Summary: If you want access to a plane, you have several options:
- Rent from a company that rents out airplanes
- Join a flying club which owns one or more airplanes
- Buy a share of an airplane owned by a small group of people (like a small flying club, you can also jointly buy a plane this way)
- Buy yourself a used airplane
- Buy yourself a new airplane
- Build yourself a new kitplane
- Steal an airplane
I don’t advise #7. I’ll discuss the other options in order. Photos are further down.
#1: Rent from a company that rents out airplanes
Many airports have operators that rent out small airplanes. Typically, they won’t rent you a plane until you demonstrate that you are sufficiently qualified. This means not just having the appropriate certificate with endorsements, but also taking up an instructor for a flight and showing that you are a competent pilot of that model of plane. Unlike with automobiles, pilots cannot just hop into a completely new plane without transition training. Once you show you are able to safely fly the company’s Cessna Skyhawks, for example, then they will rent you the planes, subject to availability.
The rental cost is typically wet, meaning fuel is already factored into the hourly rate. Companies often offer discounts for purchasing blocks of time. For example, the flight school where I train also rents out planes to licensed pilots and offers one or two free hours of rental time for every block of ten hours purchased, depending on the current promotion. The amount you pay depends on how many hours you accumulate on the plane’s HOBBS meter. This is the time from when you turn the key to ‘on’ until you turn the key to ‘off.’ In other words, one hour of slow taxiing costs the same as one hour of max-speed cruise. Here is the hourly rental rate for some planes at my school, as an example. Prices vary by airport and region. I won’t go too far into details about the different planes for now.
- Cessna 150 or 152: $90 – 2 seater plane, good for training, but slow and has a limited useful load (can’t handle two big people plus baggage)
- Cessna 172 (Skyhawk): $135 – 4 seater plane, better performance than the Cessna 150/152
- Diamond DA-20: $119 – More modern 2 seater plane with slightly better performance than the Cessna 150/152
- Diamond DA-40: $160 – 4 seater plane with better performance than the DA-20
- Piper Archer: $139 – 4 seater plane
- Piper Arrow: $160 – 4 seater ‘complex’ plane meaning retractable landing gear and a variable pitch propeller
- Piper Aztec: $280 – 6 seater twin-engine plane (multi-engine planes offer continuity of power in case of a lost engine but require more training than the above aircraft)
Except for the slow Cessna 150/152, all of the planes above cruise in the 100-150 knots range. Note that a knot is a nautical mile per hour, where a nautical mile = 1.15 mile = 1.85 km. Typically, these prices are a small markup on the normal operating costs of the plane. That means, if you owned the plane, you could fly it for less than the prices provided above. However, as I’ll explain later, the cost per hour to operate the plane depends on how many hours per year you actually fly the plane. If you only fly occasionally, and are flexible with scheduling, renting is usually the most logical choice.
One last topic I’ll discuss here is insurance. Typically, getting airplane rental insurance is very affordable. Many rental companies and flight schools also have policies that cover much of the costs if a plane gets damaged, so you just need to make sure whatever policy you personally have sufficiently covers any expenses that won’t be covered by the plane’s owner.
#2: Join a flying club which owns one or more airplanes
A flying club is a not-for-profit organization in which its airplanes are jointly owned by all members of the club. If the club is accepting new members, you purchase a share of the club. For example, if the total value of the club’s airplanes is $1,000,000, and there are 20 members, then a share will require providing approximately $50,000 to the club or to a current member that you are purchasing the share of. Later, if you want to leave the club, you will probably sell your share for a similar amount. While you are a member, you have access to the club’s planes, subject to scheduling policy. You will pay a monthly rate for fixed costs, split up among all members, and pay an hourly rate which depends on how expensive the plane you are borrowing is to operate. Unlike for rented planes discussed above, the hourly rate to borrow a plane from the club is based on the TACH (tachometer) time. If you fly the plane at 50% power for one hour, the TACH time increases by only 0.5 hours, whereas the HOBBS time increase by 1.0 hours. As you might guess, this typically means the club’s plane is cheaper to fly than if it was rented. Some clubs might add a ‘profit margin’ onto rates and/or dues in order to save up for purchasing new planes or making major upgrades later. A flying club is a good way to fly in a relatively affordable way without having to take on all the responsibility and costs of plane ownership yourself, and getting out of the club is usually pretty easy and a good way to recoup much of your expenditure.
#3: Buy a share of an airplane owned by a small group of people (like a small flying club, you can also jointly buy a plane this way)
Think of this option as a small flying club among people who all know each other. If my friends/family all want the same plane but don’t plan to fly it enough to warrant individual purchases, we can split the purchase price and upkeep costs. The founding members of this mini-club will need to agree on the rules up front before any purchases are made, and get it all into writing. Of particular importance, the members need to agree what happens to a person’s share if that person passes away. Does that share go to their estate, or does it get returned proportionally to the remaining owners?
Some new plane manufacturers have programs to pair up people who want to buy a brand new plane but can’t quite afford or justify the purchase individually. I have no idea how well this typically works out, but it sounds kind of risky to me.
#4: Buy yourself a used airplane
This is what most people who want their own plane do. Planes are really expensive so for most, buying a new plane is out of reach. Planes ‘live’ much longer than cars do, so buying used can be a very smart choice, even if the plane is as old as you are (unless you are in grandpa/grandma territory in which case only buy a plane as old as you are if you are into antiques). Buying used planes usually provides you the benefit of decades of accumulated safety data about the model you are interested in. For example, the plane I currently train in (Cessna 152) has a long history of safe operation provided you comply with some required modifications which were mandated many years back. I also know what the most common causes of system or airframe failures are in a C-152 and make sure to check those parts of the plane carefully before flying.
How much do used airplanes cost? Reasonably speaking, used planes start in the $20,000s and go up from there. Some planes hold their value much better than others. Some planes even cost the same amount today to buy used as they did when they were manufactured 30 years ago! They are still cheaper when you factor in inflation, but that’s incredible nonetheless. Here are several factors that have a significant effect on the used price:
- Original sale price of that model when it was new
- Number of flight hours since the plane was manufactured
- Number of hours remaining until the engine(s) are due for overhaul or the plane is due for its next maintenance inspection
- Number of years since the plane was manufactured
- Condition of the plane
- Number of previous owners and/or extent of previous damage, even if it was repaired
- Current market, based on things like the price of fuel, availability of similar planes on the new plane market, economy, etc.
I’ll provide a few examples of planes that are listed for sale online right now on controller.com.
Cessna 172 Skyhawks: Old Skyhawks from the 1950s and 1960s are listed in the $20,000s, Skyhawks from the 1970s are in the 30-60k range, a late 90s Skyhawk might be 150k. It depends on the particular model. A new one might run you 300k.
Unlike a typical Skyhawk which cruises at about 122 knots, here’s a higher-performing airplane which cruises at closer to 175 knots.
Beechcraft Bonanza: Late 1970s Bonanzas may run you 150k, mid 1980s to early 1990s Bonanzas are in the 250k range, late 1990s are around 300k, I see several from 2007 for around 470k, a new one today is more like 815k.
For fun, let’s see how much it would cost to get your own light busienss jet. I’ll research old Cessna Citations. Note that today, the cheapest new Citation starts at about $4,700,000. I found a few mid 90s Citation Jets hovering around the $1,000,000 mark. Then again, even if they were free, not everyone is able to afford the upkeep costs, or even just the fuel costs to fly one of these.
There are, of course, many models of plane that are no longer manufactured. In some cases, these models could actually meet your needs better than any of today's new planes available for purchase. Anyone interested in buying a plane should spend a fair amount of time researching pretty much every commercially available plane that has ever existed. I'm currently in the process of doing that, but I think it's overkill to inventory each of those planes here.
As a used airplane owner, you now are directly responsible for all costs, maintenance, registration, and taxes associated with owning and operating the plane. These will vary to some extent depending on where you are. Maintaining the registration is pretty similar to keeping your car’s registration up to date, that is, trivially easy. Annual inspections by a certified mechanic are not that difficult for small planes provided they don’t find any major problems that need to be fixed. Some states charge personal property tax on vehicles, in which case, be prepared to fork over a fair amount of money each year unless the plane is very cheap. Storing the plane can be cheap or expensive depending on what your home airport is and whether you desire hangar space or simply a tie-down spot somewhere at the airport. For about $100/month you can typically tie your plane down at a reserved spot at the airport, but the plane will be exposed to the elements. Hangars typically start at several hundred dollars a month and go up from there. Occasionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announces that a problem has been discovered with your model of plane, and you need to get parts changed out to make the plane safe again. This can be expensive depending on the problem. Occasionally, the FAA announces that new equipment will be required for all (or most) aircraft. This can also be expensive, but the FAA also tries to sponsor rebates to reduce the cost of keeping your airplane compliant with new mandates. I’ve probably only scratched the surface with all the ways planes eat your money. Just wait until the engine needs to be overhauled (roughly every 1,500 hours or so of flight)!
Here is an article that does a better job than I could discussing what the various options are for buying a plane in the 20k-100k range: https://www.planeandpilotmag.com/article/the-best-airplanes-under/ It is a bit out of date but considering how old most of the planes they discuss are, it isn’t a big deal. If you are interested in spending more than 100k on a used plane, you probably shouldn’t be relying on this blog to help you understand what is out there.
#5: Buy yourself a new airplane
Buying new gives you several advantages, if you can afford one:
- Several years of warranty
- Hands on training with your new plane so you are comfortable taking ownership of it (used sales have this too, but not as formally)
- Easier to get financing and insurance set up, although both are also available for used planes
- No worries about how poorly the plane was previously operated or previous damage
- If you ever resell the plane, you know 100% of the plane’s history as the sole prior owner
- Opportunity to select options and customization from the manufacturer
- New plane smell
I’ll take a few moments to discuss the different ‘categories’ of planes here. This discussion also applies to the earlier sections. Most of what I’ve discussed so far has been regarding small single-engine piston airplanes. The engines are very similar to automobile gasoline-powered engines, although obviously with some differences. Larger planes tend to be either turbo-props, or jets. Even the smallest, heavily-used turbo-props and jets tend to be unaffordable to someone entering the airplane market unless they are quite rich so I won’t go into detail on them. Piston-twins are just planes that have two piston engines. Some small planes can operate on automobile gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel, but most of the ones discussed below use 100 octane low-lead AVGAS.
Diamond has more affordable planes than most of the manufacturers that follow. As discussed above, the DA-20 is an affordable 130 knot 2 seater for $185,000, the DA-40 is a 4-seater cruising a 137 knots for $420,000, and the DA-42 is a twin piston seats 4, cruises up to 190 knots (typically a bit lower to be more economical), and costs about $523,000. For $1.3 million, the DA-62 seats seven.
Cessna does not currently sell a 2 seater plane similar to the 152 that I currently train in. A new Skyhawk starts at about the mid 300s. The Skylane, a more powerful Skyhawk capable of cruising at about 145 knots, starts at around 500k. The larger 6-seater Cessna Turbo Stationair HD starts in the mid 600s. This plane is well known for its carrying capability, but doesn’t get you to your destination as fast as the Skylane.
The Beechcraft Bonanza is a more powerful and luxurious piston aircraft than any of those Cessnas (they actually share the same parent company though). There are six seats, but unless you are ferrying a children's choir, don't expect all the seats to be filled. As mentioned above, it cruises at about 175 knots and starts at over 800k. The Beechcraft Baron is a twin-engine piston aircraft that doesn't get much more performance than the Bonanza, but does have that two-engine redundancy. Unfortunately, they start at $1.4 million.
Piper seems to make a ton of different variations of the same model which makes it a bit difficult to sum up their lineup, especially if you cover all their used variants as well. Seriously, have a quick look at their Wikipedia article for the PA-28 and scroll to the variants. The two varieties actually being sold new today are the Archer and Arrow. The archer is a fairly straightforward 4-seater that cruises at about 128 knots. Like I discussed above, the Arrow variant is 'complex' and gets slightly better performance than the archer. The arrow starts at about $467,000. The Archer is significantly less, but I'm not immediately sure how much less.
Piper sells two piston twins: The Seminole and the Seneca, with ever increasing degrees of performance. They cruise at about 162 and 200 knots respectively, and have price tags of $660,000 and $1 million. Piper also sells what I consider to be the ultimate piston plane: The M350 (previously the Mirage). Not only does this six-seater plane cruise at 213 knots, but it's pressurized meaning you don't need supplemental oxygen to fly well above 10,000 feet. Very few piston aircraft have ever been pressurized the way airliners are. Get ready to pay $1.18 million for the privilege in a new plane, though.
These are some very nice although very pricey 4-seaters. The Acclaim Ultra cruises at 242 knots… that will get you places in a hurry. The more moderate Ovation Ultra still hauls ass at 197 knots, despite not being turbocharged like the Acclaim. Be prepared to spend 770k or 690k respectively.
These 4-seaters are famous for their full-plane parachute. When all else fails, just pull the chute and fall slowly to the ground. They are a bit cheaper than the Mooneys, thanks in part to their fixed rather than retractable landing gear, but still very nice planes with top-tier features. The SR20 cruises at 155 knots, and the SR22 cruises at 183 or 213 knots, depending on if you opt for the turbo version. The prices of these three varieties are $390k, $540k, and $640k respectively.
Light Sport Aircraft
Most of the above planes are extremely expensive and provide more features and capability than a buyer may need. There is a type of airplane called a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) that is limited in terms of how heavy it can be and how fast it can go at maximum cruises. In exchange for these limitations, you can fly the planes with a sport pilot license in lieu of the more involved private pilot certificate. These planes are more affordable if you are okay with low speeds and very limited ability to carry weight. Some examples are the Carboncrafters Carbon Cub, Super Petrel, Tecnam P2002 Sierra Mk2, Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey, FlightDesign CTLSi, Zenith CH750, Van's RV-12, Sport Cruiser, Bristell NG 5 LSA, and Rans S20LS Raven. Some of these planes are considered experimental and either need to be constructed by the buyer or are restricted from being used for any purposes other than recreation. Some of them have special features like ability to land on water, snow, or very good short field takeoff and landing capability. They are all limited to 2 seats. Prices vary roughly between 50k and 200k.
My review of many of the above aircraft focused on their price and cruising speed, but did not discuss other aspects of airplane performance. A knowledgeable reviewer could write pages upon pages comparing the performance of each of these planes. Some other things to consider that I won't go into detail about here are:
- Climb performance
- Performance of twin-engine planes when they lose one engine
- Maximum altitude
- Length of runway needed for landing and takeoff
- Gallons of fuel burned per hour at different cruise settings
- Stall behavior and minimum speed to properly land the plane
- Carrying capacity (both in terms of space and weight)
- Maximum range (on full fuel tanks)
- Interior features
- Instruments including navigational equipment available
- Crosswind landing capability
One more advantage of buying a new plane is that it does not yet have a tail number... you can choose the number yourself. If you look in most of the picture above, you can see the tail number painted on the side which uniquely identifies the plane. That number is your call sign when you talk over the radio while flying. The format for tail numbers is a string of 1-3 numbers followed by two letters, or a string of 1-4 numbers followed by 1 letter. Many of them are already taken, but if you are creative you can think of some fun ones. Personally, I find that format perfect for naming your plane after a particular radionuclide that interests you. How about 238PU or 220RN? No? You don't care? Oh well.
#6: Build yourself a new kitplane
Suppose you want one of the really nice planes from the previous section, and you want it new, and you don't want to pay north of half a million dollars. Can you get it cheaper? No.
You can get somewhat similar planes for much cheaper, though. In most cases, the catch is that you need to build portions of it yourself. For many people, this is a deal breaker. For others, having a plane you built yourself is even more awesome than buying a brand new Mooney or Cirrus. Nothing teaches you how everything in your plane works like putting it all together yourself. Another advantage of kit airplanes is that you can customize every aspect of it... what instruments it has, which engine and propeller to use, you name it. I'm giving some serious consideration towards building a kit airplane in the future. You may think it's insane to build an airplane from a kit if you aren't a licensed mechanic. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways you are backstopped to reduce risk. In fact, experimental aircraft (basically, ones that are built by the home builder) are almost as safe as the other aircraft discussed above. There used to be a big difference between the two, but it's almost decayed away at this point, at least for the popular kit manufacturers.
The Experimental Aircraft Association has knowledgeable inspectors who will, for free, evaluate your work at different steps throughout your build process. All you need to get started is a space (roughly the size of a two car garage) and a fair number of easily acquirable tools. The kits typically have pre-punched holes, all welding complete, and any other specialized tooling already completed. All you need to do is rivet it together, install the components, and bring it to life. So long as you complete at least 51% of the work by man-hours, the FAA will grant you a certificate when you are done saying that you are allowed to do the maintenance on the plane in the future. This can save you a lot of money in the future on inspections and repairs. Suppose something breaks that is beyond your knowledge or ability to fix. You can still bring it to a much more experienced and fully certificate mechanic. Once the build is done, the FAA will inspect the plane, and then you perform flight testing.
I want to go through all the more popular kits and show you can get top-tier performance for a fraction of the price (plus a thousand or so man hours) but I think I best save that for my next blog post. There are some very nice kits available for purchase, and some other promising ones in development.
There are a variety of ways to get access to planes, whether you rent them or own them yourself. All of them require a fair amount of money, and most require a tremendous amount of money. I say that after only having discussed small piston aircraft. There are many entry-level turboprops and jets that blow most of these planes out of the water, but I know I have no chance of ever owning one. If I somehow found myself with one, I wouldn't be able to afford to operate it anyway. Just paying for a hangar and inspections for a jet would probably blow my flying budget for the foreseeable future. If I missed anything obvious or you are curious about anything please let me know in the comments below. Here is a disclaimer I probably should have put at the top: I have never owned a plane so everything in this post has just been what I've picked up while doing some flight training and surfing the web. If you are knowledgeable on this topic please feel free to weigh in.
If you found this interesting, you'll find my next blog discussing kit planes in detail MORE INTERESTING.