when a partner travels on a week long trip. Or on a couple hour weekend jaunt for the proverbial $100 hamburger. It will simply require economic stability and less government intrusion to invigorate general aviation.

  6. Ed Watson says

    A good article for sure. I would add several comments however. Having owned two planes, a C-140 and a Beech 35, ownership is heaven as long as I had a use for it I was in 7th heaven. The Beech became a drag when I couldn’t afford to fly it and I hated to see the weeds grow higher than the wings. I’ve never felt comfortable flying rentals or club planes as “how did the last guy fly this machine? Did he over rev the engine, check the oil, over speed the VNE or tried that loop and get away with it? etc?”
    With today’s goodies that are available, I think I could be persuaded to rethink any rental or club plane with two “features” in place. 1) a responsible maintenance manager that had 2) a tracking system of each flight that he could (and I could) review showing that the plane was as prudently as I would have flown it.
    I personally believe we need to have a course in HS that introduces “little planes” to kids so that they at least know about them and what they can do and how. I appreciate that it would have to be an elective, not tax funded, and perhaps after hours, but in a few years experienced grey hair will no longer be available in the left seat of AA, Delta or UAL, only kids, now grown who have excelled at computer game cockpits. THAT makes me uncomfortable/

  7. Greg W says

    Jamie, good points about the reduced costs through joint ownership. The problem is getting along with the other owners, I have not been in an aircraft partnership but have seen many fail, with bad feelings all around, in the last 30 years. With used aircraft an individual can afford to buy their own, to me the big cost is storage. If you buy a classic car or motorcycle it is stored at no additional cost at your house, even a boat as long as it is trailered is stored this way for “free”. The airplane has a fixed storage cost that cannot in most cases be controlled by the owner. If the hundreds of dollars, $250-400/mo. in my area, can not be reduced then the cost of keeping the airplane will be too much. Many airports do not allow private hangars and if they do it is with a short land lease at the end of which the hangar is turned over to the airport sponsor. On a nit-picking point many do rent their car, it’s called a lease and is a product of the societal requirement to always have the newest of anything, aircraft owners do the same “needing” that new gadget in the plane for that long x-country that they will never make.

  8. says

    Flying cheaper is possible but putting figures on paper where you can play with them to make your point is not the way to convince persons to go for it. Use real life figures from experience and also discuss problems which can cost you and you will see the real cost of ownership whether pro or con.
    Friends are not often the support you want for a financial project unless they are already committed to flying as thoroughly as you are. Depending on friends will often end the friendships faster than it will cure the financial problems which come with the cost of flying.
    Visit any airport regularly and monitor the airplanes that are stationed there and you will soon become aware of those (most of them) that are seldom flown because the fixed costs of owning the airplane leaves too little money available to support a healthy flying habit, one which keeps you competent to fly the aircraft.
    Jamie’s heart and intent are in the right place and I support him fully but I also feel that the picture he paints is overly idealistic for many persons.
    Flight training and the entire airport community has changed a lot in the 45 years that I have been flying and the largest change has been in the attitudes of the persons on the airports and the depth of the relationships among the flying population. Many of the older crowd are being overcome by personal responsibilities which come with aging and they are checking out of the community when they still have much to offer to the younger population. We need a much stronger effort in marketing within local markets and a greater sharing of knowledge and assets which are presently available. I would enjoy seeing the younger persons come to the table with some money and a lot of energy and the older persons share many under used airplanes that are financially strapping their present owners. I would also enjoy seeing shared flying which would be a pleasant learning experience for all parties involved. Most airplanes are safer when flown regularly.

    • Aplson says

      Russel I think you hit on the head . I’ve heard many horror stories of newly acquired bargain aircraft costing more to maintain than they cost to purchase. Conversely, with rentals the renter worries about thAt 1,000 dollar bill to replace that 30 year old magneto!

  9. Andrew J. Milan says

    Great article, Jamie. It just adds up, doesn’t it? Ownership gives us skin in the game and the necessary impetus to complete our training to whatever certificate(s) we pursue. I wish I had purchased an airplane when I first learned to fly. That’s a lesson learned that I hope to teach to others that are uncovering their desire to become pilots. Articles like yours make the job that much easier. Kudos!

  10. lindsay petre says

    Agreed. I bought a nice basic 152 as a student pilot and have never been sorry. Fortunately I have a mentor who is all about the 152 as well as being an A&P/IA.

  11. says

    Kudos to Jamie Beckett for hitting the proverbial nail square on the head! They key is lowering expenses via sharing them. Add a professional management company to eliminate most of the hassles of ownership and save even more. (Time is money.) Add an increased and more active community of aviators shared ownership brings, and you have the recipe for not only a successful business model, but also for (and this is the real important one) a revitalized industry.
    This is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming, it is happening right now at airports around the country. Tell your non-flying friends, tell your friends that rent and can’t go anywhere with their ticket. Tell everyone. For less than the price of the average new car, you can own 1/8 of a brand new LSA and get trained in how to fly it and pay for a year of everything.
    The average pilot flys around 50 hours per year. There are over 4000 daylight hours in one year. Surely an airplane is the perfect asset for shared ownership.
    Go fly.

  12. says

    Great article! I like the approach you describe. At the end of the day, we all have to be creative if we want to achieve our goals.

  13. Kent Misegades says

    It is not a fantasy, just a matter of priorities in life. Look at life styles in 2013 versus 1960 when the EAA was young. Look at the size of our houses, number of cars, expenses for day-care, large TVs and a hundred things that did not exist in 1960, and frankly are still not necessities today. The EAA was created primarily to help people realize that dream by building or restoring airplanes. You can still build a nice, safe, fun airplane for a modest sum in a garage from plans. There are thousands of hangar queens languishing at airports that could be restored, for instance a Tri-Pacer or any ragwing taildraggers. And don’t forget ultralights, which do not require a medical or license, but do require safe building and learning through USUA. It is all about priorities. Stop whining, get rid of the TV, and start building.

  14. says

    The “Sport/LSA” license IS the alterative for 90% of those engaged in some form of recreational flying. That said, it hasn’t been pro-actively marketed by the “retailer” (FBO/flight school) OR most manufactures. Nice article, Jamie; makes total CENT$!

  15. says

    Flying cheap! It’s a fantasy for the average GA pilot. As the economy remains flat and inflation continues; there will be fewer new pilots. General aviation is choking on excessive costs and over regulation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *