Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Affordable Plane

My last few posts have stirred up a rather consistent response; most of the messages I have received read like this: "Great write-up, but boy was it depressing."  Don't be depressed!  I don't know about everyone else, but my friends and I that fly don't do it to be thrifty. We do it because flying is one of the most amazing experiences we can do.

This post will be about obtaining the affordable plane.

"For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards,
for there you have been, and there you will long to return."
Leonardo da Vinci

For the pilot that just wants to fly regularly, putt around the pattern, and occasionally take a friend for a $100 hamburger: there are great options for ownership. Of the many options available, I'll cover the first one I thought about.

The Cessna 150

The Commuter is a great little airplane for getting into the sky and enjoying a sunny day.  I flew one for the first half of my original Private Pilot certificate, and I remember it fondly.  Powered by a near bulletproof 100hp Continental O-200, this bird is as hardy as she is slow.

It's very difficult to apply a wrong power setting on the O-200, and you generally don't even have to worry about the Lean of Peak / Rich of Peak argument your hangar mates are always having. At cruise your engine will be barely sipping fuel at just 5gph. Sure, lean her out to 4gph, but there's not much worry there either way.

With an average overhaul cost of $15,000, each hour you fly means putting away an extra $8.50 in engine reserve. Of course, the recommended TBO is 1,800, but I know a guy who currently has just over 3,500 hours since overhaul with no major engine troubles and is only now planning on having it done.

Standard Cessna 150L
The overhaul isn't everything, it's just the big expense that happens eventually.  Let's break down everything else based on its typical wear and tear, and try to add it all up assuming you want to keep everything replaced at recommended intervals (including rough labor guess).

Operating Costs with Maintenance Reserve: $45.35/hr

  • $27.5/hr Fuel burn of 5 gallons per hour at $5.50/gal
  • $0.60/hr Add a quart of oil per 10 hours
  • $8.50/hr Engine Overhaul
  • $3/hr 2x Magnetos: Overhaul Every 500 hours at about $750 ea.
  • $0.25/hr Vacuum Pump: Overhaul exchange every 1,000 hours at about $250.
  • $1.50/hr Generator/Alternator: Overhaul exchange after 500 hours for $750.
  • $4/hr Let's say you have to replace two cylinders at 500 hours at $1,000 each. 

Note: If you can get Alcohol-free Mogas near you for about $4.00/gal that drops to $38/hr

The propeller on this is fixed pitch and made of metal. Unless you get any major nicks or corrosion, and so long as it passes annual just fine its TBO is honestly pretty irrelevant; if you own the plane for long enough for this to be your problem you've done a good job.

The control surfaces and fixed gear should be negligible as far as cost, but let's throw on another dollar per hour reserve just in case. Anything that'd blow out a strut or the like in this plane would warrant an insurance claim.

Fixed Costs Broken Down Monthly:
If you fly IFR or under a Mode-C veil you're going to need a Pitot/Static and Transponder Check
Image Courtesy 
Giovanni Handal via Wikimedia Commons
You want to fly, and you want to fly inexpensively. Although your bird will be exposed to the elements, a tie-down will be your best bet.  Around here that ranges from $50/mo to $200/mo. Let's assume you will drive the extra 10 miles to get that good deal and roll out a $50/mo tie-down.

An IFR Check is going to run about $300 every other year, this boils down to $12.50/month

Of course let's not forget insurance!  After making a few calls today (these guys are going to start hating my voice eventually!), I've come up with the following average quote:

  • Cessna 150
  • 100hp Engine
  • New-purchase
  • Non-hangared
  • Student Pilot
  • Zero Hours
  • Not instrument rated
  • Flight and Ground Hull + Liability Coverage
  • Zero Previous Flight Experience, stating again
  • Must receive at least 15 hours dual before solo

$750/year ($62.5/mo)

For reference here's what it would cost for me: $550/year ($46/mo)

  • Private Pilot
  • Roughly 200 hours total
  • About 100 hours multi/complex
  • Not instrument rated (This didn't make a difference, by the way)

The prices I received on the Annual for a Cessna 150 were what varied the most; this surprised me!  My only guess is that the more familiar your A&P/IA is with a C-150, the easier and quicker it is for them. The quotes varied between $700 and $1,300. Let's go with $1,000. If you budget and save for this monthly that's about $85/mo.

Right now the common asking price for a 150 is just over $15,000. Assuming you can talk someone down to $13,000 and pay $2,000 down on a 6% interest 10-year loan the monthly cost is going to be about $125.

I understand that not everyone is fond of financing an aircraft, but this specific post is about being able to own an aircraft on a budget (and still afford to fly it!).

So there you have it. For a monthly cost of: $336

  • $125/mo Loan Payment
  • $85/mo Annual Inspection
  • $63/mo Insurance (Student Pilot)
  • $13/mo IFR Check
  • $50/mo Tie-down

You can own this airplane and fly it for $45.50 per hour with maintenance reserves.

Edit: Do to some of the private messages I've received, I'm making the following line bold and very large.
So if we compare this to renting: Nope! Not gonna do that! If you want to own to make it cheaper than renting, you're gonna have a bad time.

Owning a plane is about the freedom it provides: you know the last pilot to fly it and how it was kept. You aren't going to find someone else's trash in your plane (well... maybe, since it is tied down and not hangared). You don't have to worry about schedule conflicts, and you'll never show up at the airport to find out she's unexpectedly been put into maintenance.

That doesn't mean you won't have to cancel a flight for maintenance yourself, but at least you should know when it happens.

Happy Flying!


  1. You've got me thinking... So many people argue that one should buy their "forever plane" from the beginning. I'm still a few years away from getting the forever plane, but maybe it's worth getting something cheap in the mean time... Thanks for the post, it's making me think.

    1. Hey there!

      I did kinda the same thing; my big reason was less the cost savings and more the fact that there's no way I would have been able to insure my "forever plane" had I bought it right out. Even when I started to insure the Apache it was Liability Only. It was cheap enough to build time in so that I could get something else later; if all was lost it wouldn't be nearly as bad as something 10x the value.

      Thanks for Reading!

    2. very interesting. what about the cost of paying a mechanic to maintain the plane?

  2. OVERALL you might be better renting, but there are some more specific applications where this actually makes more sense. Training is a big one.

    Recalling your previous post about considering the mission, this is NOT the cross-country machine that so many new pilots probably want, but once you've got the XC hours to get your instrumen rating you're back in training mode; flying 2-3 times per week for 1.5-2.0 hours per flight fir several months (ideally). At my flying club I pay $60/month in dues and about $100/hour including fuel for a 172 but really that much plane isn't wholly necessary for BAIF and procedural training. A 150 would fit the bill.

    Algebra: 330+50X < 60+100X

    Solving for X says that owning a 150 is cheaper than renting a 172 after 5.4 hours per month, and a trainee doing even one 2-hour flight per week is logging 8 hours per month. Not to mention how tough this plane is, it'd be great for a PPC applicant. Essentially, this plane is the cheap beater you buy your kids to learn to drive in.

    Ted H

  3. I think one of the biggest factors for comparing owning vs renting is how often you plan to fly places and stay overnight. Many rental places charge a high minimum number of hours to keep the plane for 24 hours.

    As an example, for me, I live in Houston. It would be great to fly down to Galveston for the weekend, probably only a 1-1.5 hr flight each direction and maybe an extra hour or so for sight-seeing with friends, but with a minimum of 8 hrs/day for keeping it overnight @ $100/hr, you're talking about a $1600 weekend trip minimum. $1600 for the weekend and I better be at a nicer beach than Galveston ha :D

    Anyways, just my $0.02, fantastic article, It did bring some things to light for me, especially the maintenance costs.

  4. There is a big cost to renting if you want to spend the night away from home. Almost all rentals have pretty steep minimum per day charges. So steep that most renters won't spend more than one night away from home.

    Nobody wants to pay for 3 to 5 hours of flying while the plane is tied down.

  5. This was a very helpful read, does anyone know of a website where one can go to come up with cost to fly numbers for a 1966 vintage 182 Cessna? I am trying to figure our what a resonable monthly dues fee would be, per hour flying fee, etc to self charge to compare to the cost to rent.

  6. What a great guide! You certainly got me interested with just the bare bones calculations on the numbers. I totally agree with you on the perks of owning your own plane. Although I still think it’s good to have some options, which probably would dependent on how much you’ll be using the plane. Now all I have to do is compare it with the current costs and use your computations, and everything will probably be much easier even if I started with nothing. You’ve been a great help to your readers, and I hope to read your future posts soon!

    Shawn @

  7. I often read comparisons like this and the reality is that the numbers are really unrealistic. It is MUCH cheaper to own (if you are reasonable) than it is to rent. The reason is that the calculations the author makes doesn't include selling the aircraft once you are done. It assumes you are keeping it for life. It also assumes that you are going to fly it to TBO and then have the engine overhauled. In my experience, you never put that many hours on a plane and it is usually sold long before TBO (if you buy a plane with a mid-time engine). Case in point: several years ago a bought a Cessna 152 for 25k, put a good 300 hours on it, did my instrument rating in it, had a blast, then sold it for 28k. I never overhauled the engine. Sure, I had some maintenance costs from time to time but my costs were so much less than had I rented a plane for 300 hours.

  8. To make it an apples to apples comparison against renting, you need to take the value of your time and energy into account. What is the value of having a concierge-like service of having a maintained airplane ready for you that you don't have to think about once you finish flying it? How much would it cost to have a turn-key management contract on your plane that covers all aspects of ownership so that all you're responsible for is to show up and hand over your credit card? I get annoyed when I have to bring my car in for it's scheduled maintenance because of the time it sucks out of my productive income-earning day. How much time does it take to oversee the insurance, maintenance, and operation of a 40 year old airplane?

  9. One of my goals is to learn to fly and buy a relatively affordable airplane shortly after getting my license.

    Mission is to be able to fly out of state twice a month to go visit friends. Friends who live far enough away that driving eats up too much time.

    So my main motivation is the travel time saved. Thus I would be looking at airplanes that can cruise realistically at 130mph or so, at say 8,000 ft. Budget $40k or less.

    Renting is out because of the overnight and holiday trips. Overnight rental costs would be crazy. And I would be flying out for a 3 day weekend typically.

    Calling the airport only to find the rental plane is delayed getting back from the last renter or any number of other things that would bust my planned trip, would always be frustrating.

    Weather is always an issue, renting or owning. I can drive through a bad storm system. Can't do that in an airplane.

    Would it save me money, versus renting a plane, yes. Versus driving, no.

    Time is the element I am after.

    But you have to research the history on the plane you want and if there is anything needing to done that the prior owner doesn't want to pay for. Some airplanes are known cash alligators when it comes to mechanical issues and annuals.

    Hangar space is at a premium at most locations, if you can find one. Outside tie downs leave you open to damage from hail, high winds, winter issues. One storm system that came through where I used to live, flipped airplanes that were not tied down properly. That will ruin your budget really fast.

    Assuming all goes well with regular maintenance, no storm damage, no major engine tear downs, I can sell it when my flying days are done and recoup some of the principle cost.

    Until then, get up to altitude, hope for a good tailwind and haul butt there and back.

  10. Thanks - great data! I ran your numbers for commuting biweekly in my Prius 430 miles vs flying a plane 350 miles and the result was $840/m for a plane vs. $150/month for the Prius. That saves a total of 12 hours of driving time over a month. I guess I'll remain bound to the earth.

  11. nice article. I have a c172. Wondering how much to charge for my friends to do flight training in. This article is helpful

  12. I'm STILL going to compare renting to ownership (despite your bold-lettered section). Based on your numbers and what my local FBO rents their 152 for ($118 wet for Members and $145 wet for non-Members, with the club membership costing $30 a month), a little Algebra determines that the break even point between ownership and rental of the 152 is reached when one flies about 4.2 hours per month. Any more than that and money will be saved by owning. This does not take into account the $2000 down payment, nor does it allow for the possibility of repairs and maintenance being more than anticipated (if that happens to the rental, that's the FBO's problem, not the renter's). But on the bright side (for the potential owner), the value of the plane once the loan is paid off is also not being considered. At the end there will be a plane worth probably about as much as what was paid for it, and maybe more as prices rise due to inflation.

    For anyone that will fly at least an hour a week, I think ownership is the way to go!