User Fees for All

Highway at night

I’ve been flying sixteen years now, and the specter of user fees has haunted the general aviation community the entire time. Longer, in fact.

The history of these proposals has been summarized by AOPA if you care to know the full background, but one thing not many of us remember is that these taxes were first proposed to Congress nearly two decades ago by… who was it again? Oh, that’s right: the industry itself. Yes, it was the airlines who first urged the adoption of user fees “as a mechanism to fund the FAA in a balanced federal budget.”

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500,000 Miles

010208-odometer

You might recall that I reached 215,000 miles on the odometer of my 1993 Eclipse. That seemed rare enough. But I recently stumbled upon Drive to Five, the blog of an Acura owner who recently reached the 500,000 mile mark with his ’94 Legend coupe.

Half a million miles is enough to take you to the moon and back, then around the world a couple of times. I suppose just reaching a mileage mark isn’t all that dramatic. With enough money, you can replace or repair any part on a car. That’s how we keep airplanes flying for a half century or more: money. They’re worth enough that it makes economic sense to pour large sums into the maintenance and occasional refurbishment of the aircraft.

A few things stand out about this particular car. First, it’s still running on the original engine, transmission, and clutch. Second, the owner doesn’t baby the car; he’s driven it off-road and even used the vehicle in road races. Finally, he claims that even after half a million miles, the car doesn’t smoke or leak a drop of oil. Oh, and he averages better than 30 mpg.

Acura got wind of his web site and invited him to the company’s headquarters in Torrance to celebrate the milestone. He managed to arrive for the ceremony with 500,000.2 miles on the odometer. They awarded him some expensive parts, free maintenance until the end of 2012, and even put his car in their museum for the day.

I wonder how many hours an aircraft would have to accrue on the Hobbs meter before Boeing, Beech, Cirrus or any of the other OEMs would do the same. It’d have to be a pretty large number, because airliners already post some impressive stats. A sizeable fleet of DC-3s built in the early 1940s are still flying some 70 years later. In 2004, South African Airways retired a 747-200 built in 1971. At that time, it had accrued more than 107,000 hours of flight time.

My New Car!

To those of you who said I’d never get a new car — and I know there are a lot of you out there — feast your eyes on this:

2008 Honda Accord coupe

Yeah baby! It’s a 2008 Honda Accord LX-S Coupe. I’ve been waiting for this car to hit the showroom floor since I first saw photos of the concept vehicle at the auto shows last year. In my opinion, it’s one of the best looking automobiles on the market today, and you can get them for around $21,000. Mine’s a base model four-cylinder with 190 hp. Any more horsepower and I’d be getting speeding tickets right and left. Now I’ll just be getting them left.

The navigation system, leather seats, moonroof and XM radio push the price closer to $30,000, so I went with the base model and certainly haven’t been disappointed with what I got for the money. Vehicle stability control, dynamic braking, drive-by-wire throttle, side curtain airbags, active head restraint, active noise cancellation (yes, aviators, you read that right — an ANR system for the entire car!), 17″ wheels, cruise control, tire pressure monitoring system, 6 disc CD changer, automatic transmission, power windows/doors, remote keyless entry, heated windows.

Hell, I was excited just to have power steering.

The buying experience was not exactly painless, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I have the internet to thank for that. These days you’d be crazy to deal with a retail salesman; get internet quotes via the web and ensure you work with the internet department at the dealership. That’s what I did, and my negotiations started off at invoice price. Keep in mind this is on a new model, too. The 2008 Accord is completely redesigned, so I was going after a brand new generation, not some design which has been around for years. This is a relatively hot item.

I don’t begrudge the dealership making a few dollars, but the spread between invoice and MSRP was about $2500. There’s no way I was going to wade through that chasm.

The worst part about the buying experience was dealing with the exasperating finance person. You think you’re done with the sales department and they hand you off to a smiling person who is ostensibly not a salesman. Yet before you know it this guy — who is supposed to be getting your paperwork in order — is trying to sell you an alarm system, Lojack, extended warranties, and more.

What the heck?

I said no to each and every item. If you look closely at the terms of the extended warranties, they usually exclude most of the big ticket items. Timing belts, catalytic converters, exhaust systems, etc. And none of them cover preventative maintenance, so you’d be lucky to get any coverage at all in the event of car trouble. Plus, if you don’t keep the car in tip-top shape, they’ll deny your claim right off the bat. I know this because I actually read the warranty! When I asked the finance guru if he’d mind my doing that, the look on his face told me I was the first one that had ever asked to read the thing. How sad is that?

They do their best to confuse you with semantics. “Oh, this is a six year warranty!” Uh, no it’s not. The factory bumper-to-bumper warranty covers me for the first three years, so it’s really only a three year extension of the already-included warranty. And the powertrain is warrantied for five years, so it’s only a one year addition there. And then only on items for which the warranty administrator (aka not you) approves coverage. All this for only $1800! No thanks.

I couldn’t help but laugh at how the salesman insisted Hondas are the epitome of reliability, yet the guy trying to sell the warranty will scare you with tales of expensive computer components which are sure to fail. Which is it guys? Is this a reliable car or isn’t it?

Anyway, I arrived at the dealership around 12:30 p.m. It was 6:30 p.m. and completely dark by the time I drove away from the Honda dealership. As my trusty 1993 Eclipse faded in the rear-view mirror of the shiny new Accord, I couldn’t help but feel sad about leaving my old friend behind.

My old Eclipse

The most surprising thing about the car buying experience was how incredibly sad it was to say goodbye to the Eclipse That Would Not Die. As I unloaded my personal belongings from the old gal, I was thinking about all the adventures we’d seen together. Sliding sideways into snow drifts while skating down Mammoth Mountain. Road trips to Las Vegas. Shuttling students back and forth at the airport. Literally thousands of trips to/from various rehearsals and performances all over Southern California. The marathon runs to Hollywood.

When I bought the Eclipse, the world was a different place. For one thing, we’d just elected a new president, some guy named Clinton. There was no World Wide Web. Most people didn’t have email, and only a few had cell phones. It was 1993, and I was still in college. The $10,000 cost of the car seemed enormous. How would I ever pay that off?

Over the past few years, the age of my Eclipse became somewhat of a joke, even to me. I think it was hard to let it go because it marks the end of an era. I’m not sure what that era is, but there’s no denying a lot of memories are wrapped up in that vehicle. I kept the car washed, waxed, and maintained for 15 years. And now it’s going to end up being crushed by some guy named Joe at a junk yard. How sad!

I suppose I’ll one day feel that way about the Accord. If I get the same life out of the Honda that I did from my old warhorse, I’ll be satisfied. Speaking of life, I snapped a photo of the odometer after unloading all my personal stuff from the car. The final tally: 215,724 miles.

215,724 miles on the odometer

The new car does have a lot of similarities to the old one. They are both base models. Both coupes. And both of them are red. In fact, every car I’ve ever owned has been red. I suppose I could have branched out with a new color, but the palette offered by most car manufacturers is just not very compelling. Most people seem to favor silver, gray, black, white, or some beige variation. Take a look around the parking lot next time you’re out and about. It’s a sea of non-descript bland looking vehicles! The only stand-out colors offered for the Accord coupe are blue and red, so there was really no choice to be made. I’m not driving a minivan here, folks. It’s a sporty coupe — it’s supposed to be red. The coup de grâce was when I realized that the Pitts S-2B is the same color as the Accord. Now that’s just cool!

I’m a little concerned about keeping the ivory interior clean, especially in light of the dirt and grease filled environments in which I work. Not to mention a hyper sensitivity to door dings and other road rash which can only come from buying a new vehicle. The saving grace is that most of the cars at SNA cost a lot more than mine. There are countless Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Aston Martins in the parking lot, so they’re probably more worried about my doors than I am about theirs.

The Accord seems to be a hit everywhere I go. I’ve been stopped by pilots, sheriff deputies, car aficionados, and random folks on the street who just want to get a look it. People take photos of it at stop lights. The guy who tinted the windows asked if he could take some pictures for his web site. And just the other day, a woman came in to Gelson’s (a local grocery store) while I was there. She didn’t come in to shop, but just to say how much she liked the car and to ask who made it.

Two Hundred Thousand

200,000 baby!The odometer on my 1993 Eclipse recently ticked past the 200,000 mile mark while driving back from Las Vegas.

Well, I guess “recently” is a subjective term. That was in 2006. Since then, I’ve piled on another 30,000 miles.

Everyone teases me about how long I’ve had the vehicle (it was purchased new for just over $10,000), but I’ve never cared enough about automobiles to spend the time or money on a new one every few years. So I just laugh along with them, knowing that many people spend more on their car payment than I do on my mortgage. It doesn’t hurt that I get to bypass an exasperating dealership experience.

Speaking of mortgages, the subprime meltdown has led to a dramatic change in the content of many financial rags. Instead of “Top Ten Exotic Vacations”, we find things like this tome from CNN:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — By keeping your car for 15 years, or 225,000 miles of driving, you could save nearly $31,000, according to Consumer Reports magazine. That’s compared to the cost of buying an identical model every five years, which is roughly the rate at which most car owners trade in their vehicles.

Calculating the costs involved in buying a new Honda Civic EX every five years for 15 years – including depreciation, taxes, fees and insurance – the magazine estimated it would cost $20,500 more than it would have cost to simply maintain one car for the same period.

Added to that, the magazine factored in $10,300 in interest that could have been earned on that money, assuming a five percent interest rate and a three percent inflation rate, over that time.

If you were to stash that $20,500 in a Roth IRA and never add another cent to it, in 30 years you’d have $357,712 (assuming an annualized return of 10%). That’s from driving one car for 15 years. Do it twice and you’d end up with more than half a million dollars in 30 years.

And that’s from driving a Honda Civic. If you’re thinking about a Lexus — even an entry level model like an IS250 — you could easily double the savings. The depreciation alone on the cheapest Lexus is estimated at $13,000 over five years. A Mercedes C-class has a five year ownership cost of more than $46,000!

Hey, if you’ve got the money to burn, fantastic. But there are so many people around Orange County who are stressed about paying their mortgage while they drive around in a late model Benz. The first time an expensive repair comes along which will cost “more than the car is worth”, they dump it in favor of a new ride. Talk about false economy — what they should really be comparing it to is the cost of a new car. The true cost of a new car.

Enough about that. My Eclipse won’t last forever… I think. I basically stopped doing any maintenance on it a few years ago, yet it continues to run. I attribute that longevity to the car’s extreme simplicity. No power steering, power brakes, power seats, power windows, or power doors. Unless the engine blows up, there’s really not much that can go wrong with it. ¡Viva la Eclipse!.

My 93 Eclipse

I’ve been debating what to replace it with when the time comes. Despite my happy experience with the Mitsubishi Eclipse, I’m not considering another one. The car was a major bargain when I bought it in 1993, but the prices have ballooned since that time, and I don’t really care for the styling of the new models. They lack the impressive cargo capacity of my current Eclipse.

An even larger issue is longevity of the brand. Many of the Mitsubishi dealers in Orange County seem to have closed their doors over the past few years.

The Consumer Reports story mirrors something I’ve noticed: there aren’t that many American cars from the early-mid 90s on the roads anymore. But there are plenty of old Japanese cars. I’m thinking something like a Honda LX coupe might be just the ticket. The styling of the 2008s isn’t as impressive as I’d hoped. The original concept car Honda shopped around to all the major auto shows last year was far more exotic than the final product.

When I spent the night in Midland, TX recently, I noticed that virtually every car on the road sported an American badge. I’m sure some of you might wonder why I wouldn’t support domestic auto production by “buying American”. My philosophy has always been that the very best thing I can do for our auto industry is to buy the vehicle I truly feel is best for me. If that turns out to be a Japanese or German model, then so be it.

Buying American for its own sake is penny wise and pound foolish. If American companies are not making the best cars, I am actually helping them by not buying it. Sales will be lower. If they’re smart, they’ll ask why, seek out the market leaders and make changes to their own product line. If they’re not smart, then they’ll fall by the wayside and leave market share to those who can produce a superior vehicle.

I’m not even sure what qualifies as “domestic” anymore. Take the Honda Accord: it’s assembled in the U.S. by Americans, many of the parts are from the U.S., and Honda stock is held by countless mutual funds, institutions, and individuals in this country.

Jet Powered Volkswagon

Forget that sport pilot stuff.  If I ever lose my medical, I’m building one of these:

Even Bubb Rubb wouldn’t be able to handle this thing.  According to the builder:

This is a street-legal jet car.  The car has two engines: the production gasoline engine in the front driving the front wheels and the jet engine in the back.  The idea is that you drive around legally on the gasoline engine and when you want to have some fun, you spin up the jet and get on the burner (you can start the jet while driving along on the gasoline engine).

Apparently, the car is licensed here in California.

In California, new cars have bi-annual smog inspections so if you modify the engine, it is likely to fail the inspection and you won’t be able to drive it on the street.  There are some exempt engine modifications (ex. after-cat mufflers – big deal) but none that will allow you to add 1350 hp to a new car.

Kerosene is stored in a custom 14 gallon, baffled, foam-filled kevlar fuel cell in the spare tire well.  Two fuel exits in the back: a -12 on the left side and a -10 on the right.  The -10 goes to a shutoff, then a Barry Grant pump (one of the few hot rod parts on the car), then up into the car where it sees a filter, a regulator, and an electrical shutoff valve before feeding the engine.  The -12 goes into a shutoff, then a 1.5 hp, 11,000 rpm, 24V custom electric pump.   Pump is magnesium and can maintain 100 psi at 550 gph.  From the pump it goes into the car to a filter, then a large regulator, and then to the afterburner solenoid and the big-fire solenoid (to left of pump and feeding bottom of tailpipe through orange covered hose).  Fuel system was tested for flow capability.

 

The engine is a General Electric Model T58-8F.  This is a helicopter turboshaft engine that was converted to a jet by some internal modifications and a custom tailpipe.  The engine spins up to 26,000 RPM (idle is 13,000 RPM), draws air at 11,000 CFM, and is rated at 1350 hp.  It weighs only 300 lbs.  It grows as it warms up so the engine mounts have to account for this.  The mounts in the front are rubber and the back are sliding mounts on rubber.  The structure holding the engine was designed using finite element analysis and is redundant.  Strong, damage tolerant, and light.  Second battery and fuse/relay panel on the right, halon fire system and 5 gallon dry sump tank on left.  24V starter motor is in the nose of the engine.  700 A of current goes into that motor for 20 seconds during start-up.  Due to heat, must limit starts to three in one hour.  Big screen is to avoid FOD (foreign object damage).

My favorite part?  “The jet keeps sucking the rose out of the bud vase on the dash!”

A Quicktime video is available here.