Buying an Airplane, Step One

I’ve been writing a series of articles about the airplane purchasing process. This one, on the first steps is the second in the series. To read the first article, titled “Caveat Emptor,” click here.

So you want to buy your first airplane? From those who’ve accomplished that mission ahead of you, the sentiment is universal: “What took you so long?” Whether the obvious financial obligations that aircraft ownership bring have steered you away in the past, taking the idea of purchasing an airplane from a childhood dream to an adult reality means that you’re ready to steam through that first hurdle and start figuring out how this is all going to work out.

When we entertained the idea of buying our Cub (completely disassembled and missing a few parts), I started to break down costs such as parts, insurance, hangar rent, and asked my father in law, a veteran airplane owner for many years, what he budgeted for overhauls. When he saw my pretty spreadsheet with each of these fixed and variable costs broken down per hour, he immediately crumpled up my hard work, threw it in the trash, and asked me “do you want to own an airplane?” A nod in the affirmative invoked the following; “then these numbers don’t matter.” His thought was that if you wanted to own an airplane, you’ll make the necessary sacrifices to make that happen. And so we did. 

Before you make your pretty spreadsheets, there’s a few things to factor in the whole process, and many of these have likely been considered, but are worth discussing. Airplanes, like pants, serve one purpose well, and other purposes somewhat well. A nice pair of wool pants may look great with a matching blazer, but they will not serve you well in the pool. Airplanes serve one mission quite well, and determining what the bulk of the airplane’s mission will be for you is something you must consider at the beginning. When my buddy Josh was looking for an airplane to fly into the backcountry with himself, his gear, and maybe a friend, there was nothing that better fit the bill than the Cub. More than the world-renown performance, more than the numerous STCs and other mods available, more than the namesake and the fact they’re the workhorse of Alaska, the Cub also fetches a premium on the airplane market, so while he’d be paying more now, that value would not be lost in the event he decides to sell his Cub (and don’t even bother asking for the first right of refusal..he’s not allowed to sell his Cub).

Your mission may not be as specific. Perhaps you’re interested in something that you’ll feel comfortable flying a few friends and family around for airport cafe runs. Maybe you’re just trying to find a cheap way to build time. When the mission crosses a few different areas, the good news is that the number of makes and models that will fit the bill will increase. The bad news? that the number of makes and models that will fit the bill will increase. Sussing out one manufacturer versus another is like trying to decide between televisions at Costco. You know you want a 55 inch flat screen, and you know you’re willing to pay x amount, but having them stacked one atop another invokes an hour-long debate on which one has better colors, blacks, and features, when in actuality when you finally take one home to hang on the wall, there’s not another 12 screens next to it to compare to.

Addressing your individual concerns about your desired airplane will also invoke unsettling debates on the internet that will continue beyond our mere existence in this realm. Instead, when you’ve come to the realization that you’re steering between a few different makes and models, ask around your local general aviation community to find some local owners who wouldn’t mind a free lunch to talk about their airplane ownership history. Inevitably you’ll learn more in person about the airplane you’ve been researching online for the last few months. And the face-time with the airplane itself will help you prepare for the pre-pre-buy inspection. Talking about how deep preventive maintenance tasks are, along with the tall tales and lessons learned from maintaining an airplane that you’re interested in will enlighten you on a few things your online research is likely missing. And, to top it off, getting more active in the community not only helps you as you transition into this new world, but is likely the best source (and cheapest prices) for airplanes that are sold offline. If there’s an opportunity to split operating costs (the legal way) so you can gain some stick time in your potential make and model airplane, seize it! That experience will pay its weight as you test-fly your potential new airplane as well.

While you’re researching makes and models online, you’ll come to the realization that airplane owners tend to overvalue their airplanes. In the buyer / seller relationship, the seller tends to have the upper hand. To help level the playing field, one thing you should be doing through all this research is determining what you believe to be the “fair market value” for the airplane. Taking the listed prices from the various online listing sites, and factoring in how hours after TBO cost (through a rough estimate of what an overhaul would cost), what desired (but not) installed STCs and doo-dads cost to be installed (like ADS-B), you can estimate this “fair market value.” I learned this trick from some friends that spent over a year researching their latest dream plane (which happens to be my dream plane as well). Figuring out this “fair market value” helped them when it came to negotiating the actual cost of the airplane when the final checks were written and last handshakes shook.

Determining what the mission of the airplane is is that crucial first step, and can take some time to truly decide what the plane is going to be used for a majority of the time. When you’ve narrowed that down, finding suitable makes and models that can serve that mission well (and any secondary and tertiary missions somewhat well) will only open Pandora’s Box as you now wade through discussion forums, Facebook groups, and lengthy hangar chats about why x is better than y. Taking the time to actually meet face-to-face with owners of those researched make and models will help you paint a picture of what you’re getting into. But in the end, all of this research you’ll be completing is merely a data gathering mission that will not only help ease those questions and concerns you’ve had from the beginning, it will help you in the next phase of the process, when you’re going to start making calls and looking at airplanes, which I will discuss in the next article.