Defining the mission
for your aircraft is the obvious first step in the buying process—and
one of the easiest to get wrong.
“[Pilots buying their] first
aircraft probably have an idealized picture in their mind of how they’re
going to use their airplane,” said John Downing, an Atlanta private
pilot who has bought and sold nearly 100 airplanes during more than 40
years of general aviation flying. “They envision taking their whole
family on vacations to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. If they’ve got
four kids, they figure their plane’s got to have six seats, long range,
an IFR panel, and a turbocharger to fly over the mountains.
“They wind up with an A36
Bonanza or the Cessna 210T when what they really want to do is practice
touch and goes, fly around the local area, and maybe get an instrument
rating,” he said. “A simpler, less capable, and far less expensive
aircraft probably would have suited their needs far better.”
Don’t feel bad about misjudging
Airlines with entire staffs of
professional fleet planners make errors in acquisition strategies, too.
So take a clear-eyed view of the ways in which you plan to use your
airplane. And don’t fall victim to the appearance of pragmatism.
“An airplane is a large
purchase, and lots of people—particularly business people—feel they need
to justify it on a dollars-and-cents basis,” Downing said. “Sometimes
they can, and an airplane turns out to be a great business tool. But
most of us fly because it’s something we’re drawn to do. It’s something
we’re compelled to do. If that’s the case, it’s far more intellectually
honest to just admit that up front.”
Downing owns a Bucker-Jungmann,
a two-seat, Swiss-built, World War II-era biplane and a Piper PA-11 Cub
that he uses for local flights. He also volunteers for medical Angel
Flights flying a twin-engine Beech Baron B-55.
“No one airplane is versatile
enough to cover every mission,” he said. “A sport plane isn’t a utility
plane, and a utility plane isn’t a long-distance traveler. Be honest
about the way you’re really going to use your airplane or you’ll never
find the right one.”
Downing says he enjoys flying
his Cub in warm weather, with the door open. A typical flight involves
landing on grass fields, a few chandelles and lazy 8s, and a Young Eagle
or someone (preferably a small person who fits into the Cub’s tight
cockpit) he can introduce to aviation in its “simplest, purest form.”
Flying the Bucker is more
adventurous with at least a few aerobatic maneuvers thrown in.
“What’s the point in taking a
plane like [the Bucker] up if you don’t get upside down a time or two?”
he asks rhetorically.
The Baron is meant for
long-distance flights and instrument conditions.
Just as a carpenter uses a
variety of different tools, pilots should make sure they select the
right ones. Local-area flights in good weather are best suited to
different airplanes than long-distance flights in the clouds.
“A screwdriver can work as a
chisel,” Downing said. “But if you need a chisel, get a chisel.”
Budget considerations play a
central role in most aircraft purchases, and finances can determine
whether a buyer selects a new or used aircraft; forms a partnership,
joins a fractional ownership group or
flying club, or enters a
with a flight school.
But Downing says money can
steer aircraft buyers in the wrong direction on both the low and the
Stretching beyond one’s means
to buy an airplane can cause obvious hardships, financial stress, and
resentment from family members. Soberly evaluate fixed costs such as
hangar or tiedown rates and insurance as well as variable costs
including maintenance, training, and direct operating costs such as fuel
and oil. [See
AOPA’s Operating Cost Calculator.]
Surprisingly, too big a budget
can have a downside, too. Downing said a wealthy friend bought a Bonanza
for a business/personal aircraft and wanted to learn to fly in it as
“He thought he was going to
save money and time by learning to fly in the same airplane that he was
going to use for business,” Downing said. “But when it was all said and
done, he could have learned much faster in a less complex aircraft and
then transitioned to the Bonanza. After a couple of years of high costs,
an irregular schedule, lots of maintenance, and not much progress
learning to fly, he ended up selling the Bonanza and not flying at all.”