The Frugal Pilot: Plan to keep it simple

In the first installment of The Frugal Pilot, we covered defining your flying mission: why you fly. The reason for starting there is because of Frugal Fact #1: Complexity increases costs exponentially.

Each layer of complexity you add to flying — or just about anything — increases the costs of ownership, maintenance and other expenses. Instead of you owning it, it begins to own you. Soon, what started out as a fun pastime can become a stealer of time and money. Analyzing why you fly can help keep the costs on the ground.

Each of us has the same time inventory: 8,760 hours in a year. The average recreational pilot flies just 1% of that time – and thinks about flying the other 99%.

On the other hand, our flying budgets range from one to many thousands of dollars a year, depending on our flying goals and finances. The average annual budget among recreational pilots is about $10,000 a year. Reviewing why you fly every few years can help you get the most from every dollar you spend and each hour you fly. That’s being a frugal pilot.

My airplane has had 10 owners in 55 years. That’s typical. The average pilot gets a new set of wings about every five years. Some may hold on to their plane for 20 or more and a few sell their aircraft after a year or two, but five is typical. So a five-year flying plan makes sense for many recreational pilots. At the end of five, some decide to hold pat and others have already moved on. At that point, some pilots simplify and others go for more complex aircraft depending, again, on recently reviewed flying goals and budgets.

The next step is to quantify your flying mission with a specific plan. How many flying hours are you realistically planning for the next five years (or whatever time frame you select)? What type of flying? Do you need a faster or slower aircraft than your current wings? More instruments and equipment or less? What’s the least aircraft — and least expenses — you need to fulfill your flying mission? Would you be smarter to sell your airplane and rent or quit renting and buy? What about a partnership or a flying club? Are your flying goals better met with an LSA, a glider, a homebuilt, or a vintage aircraft? Just what aircraft will best match how you want to be flying into the future?

Maybe your current plane is fine for the mission, but it needs something to help you enjoy flying more. Not just stuff you want, but things you really need for your goal: Upgraded avionics, more horsepower, a balanced cruise prop, tundra tires, or maybe a taildragger conversion.

Here is where budgets go awry. It would be great fun to add a STOL kit, but how much will you really need it versus needing the dollars it will cost? Don’t just say “no.” Just make sure you’re getting value for what you need and can afford. Is it an extra expense or an investment?

Whatever plane you buy or equipment you add will require periodic maintenance. It may raise the cost of your annual inspection or require special STC maintenance over the next few years and these costs have to be factored into your decision. Also review FAA Part 43 that lists what preventive maintenance you, as the aircraft owner, can perform and compare it to what you feel comfortable performing. If you can save a few hundred each year on aircraft maintenance, you can spend more on your wants list.

Another aspect of simplifying your flying is reviewing where you keep your wings. You may be limited to one or two airports within your preferred driving distance. Too far away and you won’t fly as often. But airports vary greatly in the costs and availability of hangars and tie-downs, even within a small area. Doing a little research may yield a more cost-effective airport for your aircraft. Some frugal pilots, including me, opt for a tie-down instead of a hangar and save enough each year to buy a quality cover — and pay for the annual inspection. Others choose a shed hangar without walls and save money. Local climate and availability will be factors in your decision.

Flying is a complex pastime — and so is choosing and funding your wings. Frugal pilots aren’t cheap. They just consider all the options as well as their budget as they file a smart flight plan.

In the next The Frugal Pilot, I’ll cover managing your flying wants.

See you in the pattern!


  1. Have to agree with Jay’s comment. I fly much more often than most anyone else at my medium sized airport. The last four years I’ve averaged just 87 hours each year. Looking back over my flight times for the last 37 years, the years where I did not fly regularly, I averaged less than 20 hours. Years where I was doing significant training, or flying some for business, I averaged over 100. This is all is a single engine retractable four place burning around 10 GPH.

    The A&P at my field has made the comment to me several times that I’m one of the very few at the field that uses my plane. Most just sit in a hangar, or tied down. I’d suspect 90% of the aircraft fly less than 10 hours a year.

    • Sadly, you are correct, Jerry, that pilots are flying fewer hours. Many blame the high cost of fuel, others the aging of aviators. I’m hoping that those who are considering leaving general aviation instead reassess their goals and their budgets to find a way of flying more, simpler, and less expensively.

  2. I have no problems with lowering the cost of ownership and flying costs. There are many ways to have the cost of owning an airplane and operating an airplane reduced, mainly by having a partner or forming a partnership/flying club. Back when disposable income was WAY less than it is now, most airplanes were a partnership agreement unless the airplane was mainly purchased as a business aircraft.

    Considering the fixed cost of aircraft ownership, and a 30 hour per year on many of these airplanes, it just makes sense to have enough partners to bring the utilization up. Doing so, will reduce the per hour rate of flying the airplane, and the price per hour is very attractive. Ownership is MUCH better than renting an airplane, the experience is more fulfilling and if you had partners that don’t fly that much, airplane availability is never an issue.

    What really bothers me in general about aviation, is that it is such an undersold entity. Everyone likes to sit around and tell flying stories, but there aren’t very many around that are actually doing much to grow the flying experience. I recently stopped into the boat dealer to see what was going on, since it was fall not many boats were out on the water, and I was just sniffing around looking at $79,000 boats wondering what I would do with it.

    The owner of the company approached me, he was having a cold beer at 11:00 a.m. and wanted someone to talk to I guess. He told me that he had the best year EVER for selling boats. I have also found this true with the motorcycle industry, specifically the larger “baggers” as they call them…they are selling like hot-cakes at $25,000-$40,000 per copy.

    My question is, if you can buy a nice four place airplane for under $40,000, why aren’t more people seeing the value of owning an airplane? It seems everyone likes to complain about the price of gas…boats use gas too, and if you buy your fuel from the dock…like most places require, it isn’t very cheap! I think the problem is, when you walk into a lounge and are hanging out with fellow pilots, it is like “give me a razor so I can end my life!” because it is all negative! They push out the guy who shows up and wants to sell flying, sell airplanes, and sell maintenance….because he is trying to make a buck off of aviation? These are the types we need to acknowledge as movers & shakers who bring excitement, enthusiasm, and know how to get it done!

    There is nothing worse than the feeling that nothing is going on, you can’t gain momentum and enjoy your hobby with that atmosphere. It is a lot more fun when people are getting involved, new (used) airplanes are being purchased and new people are showing up that are enjoying their hobby and don’t mind spending some money while doing it. This keeps the business on the field open, and there is nothing that cures the cost of doing something like sales volume does!

    • When many of us first looked into the sky and dreamed of flying, our attention spans were longer and we had many fewer distractions. The commitment to be a pilot was also shorter, lengthened by the many new regs to keep us from hurting ourselves. Good or bad, it takes more time and money in a more compex and busy world to fly. And, sadly, it isn’t helped by hangar pilots who have lost their dreams. All we can do to combat the negativeness is to do positive and constructive things in aviation: Take a Young Eagle or Eagle flying; take a friend up; reduce costs and get more from each flying dollar; share OUR dreams, just as others have done with us. Thanks for your honest observations, Mike.

    • It seems to me that the major reason by the majority of pilot/readers of this very fine magazine, are NOT flying, but “complaining” WHY they don’t fly as much as they would like, is ALWAYS about cost! As Mike said, if every potential pilot walked into the local flight school or FBO, and all he/she heard were a group of ‘
      “grump old men” discussing that 40+ years ago a “150″ could be rented for $12/hr and fuel was only 45 cents a gallon – WHAT kind of POSITIVE impression do you think they would get? IS this (one) of the ALTERNATIVE reasons for a lack of “student starts”?

  3. Kent Misegades says:

    Your plane is 55 years old. Think about that – the average age of the US fleet of piston aircraft is now around 40 years. Can you imagine if the only way to afford to drive was to own a car that was 40+ years old? My A&P son says the average number of hours on aircraft he annuals is around 25/year. Some have only the hours to and from his airport’s shop on the logbooks. He works at one of the largest GA airports in NC, KTTA, Sanford-Lee County. Friends who manage GA airports here in the Raleigh area tell me that only one in ten planes flies regularly anymore. Here’s another reason people stop flying – I am shopping for a new life insurance provider, am 56 and in excellent health. A $500,000 term policy from Protective Life Insurance would cost me $935, as long as I do not fly. If I want to cover my flying activity, the same policy would cost me $2,900 annually. I always fly 100+ hours annually or more to stay current, or I do not fly at all, which is my current status due to lack of time and a plane. Paying $2,000 more annually to be able to fly on occasion makes the hobby I have enjoyed since 1972 even less attractive. I am nearing completion of a motor boat project and looking forward to using it – my life insurance will not change as a result. Is it any wonder people give up flying?

    • Kent, you make some good points about the hidden costs of flying, including life insurance. Frugal pilots consider all the costs and options when calculating how to fund their fun. And I’m suggesting that folks who only get 25 hours a year as PIC should really review their flying mission, goals and the costs to determine if there is a smarter way to go flying. Maybe a four-way partnership in a simple and low-cost aircraft would be a better plan…or maybe a life insurance policy that is more pilot-friendly. Tons of options. My mission as The Frugal Pilot is to help people make decisions that keep them flying as long as possible by focusing on value. See you in the pattern!

  4. I take exception with the average recreational pilot flying 87 hours a year. I fly around 120 and can tell you most hangers at my medium size airport never open. I ask mechanics every chance I get how many hours they see between annuals. There answer is typically under 30.

    • Thanks for the input, Jay. I agree that many pilots don’t fly 87 hours a year. That’s about what I fly, but I know pilots who fly 2-3 times more — or a half or third less. Much, I believe, depends on many things including where you fly. Pilots up in the cold and rainy country don’t fly VFR as much as folks in moderate and warmer climes. Other factors, too, including the costs and the age of the pilot. My point was that all pilots should take a look at their log books and check books and plan their flying budget accordingly. Maybe renting is a better option, or a partnership or flying club. For a pastime that consumes about 1% of our time, we should be frugal.

      • Yes, most pilots I know do not fly 87hrs/yr…not even close. I have a friend who flies more than I do and he does about 30/yr. I was lucky to make 20hrs in 2012 and was on track to do 30 this year until money happened. :-)

        $100/hr is just too much, no matter how much you fly, IMO. That’s depressing when, like me, you want to do additional training and keep progressing. Instrument rating? That’s going to be at least $4000. Aerobatic/unusual attitude training? $1500. Commercial rating so that I can at least do something and get paid? $25000. Twenty-five thousand dollars, and that’s not even counting instructor costs, books, and anything else you need. GA is useless around here for transportation without an IR.

        So that leaves the moneyless pilot with simply puttering around the area, which is boring, unsafe (you don’t learn anything new and can harden bad habits), and difficult to justify. So if you’re like me, you just quit. I’m 23 y/o, got my PPL two years ago, and have lost all my currencies except PIC, which ends in a week and a half, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

        I can go get a boat for a couple thousand and be out there in no time though. Hmmm……

        Good article and good points, btw, Dan.

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