Buying an aircraft.

by w3woody

Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. But I want to take this in a different direction and talk about buying an airplane.

Some background: I got my private pilots license in February of 2013, and my IFR at the start of this year. And I’m looking at buying a mid 1970’s Piper Arrow II or III: basically after spending several months looking around and getting check out in a variety of different airplanes, I settled on the Piper Arrow II or III for the following reasons:

(1) Cost. A Piper Arrow retractable aircraft does cost more to operate than a fixed-gear airplane (such as a Cessna 172 or 182), but in terms of speed verses fuel burned, the Piper Arrow (which will do around 140kts at 8,000 with 10 gal/hour burn) winds up being a fairly cost effective aircraft to operate–when you factor in both the higher costs of flying a retractable airplane, but with the lower cost of fuel (which represents something like half the operating cost of flying an airplane) works out to be a reasonable compromise.

(2) The Mission: Basically when you buy an airplane, buy what you need rather than what you want. There are airplanes which can fly higher, faster or carry more–but each dimension you stretch causes you to make compromises on another dimension.

For example, in order to fly faster than perhaps 120kts, you are looking at either a retractable gear airplane, or you’re looking at more horsepower or a more streamlined airplane. If you get a more streamlined airplane you now have a more “slippery” airplane (such as a Cirrus) which requires more planning to bring down. If you get higher horsepower, you’re looking at higher fuel consumption rates (16 gal/hour is quite common). If you want more carrying capacity you’re looking at a bigger airplane which requires more fuel to fly.

For me, my typical mission model is me, my wife, 50 to 100 pounds of luggage on a 300 nautical mile flight to Pennsylvania or to Georgia.

That’s too short, really, for a turbo airplane; by the time you get to the altitude necessary to get the speeds a turbo promises it’s time to come back down again. A 182 becomes a bit big; like buying a Ford F-150 truck when most of the time a small hatchback will do.

But it is a little far for a Cessna 172; with 15 knot headwinds a 172 would take 3.4 hours to get to the destination, while an Arrow in the same headwinds would cut the trip down to 2.5 hours.

To me, the Piper Arrow represents a good compromise: the added expense of landing gear in order to trim an hour off the trip does add to the cost, but it’s still within my budget. But something more powerful for an extra 30 knots–which would trim the time on my trip by 30 minutes–isn’t worth the extra 50%-100% increase in prices.

So where am I in the process?

I’m going to put hard numbers on this in case anyone else is interested.

For me, I’m looking for an Arrow II or III from the mid 1970’s. The AOPA Value Estimator puts this somewhere between $45,000 and $80,000 depending on time and equipment levels–with higher prices for more equipment, naturally. And for me, this is right in my comfort zone: I’ve seen some very nice non-GPS aircraft with low engine times (on the order of 500 hours with 2000 TBO) at around $60,000, give or take–roughly what I paid for my Porsche Boxster.

Avemco said that given my current hours (approximately 11 hours dual training in a Piper Arrow II, 30+ hours in complex, and 250 hours total) that they’d insure me for around $2,400/year.

A hanger at RDU runs approximately $5,500/year. And of course I’ll want to hanger the airplane; there have been cases of aircraft improperly tied down–including some very big airplanes (I’m talking small business jets) which have been tossed around and destroyed in heavy winds.

So that leaves the cost of annuals, oil changes and maintenance costs. A quick survey of various boards suggest annuals on a Piper Arrow run between $1,200 to $3,000 depending on the stuff that is wrong–though owner-assisted annuals bring this price down quite a bit. (And I plan to do owner-assisted annuals because I’d like to get to know my airplane.)

And at some point there is an engine rebuild–but this won’t take place for many years, hopefully.

But these are all preliminary, of course. And to meet these expenses I plan to open a savings account with Wells Fargo and deposit money into that account each time I fly, so that I can cover those ongoing expenses as they arise. (Basically operate the airplane like I’m operating an FBO, but I’m paying myself to cover ongoing fixed and per-hour operating costs.)

My strategy to buy an airplane is the following:

(1) Find an aircraft on various web sites (such as Controller or Trade A Plane), and identify one which looks like a good value.

In the compromise of equipment levels and hours verses cost I would favor lower-time engines (though ones that have been regularly flown) over higher-timed engines but better equipped airplanes. Avionics don’t keep you airborne; the engine does.

(2) Determine if the airplane is available, and have the owner or dealer e-mail me a copy of the aircraft logs.

(3) If the logs look relatively complete, then negotiate a purchase price, and open escrow and start a title search through AIC Title, and find a competent A&P Mechanic who can do a pre-buy inspection where the airplane is located.

(4) Schedule a time for the pre-buy inspection, and fly out to where the airplane is located. (I’d fly commercially and rent a car, but with a refundable return ticket in case things go south.) Reserve a hotel room for the night or for two nights, surrounding the time when the inspection takes place.

(5) On the day, fly out and inspect the airplane. If it looks fine, finalize the purchase with the escrow company–or if there are problems negotiate a new price for repairs. Take possession, then fly the airplane home.

And if it goes south, fly back commercially.

We’ll see how this goes.