An important consideration when deciding to learn to fly or choosing your plane is how much it’s going to cost. And, just as with cars, you have initial as well as ongoing flying costs to consider. The initial cost is how much you pay for the plane (including any loan interest or fees). The ongoing costs for flying include hangar or tie-down rent, insurance, and maintenance. Operating costs are fuel and oil. If you’re renting you have no initial cost, but your ongoing costs (rent) are higher. If you’re in a flying club, you’ll pay a smaller initial fee and lower rents.
So the best place to start is to determine how much discretionary income you have for your new-found hobby. Do you have minimal money saved up but can spend a couple hundred dollars a month on flying? Or do you have a larger chunk to put down to keep monthly costs to a minimum?
Again, the initial costs depend on how you “own” your wings: rent, lease, partner, or buy. For most folks, the initial investment dictates ownership form. That is, if you really don’t have enough saved up for a down payment or initial lease payment, you’re stuck with renting. If you do have more in the piggy bank your options grow. In addition, if you have good credit your options increase because you can get a low-interest loan on your wings.
So let’s talk about the prices of sport planes. Depending on what you’re looking for you can find a dependable airplane priced from $15,000 to $150,000. That’s quite a range, so let me break it down:
- Used ultralights (these all qualify for sport pilots) can be purchased for $10,000 or even much less.
- Kit aircraft require you to invest from 200 hours to many hundreds of hours of building time. Costs for these start at about $25,000 and go up to about $75,000 depending on the engine you select.
- You can build a basic airplane from plans for under $25,000 and a lot of sweat equity.
- Used general-aviation aircraft that qualify for sport pilots (Aeronca, J-3 Cub, Luscombe, etc.) sell for $20,000 to $45,000 or more.
- Quick-build experimental LSA kits (you add the finishing touches) can be purchased for $40,000 to $80,000.
- Ready-to-fly planes built under the new LSA rules are priced from $80,000 to $150,000 — about half the price of many new FAA-certified aircraft.
Operating costs are simply those that change as you fly more. Fuel and oil are operating costs. Scheduled maintenance is an operating cost if it’s required based on how many hours your plane has flown. A tachometer or Hobbs meter on the control panel will tell you how many hours the engine has been in use and you must perform maintenance on it at regular intervals.
Did you know that you legally can perform some or even all of your own aircraft maintenance? You can do all of your own maintenance if you build a craft that is certified “experimental.” You can do some of the maintenance if you buy a new LSA and get a LSA-maintenance certificate, requiring some training and a test.
How can you minimize operating costs? Don’t fly! Alternately, make sure you select a fuel-efficient aircraft, learn how to “lean” it for greatest fuel efficiency (directions are in the plane’s operating handbook), and keep your plane in optimum mechanical condition. Most pilots keep an aircraft expense log, similar to an automobile expense log, to help them track and manage operating expenses.
How fuel efficient are small airplanes? About as fuel efficient as smaller cars! Depending on how you fly, how efficiently you operate your aircraft engine, whether you carry a passenger, and other factors, you’ll find that you’ll get 20 to 35 miles per gallon of fuel. Some of the ultralights get 50 mpg or more. Yes, avgas (aviation fuel) is more expensive than auto gas, but it’s much more fun to empty a tank! Many older aircraft may be legally operated on auto fuel — if they have the appropriate paperwork and you can find non-ethanol auto fuel. This is another example of the various factors you need to consider when making your choice of an airplane.