The Frugal Pilot


In July, I offered readers my 10 Tips for Frugal Pilots. Evidently there are many pilots who want or need to fly on a budget, so I’m now offering the first of a regular column on being a frugal — not cheap — pilot. Thanks to the readers who commented on my article and to my airport buddies who shared their ideas.

The first tip offered was: Remember why you fly. That makes sense, but it is quite easy to forget as we start thinking about all the options and opportunities we pilots have. Faster aircraft, new electronics, upgraded instrumentation, a fancier paint job — they all vie for our interest and our wallets. But do we need them? Maybe.

The problem is that complexity increases costs exponentially. Upgrading simple VFR instrumentation, for example, to IFR can easily multiply costs by a factor of four or more. If it’s required for safe flight, such as frequently flying out of a cloudy home airport, it’s a necessity. If it’s only required once or twice a year, it’s really not a necessity; it’s a want. Maybe it should stay in your budget, but only after the safety and other vital needs are met.

Recent economic changes also can make you rethink your flying budget. Maybe your job was downsized, so you’re considering cutting back on your toys, or you’re planning for an imminent retirement and want to fly more. In any case, it’s a good idea to review the costs of flight.

The solution to overspending is to periodically analyze why you fly and to come up with a realistic mission for your future flying — then measure it against your flying budget. Once a year, maybe during the winter or other non-flying season, sit down with your log book and your check book to make sure they reflect your flying mission.

To get your creative juices flowing, here are some typical reasons why many pilots fly:

  • To go somewhere. Frugal pilots often define their flying by where they fly, such as to specific airports, new airports, for business, for scenery, or for a great hamburger. They may also define where they go by how they go: Fast or slow. Pilots often prefer one over the other.
  • To go nowhere. Many pilots prefer to stay near the nest, simply flying the pattern to someday achieve the ultimate goal of the perfect landing. Or they have a specific course they most enjoy flying, taking in the scenery, but typically only landing at their home airport.
  • To see the world from above. Many pilots fly because it literally adds a new dimension to their lives. Looking down from 2,000 feet, crab grass is invisible. Hanging in the air in familiar surroundings can be a real stress-reducer at the beginning or end of a workday or week.
  • To discover themselves. Most pilots have other titles: Father, mother, husband, wife, partner, employer, employee, professional, workaholic, etc. But they all take a back seat to pilot-in-command. In the left seat, they are in control. And the hard work and study that brought them to this title and position gives them individual pride found in few other personal endeavors.
  • To share recreation. Many pilots prefer not to fly alone. The fuel costs about the same no matter whether the flight is solo or with a friend or relative or two, so why not share the ride? Maybe it’s a colleague from work, a spouse, a child or grandchild, or someone who recently expressed a desire to go flying. Flying is a gift to be shared.
  • To overcome fears. Not everyone feels totally comfortable in an airplane high above the ground — including many pilots. In fact, that’s why some became pilots, to overcome a natural fear with the irrefutable facts of aeronautics. Once accomplished, they help others overcome similar fears. That’s why they fly.
  • To build a professional aviation career. Many pilots fly for a living. Their private pilot or sport pilot certificate is just the first of many. It’s a worthwhile goal that motivates them to select an aircraft and fund their flying, typically on a budget, to meet specific goals.

In the real world of flying, there is no single goal for any pilot. All have multiple goals. But one or two of these flying goals is prominent — at least for the next few years. To be a frugal pilot, first consider the primary and secondary reasons why you fly and keep them clearly in mind as you plan and purchase your flying needs for the coming year.

In the next column, I’ll talk more about keeping it simple. See you in the pattern!


Dan Ramsey is The Frugal Pilot ( and author of books and websites about low-cost aviation. He flies a 1958 Cessna 150 from his tie-down at a rural airport in northern California, where he’s also the airport manager to help fund his flying.


  1. Kent Misegades says

    Rod took one of my suggestions away. I flew gliders early in my pilot years and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of ‘real’ flying, the low cost, and the camaraderie of the club. Plus soaring is great for youngsters – they focus on flying and not all the stuff that gets in the way, they generally can offset costs by working for the club, and they can solo at age 14.

    Other ideas:

    1. Scratch-build an airplane, the primary reason the EAA was formed. There are plenty of older, proven, safe designs that can be built for an amazingly low cost.

    2. Use mogas, of course.

    3. Get your tailwheel endorsement – this opens up the large community of ragwing taildragger pilots and grass strips. Many of these planes can be purchased in great condition for under $20,000 and will provide years of fun. They can operate out of small strips, making a runway on a few acres of land possible, again lowering the cost of ownership.

    4. Try ultralights and LSAs – modern designs are quite strong and real performers. Roy Beisswenger’s Powered Sport Flying is the main publication for this community. and Dan’s SPLOG in this publication is the best source for LSA information.

    BTW – What ever happened to the EAA’s much-touted ‘Affordable Flying’ effort from a few years ago? Was this just another one of the organization’s recent litany of feel-good, do-nothing efforts, for instance the now defunct International Learn to Fly Day?

  2. says

    Dan; You have it ALL wrong – try gliders – VERY low operating cost – ask a few glider/pilots and owners. And with a”fractional” ownership, no piston bird could compete!

    • Tom says

      Other benefits include buying fuel from the 18 year old line girl if your fortunate to have one at your airport……………..Gotcha!

      • says

        Tom; Got it – like the ole saying goes'” _EX (and youth) sells! “Say Megan, you ARE 18, right – by the way- what are you (or who) doing after work”? BOY, would 100 ll fuel sales “soar” for powered birds at Podunk Municipal – what a great marketing gimmick! I believe, however, an FBO in Alabama, forgot just where , has a line crew made up of “ladies”; however, most are “older; 23-30+ age range – oh well,can’t have everything!

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