The Impecunious Pilot

Impecunious-adj. not having enough money to pay for necessities [syn: hard up, in straitened circumstances, penniless, penurious, pinched]
— WordNet ® 1.7.1, © 1991-2001, Princeton University

Everyone is affected by economic instability to varying degrees. Although we’re all flying more carefully after last September, thoughts for flying frugally in these leaner times are probably also in our minds. This might be a good time to offer some proactive logistical insights and strategies to save a few bucks. Flying less is one punitive option, but I’d prefer flying smarter.

Go Juice
Generally, fuel accounts for a third or less of what it really costs to operate an airplane, and depending on your own circumstances, a lean economy might find you wanting to do a little more than pulling that red knob out a little further. As a matter of fact, aviation’s parsimonious paradox actually allows us to fly more for less, if we also pull out that “other” knob and reduce power. Granted, many of us don’t literally subscribe to the saying “time to spare, go by air” but up to a point aviation’s version of the double-nickel does allow more miles per gallon at reduced power settings. Up at about two thirds of its service ceiling, where many a normally aspirated engine / airframe combination produces the best fuel burn per knot, you won’t have to pull far for 55% power. Plus, decreasing your speed by a few percent will bring you equivalent savings in fuel costs by a factor of at least three (e.g., slowing down by seven percent generally saves about 20% in fuel). If you own the airplane, the downside is the perception that you’ll also get fewer places between overhauls … but really, how many minutes will a ten knot reduction in cruise speed add to your trip? If you’re buying the gas — or your flying club charges off the tachometer — it’s to your advantage to slow down.

No Valet Parking
And speaking of flying clubs, now there’s a great way to save money. I can rent a 172 at an FBO at my home airport for just over $80 an hour (Hobbs time, of course). On the other hand, I can fly either of my flying club’s two Skyhawks of similar … ahem … vintage, for about half that. (Oh, and my club bills by the tach hour, so it actually works out to significantly less.) Yes, there was a very reasonable entrance fee, although during the last 10 years I’ve kind of forgotten about it, and yes, they do exact their 20 hours of elbow grease (what I jokingly refer to as work release time), every year. I hasten to add that not all flying clubs do their own work or have quite the proportion of active A&P mechanics that ours does so for those that don’t, costs would be somewhat higher.

If there just aren’t any flying clubs in town, consider trading some time and tire treads for lower rates by driving to another FBO out in the country. Thanks to the laws of supply and demand, generally things are less expensive the further you are from major population centers. In any case, always shop around for the best FBO. (Notice I didn’t say best prices, because there are usually other issues besides money.)

On Beating Around The Bush
One obvious shortcut is a shortcut: if you’re instrument-rated, and you like being in the system, fine. But it’s not like there’s no going back to VFR flying in VFR conditions. In fact, going back to basics can be a good thing; when the weather cooperates, use pilotage for a more direct route, with perhaps a nod to technology, using your GPS as a backup. Just don’t forget to file (and close) your flight plan. If there are widespread ceilings of 2000 feet, multiple layers, with tops at 17, then of course file IFR. (It might be a good idea to use the FAA’s preferred routes though, because that’s what you’ll get anyway.) Of course, you can always ask for direct routing.

Tip: To improve your chances of getting “direct” file using at least one high-altitude VORTAC in each Center’s airspace.

In Search Of The Perpetual Tailwind
Making use of winds aloft forecasts to pick optimal altitudes is a snap with today’s flight planning programs — but do yourself and your passengers a favor and watch for forecast turbulence. Unfortunately, ducking under the friction layer to avoid headwinds would involve altitudes inappropriate for cross-country flight. The best of all worlds would be riding a tailwind with reduced power, avoiding the need for an extra fuel stop. If you make enough eastbound flights, an oxygen bottle might be a worthwhile investment, to make use of some awesome tailwinds where the air starts getting thin. Of course, you’ll always have to buck some headwinds going the other way…

So Long, Sporty’s; Welcome to Wal-Mart
If you own your own plane, amortizing the cost of airframe speed modifications might have occurred to you. So might sale-leaseback arrangements with your local FBO. To avoid seasonal hazards for non-hangared airplanes, such as de-icing expenses in winter, wing covers can be a good investment, as can window heat shields in summer, to prolong the life of avionics. Sharing the cost in a partnership with another pilot may seem less unattractive. Having maintenance done by a local college’s maintenance shop might also save money. So might another version of sweat equity — such as changing your own oil and other minor maintenance items. And you can be resourceful as well as thrifty when it comes to items like clipboards, sunglasses, timers, flight bags, chocks (and yes, wing covers and heat shields too), by making your own or buying a cheaper equivalent from a local discount store. Nobody says you have to accessorize by the dictates of fashion or MIL-STD criteria.

Would You Like Fries With That?
If you rent, purchasing block time is cheaper in the long run if you fly regularly. And it never hurts to ask the FBO owner if they would offer you an additional 10% discount, if you can arrange to fly at non-peak times, when no one else does. The worst they can do is say no … and you may get a counter-offer. The ultimate flattery of course, for them, is if you offered to work part-time to pay for flight hours.

From The Master Of The Obvious…
If you’re under 40 and you don’t need anything better, a third class medical lasts you three years — and it’s cheaper. If you participate in the FAA Wings program, you can often get lower insurance rates. If you’re landing at a big airport and you actually need to get to the other end of that 10,000-foot runway, request permission to land long (or on a different runway that might get you closer — do what you can to minimize taxi time). If you have a long wait for takeoff after three or more other aircraft ahead of you, consider shutting the engine down instead of sitting there with the meter running. When taking off, if you anticipate a hold for wake turbulence or jet traffic, try asking for a different runway. If your airplane will be sitting out in the hot sun a few hours after you land, remember to account for expansion and ask not to have your tanks topped off. The drops and drips add up. And if your routes are often flexible, consider joining F4, the Fillup Flyer Fuel Finder service, to locate the best prices on avgas. Sharing the flying expenses with another pilot isn’t exactly new. Finally if you’re really into saving money as well as community service, there’s the Civil Air Patrol or Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Be creative, be social, be frugal, and have fun.