The frugal owner


Airplane ownership is one of the best things about flying. The freedom, sense of pride and camaraderie afforded by owning your own airplane is truly a game-changer.

The detractor in all of this is the cost. In the U.S. alone the annual cost to own and fly an average four passenger, non-complex, single can easily be five figures. It’s not an inexpensive endeavor, but I would add that there are lots of folks who spend that much or more on other hobbies, so in the end it’s really about choices.

Since you know going in this won’t be cheap, let’s talk about ways you can potentially curtail some of the costs.

Let’s start with the obvious and work toward the more esoteric.

If you want to know how to reduce the cost of ownership, you only need to look at our friends across the pond in Europe. They have it tough with onerous user fees and generally everything being double the price we pay in the U.S. They have been forced to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation.

Two key things you’ll note is the proliferation of partnerships and flying clubs and the number of less expensive, lower horsepower, Light-Sport Aircraft type aircraft. This is not to say there aren’t individuals who own fire-breathing twins, it’s just not as common as it is here. To be completely fair, we have seen this trend already in the U.S. with the escalation of fuel prices and the post-2008 economic slump.

A partnership (or co-ownership) is one of the best ways to defray the cost of your airplane. It can also allow someone who couldn’t afford that pre-owned Cirrus to be able to acquire it with one or more co-owners. Partnerships are not all roses and bonbons though; personalities can collide with disastrous results. The best advice is to seek out good partners and create an even better written agreement that spells everything out.

The other thing you can do to make ownership more affordable is to buy less airplane — one that is cheaper to acquire and, more importantly, cheaper to operate. Nothing sours the ownership experience more than having an airplane that is a financial hardship.

If you have never owned, my advice is to not overextend, thinking you’ll “grow into it.” If you “need” that Cirrus, try co-ownership or a leaseback, otherwise start modestly and work your way up.

In this economy, the purchase prices are quite reasonable. It’s after the airplane comes home that it gets expensive. To that end, if you are thinking of buying, you need to spend some time understanding the purchasing process or use a trusted agent to help you. Making poor decisions at this stage has the potential of costing big bucks, so make sure you do your homework and proceed with caution.

The other two major cost factors are fuel and maintenance. The good news is you have “some” control over these.

There are a lot of ways to save money on fuel. It won’t make it cheap, but it can take the sting out a little. Some of the strategies you can employ are:

  • Buy at cheap locales;
  • Lean the engine properly;
  • Fly high, when possible;
  • Slow down a little (or a lot);
  • Seek out incentive programs that give discounts or cash back.

As for maintenance, hopefully you bought a sound airplane, so the maintenance should be reasonable. Some things you can do to help offset these costs are to find a good mechanic. I would canvas the locals at your home airport to see who’s the “top wrench” around your neck of the woods.

Also you can save by helping your mechanic on annual inspections or other maintenance. You get the benefit of defraying some of the labor costs and, as a bonus, a free education on how your airplane works.

Other fixed costs, such as insurance and storage, are really just a matter of shopping around and coming up with the solution that best fits your needs.


So far we have covered the obvious, even to the non-owner. Now let’s explore concepts used by the more experienced and frugal among us.

One of the best ways to save on ownership is to avoid breaking your airplane. These machines are engineered for performance and safety, not necessarily durability. If you operate your airplane harshly, you can expect to pay more for maintenance than someone who flies it with care.

What do I mean? For example:

  • Smooth handling on the ground and in the air;
  • Warm it up appropriately before takeoff;
  • Don’t overheat it (prolonged steep climbs at full power);
  • Make sure you preheat in the winter;
  • Keep up on oil changes and other routine maintenance.

Preventative maintenance is another area where experienced owners save. The regulations list items, such as oil changes, that you can do yourself as an owner.

Subscription services and database updates are another cost that adds up. Don’t go overboard signing up for subscriptions and/or updates that you don’t need. Obviously some of these will be required, but if not, scrap it or research less expensive options.

Another alternative to a partnership (or in conjunction with) is the leaseback. Leasing your airplane to an individual or business can be a good financial move. Just make sure everything is well documented in the contract and that you consult proper counsel for the legal and tax implications. Lots of FBOs will lease an airplane to add to their rental fleet and it can be a win-win if structured properly and with the right kind of aircraft.

Experienced owners also know how to leverage the tax benefits of airplane ownership, if they exist. Again, you need to consult someone knowledgeable about taxes specific to aircraft ownership and operation before proceeding.

Finally, networking is another unsung hero of saving money on your airplane. Having a group of folks who can offer help and provide money-saving contacts can really pay off in the end — things like finding the best mechanic, best insurance agent, good sources for inexpensive supplies…the list goes on. Don’t underestimate the power of the knowledge and resourcefulness that exists in our community.

Owning will almost always be more expensive than renting, but there is nothing like cracking open the hangar door to take that pre-dawn flight in your own aerial conveyance. Sometimes the act of owning an aircraft can seem daunting, but if you want it bad enough, you’ll figure out a way and you’ll be glad you did.

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  1. Jeff says

    You can also rebuild an airplane, and not have to start from scratch, some of use just don’t have the talent or the time to start a 3-10 year homebuilt project. Last year I bought a Hatz CB-1 on floats through ebaymotors from a guy in Grants Pass. OR. $6200 plus moving it to WA on a borrowed trailer wasn’t so bad. My next door neighbor wanted in on it and has the knowledge and skill to really get things don’t fast so we went together on it and after selling the floats that had been bent and needed reskinning to a Kitfox guy, bought the original gear off the owner who had flipped it on floats and started rebuilding it. The engine amazingly just needed a carb, mag and starter rebuild and is running great. The wings were in bad shape but the spars were still good and locally we found a member of the Hatz society (type club) who had a bunch of “extra” ribs already made up (for about 10 years) and so after picking up the airplane in late January last year it was flying in Sept and we have less that $14,000 in it. We were very lucky in that the engine was shut down when it flipped on the river, that we found everything we needed to repair it locally and cheap. We did have to buy a prop ( the previous owner had sold the seaplane prop and radios) and radios but ebay worked out again on that. It’s a great flying airplane that does about 105mph burning 6-7 gph, it is a lot of fun to fly. Like all open cockpit biplanes it’s not an all weather airplane and the visablity out the front is none existant but it’s unique and interesting. This year my neighbor got to pick the airplane to work on and we are now in a rebuild of a Mustang II we have about $15,000 in now and hope to finish for less than $20,000 with an O-320 and Dynon EFIS, Ipad GPS/ADS-B and Icom/King COM.

    • says

      That’s a great example of the kind of ingenuity that can turn lemons into lemonade! Great story – thanks for sharing it.

  2. Chris Martin says

    I concur with the article. I owned a Mooney for 13 years and sold it last year because it just got too expensive and it wasn’t right for the mission. To replace it I bought a LongEZ and I absolutely love it. Operating costs are minimal and I do most of the maintenance under the supervision of a good A&P Mechanic.

    Yes, experimental aircraft is not for everyone, but I imagine that an LSA would be comparable (but probably a bit more expensive to buy).

    My issue with flying is not the operating costs, including fuel. The problem I am having is that in the area I live (Miami), small general Aviation is not welcomed. I share a hangar in a small GA airport in the area and we have been told that we will be evicted when our lease expires because they want to put airplanes that spend more in fuel and maintenance at the field. Plain, simple and direct. That is what we were told. Some people in the field threatened to sue and the FBO operator backed out on that statement but mentioned that leases would be renewed at $1200 a month. I’m not sure I can afford that anyway.

    So that is in my opinion the issue with aviation and why at times I have a beef with the EAA, of which I am a member. Everybody wants more money (may not be their fault), including the EAA, so they resort to kicking the small guy out in favor of the big rich guy. When the EAA writes in the SA magazines and their blogs that GA aircraft sales are doing better it is truly not representing us the ones who love aviation but can’t afford a 1/4 – 1/2 million dollar airplane. Don’t get me wrong, I think those high end aircraft are beautiful and make me salivate but when I see that segment of aviation is discriminating against me and keeping me from realizing my flying dreams I cant help it but feel some animosity.

    BTW, in all fairness, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the latest EAA SA magazine in the last two months did show a bit more emphasis in the frugal side of aviation. I hope they keep the trend as it did give me some hope. BTW I feel the EAA has become so large and ridden in debt (buildings, museums, offices, employees, etc) that it is impossible for it to survive based solely on the segment of aviation it created it. I really think the EAA needs a reset, become smaller and start from scratch (I know, I am rather radical).

    On the mean time, yes, you can fly for less. Its called sport aviation and I had a beautiful sunset flight yesterday after work in an aircraft that flies like a dream, turns everyone’s heads at the airport and used only 3 gallons of fuel. Can’t get any better (well, except for the hangar situation :).


    • Dave Hill says

      I hear you Chris. Our local airport has catered to jet traffic to sell jet fuel and they haven’t built a new hanger or fixed up the terminal in 30 years. Hangers are used to store boats, RV’s, and furniture. They don’t care about the little guys with airplanes. It really bothered me for awhile and then I realized I was wasting valuable energy being pissed off. I’ve decided to use my energy to solve my problem instead of fighting city hall.

      Another disappointment is AOPA. They have catered to the standard category flying folks and the aviation professionals. Yet, I think they’ve lost their way. I was invited to an AOPA lunch at AirVenture for Flight School operators and the whole thing was about how they were looking for ways to help us in an effort to bring in more student pilots. All they talked about was “their problem” (lack of vision) and they never gave anyone a chance to talk about “our problem”. If it wasn’t for the free lunch that would have been a total waste of time. One of the lady attendees said that AOPA could play a major role in eliminating the gender gap in aviation by doing research similar to what Harley Davidson did to get more women riding motorcycles. AOPA was not interested in fighting that battle. Too bad – they asked for it but didn’t like what they heard.

      Going to Oshkosh for the first time was a real eye-opener. GA is a huge community. There’s rich people and not so rich. There’s men, women, and children. There’s young people and not so young people. What I like about EAA is that they’ve made room for everybody. You got to love it when you see a FedEx 777 parked next to an RV-8. The other thing I love about EAA is their spirit of innovation and adventure.

      I think in the future we will need public “airplane launch” airports where you can land and takeoff and then drive or trailer your airplane home. Let the FBO’s cater to the big guys – they need to make payroll like every other business.

    • says

      Chris and Dave,
      You guys are living examples of who we should all be focused on. The alphabet groups are businesses, but they need to keep a balance – something I think they get right some times and sometimes not so much.
      Your last statement regarding your sunset flight says it all.

      I like the “boat ramp” concept. If I have to scale back, I’ll be looking for a folding-wing machine.

  3. says

    I agree with Dave Hill. The only way I will be able to afford to fly is by building my own aircraft. Since I am no longer a spring chicken, I am building an aircraft that will meet the LSA rules. When done, I plan to do my own maintainance which is another plus of building an experimental aircraft. (FYI, my project is actually scratch built not an eLSA.)

    • says

      Great plan Ray! If you are paying as you build based on your budget that totally works. If you want to fly now and have the same amount of money available to buy, you can buy an already flying version of what you are building – if they are available. Conventional wisdom for most light experiments is they are worth what you have in them – minus labor.

      Enjoy! I loved building mine and it spread the cost over 5 years and I took at a loan for the engine and avionics. Sorry, don’t tell Dave Ramsey!

  4. Kent Misegades says

    Precisely – build a plane! Especially if done from scratch and with a bit of scrounging, one can build a very nice one- or two-place airplane for under $30,000. Look in any Wicks or Aircraft Spruce catalog for materials kits they offer. Cancel your cable TV contract, your timeshare at some boring resort, clear out your garage, attic or basement and get to work. You’ll probably lose weight too, and gain many builder friends. At the end you’ll have a brand-new airplane and sense of pride that is priceless. Make sure you choose an engine that runs on mogas so you’ll save even more money when flying. Build projects are also ideal for partnerships to reduce total time, or build two simultaneously to save cost and time. Rediscover the reason the EAA was founded and why it grew rapidly in the years when building was the primary focus of the organization and Sport Aviation when Jack and Golda ran EAA publications in the EAA’s past glory years.

    • says

      Great advice Kent! Thanks for chiming in.

      Building is one of the most rewarding things I have done in aviation. I spent only a couple of years getting all of my certificates and ratings in my younger days, but I spent over twice that amount of time (4 yrs 9 mos and 2500 hrs) building my airplane and each day of it was educational.

  5. Dave Hill says

    Great advice. Let’s not forget that you can build your own airplane (including engine) for less than $30,000. That’s the price of a new car. Speaking of cars – what does it cost to drive a car? Car ownership isn’t cheap. Common guys let’s get real. The problem isn’t the money. The problem is convincing your wife to let you spend the money on something she probably doesn’t want. Life is a matter of priorities and every married man knows that “if Mama ain’t happy – nobody is happy”. To afford an airplane you’ve got to make Mama happy first. If you really want to fly you can find a way. Shoot, you can start building your airplane for as little as $95, a good work bench, and the cost of a few hand tools. Aviation is much bigger than Cessna, Piper, Mooney, Beach, and Cirrus.

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