Aircraft Ownership for Student Pilots
Aircraft ownership may seem like a far-fetched idea for a student pilot, and it is true that it is not for everybody, however, it is definitely worth considering.
Is aircraft ownership for me?
If you are just starting your training, you may see aircraft ownership as something only the rich and experienced pilots get to do. However, it may be more accessible than you think, and a good investment. But you need to determine whether it makes sense for you.
Before you start looking at listings, ask yourself what your goals are, and how you are planning on training. If you will be going through a part 141 school, then ownership is probably not the best bet for you right now, as you will have to use the school's fleet. You might still want to consider buying an airplane for your time building, though. If you plan on going the part 61 route, then keep reading (part 61 vs 141 differences explained).
No matter what route you decide to go, you will have to build time between your private pilot certificate and your instrument rating and then before your commercial certificate. You'll need 250 hrs minimum before you are eligible to take your commercial checkride. That's a lot of hours renting an airplane! Moreover, if you train in an airplane you own, you will be that much more knowledgeable about that airplane for your checkride and once you start flying for fun.
The key in buying an airplane is to define your mission and to find an airplane that can fulfill 80% of those missions, and rent for the remaining 20%. You can train for all your certificates all the way to CFI in a simple single engine aircraft. You'll need access to a TAA (Technically Advanced Aircraft) or complex aircraft for the commercial requirements, and you'll need an airplane you can spin for your CFI. That's only about 12 hours out of the 250 hours you need! If your mission is defined by your training, then yes, look into buying an airplane when you get started. If your mission goes well beyond training, it is still worth it, as you can still accomplish a lot with a simple airplane.
Do the finances make sense?
If you've looked into aviation, you already know you won't get rich by flying. So let's look at the math.
In the first scenario, you are renting an airplane up to your commercial requirement of 250 hours. With a rental rate of $130/hr wet, which seems quite typical across the country for a Cessna 172, you'll spend $32,500 on airplane rental and gas. You'll have to pay for your instructor, but that won't change once you own.
In the second scenario, you are buying a simple airplane with the only goal that it can take you through your private, instrument and commercial hours. In 2021 (things change fast), you can find a Cessna 150 in the mid-$30k with no frills. You're probably thinking that doesn't include gas and maintenance, and you are correct. However, it does allow you to train whenever you want without having to schedule your rental. Moreover, if your only goal is to train with that airplane, you can sell it at the end of your training and recoup some of that money. Finally, if you find someone to work with, you can also buy a 50% share on a C150 or C172 and split those costs. Having 2 or even 3 owners is great financially, and it still gives you a lot of flexibility with the scheduling. Just make sure you have a good agreement with the other owner(s), and that you buy an airplane that is desirable so that if someone wants to sell their share, you can find a new owner fast.
What does it take to buy an airplane?
You think that ownership is the right way for you, but you have no idea where to start. Looking to buy an airplane can be overwhelming, much like buying a house.
Surround yourself with people who can guide you. Hang out at the airport and look at the different aircraft people are flying. Ask questions. The first step is figuring out what type of airplane is right for you, and if you're new to aviation, it can get very confusing. It all depends on your mission. Some great trainer airplanes are the Cessna 150, 152, 172, or the Piper Cherokees (140, Warrior, Archer, 160 and 180). These are simple airplanes with fixed gear, 4 cylinders (more cylinders means more expensive in gas and maintenance). Most importantly, there are a lot of those airplanes around, which means it's rather easy to find one to buy, and parts are easy to find.
Figure out how you'll pay for your airplane. Cash? Financing? You'll also need insurance on it. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) is a great resource for both financing and insurance. They also have great tools to help you along the way. Where will you keep your airplane? Some airports have waiting lists for their hangars, and it can take months if not years to get a spot. Look into airports with cheap fuel as well, and some A&P services on the field.
Once you know which airplane you want, how you will pay for it and where you will keep it, it's time to start looking. You might want to consider a broker to help you look for an airplane and take care of all the logistics. If you don't, make sure you surround yourself with a lot of people to help you. A mechanic to do the pre-buy inspection (don't skip this step, or you might very well regret it later), a CFI or experienced pilot with plenty of hours on the same make and model to test fly the plane. Make sure to have a purchase agreement signed with the seller and to leave a door open in case the pre-buy inspection comes back with too many red flags. Be ready to walk away from a deal. And use an escrow and do a title search to make sure there are no liens on the plane you are planning on buying. You probably want to have an attorney with experience in aviation help you with the purchase agreement or if you are setting up a LLC or corporation to own the plane (if you have co-owners for example). Finally, be ready to pay the sales tax. In most cases, you need to pay them separately form the purchase price, and you need to pay them before your state comes ask for them (and they will!), or you will have penalties.
Is all of that worth it?
If you've made it this far in the post, you are starting to realize that becoming an owner is no easy feat. However, you will have the privilege of training almost exclusively on YOUR airplane, and you will be a much better pilot for it. If you assist your A&P with the maintenance, you will gain even more invaluable knowledge. The examiner will appreciate your knowledge and experience, and you will be much more comfortable during the oral and flight tests. It takes a lot of work, but it is well worth it!