Flight training is a huge investment of time and money. You’re not the first person to wonder whether it wouldn’t just be cheaper to buy your own plane, hire a freelance CFI (or teach your own kid,) and then enjoy or sell the plane once your target audience reaches 1500 hours and/or gets a full-time pilot job.
You can make this work if you get the right aircraft with the right setup. However, it’s not the right answer for everyone. Let’s consider the factors:
Since you’re doing this, at least in part, to cut costs, you must target the right kind of aircraft. You need something tried and true, familiar to every mechanic in the country, with lots of spare parts easily available from major suppliers.
You also need something simple. That means a fixed-pitch prop turned by a single engine, fixed landing gear, and 2 or 4 seats. No exceptions allowed. More complex aircraft just have more moving parts that need to be inspected (expensive) and have more opportunity to break (expensive, and prevent training for weeks or months until repairs are completed,) and require more expensive insurance.
Basically, this limits you to about three aircraft types:
- The Cessna C-172
- The Piper PA28 family (Cherokee 140, Warrior, Cherokee 180, Archer)
- The Cessna C-152 (not the C-150)
Older C-172s were powered by the Continental C-145, or O-300. Having owned an aircraft with this engine, I think it’s a piece of junk. If you spend any time in any O-300 owners forum online you’ll hear constant complaints about maintenance issues. If you’ve been working on car or airplane engines for decades and/or can find an aircraft with a factory remanufactured or factory overhauled engine, you can consider an O-300. Otherwise, buy an aircraft with a Lycoming O-235, O-320, or O-360.
Yes, there will be thousands of other aircraft that fit your criteria and budget. Yes, many of them look cooler, fly faster, or cost less. It doesn’t matter. The FAA could care less how many miles a pilot has traveled. All FAA ratings are based on hours. If your airplane flies slowly, you just log more hours any time you go somewhere. This purchase must be about one thing: your mission.
That mission is: reliably flying as many hours as possible in the shortest possible amount of time, up to 1500 total hours per trainee. Allowing yourself to be distracted from that mission in any way only brings heartbreak, and large checks with your signature in the corner.
Avionics are important and expensive to install. If you plan for this airplane to serve as an IFR training platform, you need to buy one that already has some upgrades. At a minimum, this means a pair of Garmin G5s or uAvionix AV30s serving as an ADI/PFD and HSI/MFD. Other good options here include products from: Aspen Avionics, Dynon, or the Garmin G3X.
If you’re doing IFR training, you also need an IFR navigation unit. The industry standard right now is the GTN650. It’s gorgeous, powerful, and very expensive. There are “cheaper” alternatives, designated GPS175, GNC355, and GTX375. They’re good enough for your purposes when paired with the appropriate legacy radios and/or transponder.
You will also see aircraft with the previous generation of Garmin’s IFR navigator, the GNS430 or GNS530. They’re fantastic products, but I’m not sure how long Garmin will continue to support them. If you can verify (directly from Garmin, not from the seller) that the unit will continue to receive database updates for at least the next year or two, they’ll be okay.
You can find the PFD/MFD options I mentioned at reasonable prices, and you can get a cheap GNS430 on eBay. You may be tempted to buy a plane with steam gauges and hire your own mechanic to install the new stuff…because it’ll be cheaper.
In general, this is dead wrong.
Installing these new avionics requires major surgery to your panel, wiring, and plumbing. Regular A&P Mechanic shop rates start around $75-100. Specialty avionics shops can quickly double that. You might see individual instrument sticker prices in the single-digit thousands and think they’re reasonable. It doesn’t take many shop hours at these rates for your final bill to more than double the sticker price of the boxes themselves.
We’ll discuss why later, but you must also consider the fact that you’ll probably spend months waiting for the shop to get your work done.
You aren’t reading this because you thought a couple years ahead. You’re reading it because someone in your family is ready to start flying right now. Best case: it’ll take you at least a few weeks to buy a plane in the first place. Then, you’ll have to find a shop willing to do your work, wait for all the parts and gadgets to be delivered, and also wait for them to be installed. You’re looking at a minimum of 6 months before your plane will be usable. In the meantime, you’ll have shelled out $10-30K over your aircraft’s purchase price. Ouch.
Yes, I know you found someone who promised to do things more quickly and for a better price. No, they aren’t intentionally lying to you. They’re just unrealistically optimistic. That misplaced optimism costs them nothing, but it costs you a lot. Again, more on why later.
Instead remember: you’re infinitely better off buying a plane with the avionics you need already installed.
- 2 x G5s or AV30s
- GTN650 (or similar)
- GNS430 (maybe)
Yes, there are great products from some other companies like Avidyne and Bendix/King. They’d work, but the only people who install them in a plane they’re selling are people who are trying to save pennies, while getting rid of something they don’t want, ASAP. Where else might they have skimped with that airplane, and how will that affect its reliability as a trainer for you?
Also, Garmin is the industry standard. You’ll actually find CFIs who are either reluctant to fly for you because of the unfamiliar avionics, or they’ll be less effective because they know less than you about how to use them.
It should go without saying, but you also need an airplane already equipped with a legal ADS-B Out solution. One exception to my “don’t plan to upgrade” rule is the uAvionix tailBeacon, a surprising instance of a quick, easy, cheap solution. This unit works with existing transponders, costs about $2000, and any A&P can install it in less than two shop hours. This means you are allowed to consider an aircraft that doesn’t already have ADS-B, as long as it’s otherwise perfect.
Stay on Target
At price ranges that make sense, you’re looking at aircraft produced in the 1960s or 1970s. You can find newer C-172s and Cherokees, and they’re good options, as long as you’re willing to spend more. (I’ve recently seen later-model C-172s in the $200K-300K range. It’s completely absurd, but it’s the reality of today’s market.)
The catch is that with all the other expenses of aircraft ownership, you’ll rapidly reach the point where it’s cheaper to spend $100K for an accelerated zero-to-hero flight training program at a big-name school and get a job as a CFI the moment you graduate. We’ll run some actual numbers later.
As you start shopping, you’ll come back and tell me that for just a little more money you can get a nicer, newer aircraft like a Diamond DA20 or DA40, or a Cirrus SR20. They’re all proven trainers. However, they’re also more expensive. Even at the top of your budget, they aren’t likely to be newer enough to be more reliable.
If you’re thorough, you’ll also notice options like Piper’s PA20 Pacer or PA22 Tri-Pacer, and Cessna’s C-140 or C-170. Unfortunately, these aircraft are just too old for your mission. They’re worn out. Many have original wiring from the 1940s or 1950s. Parts are increasingly rare, if accessible at all. These are wonderful aircraft for enthusiasts who have the time and means to work on or (better yet) restore them.
That is not your mission.
Why So Militant?
I’ve only owned two aircraft so far, but you could say I’ve been “studying” this art for decades. I’ve worked with or hired A&P Mechanics from all over the US. I’ve advised and helped owners of a very wide variety of aircraft.
Let’s think about the type of vehicle we’re buying: If you were to spend $50,000-$100,000 on a car produced in the 1960s or 1970s, how would you treat it?
In most cases, you’d act like Cameron Frye’s dad. You’d never drive it. You’d just rub it with a baby diaper. You’d take it to car shows and meetups. You might do the occasional drive for a few hours on a weekend. If you really trusted your kid, you might let them drive it to a special occasion like prom. (Stay out as late as you want, do whatever you want somewhere else, but the car must be in the garage by midnight!) You certainly would not use this car as a daily driver for a long commute.
And yet, that last case is exactly the mission for your airplane.
Why wouldn’t you drive an older car that much? Well, it’s old! This means the more it drives, the more maintenance it requires. Those parts aren’t getting produced anymore, so they’re only getting more expensive. You didn’t buy this car to keep it at your mechanic’s shop. You bought it to keep at your glassed-in show garage. Even if you’re a car guru who can do all the work yourself, you don’t actually want to spend all your time working on it. You’d like to drive it sometimes too.
You have to consider similar factors with your airplane, except you don’t have the luxury of just letting it sit in the hangar. The only reason to buy it was to put it to work. You’re going to spend just as much on this plane as you would on a vintage muscle car, but you’re getting the equivalent of a 1980s Dodge Caravan. However, the fixed costs of owning an airplane are way higher than those associated with owning a classic car.
You’re stuck with this option because used aircraft prices are already insane. The 60s or 70s Cessna and Piper spam cans are the best balance of capability, reliability, insurability, and price. You can still find parts, any A&P will work on them, and they have a history of reliability that should keep them out of the shop. Anything fancier or faster and you have to sacrifice some or all of those benefits.
Why Such Focus on Maintenance?
For me, maintenance has been the most frustrating part of aircraft ownership. Airplanes, especially trainers, work hard. Unfortunately, most pilots lack the mechanical savvy to care for their machines as well as they could.
If you buy a used aircraft, especially one that’s been owned by numerous people over numerous decades, there will be a lot of deferred maintenance or updates. Worse, it will be difficult to know about them before you buy. (We’ll look at how to improve your chances with that in a bit.)
If your airplane gets grounded for maintenance, it’s useless to your trainee until it gets fixed. In this day and age, once a person starts flight training, it behooves them to complete that training as quickly and efficiently as possible.
They need to get to their first paying pilot job so they can stop paying for their own hours. They need to get to the regional airlines quickly so they can start building turbine time. Everything should be focused on getting to the really great jobs at major airlines. On some level, everything else is just grind.
Everyone knows that there’s a pilot shortage in our country, but not everyone realizes that the aircraft mechanic shortage is much worse. This isn’t a glamorous job. A&P school is long and expensive, but it doesn’t include a college degree. Many people look down on it and/or think that it doesn’t pay well. (Both of those opinions are stupid and wrong.)
As such, every aircraft maintenance shop in the country has far more work than they can handle. Sure, they’ll agree to work on your aircraft. Most of them will even give you an honest estimate and do good work…when they get around to it.
The problem is that when you bring your airplane in for a job worth $900 to chase brake issues, or even the $10-30K we mentioned for an avionics upgrade, you’re not a very lucrative client. Since demand for maintenance is through the roof, your shop will always have another Bonanza waiting for a $75,000 avionics upgrade or a Baron with $125,000 in engine changes.
That shop is financially better off finishing those lucrative jobs first to get more cash through the doors. They’ll take care of your piddly $2100 uAvionix tailBeacon install when they get a chance.
Definitely this week.
Oh, except they just got a Saratoga in for an annual inspection that’s going to run at least $15,000.
Definitely by the week after that though.
Sadly, this never ends.
Does it frustrate you? That’s okay. You’re welcome to try another shop next time.
We small-time aircraft owners won’t ever win this one.
This is why you need single engine, fixed-pitch propeller, and fixed gear. You need something that has the fewest number of things possible to go wrong. And when they do, you need them to be something that your mechanic is familiar with and can do quickly, when they get around to it.
I have three favorite places to shop for airplanes:
FLYING Magazine is launching a marketplace that has some potential. If you want access to the beta, hit up Preston Holland on LinkedIn. If you’re looking for a glider I like the classifieds at Wings and Wheels.
Go. Shop. Enjoy.
As you do, remember that classified ads are like online dating profiles. Pictures were taken on the best hair day ever, right after a muscle-toning workout, with any belly sucked way, way in…probably a few years ago. Profile details are…optimistically…true, but you’re always going to be a little surprised when you actually meet in person.
I’ve gone to look at many airplanes that I (thankfully) didn’t buy because even my non-mechanic eye could see issues too expensive or difficult to fix to make the asking price reasonable.
Also realize that you will fall victim to a phenomenon I call “mission creep.”
You’ll be shopping for that reasonable C-152 when you realize that for “just a few thousand dollars more” you could get a 4-place plane like a C-172. A few shopping minutes (or hours) later, you’ll realize that for “just a few thousand dollars more” you could get one with the nicer IFR avionics I mentioned above. Then, you’ll realize that for “just a few thousand dollars more” you could get something a little bigger, a little faster, a little cooler, etc. Soon, you’ll find yourself looking at C-310 twins and TBM-700s.
When (not if) this happens, you need to push away from the computer for a moment and realize that you’ve exceeded your mission parameters. Start all the way back over at C-152s and try again. Don’t feel bad about this. Mission creep happens to me every time I shop.
Always focus on finding the best value for your mission.
Aside from the types of aircraft and avionics we specified above, a few easy criteria can quickly rule out an airplane, or show that it warrants further consideration.
The engines you should be considering (O-235, O-320, O-360) have a Time Between Overhaul (TBO) of 2000-2400 hours, depending on the model. As long as you’re not a charter operator, you can fly an engine past TBO.
A motor with a very recent overhaul is actually the worst deal, even though sellers charge the most for them. Overhaul quality varies…significantly. A “zero-time” motor with a shitty overhaul is nothing but an expensive Pandora’s box. You want at least 300 hours on an engine so the A&P doing your pre-buy inspection (more on that later) can know if the motor was broken-in properly and how it’s actually running post-overhaul.
Overhauls are expensive; however, I’d be tempted to pay a lot less for an engine near or past TBO and pay for a top-shelf overhaul myself (or just replace the engine with a new one.) That way I’d know what I’m getting. Just realize that this means several months of your airplane sitting in a hangar without flying.
If you have the time to wait, and the $35K-50K to invest above purchase price, this is actually a great way to get a deal. If not, look for a “mid-time” engine with not less than 300 hours.
Important terminology here includes:
- Time Since Major Overhaul (SMOH) – the number of hours since a full overhaul was done. There’s no formal definition for a major overhaul, and quality varies. That’s why you don’t want a plane with a fresh one.
- Time Since Factory Remanufacture (SFRM) – sending a motor to the factory is the best option short of just buying a new motor. The quality is all but guaranteed. Watch for sellers claiming a factory reman that wasn’t.
- Time Since New (SNEW) – if this means an airplane’s 50+ year old is original without ever being overhauled, either plan to just buy a new one or run screaming from the building. However, if this means the seller opted to buy a factory new engine instead of doing an overhaul, this could be a great deal. You still need a qualified mechanic to confirm that.
- Time Since Top Overhaul (STOH) – Again, there’s no definition of a “top” overhaul. This means the motor had issues. It’s possible that a great mechanic knew exactly the problem, replaced some cylinders and perhaps lapped some valves, set everything else back to stock configuration, and fixed everything. More likely, the owner was too cheap to do the full overhaul the motor needed. The mechanic earned a bunch of money treating symptoms, and you’ll have to deal with the underlying problems after your purchase. At best, this adds zero value to a listing in my book. More often, it’s a red flag.
Paint & Interior
Many otherwise bad airplanes have sold to unsuspecting buyers thanks to a gorgeous new paint job. Why did the seller pay $10K-15K to paint this 50+ year old aircraft right before trying to sell it? If it has new paint, you’re going to need a very conscientious mechanic to do a lot of looking inside the aircraft structure for things like corrosion or hidden damage. Don’t let outer beauty distract you!
A nice, new interior isn’t as much of a concern. This part really is only skin deep, and is made to be removed for inspection. Your mechanic will be able to see past this, so it could be a bit of a bonus. (A nice, new interior will cost you $5-10K.)
In both cases, the logbooks should make it very clear how recently these things were done. If the updates happened 5 or more years ago, there’s a better chance they aren’t trying to hide anything. If they’re less than a year old, or worse, in the paint shop right now, I’d need some compelling reasons to continue considering that aircraft.
Damage History + Logbooks
When I see an ad that says “no known damage history” I almost always close it and move on. Why don’t they know? Any damage should be in the aircraft logs. For me, this seller is trying to hide something.
That said, aircraft occasionally sustain damage. The damage and the subsequent repairs should be well documented. A good seller will be upfront about this. Most repair jobs are pretty easy for a mechanic to inspect. They can tell if the firewall is bent from a prop strike, if sheet metal is buckled or damaged, etc.
If the aircraft did experience a prop strike, either there should be an extensive report of the inspection that deemed the engine okay to continue in service, or records of an engine overhaul or replacement.
Many of these aircraft are old enough that their logs have changed hands many times. Fires, floods, thefts, and divorces have all been known to destroy these records. However, that drastically decreases an aircraft’s value. You need to be able to see the machine’s full history to know what’s happened to it.
Buying an aircraft with incomplete logs is a huge risk. The price you offer for the airplane should clearly reflect that.
One of the many reasons aircraft need good logs is so you can tell whether owners have complied with Airworthiness Directives (ADs.) The FAA mandates these maintenance actions based on accident trend data. Without compliance, your aircraft is illegal. If you buy an aircraft that hasn’t complied with (an) AD(s), you’re on the hook for some potentially very expensive shop work.
A great seller will have a spreadsheet listing all ADs issued for their aircraft, and notes showing the date and manner of compliance of each. It’ll be easy for your pre-buy inspection mechanic to remotely verify all of this with scanned copies of the aircraft’s logs.
The vast majority of owners won’t have this. You may have to pay extra since a fresh AD search can take a lot longer on the pre-buy. It’s worth every penny!
Making an Offer
This part of the process is similar to buying a used car or a house, just more involved.
Everyone knows this is a negotiation, so the seller will set the asking price higher than they expect to get. You should offer less, with your overall target price somewhere in the middle.
Your offer must always be “contingent on the results of a pre-purchase inspection conducted by a person of the buyer’s choosing.”
This means you’re going to hire someone (probably an A&P, and ideally an IA) to go over this airplane with a fine-toothed comb. (More on the inspection itself next.) The airplane will not be perfect. It’ll need work – some issues minor, and possibly some major.
Your mechanic’s inspection report will include their estimate of the cost to correct each item. Ideally, you would go back to the seller and reduce your offer price by the amount on the inspection report.
In reality, a thorough inspection on most 50+ year old aircraft will find so many items that no seller would agree to your revised offer. You’ll have to decide which items are deal-breaking safety of flight or legal issues, which are highly desired, and which you’ll eat the cost of fixing yourself after the deal closes. Most sellers are willing to make some concessions here. If yours isn’t, walk away.
You’ll probably negotiate your initial offer via phone. You should put together a written version of your offer and ensure that you keep a copy signed by both parties. (I’d offer the seller a copy too, but all I really care about is protecting myself here.) Here’s an example from AOPA that I would edit to fit my needs.
It’s standard to pay some earnest money before your pre-purchase inspection. Be careful with this. Either ensure your contract guarantees the return of your money for a wide variety of reasons, or offer as little as possible.
I’ve seen too many aircraft that were so far from what was represented in online ads that it would have been unwise to put even a single dollar down before the pre-buy. Speaking of which…
There is no formal FAA definition for a pre-purchase inspection. In theory, anyone could perform it, though you should use a qualified mechanic.
No matter what, do not hire a mechanic who has any personal relationship with the seller. I also strongly recommend you find a mechanic who has never done any work on this airplane in the past. Both situations represent conflicts of interest that can only ever hurt you.
The mechanic you hire should plan to work in two phases. First, they should go through digital copies of the aircraft logbooks and any accompanying documents. This will include the AD check mentioned above.
The seller should already have scanned copies of everything and shouldn’t hesitate to provide them. If you encounter any difficulty here, you should strongly consider walking away without any further action. It might not even be a bad idea to tie your transfer of earnest money to a satisfactory logbook inspection.
This part of the inspection could end the deal itself. If your mechanic finds major expensive issues, you’re better off shopping for an airplane that won’t need so much money and downtime invested before you can start flying it.
If the airplane’s logbook passes inspection, your mechanic should travel to it and perform a very thorough inspection. The mechanic should at least charge a flat rate, plus expenses. I would not hire a mechanic who asks for anything less than $500, because that price tells me they won’t be thorough enough. I’d rather have someone so proud of their work that they’ll ask for $1000. (I’d also want recommendations from past clients. Any decent mechanic should be willing and able to provide some.)
At the very least, you want your mechanic to do a compression check, oil analysis (on oil that has been in the engine for at least 15 hours of run time,) and a borescope inspection of the interior of the cylinders.
Modern borescopes are very affordable for mechanics serious enough to use them regularly. This should provide you with detailed imagery of the interiors of all your cylinders. Do not hire someone who doesn’t proudly include this as part of their standard inspection.
Your mechanic should then open every inspection port and cover in the aircraft to look for cleanliness, corrosion, lubrication, wear, and damage. They have to look on the insides because that new paint hides too much.
A competent mechanic should be able to get all of this done in a single day. Worst case, you’ll be out the cost of a round-trip airline ticket, a night or two in a hotel, some cab rides or a rental car, and some meals, in addition to the mechanic’s flat fee. This is worth paying! You’re far better off spending $2,000 here, than $20,000 or more and experiencing months of down time after completing a purchase. (Ask me why I’m so adamant about all this!)
Like I said, this inspection will not come back clean. There will be more issues than the seller is willing to address on their own dime. You’ll have to pick and choose which ones you can live with. Safe structure, engine, and AD compliance are non-negotiable. Avionics probably shouldn’t be negotiable. Cosmetics probably can be.
If you look, you’ll have no trouble finding reputable mechanics who specialize in pre-buy inspections. An A&P IA named Mike Busch has formed a business around providing better maintenance services to GA owners. His company offers a SavvyPrebuy service. I don’t know how much it costs, but I would at least get a quote from them before buying any used aircraft.
Care & Feeding
Sadly, getting a pilot’s license doesn’t require any knowledge of real-world care & feeding for an airplane.
You need to have several things in place before you close your deal. Ideally, you should have a pretty good handle on most of these things before you even start shopping.
I think it’s okay to get a loan on an airplane if you’re planning on it being a personal training platform. AOPA has financing options, but shop around.
Unless you have massive personal reserves, I don’t recommend buying all cash because you need some money on hand to cover all your other expenses.
Yes, you have to insure your airplane. You need liability coverage at least. If you get a loan, you’ll be required to carry hull coverage. If not, you can “self insure” the hull, but that’s a bit risky considering your intent to use it for training.
Sadly, you can’t shop around here like you can for car insurance. This industry is one giant cabal. As soon as a broker gets you a quote, you’re stuck with that broker. You can get that one to release you to another broker, but they all work with the same underwriters. Those underwriters have a back-end system that will show them you already got a quote and they won’t even bother giving you a new one.
The only exception here is Avemco. They’re their own underwriter, so you can get a quote from them, and a quote from everyone else without jeopardizing either.
I tried to buy an Icon A5 last year, but my broker didn’t represent me very well and I got some really awful quotes. If I’d gone with someone who could have taken a more individual approach to my situation, I might have been able to get a realistic quote. Sadly, my A5 deal fell through.
I’m okay now; I bought a Pipistrel Sinus instead! Joe Ryan from Wings Insurance got me a fantastic policy. If you’re looking for a broker, I recommend him.
Insurance is another reason I insist you stick to our limited list of aircraft types for this purchase. Underwriters know these aircraft very well. They have hundreds of thousands of fleet hours, and their accident per hour ratio is favorable enough to grant you a better insurance premium. Anything fancier, faster, or more complex will cost you a lot more for insurance.
If possible, you should keep your airplane in a hangar. Nothing good ever happened to an airplane that lived on a ramp.
Unfortunately, I’ve never seen an airport that didn’t have a waiting list for hangar space. In most cases, the length of that list was measured in years. If you aren’t already on the waiting list for every hangar in your area, you’re way behind the power curve. Do your best.
That said, your airplane must be near the person who intends to use it to build hours. If that person has to drive even 30 minutes to get to the airplane, it now takes a bare minimum of 2.5 hours of life to log 1.0 hour of flying. That ratio sucks. If your airplane will be flying more days than not as a training platform, it might be reasonable to park it on a nearby ramp while waiting for a hangar.
Personally, I’d rather spend a few months paying for an empty hangar while I shop for airplanes than not have a hangar when I need it. Worst case, I bet you can find a short-term tenant and sublet until you find your own plane.
In case you can’t tell, I’ve had issues finding good maintainers in the past. I’ve also watched friends and acquaintances endure months of frustration waiting on mechanics to get work done for them, and/or get hit with outrageous bills.
In an ideal world, there would be a nice, conscientious A&P IA on your field who works on a first come, first served basis. They’d give you realistic quotes for all work, tell you when an issue can be safely deferred, and not try to “help you out” by deferring things when they shouldn’t. It took me more than a decade to find a mechanic like this. (You rock Ed!) You should start looking and interviewing mechanics right now.
In your future mechanic’s ideal world, they are the one who conducts your pre-purchase inspection since they’re the one who’s going to have to deal with your airplane’s issues. That inspection is a way for them to decide whether they want you as their client. Remember this, and treat them and your aircraft well from the start.
No matter what, you need to have a plan for aircraft maintenance before that aircraft arrives. Even if you’re stuck with a big, expensive shop, you need to have spoken directly with the owner and know what you can expect from each other.
This article assumes the primary reason to buy this aircraft is to use it as a full-time trainer. You (or your child) may have all the time in the world; however, you can’t train yourself. You need to have a flight instructor who can meet your specific needs.
First, you need someone comfortable teaching in your aircraft. This is reason #34 why we chose such a narrow list of aircraft types. Good luck finding a CFI comfortable with giving primary flight instruction in an RV-8.
Next, you need someone with a schedule that jives with yours. Most CFIs are underpaid and desperate for whatever hours they can get. Your CFI will likely have a full-time job elsewhere, making you the side-hustle. Switching instructors is a hassle, so find someone that you feel is honestly prepared to give you the time and attention you need.
Ideally, this person is from your area. If they moved for a flight instructing job, they’re only here temporarily. They will move on as soon as they get a better offer.
By the same token, look for someone who isn’t close to ATP minimums. This could be 750, 1000, 1250, or 1500 hours total time. You need to know which set of ATP minimums applies to your instructor, how much total time they have right now, and how many hours they’ve been getting per month. Do not hire someone within just a couple months of reaching ATP minimums because they’ll have airline job offers coming out their ears before they even cross that threshold.
If you have enough free time, a nicer option would be to hire someone full-time for a few months and just hit training hard. Like I said, many CFIs are prone to leaving anywhere as soon as they have a better offer. If you’re willing to beat the (probably terrible) hourly rate they’re earning at a big flying school by $5-10 per hour, with a guaranteed minimum number of hours per month, they may be willing to work exclusively for you.
Flight instructing is hard work, and most CFIs can get a job anywhere right now. Treat yours well, pay them well, show up prepared for lessons, and hopefully you’ll all be pleased with the results.
I’ve met several airline pilots planning to train their own kids in the aircraft they plan to purchase. If that’s the case, make sure you’re actually willing to take the time to ensure consistent progression. Remember, your kid gains nothing from sitting around not flying. You need to be prepared to pass up that really lucrative premium trip to fly with your kid. If not, you need to hire someone else to be their primary instructor. (A one- or two-day Green Slip could probably cover a young CFI’s salary for an entire month.)
You’ll need that instructor a lot at first. Private and Instrument ratings will require a lot of dual flying. Once those are done, a trainee can build a lot of hours solo. Ideally, they’ll get some training for Commercial, CFI, and CFII, but those can (and probably should) wait for a hundred hours or so.
You may be able to lock down one CFI for a couple months, then release them to the wild until the time comes for those advanced ratings. If that’s the plan, make sure to communicate it clearly with your CFI so they don’t shuffle their life with plans expecting you to be their gravy train for the next 9-12 months.
Closing the Deal
Ideally, all of this (shopping, offer, pre-buy inspection, and care & feeding) should be complete or set up before you see the aircraft in person. The worst thing you can do is show up to a pre-buy inspection with cash in hand.
Seeing an airplane you hope to buy is a significant emotional event. Flying it is even more so. (There’s a reason used car salesmen are so insistent on getting you to do a test drive.)
If you spend any amount of time with a potential aircraft before the rest of this is taken care of, it will be extremely difficult for you to think logically about the issues your mechanic is pointing out, or about the fact that you don’t have a good solution for financing or insurance yet.
This puts you in serious danger of buying an airplane with issues you can’t afford to address, or worse, don’t even know about.
Instead, make sure everything is in place. Get your mechanic’s inspection report and readdress purchase price with the seller. Do not finalize an agreement or go to pick up the airplane until and unless you’ve settled on a price that reflects the reality of the issues you’ll have to start addressing the moment you get home. This process can take weeks. At the very least, it should last several days.
I strongly recommend using an escrow service to hold the money for your transaction for at least some period of time. Your purchase contract should specify the conditions that must be met before money is released to the seller. At the very least, this should include your airplane making it to its new home and your mechanic getting a chance to verify that any fixes agreed to by the seller have, in fact, been taken care of.
Escrow isn’t free, but it’s worth it. The seller should be willing to split that cost with you. As a buyer, you’re better off footing that entire bill if necessary. It’s easy to find an aircraft escrow service. If you’re getting a loan, your lender may recommend (or insist upon) a good one.
With all this addressed, get the money in place before you show up expecting keys. I’ve witnessed more than one aircraft purchase where the buyer or their designated delivery pilot (aka: me) wasted half a day waiting for the buyer’s bank to wire funds. This is bad form.
We’re assuming you bought this airplane as a flight training platform. As we’ve repeatedly mentioned: this means you need to fly it as much as possible!
As a long-time instructor, I believe that the bare minimum a new student should fly is three days per week. Trying to do more than six or seven lessons per week may be too much, but I’d recommend trying out five or so, and deciding how it works for you.
Once you finish Private and Instrument, you might as well go fly every day. If you have nothing else to do, plan a maximum-range out & back and get a good 6-10 hours per day. Remember to get instruction on the maneuvers you’ll have to do for your Commercial, CFI, and CFII ratings, and practice those regularly too. Train and take check rides for those ratings as soon as you’re eligible!
If you fly this much, you could feasibly reach ATP minimums in less than two years. That would be a lot of flying, but that’s the whole point, right?
At the very least, you’ll need to do a multi-engine rating and 50 hours of multi-engine flying at some point in there. The rating alone will cost $3-5K. Adding 45 hours on top of that would be very expensive. You may be able to find a multi-engine flying job, or work out a deal for someone to use your airplane (possibly while you’re instructing) in exchange for some of that time. Adding on your MEI will cost another $3-5K, but it’ll be easier for you to find paid multi-engine flying with that rating in hand.
Realize that this all means a lot of wear on your airplane. In many ways, an airplane is better off flying every day than spending long periods of time sitting idle on a ramp. However, if you use the same airplane from Private to ATP, there’s a good chance your engine will hit TBO somewhere along the line.
You aren’t required to overhaul your engine at TBO, but you’ll need to be prepared for it in case it becomes necessary.
Eventually, you’ll achieve your training goals. Once you’re eligible for an ATP, the regional and ULCC job offers should start pouring in. At that point, you will probably no longer need this airplane as a training platform. You’ll be tempted to hang on to it for nostalgic reasons. You’ll have spent a lot of time together, afterall.
If your plane is still in great shape and you honestly think you’ll fly it a lot, go ahead and keep it. However, most airline pilots will want to focus on jet flying for a while, and will cut back on their GA.
If this is the case, I strongly recommend selling. Airplane prices held pretty steady for many years. Recently, they’ve climbed to insane levels. I won’t presume to predict the future too accurately; however, there’s a good chance you can sell your airplane for a significant portion of your original purchase price. If this happens, then you’ll have done all that flying for the costs of care & feeding. That’s a pretty good deal.
Another option is to lease your airplane to a flight school. Doing this will likely cover the fixed costs of ownership (storage, insurance, maintenance) and make at least some profit. You must understand that if you do this, it is no longer your personal toy. It is now a business, and you must think of it as such. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly frustrated that it isn’t available when you want it, and that people are caring for it like you used to. If you decide you suddenly have time to fly and want it back as a personal vehicle, end the lease arrangement and you’re good to go.
A third option would be to keep it and give instruction in it yourself. This would be a side-hustle and source of backup income in case of an industry downturn. Like it, or not, there will always be a “next” downturn and I believe every pilot should have some type of plan. However, you’ll need to remain at least somewhat active as a CFI to keep your airplane healthy and to position yourself to ramp up business if necessary.
No matter which option you choose, the good news is that you can always buy another airplane. Having owned one before, you’ll have enough knowledge to write an updated version of this post, and you’ll fare even better at the buying process than you did the first time. You may know enough to be able to go after something more exotic. After all, you won’t need it as a training platform this time. The best way to prepare for owning a Decathlon, M20J, or Carbon Cub in the future is to own a C-172 or Cherokee today.
The Primary Alternative
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m trying to convey the fact that owning an aircraft is not cheap. I wrote a whole article quantifying those costs for Flying Magazine a couple years ago.
Here’s a link to the calculator I made for that post. (Don’t ask for permission to edit this copy! Use File -> Make a Copy, or File -> Download to get your own.) If you’re planning to buy an airplane to use as a training platform, you should use this calculator to figure out the total cost of pursuing this path. In the block for “Annual Flight Hours (Per Partner)” put the total number of hours you need to fly in this plane to reach your goal. It’s probably about 1450 to get your ATP, assuming you’ll get at least 50 multi-engine hours elsewhere.
You’ll need to edit your version a bit if you plan to spend more than one year getting those hours, which you probably should. This calculator also doesn’t include a line for instructor fees. Including that cost will require some more editing.
If you’re planning to get all of your training done in one year or less, the blue block labeled “Total Cost Per Partner” will show you the total cost for doing things this way.
Based on the 1975 C-172M I used in my example, 1450 hours of flying would cost you just over $128,000. Remember, add to that
- At least 50 hours of flight instructor fees
- The cost of getting 50 hours of multi
- The cost of all your check rides – Private, Instrument, Commercial, CFI, CFII, Commercial MEL, and MEI at $800-1000 each.
All told, I estimate this plan as costing about $150,000. Ouch.
Now, let’s remember that as part of this you own an airplane for which you probably paid $50-100K. Like I said, I think it’s actually realistic to expect to get a good portion of that when you sell it. This means your net cost would probably be around $75,000-100,000.
Overall, that’s not terrible. The alternative is an accelerated flight training program at a big-name school like ATP Flight School, or somewhere a little smaller like Mil2ATP. Realistically, those places would charge you about the same $75-100K for all of your ratings. You’d complete that training in 9-12 months, but you’d finish with a mere 170-250 total flight hours. You’d then have to go work for a living (or go buy an airplane) to finish your next 1250 hours before getting your ATP.
On one hand, this could take longer than just doing it all in your own airplane. On the other hand, you could likely spend that last 1250 hours getting paid to fly, instead of paying to fly your own airplane.
There’s also something to be said for experience.
If you spend most of your 1500 hours flying straight-and-level in VFR conditions, you’re getting almost zero useful experience for your airline career. I think a lot of pilots with such limited backgrounds are having trouble in airline training programs.
Being a flight instructor can be very valuable. It can make you a very good pilot. It can put you in situations that you would never intentionally induce on your own, and allow you to get yourself out of them. If you’re the kind of person who can be an engaged instructor, and you’re conscientious enough to take the aircraft a few times every lesson to demonstrate some things (and give your student a break) you can gain far more valuable experience as a CFI than you would smashing bugs in your personal C-152.
However, I’ve also encountered CFIs who are almost completely useless. They sit in the seat and say little. When they do speak up, they point out errors without bothering to actually instruct their students toward improved performance. They never bother to take the plane and demonstrate anything because they’re lazy. Airline training will be hell for those morons, and they deserve it. I hope they get a serious reality check and have to go back out to earn some actual experience before they try again.
You’ll need to decide what type of instructor you’ll be when considering your options.
One of the main draws for buying your own airplane is efficiency. You have access to it every day, and every night. Your marginal cost per flight hour smells a lot like nothing more than the avgas you burn. You’ll never have to wait to start your lesson or defer a weekend cross country because another student is out flying.
However, I hope you’ve caught my concerns about maintenance. All it takes is one malfunction and your aircraft could be grounded. In an ideal world, you’ll be able to run to your A&P friend and get a fix done the same day.
Unfortunately, chances are very good that in 1500-ish hours of flying, your airplane will be down for at least a few multi-week periods. If you need an unexpected engine overhaul, you’re looking at several months in a best-case scenario.
You can probably work around this. Maybe those are great times to do your multi-engine flying. However, during those sits you’ll find yourself thinking about the alternative.
A big-name flight school probably owns 10 or more of the same make and model of aircraft. They’re configured identically and you could fly any given tail number on any given day. If one, or two, or five go down for extended maintenance, you still have access to several flying aircraft. Chances are good that you will never experience a significant training delay.
There’s also something to be said for the simplicity of renting. It’s nice to be able to land, toss the keys to the kid at the check-in desk, and move on with the rest of your life.
As an owner, you’re the only one who will wash, fuel, and otherwise care for your aircraft. You have to keep track of maintenance and inspection requirements. You have to figure out a plan for repairs, and you have to help shop for parts. This is all doable. For some people, it’s even part of the fun of aircraft ownership. However, realize that it will take up more of your life than renting would.
So, Emet, is it worth it?
In the balance, yes, I think it’s generally worth buying an airplane to use as a training platform for yourself or someone in your family. However, there are a lot of caveats.
If you’re doing it to save money, I think it’s a wash. The upfront cost of getting 1500 hours in your own airplane is enormous. Yes, you can recoup much of that by selling the plane when you’re finished. However, I think spending 1250 hours flying for a pay is valuable in both financial and experiential terms.
If you’re trying to be efficient – to knock out your flying in the shortest amount of time possible, it really depends on the aircraft you buy and what resources you have to care for it. If you manage to find something in good shape for a good price, and you have a good local mechanic who can address problems quickly, you could definitely get your hours faster than any other way. Hell, you could feasibly do 1500 hours in a single year. It’d be back-breaking (especially in a C-152) but you could do it.
Do you need to rush that much? No. I worry that you’d get burned out. Maybe that’s another big point toward working for some of your flying. There’s a lot available, but not so much that you’d break yourself. Also, 1500 hours of boring holes in the sky in a year would not be very valuable for someone who needs to be able to credibly fly a V1 cut, or brief and fly a complex RNP approach the next year.
On the other hand, if you end up with an airplane that has maintenance issues, just a few months of grounding would put you well behind any peers who rented. There’s something to be said for the redundancy of a big flight school’s fleet of similar aircraft. If you can’t come up with good maintenance as part of your pre-purchase care and feeding setup, ownership may not be the best choice for you right now.
I do believe there’s value in learning how to own an aircraft with something simple like the airplanes we’re considering. I enjoy being an aircraft owner, and plan to retain that title for the rest of my life. Eventually, most airline pilots will have the time and means to buy something more interesting than a plain old trainer. Having owned an aircraft before is invaluable preparation for making your subsequent purchasing and ownership experience a positive one.
If you choose to go that route, I hope this helped outline that process for you. Please reach out to me if you have any questions. I love helping people spend their money on airplanes!