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I'm halfway through a 10-year plan to pay for pilot training and buy my own plane (or a share of one). When I was introduced to flying by a friend, he said if he had the chance to do it over again, he would have saved up and bought a plane before he started instruction.

The benefits he mentioned:

  • Learn in the plane you'll be flying.
  • Avoid "throwing away" rent money.

What I've seen in most cases, though, is that most people get their license before getting a plane.

Thus my question: when does it make sense to buy a plane before training for your PPL?

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We would assume you mean an aircraft commonly used as trainers, perhaps a Cessna 172 or Piper Archer? If you bought a Baron twin, (I assume) you could not take your initial training in it. –  CGCampbell May 14 at 15:15
    
Yes, that's a valid point. I'd be purchasing a 172 or 152, or a similar "starter" plane. –  Garrison Neely May 14 at 15:23
    
@CGCampbell Theoretically, you can get trained in any plane. Practically, it is not very feasible. –  Farhan May 14 at 16:08
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I made a spreadsheet to figure out the costs associated with owning my own vs. renting while training. It came out that I needed to fly 100 hours a year for it to be worth owning my own plane vs. renting, but I lived in a place with a great club (KMYF) that had incredible rental rates. Aircraft prices also tend to be somewhat steady in the 172/Cherokee market, so you may be able to fly one for a couple hundred hours and then sell it after you're done training and almost "fly for free." The risk you're taking is having to pay a major maintenance expense before you built up your reserve. –  Canuk May 14 at 16:54

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I will mention some considerations that were not mentioned above. First of all, it does make sense to buy a plane for training, and it can save you a lot of money on rent but you need to be aware of what you are doing. The positive side is that airplanes do not depreciate as fast as most assets of their kind (it is not unheard of being able to sell an airplane for practically the same amount as you bought it several years ago). However, consider that:

  1. Usually an airplane you want to train in (something sturdy and easy to control, like a C-150) is not an airplane you would like to fly most of the time (traveling in a 150 is not a lot of fun, now a twin Comanche is a different story...).

  2. Insurance costs for a student pilot (even with various restrictions) can nearly negate the advantage of not having to rent.

So, if you would like to buy an airplane to mostly train (and have some fun occasionally) and then sell and buy a 'travel' (or aerobatic) airplane, it can save you money. It is better to get your private first, however, so you can concentrate on initial training (which is a handful) without worrying about the 'pleasures' of plane ownership.

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Thanks for the input--my goal would be to get a 172, or even fractional on a 182. Would it make sense from a training point to use those types of planes? –  Garrison Neely May 14 at 18:21
    
A 172 makes a fine trainer. A 182 would do in a pinch but they're a lot more powerful and the learning curve could be problematic. Insurance would probably increase correspondingly. –  egid May 14 at 20:59
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I would also think twice about a partnership: they are a lot harder to get out of in case you need to. You would also have to think about how to proportion expenses such as annuals, maintenance, etc among the partners (would it depend on how much one flies, for example?) –  alexsh May 14 at 22:23

There are two assumptions in your questions which could be addressed.

First, learning in the plane you'll be flying: it might also be useful to learn to adapt to different planes. Each plane is a bit different to control and not everything on the plane is standard across manufacturers. You might be better off starting to learn how to adapt your flying to the machine instead of locking yourself into a particular model.

Second, rent money isn't really "thrown away". You're paying for the convenience of not owning which is to not have to think about issues like maintenance for example. Let's you focus on the joys of flying.

On the other hand, it makes sense to buy a plane before learning how to fly if:

  • you're 100% committed to flying
  • you worked out all the costs (money, time, your energy, etc.)
  • you're able to go up the learning curve of how to fly + be an owner at the same time

Also, it's worth remembering that an airplane is an asset that depreciates over time.

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I'm not sure they depreciate all that much. It seems like most used, old (pre-80s) training planes these days are actually rising in value because new planes are so ridiculously expensive and fewer are being made. Low supply, high demand... If you buy the right plane, depreciation isn't really a consideration. Now, loan interest...that's another question. –  Jay Carr May 14 at 17:31
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Regarding depreciation of airplanes, this question is sort of related: aviation.stackexchange.com/q/3370/65 –  Farhan May 14 at 17:36

If I were you I'd only buy an airplane once I'd successfully got my license and flown enough to know what you want to own long-term. Once you know more about it you can make an informed decision. Also, you will be able to judge whether an airplane is worth buying, or whether you'll be inheriting a load of expensive problems.

Owning an airplane is very expensive, with a lot of up-front costs. It only makes sense over renting if you fly a lot, and even then over time.

By all means start saving, but wait.

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To address your worry of me buying a klunker: I'd have my pilot friend with the experience help me through the process to pick a solid plane. –  Garrison Neely May 14 at 16:04
    
This is an important consideration but would you have enough experience of deciding that this is something that you would like flying. The more you fly the more your tastes will change. A Citabria, for example, feels very uncomfortable to a fresh pilot but it is a fun plane to fly once you get proficient in it. –  alexsh May 14 at 17:21

I considered buying an airplane, I even came close but backed away because the particular airplane had some engine issues. In retrospect, it might have been cheaper to buy a plane at the start, but now I'm glad I didn't, primarily because the 150 I was looking at would not be a satisfying long-term airplane for my purposes.

There is an advantage not mentioned in the previous answers, namely scheduling. Your airplane is always available (barring maintenance issues or instructor availability issues). However, the disadvantages, I think, outweigh the advantages.

If cost is one of the major factors for you, consider joining a flying club that is geared toward training. That's what I did. After an initiation fee, wet rental of our club 150s runs between 50 and 55 dollars (US) per hour. An added benefit is the social aspect of the club, it tends to reinforce the effort to finish getting your ticket.

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The first thing I would do is put on paper for your benefit what the mission is. Are you seeking a pilot career, or just want to fly for recreational purposes? How many people will you be carrying on a regular basis? How far away are the destinations? (Like from where you live to where your wife wants to go... New York City to the Cape Cod area, in my case) and what kind of plane will carry the load you intend on carrying (kid stuff like strollers, playpens, and other...). When all that is done, it will come close to defining the plane that is best for your needs.

Now the big question: Is that the plane you want to train in? Is insurance affordable for a zero time student? Can you find a CFI to instruct in that plane? After you slam it on the ground for say 100 crash-and-go landings as you come up the learning curve, is that the plane you want to carry your family in? How difficult is it to find a flight instructor for that airplane? If yes, do it.

Second big question, as mentioned above, how many hours per year do you anticipate flying? It is pretty easy to calculate the annual flying bill if you are a renter. Ownership will most likely be MORE expensive than that, because all of the fixed expenses are paid by you and not diversified among other renters. If you have a bad annual inspection, as but one example: the renter can just walk away and find another plane/flight school. The owner must pony up the repair costs or he is left with an unairworthy aircraft worth a fraction of the value in a sale. One way or another you will pay for the repairs to get the plane back in annual.

So renting during training may be cheaper and with less downside risk. It will also allow you to clarify in your own mind what you want out of this flying thing, without the burden of ownership. Owning brings the absolute freedom and joy of owning your own plane ... as well as the financial obligations of ownership.

Again, as noted above, most people use 100 hours of flying annually as the breakpoint between renting being better, and owning being better - but this will differ with each individual and each plane. I wish you luck with the decision, and also with your training. Come on up, the air is smooth and cool up here!

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One more scenario to consider: You get a deal "too good to refuse", and know it really is a good deal and you're not buying a lemon (maybe you can get a preferential selection from an auction of a bankrupt company, or from the estate of a deceased friend or relative).
That could potentially save you a bundle, more than the maintenance, taxes, and insurance you'd have to pay before you'd otherwise be willing and able to purchase an aircraft.

Of course there's also added risks involved, quite apart from the monetary side of it ending up more expensive than renting and buying later.
And that added risk is that you may for whatever reason end up having to abandon your dream of attaining your license and are now stuck with that aircraft that you may or may not be able to sell without a serious loss.
Think you get into a major car crash and lose an eye or leg, meaning you can't pass your medical. Or you get a heart condition with the same result. Maybe your financial situation becomes such (employer goes bankrupt, causing you to lose a lot of money, happens more often than you think) that you can't continue to pay for flying (if it's a choice of paying your aircraft dream or the rent or mortgage on your house, or to put food on the table...).

So weigh the risks carefully, don't get all glassy eyed seeing that glossy aircraft for sale at an airshow and sign for the thing before you consider what's in it for the future for you.

One thing not yet mentioned I think is the option to set up a small company and register the aircraft to that, then using that company to rent it out to the flight school you're taking lessons from (or to a local flying club). That way the aircraft generates a bit of income, which you can then use to pay for its maintenance and insurance, with who knows maybe some left over to help pay for your flying lessons as well.

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