Looking Back on Four Years of Aircraft Ownership

10:23 AM

Photo: Michael Patrick Connolly | Illustration by the author
By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

In October, 2007, I traveled to Whiteman Airport in Los Angeles to pick up my 1964 Piper Cherokee 235, a journey that began a love affair with an airplane. Yes, we pilots get like that with our babies, and I believe it's healthy for an aviator to be enamored with his or her flying machine.

This article generally is not for the owner/pilot, because you already know this drill. Instead, it is meant for the student pilot now learning and hoping to one day buy a plane, the renter pilot who really REALLY wants a ship of his/her own, or the person on the street who thinks owning an airplane would be cool but knows zero about what is involved.

I will break down things that I believe you'll find of interest, tidbits of information I have learned – some the hard way – in my four years as the owner of “Katy” our beloved 235. First, let's start with this statement:
Unless you fly your airplane as many as 20 hours a month, single ownership of a private  – and the costs thereof – really doesn't pencil out. In fact, if you just go chase a few hamburgers once in a while when the WX is clear and 1,000,000, it can look like a serious money pit if you really get down and crunch numbers. But when you consider the sheer exhilaration of swinging open your hangar door and seeing YOUR airplane waiting to lift you skyward, it becomes a much better value. How can anyone put a dollar figure on the joy of flying? And more importantly in this conversation, how can anyone correctly determine the personal value a pilot gains by being lucky enough to have bought a personal transportation miracle? Things like oil, and annuals, they become line items on a spreadsheet. But spend a few precious hours alone in your hangar, polishing wings that are already shiny just because you can, and you quickly realize that this is a quality life easily worth the price.   
I'm not going to break down the hard costs of private airplane ownership. There are plenty of good resources for that on AOPA.org and NBAA.org. Instead, I want to get more philosophical, and provide thinking that goes deeper than just numbers.

My thought process as I examine the worth of owning Katy actually starts at the end of this saga...50 years from now. That's when I see myself lying on a bed somewhere, waiting to “Go West” to fly with Lindbergh and Papa Louie. It will be then that I can look back on my life and say I accomplished one of the things that made my life well lived. I worked hard, saved money, made minimal financial mistakes, and along the way, bought not just some tiny toy airplane, but a decent, comfortable, capable, cross-country load hauler airplane. In life, we all have goals, and one of mine, from as far back as I can remember, was not only to fly, but to own an airplane I can call my own. So regardless of the cost, as I pass from this life to the next, I will have considered that accomplishment nailed.

When we first saw Katy, I was in lust, and clouds covered my eyes and blurred a clear view of her. I first laid eyes on her at Fresno's Air Terminal, and didn't see many of the knicks, scratches, worn/chipped paint or almost microscopic indentations from hail. What I did see was an immaculate interior, a very low-time engine that looked factory new, and a decent IFR panel with King radios and an assortment of digital upgrades and goodies. On that first test flight, she flew straight and was powerful, a stable ship that on a gusty day was easy to maneuver. I made an offer that was accepted, and I was well on my way to airplane ownership.

But when I returned to Los Angeles to witness the annual and finalize the deal, I began seeing things I had not seen before. No dealbreakers, just more “age spots” than I had first seen. Knowing nothing about annuals, and being a rookie at ownership, I made what could have been a fatal mistake and had the seller's mechanic who was doing the annual also do the pre-buy inspection. That could have been a huge problem, but now, after four years and three subsequent annuals, nothing big was overlooked, and I believe that even with a pre-buy from a third party, I would still have bought the airplane.

Owning a nearly-vintage airplane (Katy is 47 years young) might be pause for concern, but thankfully the Piper engineers in Vero Beach got the Cherokee line right. This plane has proven to be bulletproof, with only minor squawks found at annuals. In fact, there have been a few ticky-tacky little things to fix, like a broken pilot's side air vent or a ridiculously hard to adjust door latch, and we've cleaned up numerous wiring disasters caused by ham-handed techs cobbling together avionics the easy way, instead of the right way. In general, the plane has been rock-solid, with a very high dispatch percentage rate.

From a maintenance perspective, annuals have been quite predictable, ranging from $800 to $1,800. We've had two starter issues, one a massive starter failure that took out the ring gear, and also a stuck starter solenoid that meant the prop cranked over the minute you switched on the Master...not good. Both came on days when we were departing on important trips, generating more than a few %$#@!*&% words not suitable for publication here.

My airplane ownership experience has been far more positive than negative. We've taken Katy on numerous business trips up and down the West Coast, including one trip to film a TV commercial in California that really proved the worth of private airplane ownership, and in particular, ownership of this make/model:
The shoot was for a client who was at the time offering real charter services in Cirrus SR-22s. We had arranged to have a beautiful silver -22 meet us at the Reedley airport outside Fresno, along with a Los Angeles-based crew and their large truckload of equipment. We departed Eugene with four adults in Katy, plus full fuel (84 gallons) and as much gear as we could stuff in any part of the cabin not occupied by humans. We were still under legal gross weight, and flew non-stop right to the shoot in just under four hours and about 50 gallons burned. At the time, AvGas was about $4.50, and R/T end up costing $112.50 per pax in fuel alone. Even if I were to double that figure for fixed costs, engine wear etc., it still was far cheaper than the airlines...and took about 1/3 the time door-to-door when you consider how much wasted time we'd have endured waddling through the hub-and-spoke system, and renting a car to drive to the shoot.   
On another trip to California, we were able to make a stop in Grass Valley outside Sacramento, meet with a client 35 miles east of Fresno, RON with friends, and visit a client in the Bay Area on our trip north the next day. Two days, three clients...two of them in small remote cities not served by commercial carriers. It was an impossible itinerary using anything but a private airplane.

So, enough already about dollars and cents...let's talk about what I gain through private airplane ownership. The very first word that pops into my mind is efficient....that an airplane allows efficient travel without the need to deal with the airlines or stumble through the Amtrak system on a schedule that is at the mercy of the next freight train around the bend.

With Katy, we can fly many short routes in a day, or fly longer legs and enjoy an overnight at a destination that would take hours to drive. One example was yet another business trip from Oregon to California:
I awoke early and checked online WX between Eugene, OR and Fresno, CA, and saw a quick IFR departure through a thin layer, and nothing dramatic on the entire southbound route. That did not jive with what the TV news guys and TAFs had suggested, that thunderstorms were forecast in the area of Mt. Shasta in NorCal. Since this was a winter IFR trip, I chose to back that data up with a phone call to an actual human with a phone briefing...where I received the bad news that IFR or VFR was “not advised” due to “severe” thunderstorms in the area of the Siskiyou Range. So we elected to pack the car and drive to Fresno. About 12 hours later, after wasting 66% more time on the southbound leg, we arrived tired, grumpy and had lost one entire productive day of our trip. Oh, and we will also lose yet another day with clients because now we have to repeat the 12-hour trek north up Interstate 5 by car to return home.   
Owning our airplane makes many day trips possible, and adds greatly to our quality of life. When we just have to scarf down Tuna Fish and Chips by the sea in Astoria – nestled in the far northwest corner of my state – it's an easy 1.0 flight in Katy, but a 4.0 hour journey in a car. We can have a leisurely Sunday wake up, saunter to the hangar and slip over to The Bowpicker for lunch. We can wander aimlessly on the beach before a smooth, easy hop back to the southern Willamette Valley, arriving fed, relaxed and refreshed hours before the evening news. That. My flying friends, is functionality.

Some of the benefits we as business owners enjoy when traveling via private airplane are obvious and can be quantified with saved dollars or hours. But here is one huge thing about owning Katy that I believe gives me a competitive advantage as the President of an advertising agency/creative studio that promotes aviation businesses, and that is ramp cachet:
On numerous occasions, we have been invited to pitch a campaign to an airport located on an airport, such as an avionics shop, FBO or OEM parts manufacturer. Sure, the competition shows up in Brooks Brothers suits driving a Mercedes, but they arrive at the wrong side of the building. We arrive in our private corporate airplane, and after parking our airplane on the correct side of the building (the ramp), we are greeting not as sales people, but as AVIATORS. Since we pilot types tend to support each other, without even beginning our Dog and Pony Show, we've established ourselves as an aviation company, because we fly, and that translates into an understanding the business of flying. Arriving by private airplane to conduct business gives the impression that you are successful...because you are.   
So in review, yes, there have been financial hits, and none of which are ever easy to swallow. But Katy is a solid performer, and can actually carry four adults and their stuff as far as her full fuel tanks can take them. When the plusses meet the minuses, it's not even close, owning a plane beats not owning one.

I will take private airplane ownership any day...because it is as wonderful an experience as you imagine. If flying is freedom, it is safe to assume that flying your very own airplane is the ultimate freedom.

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