Airplane Ownership

This is likely one of the most unusual calls you’ll ever receive,” said the voice on the telephone. Thus I entered the ranks of airplane owners.

Preamble: A friend and e-mail correspondent owns a 1971 Beech A24R Sierra, a roomy, four-place, single-engine, retractable gear airplane. Powered by the Lycoming IO-360 200-horsepower engine, the Sierra makes up for its somewhat slow cruising speed (the book says up to 140 knots, but most owners plan for no more than 130) in sheer size (an inch wider than the Baron I fly). Of course, then there’s the legendary Beech fit and finish. Sitting high on its rubber-donut-cushioned main gear, it just beckons you to cruise in stately comfort in or above the clouds, or sightsee at 1000 feet on a warm summer’s eve.

NOTE FOR ASPIRING SIERRA OWNERS: The owner wisely put it thus: “If you go into this thinking it’s a little Bonanza you’ll be disappointed by the performance. If however you think of it as a move up from a 172, you’ll be amazed and pleased at what the Sierra has to offer.”

The “unusual” phone call was an offer to take a spin at owning an airplane — a “trial ownership,” as the Sierra’s master called it. He isn’t going to be able to fly for a while and, knowing my interest in the marque and my desire for a cross-country capable airplane, he proposed I take over payments and fly the airplane for six months or so. That way, he wouldn’t have to make payments on an airplane he wouldn’t be able to fly, and I’d be able to gauge whether I can really afford my own airplane. After the obligatory discussion with my wife (she started planning weekend flying trips right away, always a good sign for a prospective airplane owner) and some review of finances, I called my “new best friend” back and told him it was a “go.”

After hammering out some details (reregistering the airplane with the FAA as a co-ownership) I still had more to attend to… the insurance. We arranged for mutual insurance coverage in the case of a claim, and made it insurance policy-acceptable for me to pay more than “direct operating expenses” for use of the airplane. Plus, I had to sign a boilerplate co-ownership agreement (see, but with that the deal was struck. Soon I owned an airplane — at least, until my co-owner tells me it’s time for him to take his airplane back.

Many authors in many publications have addressed the world of airplane finance, of insurance, and checkout in new and unusual airplane types. Beyond those vital topics, though, there are a number of subtleties that come with airplane ownership. Consider these changes to your rental-pilot lifestyle:

  • You can fly more often… and you SHOULD. An airplane’s greatest enemy is lack of use. Especially in moist climates (where humid air can and will corrode the airplane’s, and the engine’s insides), an airplane needs to be flown at least twice a week to keep the moisture out. This means a big time commitment, as well as a fuel bill that will sneak up on you and destroy your budget if you don’t watch out.
  • You’re likely the only one flying the airplane. This means you also are the only one inspecting the airplane. Unlike rental airplanes, which get looked at a number of times each day by several different people, it’s entirely up to you to find any problems during your preflight inspections. If you rush through a preflight and miss something, no one else will find it before you’re ready to rush through the next inspection. Slow down and take your time — other pilots won’t be there to catch something you might miss.

INSIDER’S TIP: Budget an hour or more at least once a month, and go to the airport when you have no intention of flying. Instead, go over every inch of the airplane and look closely for discrepancies. Check for loose screws, cracks, and unusual oil leaks — anything that affects the airworthiness of your airplane. A clean airplane can be a great source of pride and, fortunately, cleaning the airplane is one of the best ways to inspect it. Do this roughly once a month when you’ve budgeted the time, and aren’t rushing to take off. This will help you feel better about the more “typical” preflight inspections you make before flights.

  • Non-flying tasks will command some of your “flying time.” Depending on your circumstances and the facility where you keep your airplane, you’ll likely have to pull the airplane around for fuel, and put it away at the end of your flight. You’ll usually have to wash the airplane. You may want to save some money by doing your own oil changes and other “pilot” maintenance allowed under FAR 43. This “ground time” will be deducted from the time you have aloft — but most owners think it’s one of the most fun things about owning an airplane!
  • Things rarely fix themselves. Unlike computers, you don’t often ‘reboot‘ your airplane to find that a problem has been magically resolved. You have to fix it and you’re the one that has to pay for it (co-owners help!). Fixing problems when they’re small is almost always far less expensive than fixing them when they ground the airplane — especially if you’re far from home, on a weekend, when they break.
  • You’ll have to take the airplane to the shop. Unless you have repair facilities on your home airport, you’re the one who has to take time to fly the airplane to the shop when needed, wait for repairs, or find (and pay for) another way home. Then you’ll have to reverse the process when the airplane is fixed. Remember that most repair facilities are closed weekends, so you may have to take time off during the week to do this.

Lest you think I’m emphasizing the negatives of airplane ownership, remember the positives:

  • YOU control scheduling the airplane. No more waiting for that solo cross-country student to get back from his trip, or for an instrument student to return from her checkride. Unless weather or aircraft maintenance dictates otherwise, the airplane’s ready to go when you are. Don’t bother calling ahead.
  • You get much more comfortable and confident flying the same airplane all the time. Soon you’ll reach for controls without even thinking where they’re located. You’ll better anticipate the individual airplane’s required power settings, what’s “normal” for instrument indications, and the airplane’s individual handling and quirks.
  • It MAY be a little less expensive. Unless you fly 150 hours or more a year you usually can’t justify ownership costs over rentals on a strict cost-per-hour basis. But if you travel a lot you can avoid the usual three-rental-hours-per-24-hours-away fee common to rental airplanes. Besides, if you want to move up beyond the basic four-seat training plane then ownership may be your only option.
  • You can keep your “stuff” in your airplane. You can leave your flight bag, charts, pencils, etc., in the airplane… not cart them all away and spend time putting everything back in place before flight, like you do in a rental bird.
  • It’s yours… ALL YOURS!!! AHH HAHAHA HA!!! ‘Nuff said.

So I’ll have fun, fun, fun ‘til my co-owner takes the S-bird away… and along the way I hope to convey a little insight into the joys of airplane ownership.

BOTTOM LINE: The ownership experience heaps greater personal and financial responsibility onto pilots — but also gives enormous benefits and satisfaction. I hope you, too, can someday own your own airplane!