In 1980, the decennial census counted 226,545,805 people in the United States. That same year, the FAA reported more than 827,000 of those folks held pilot certificates. That’s about one out of every 300 people.
By the end of 2009, the U.S. population had climbed to nearly 30% to 307,000,000 while the pilot count had dropped by 25% to 594,000. Today less than one out out of every 500 Americans is a pilot.
As the saying goes, there are statistics, damn statistics, and lies. But this is no lie: the world of general aviation is getting smaller, and every organization from AOPA to EAA has had their crack at explaining why. They’ve taken surveys, held town hall meetings, hired experts, analyzed statistics, published articles, and made proclamations for as long as I’ve been flying.
The decline has been blamed on everything under the sun. Some claim that fences and security procedures make the local airport an unwelcoming place. Others say liability concerns in today’s litigious society are at the heart of the problem. Or that flying can’t keep up with the excitement of modern video games and simulators.
My personal favorite? Blaming the flight instructor community. While there are certainly instructors out there with a lousy attitude and/or poor instructional technique, you will find that problem in every field of work from physicians to garbage collectors. For a long time, many people inside the industry have pointed the finger of blame at instructors. “The drop out rate for student pilots is 80%!”, they exclaim. Well, it must be the instructor’s fault, then.
Or perhaps not. There is truth in each of those assertions. Indeed, there are myriad reasons for the decay of general aviation, but chief among them is the cost.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
As with most things in life, the difference between what we want and what we have often comes down to plain old money. In my experience, when students can’t complete training, it’s almost always due to financial constraints. When experienced aviators curtail their flying and I ask them about it, the answer invariably comes back: I don’t have the money. I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken a friend for a flight and heard them gush about how much they’d love to learn to fly… until they discover the resources required to complete that training. And that was before the economy turned south.
The Sport Pilot certificate was supposed to make flying less expensive, but I don’t see the results. It’s true that more and more people are learning to fly in light-sport aircraft (LSA) even if they’re pursuing the higher private pilot certificate, but once your training is complete, what then?
If you want to continue flying, your choices are limited to renting or buying an aircraft. Renting is a tough sell because rentals usually come with daily minimums (typically at least a 3 hour/day charge) and that means even a weekend in Vegas will be cost prohibitive because the round trip from L.A. might take three hours but a Friday-to-Sunday trip could rack up six hours of charges. It’s hard to blame the rental FBO for the daily minimums. Airplanes are expensive assets and they have to keep them in the air to generate revenue.
So what’s the answer? Well, there are certainly ways to make flying more affordable, but they come with compromises and require thought, research, and creativity. If you want to fly badly enough though, you often can make it happen.
Parnerships: A Popular Option
One frequently-used technique is to share ownership with another pilot. Privately-owned general aviation aircraft tend to spend most of their time on the ground just sitting. They might fly once a week on average. Probably less. Why not split the cost and get the plane in the air more?
Aircraft partnerships reduce cost and can also allow you to fly a larger or more powerful airplane than you’d otherwise be able to afford. You’ll also have someone to share flying experiences with, and isn’t that part of aviation’s appeal?
On the other hand, partnerships do raise the possibility of disagreements between owners, mismatched goals or schedules, and different ideas about upgrades and maintenance. Think of it like a marriage: when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s not, it can get downright ugly.
The partnership route is one that I’ve used for two out of my three aircraft ownership experiences, and although they’ve not been perfect, I’ve been able to fly at times and in aircraft I could not have afforded on my own.
Flying Clubs: Low Commitment, Low Cost
Joining a flying club that has less restrictive daily minimums is another option for those without the resources to own. Flying clubs are typically non-profit organizations, so the hourly fee to fly an aircraft tends to be lower since they’re not seeking to turn a profit. They’re the credit unions of the aviation world, if you will.
Many flying clubs also charge by the tach hour rather than Hobbs hour, so you pay very little for time spent on the ground. That may not sound like much of an incentive, but a typical hour-long flight could involve as much as fifteen minutes spent on the ground taxiing, waiting, performing pre-flight checks, and so on. And if you’re taking a lazy sightseeing flight along the coast, the lower engine RPM means the tach meter runs slower and you pay less per hour.
One of the great advantages of a flying club is that the capital outlay for getting into the cockpit tends to be quite small. A typical club might ding you for an annual membership fee of $100 or so. Beyond that, you only pay for your flight time. If you move, lose interest, or just don’t have time to fly for a while, you’re not bleeding money each month for storage fees, taxes, required inspections, etc.
Sole-Ownership: Yes, Virginia, It Does Exist
Before you write-off the possibility of owning an aircraft outright, perhaps you should take a look at this AOPA Online article. Author Alton Marsh lists ten aircraft you can purchase for less than $20,000:
- 1980 Piper Tomahawk
- 1953 Piper TriPacer
- 1961 Piper Colt
- 1961 Ercoupe
- 1972 Cessna 150
- 1946 Cessna 120
- 1946 Cessna 140
- 1946 Luscombe 8A
- 1946 Aeronca 11BC Super Chief
Think about that. If you’re willing to hold on to your current car when it’s paid off, you could put those resources toward owning an airplane and probably not pay much more for the privilege. A typical 20-year aircraft loan of $20,000 at 7% interest with 15% down would cost $131.80 per month. To be fair, there are other expenses such as fuel, insurance and a tiedown/hangar fee to pay each month. It’s never going to be cheap, but it doesn’t have to be ruinous, either.
Not only are these aircraft relatively inexpensive, but they tend to be some of the most fun aircraft you can fly, tailwheels! I would go a bit further than the AOPA article and add a few experimental-homebuilt airplanes to the list. You can get a flying RV-3 for the same price. Yes, it’s a single seat airplane, but one that will do over 200 mph on seven gallons of fuel per hour. The Thorp T-18 two-seater gives RV-like performance on a much lower budget. There’s one for sale right now on Barnstormers for $22,000.
Maintenance: The Big Question Mark
No matter what aircraft you own, there is one large variable which can really eat a hole in your pocket: maintenance. It’s a fact of life for all of us who fly, as it should be. Safety and common sense demand we treat our flying machines with greater care than our automobiles because the consequences of a mechanical failure can be far more severe.
Unfortunately, the high cost of maintenance does more to drive people away from flying in general and ownership in particular than just about anything else. You think an auto dealership’s maintenance shop can shock you with their invoice? You ain’t seen nothing yet! In the world of aviation, it’s not difficult for maintenance to overtake all other ownership costs — combined. I’ve had maintenance bills so high I could have used the check to purchase a new car.
If you want to keep your flying affordable, there are several ways to cut the maintenance expense on your aircraft down to size. The ultimate solution is to pursue an FAA Airframe & Powerplant certificate, but that requires a major commitment of time, typically two years of full-time schooling.
If that’s too big a commitment, regulations (specifically, 14 CFR Part 43) allow aircraft owners to perform much of the preventative and routine maintenance themselves. The list is long and covers virtually all the typical maintenance chores on a simple GA aircraft:
- Removal, installation, and repair of landing gear tires.
- Replacing elastic shock absorber cords on landing gear.
- Servicing landing gear shock struts by adding oil, air, or both.
- Servicing landing gear wheel bearings, such as cleaning and greasing.
- Replacing defective safety wiring or cotter keys.
- Lubrication of the airframe.
- Making simple fabric patches.
- Replenishing hydraulic fluid.
- Painting (except balanced control surfaces)
- Applying preservative or protective material or coatings.
- Repairing upholstery and decorative furnishings inside the plane
- Making small simple repairs to fairings, cover plates, cowlings, and small patches.
- Replacing windows (except the windshield)
- Replacing safety belts.
- Replacing seats or seat parts with replacement parts.
- Trouble shooting and repairing landing light wiring circuits.
- Replacing bulbs, reflectors, and lenses of position and landing lights.
- Replacing wheels.
- Replacing most cowlings.
- Replacing or cleaning spark plugs and setting of spark plug gap clearance.
- Replacing any hose connection except hydraulic connections.
- Replacing prefabricated fuel lines.
- Cleaning or replacing fuel and oil strainers or filter elements.
- Replacing and servicing batteries.
- Replacement or adjustment of nonstructural standard fasteners.
- Removing and replacing instrument panel-mounted radios..
- Updating navigational software databases.
As if this isn’t enough, if an A&P mechanic is willing to supervise you, there’s literally no maintenance you cannot legally perform on your airplane. Want to overhaul the engine? Go for it. With an Experimental-AB airworthiness certificate, you don’t even need the A&P’s supervision.
I’ve come to feel that if we taught neophyte pilots more about ways to reduce maintenance costs, they’d be more likely to remain in aviation for the long-term. I try to provide that service for friends and clients wherever possible, because every new owner goes through a steep learning curve where maintenance costs force you to sell or find ways to economize. Heck, the simple act of joining a type club can do wonders for an owner seeking parts, knowledgeable mechanics, and advice on upkeep for their bird.
Flying can cost an arm and a leg, but it doesn’t have to. Whether you rent, lease, barter, own, or borrow an airplane, there is frequently a cost effective way to get — and stay — airborne. Fly a less-expensive plane, operate out of a cheaper airport, use mogas, volunteer for a non-profit and write-off some of the costs. When flying got too expensive for me, I decided to make it a career so I could not only get paid but also write off many of my expenses.
There are more ways to reduce the cost of flying than there is time to write it all down. What I’ve covered here are just a few basics. You can fly. The only real question is: how bad do you want it?