The rising cost of membership in club general aviation

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Recently I’ve read a few aviation blogs that suggest hangars are in short supply. Based on my observations over the past several years, I would tend to agree with that statement. What is interesting to me however, is the fact that at several of the general aviation airports I’ve visited, many hangars are filled with “hangar queens.”

The reasons for this are many and range from financial, health, loss of interest, airworthiness directives, maintenance issues, or all of the aforementioned lumped together. Without trying to be sarcastic, I’ll take it a step further and submit that those airports with all of the hangar queens mostly resemble ghost towns. Now I know what you’re thinking: this guy is off his rocker. Hey, go check it out for yourself and report back. I’d be curious to find out what your observations yielded.

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A lot of hangars are full—but do the airplanes inside fly?

So how does this fit into what I’m talking about? No hangars are available because many are inhabited by aircraft that are no longer airworthy. Were they parked there by their owners because they can no longer afford the insurance premium? How about the cost of 100LL, or the cost of AD compliance, or the cost of an annual inspection? Or perhaps the owner had a health event or just no longer feels competent to fly alone? Lest we forget, maybe the cost of installing ADS-B Out was too prohibitive? Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to finding the answer to that question.

One thing’s for sure: it certainly does take a chunk of change to maintain, fuel, insure, and hangar an aircraft in today’s world. Never mind the cost of acquisition either. To try to understand, how about we take a sentimental journey for a spell. Okay, I get it, I’m over 65 and us old duffers like to reminisce every now and again. So just humor me and follow along; I really am going somewhere with this.

Before stepping inside of the red phone booth and traveling back in time, please allow me to get the following off my chest before moving forward, or should I say time traveling. Specifically, the target of my frustration happens to be a major aviation periodical that is provided to its membership as a value added benefit in exchange for payment of annual dues. Honestly, it’s an outstanding publication with awesome photography and well written feature articles.

My gripe is the cover. Yes, you read that correctly—the cover. Almost without exception, month after month, the featured “cover aircraft” is either a very expensive turboprop or an even more expensive jet, the likes of which I couldn’t in my wildest of dreams even think about owning, much less operating and maintaining. I did reasonably well in my career, but those aircraft are way outside of the realm of possibility, not only for me, but for most folks I know or even have known. From my simple perspective it’s just not real world, and it sure as heck isn’t the general aviation that I’ve come to know and love. So what is you ask? Glad you asked, so let me tell you! And while I’m at it I’ll try to explain where I think it currently is, where it’s going, and how it correlates to the title of this article.

Being in the throes of my second career (as a CFI), I’ve given considerable thought to the notion of perhaps purchasing a training aircraft and striking out on my own. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but it wasn’t all that long ago that a reasonably well-equipped Cessna 172M through P model could be had for somewhere in the neighborhood of $50K to $75K. Nothing too fancy, 5 to 8 on paint and interior along with a mid-time engine and steam gauge panel.

Well I’ll tell you what, just go and pull up Trade-A-Plane online and take a look at some of the prices for these aircraft. Most I found are well above my previously mentioned price range, and with run-out engines to boot. Upon further investigation you’ll find that the Piper PA-28 series of aircraft are in a similarly inflated status. After making myself throughly depressed, that line of thinking was ultimately abandoned.

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Buying the airplane is just the start. Then you have to maintain it.

The truth of the matter is, regardless of whether you intend to teach or just use it to punch holes in the sky, the cost of ownership is becoming a tough pill to swallow. So let’s let our imaginations run wild for a few minutes and assume we were able to swing the purchase of a 1985 Cessna 172P. Mind you, this aircraft is only a paltry 36 years old! As I write this, the first one I found on TAP had an asking price of $165,000. It’s touted as having a new interior and a decent avionics suite, but on the other hand the engine is near TBO. I don’t know, but it sure sounds to me like I just missed the last train out of Clarksville.

Okay, so let’s continue our dream. We’re now the proud owners of a 36-year-old Cessna 172. Now assuming that y’all are the savvy aircraft owners that I know you are, you’ve probably already taken care of the room and board requirements for your new acquisition. Were you able to find a hangar, or did you have to resort to a tie down outside on the ramp? If by chance you were able to find one, my bet is that it might be a shared space for a number somewhat north of $250 a month. In my part of the world (Colorado), you can figure about double that.

Oh geez, did you remember to contact your aircraft insurance agent? Subject to usage requirements and depending on how much time you have in your logbook, be prepared for another dose of sticker shock.

Hey folks, I’m really not a perpetual pessimist, but I’ve got to tell you—I’m not done yet. In checking AirNav today, the national average price for a gallon of 100LL is currently $5.09. Holy cow, here we go again! So let’s do the math on the 172’s fuel cost and see where that takes us. Assuming a burn rate of 8 gallons per hour, a 40 gallon purchase at $5.00 per gallon will set you back $200 for five hours of flying or about 1.5 hours a week. I think for most of us, reality dictates at least double that time, if not triple.

Pulling the handle down on my old Victor adding machine, I’m seeing close to $1000 a month, and that assumes no payment on the 172 and a fully paid insurance premium. Had that not been the case, I think it would be fair (depending on down payment) to add another $1200 to $1500 to that already crushing total. So where does that leave us? We will still have some expenses that are incidental to aircraft ownership like tires, brakes, oil, and general maintenance. Now it’s time for a drum roll, as I’ve saved the best for last. My very favorite time of the year: annual inspection. In my 16 years of aircraft ownership I’ve had “owner assist” annuals that only cost me $500, and I’ve had a very expensive “shop annual” that was over $10,000! To be truthful, that $10K annual only happened one time; thank goodness because I don’t think I could have swallowed too many more of those.

The price assessment mentioned above may not necessarily be representative of the cost of ownership for everyone out there in the world of general aviation, but having been there myself, I know for a fact that I’m not too far off the mark. Let’s face it, as stated earlier it costs a lot of money to fly today. Factor into that the costs of housing, vehicles, food, raising children, college, and it’s no small wonder we’re seeing ghost town airports and hangars loaded with inactive aircraft. Honestly, it’s really enough to make a grown-up cry.

Oh, by the way, while I was busy ranting about prices and such we never did take that walk back in time. I see time travel as the answer here. No, I’m not nuts, just bear with me a bit longer. There are quite literally a fair to middling smattering of old birds out there to be had. Vintage birds like Taylorcrafts, Luscombes, Aeroncas, Stinsons, Swifts, and more. Granted, many of them in my humble are overpriced as well, but when you compare those prices to the previously mentioned prices, they are indeed a bargain. Not only that, they are a heck of a lot more fun to fly too, and cost a lot less to operate. Yes you will still need insurance, hangar or tie down, and annual inspection, but the total cost of ownership will definitely be much more digestible.

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Vintage airplanes like the Aeronca Champ may be the best option in today’s expensive world.

I’ve actually even considered going the E-LSA route, but in the end I think one may be mucho dollars ahead going the vintage aircraft route. If you have a mission that justifies the cost of a larger and more capable GA aircraft that’s great. But for most of us, the lion’s share of what we fondly refer to as general aviation, we’ve got to figure out a way to continue onward as Bonafide Member Extraordinaries of this exclusive and very special club. If we can no longer afford to purchase a membership ticket, our flying dreams and aspirations will eventually all head West.

Having said that, I’d like to leave you with these parting thoughts:

“I still love to dream of days of old, with my dad’s Taylorcraft sitting peacefully on the grass, adorned in blue and gold. What a feeling, I’ll never forget, when the tail came up and I watched the ground we just left. That old bird hummed and strummed and made the music of Heaven above. Oh how I hope one day that she will once again return to me and play. Now that I am old but no longer so bold, the need to fly is such, I must admit I need it much.”

To all my pilot friends out there, my wish is to meet you all again up there. And by the way, there’s a reason I never made a living writing poetry.

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