Plan to Keep It Simple

Every layer of complexity you add to flying – or just about anything – increases the costs of ownership, maintenance and other expenses. Instead of you owning it, it begins to own you. Soon, what started out as a fun pastime can become a stealer of time and money. Analyzing why you fly can help keep the costs on the ground.

Each of us has the same time inventory: 8,760 hours in a year. The average recreational pilot flies just 1% of that time – and thinks about flying the other 99%. On the other hand, our flying budgets range from one to many thousands of dollars a year depending on our flying goals and budgets. The average annual budget among recreational pilots is about $10,000 a year. Reviewing why you fly every few years can help you get the most from every dollar you spend and each hour you fly. That's being a frugal pilot.

My airplane had ten owners in 55 years. That's typical. The average pilot gets a new set of wings about every five years. Some may hold on to their plane for 20 or more and a few sell their aircraft after a year or two, but five is typical. So a five-year flying plan makes sense for many recreational pilots. At the end of five, some decide to hold pat and others have already moved on. At that point, some pilots simplify and others go for more complex aircraft depending, again, on recently reviewed flying goals and budgets.

The next step is to quantify your flying mission with a specific plan. How many flying hours are you realistically planning for the next five years (or whatever time frame you select)? What type of flying? Do you need a faster or slower aircraft than your current wings? More instruments and equipment or less? What's the least aircraft – and least expenses – you need to fulfill your flying mission? Would you be smarter to sell your airplane and rent or quit renting and buy? What about a partnership or a flying club? Are your flying goals better met with an LSA, a glider, a homebuilt, or a vintage aircraft? Just what aircraft will best match how you want to be flying into the future?

Maybe your current plane is fine for the mission, but it needs something to help you enjoy flying more. Not just stuff you want, but things you really need for your goal: upgraded avionics, more horsepower, a balanced cruise prop, tundra tires, or maybe a taildragger conversion. Here is where budgets go awry. It would be great fun to add a STOL kit, but how much will you really need it versus needing the dollars it will cost? Don't say "no." Just make sure you're getting value for what you need and can afford. Is it an extra expense or an investment?

Whatever plane you buy or equipment you add will require periodic maintenance. It may raise the cost of your annual inspection or require special STC maintenance over the next few years and these costs have to be factored into your decision. Also review FAA Part 43 that lists what preventive maintenance you, as the aircraft owner, can perform and compare it to what you feel comfortable performing. If you can save a few hundred each year on aircraft maintenance, you can spend more on your wants list.

Another aspect of simplifying your flying is reviewing where you keep your wings. You may be limited to one or two airports within your preferred driving distance. Too far away and you won't fly as often. But airports vary greatly in the costs and availability of hangars and tie-downs, even within a small area. Doing a little research may yield a more cost-effective airport for your aircraft. Some frugal pilots opt for a tie-down instead of a hangar and save enough each year to buy a quality cover – and pay for the annual inspection. Others choose a shed hangar without walls and save money. Local climate and availability will be factors in your decision. 

Flying is a complex pastime – and so is choosing and funding your wings. Frugal pilots aren't cheap. They just consider all the options as well as their budget as they file a smart flight plan.