The Frugal Pilot: Get more than you pay for

What’s the difference between a need and a want? At the grocery store, a need is buying milk, bread and other food staples. A want is getting soda, corn chips and snack cakes. In recreational aviation, a need is something required to meet your flying goals and your budget. A want is not required, but desired.

For most of us recreational pilots, airplanes really aren’t needs. They are wants. But one benefit to working hard through life is to be able to afford some of the things we want. However, once we own a plane, we cannot skimp on its needs.

The key to selecting which wants to fund lies in first defining their value to us. Everything costs something. Buying a faster aircraft has a price tag. Moving across the country for a new job also has economic, relational and emotional costs. Again, everything costs something.

Value means getting benefits that are worth more to you than the costs. If a $50,000 aircraft will bring your life greater benefits than that money in the bank or invested in something else, then it has a value greater than the cost.

If owning and flying a $50,000 airplane means you’re going to have to sell other valuable assets, take a second job and miss out on some other priceless things in life, then maybe it doesn’t have sufficient value to you. Value is as subjective as setting a flying budget.

This seemingly is common sense. But we have all gotten over our heads at some point trying to define the difference between need and want — and assessing value.

That’s why a frugal pilot periodically reviews flying goals and plans looking for what will offer the best value: Benefits greater than the cost. By looking at each purchase, upgrade, training and other aviation transactions as an opportunity to seek the best value, we can fund more fun flying.

Let’s talk about how safety fits into the equation. Once we buy a plane and/or get a license, safety is a necessary part of flying. It’s a need. Flying may or may not be a personal need for you (though my guess is yes), but once the decision to fly is made, safety is as critical as fuel. You don’t want to just fly an airplane, you want a safe airplane.

Frugal pilots aren’t cheap or unsafe; they seek value for every dollar spent. That means safety is a vital need. For example, replacing worn tires comes before an instrument or interior upgrade. Finish that annual inspection before shopping for goodies. Spend some money on mountain aviation training before planning a long trip over a mountain range.

Frugal pilots can get more things on their wants list by shopping for value. Rather than just writing a check, do a little research first to make sure that value is greater than price. Here are some examples:

  • Keep a wish list at your favorite airplane parts supplier’s website and make purchases on long-term needs when the total or a special promotion offers free shipping.
  • Ask your pilot friends for recommendations on services, parts, medical exams, fuel and anything else you buy to fly.
  • Use the power of the Internet to search for recommendations and pricing.
  • If possible, delay large purchases for a few weeks or even months to analyze whether it will be a need or an impulse buy.
  • If you are upgrading instruments or other parts, resell the replaced parts that are in good working order through aviation classifieds, eBay, aviation clubs, or to local pilots.
  • Ask your favorite mechanic if you can assist with the annual inspection and any necessary repairs. Even simple jobs like removing the interior and inspection plates can save the mechanic time and you money — and teach you more about your aircraft.
  • If you rent your wings, ask about prepayment discounts. Buying blocks of rental time can save you money.

The bottom line here is value: Getting more than you pay for. It works for buying a house, shopping for groceries or flying an airplane. It’s what makes you a frugal pilot.


  1. Jeff says

    Just for a ball park on what a annual is worth, my IAcharges $388 for the inspection and AD search (actually the $88 is for a buddy of his that does the AD search and all the paperwork so all he has to do is sign on the dotted line, he hates doing paperwork) but he has assisted me installing a new elevator end cap (6-8 pulled rivets) or helped me when something small need to be done (like refill my compass and clean/gap my sparkplugs) at no extra cost. The inspection usually takes about an hour at most and I always have the compressor and my neighbors compression tester ready and the engine warmed up when he gets there. I also give him a new Harbor freight (free) flashlight to take home. There is a local guy in Tacoma who will fly out and do an annual for $300 but I’m sure that would be if you had it ready for inspection. This is on a C172 or any none retractable, none constant speed prop airplane. The most I have ever had to do on an annual is replace some flap rollers, a really difficult job and some control cables that were 50 years old and had some corrosion on them that he didn’t like (he helped me on that one too). Other than that I bounce things off of him and for STCed modes I contact him to makes sure I know what has to be done and then he comes over and inspects the work and signs off the 337 for an STC, that is usually worth $25-50 depending on how long it takes. When I have had to just hire him to rebuild my nose strut a few years back he charged me about $50 an hour for the work and it didn’t take that long as I had everything off so he could just replace all the seals. He told me one time that the liability insurance for him doing annuals figured to be about $150-200 an annual so it was better if he did more of them.

    • Richard Warner says

      Its a crime what liability insurance for an A&P or IA costs. I’ve gotten to the point where I will only do Annual Inspections or other A&P/IA work on my own plane and my two son’s 3 airplanes. The only other tyhing that can be done is put everything in a reust and don’t own anything but a vehicle and your tools. The same applies to Flight Instructors. I promise you there is a lawyer out there ready to convince a family that the reason dad died in his airplane was because some mechanic or IA didn’t do their job properly or some flight instructor didn’t teach him horoughly enough. It seems that since the FAA requires these annual inspections and don’t have the man power to do them that they would at least cover the cost of liability insurance for the guys they have doing THEIR REQUIRED WORK.

  2. says

    “Ask your favorite mechanic if you can assist with the annual inspection and any necessary repairs. Even simple jobs like removing the interior and inspection plates can save the mechanic time and you money — and teach you more about your aircraft.”

    Unfortunately, my favorite mechanic charges “flat rate” plus discrepancies for the annual inspection. There is no financial benefit for owner assisted annuals. Argh!

    • Richard Warner says

      I am an A&P/IA and if a guy wants to do all the grunt work, I’m all for it. In your case, I think I would find another “Favorite Mechanic” unless his flat rate is cheap.

      • Greg W says

        Agreed, look for a different IA,if unhappy with the cost or service. Something to remember is that an “annual condition inspection”,is just that, an inspection. An inspection by definition requires a mirror and flashlight,(or other “inspection” tools),it does not involve any mechanical work including gaining access.

        • Richard Warner says

          In fact, legally, an IA can’t do any repair work. He must do it as an A&P. Same guy, same certificate numberr, with different letters in front of the numbers. Just a little technicality in case he ever finds himself in court fighting a law suit because some guy who was drunk flew into the side of a mountain 11 1/2 months after the annual inspection and the departed’s lawyer is in the process of convincing a non-aviation jury that the guy that did the repairs during that inspection on the departed soul’s airplane is at fault because he was not certified to sign off the repairs because IA’s can only inspect and approve for return to service.

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