Rethinking Your Frugal Wings

The purpose of summarizing why you fly is to help you decide what you should fly. Are you flying an aircraft that is more than you need for what you want to do? Put another way, are you paying for things you don't really use? 

No matter why and what you fly, this is a good thing to review every few years as maybe your flying goals have changed or your flying budget needs some adjustment to get the most from every aviation dollar you spend. Frugal flying isn't about being cheap; it's about getting the greatest value.

So you've reviewed your logbooks and decided which of the common flight missions you've spent the most time completing – and had the most fun with. They include destination flying, home flying, prospective adjustment, self-discovery, sharing, challenge, and professional opportunities. Most private pilots focus their flying on one or two of these missions. A wings review can help you decide whether what you fly closely matches why you fly.

Periodically, aviation magazines run a series of articles on common aircraft, listing the top dozen most popular models, what they cost, how they fly, and how to buy them. Some are simple two-seaters while others are more popular four-seat and larger models designed for long-distance flying missions. All of us read those articles to determine if there isn't something better out there to match our current flight missions. That's smart.

What often isn't covered is how to select from the hundreds or maybe thousands of specific aircraft available at any given time. How should you select one Piper Tri-Pacer over another, for example? That decision probably will impact your flying budget more than choosing one model over another.

To choose between specific aircraft, first review your budget against your comfort level of working on your aircraft. As a licensed mechanic, you may choose a basket-case aircraft while a pilot friend who doesn't do his own oil changes may prefer something ready to fly. The difference in purchase price can be dramatic with a DIY aircraft priced at half the cost of one that doesn't need anything, mechanical or cosmetic. Here are some suggestions as you choose one specific aircraft over another:

Engine: At least half the price of a used simple aircraft is for the engine. Know how much an engine replacement will cost on your selected model. Get costs on a major overhaul and estimate how much time is left in the one you're considering. Also review your log book. If you calculate that the engine probably has at least 500 hours more until overhaul, how long will it take you to fly 500 hours? Five years? Ten? Will you keep the plane that long?

Systems: Are there any system problems that will now or may soon ground your aircraft? Replacing an instrument or repairing brakes are minor system problems that can be resolved less expensively than extensive airframe corrosion. You may decide to tackle a DIY aircraft with corrosion problems – if you know about them before you buy. That's where a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted mechanic can pay for itself.

Cosmetics: Painting an aircraft isn't cheap, but it isn't required to make it airworthy. Ugly Ducks fly as far as Swans. If your flying budget must choose between an iPad and wheel fairings, go for the one that makes flying more fun.

Log books: Historical engine and airframe log books aren't required to fly your aircraft, just the current ones. However, they are invaluable to your decision whether to purchase an aircraft and for how much. They tell you not only what has been done to the aircraft over the years, but also indicate how meticulous the owner and mechanics have been. And they can help you estimate how many hours a year it has been flown. Sloppy records may indicate sloppy work. At best, incomplete or poorly kept log books make it more difficult for you to estimate the cost of future maintenance and repairs.

Location: Not as important in selecting an aircraft as other considerations, its location can make a difference. Not only is a nearby aircraft easier to inspect, it also can indicate where and how it has been flown. Also, it is easier to perform research on the aircraft by interviewing people at the airport where the plane was based. And it will be less expensive for your favorite mechanic to perform a pre-purchase inspection. Finally, the cost of flying an aircraft cross-country after purchase can add a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to the price.

These are all important considerations as you select one specific aircraft over another in your search for your frugal plane.