There is no feeling that matches buying your own airplane. Classic cars, fast boats, and vintage motorcycles provide the new buyer with a definite thrill, but it’s nothing compared to being handed the keys to your own aircraft. Something special happens when a buyer bonds with an airplane, and if you ask a pilot about what aircraft they’ve owned you’ll hear a wistful tale of a life well-lived through the lens of a personal time-machine.
Purchasing an aircraft is a complicated transaction fraught with peril and possibilities. In fact, purchasing an airplane has more in common with buying a home than it does a vehicle. The dangers of doing it incorrectly have left plenty of horror stories, while the joys of a good airplane purchase last a lifetime.
How does one navigate the turbulent waters of aircraft ownership and what is there to watch out for? What follows is a roadmap to help guide new buyers through the critical steps of buying an aircraft, along with a slew of tips from experienced aircraft owners to make the experience a great one.
Define Your Mission
Defining your mission correctly is the difference between on-going joy or never-ending frustration and regret. A poorly defined mission is what gave way to the old pilot’s adage, “The two happiest days of a pilot’s life are the day he buys a plane, and the day he sells it.” In short, defining your mission is the cake while everything else is the frosting.
“Defining your mission” means accurately determining what type of flying you’ll be doing on a consistent basis, which includes how many passengers you’ll carry. “Consistent” is the operative word here since FAA and AOPA research reveals that 85% of general aviation flying today is done with the pilot being the sole occupant of the aircraft. While many buyers have the idea that they will be flying with their families and friends all the time, the reality is that – once the newness wears off – most pilots fly alone or with one passenger.
if you do know that you will be flying passengers regularly, then that becomes a crucial element in defining your mission. You should write down your mission definition, as it is the most important step in finding the right aircraft for you. You should include additional factors such as:
- How many miles you will regularly fly
- Weather and seasonal conditions you will encounter in your geographical area
- Operational costs you can comfortably afford
- Annual maintenance costs (expected)
- How often you’ll fly the aircraft
- Whether you’ll need a hangar or tiedown (fabric aircraft should be hangered)
- Your aeronautical experience (for insurance)
- Your future plans in aviation (higher ratings, backcountry flying, etc.)
One key takeaway when defining your mission is to know that the number of seats an aircraft has is based more on marketing strategy than capability and is not a true sense of its carrying capacity. For example, a Cessna 172 with full fuel can only carry 2 adults and a 3rd very light person. This is the case with most general aviation aircraft. “Useful Load” is the critical figure to use in determining carrying capacity and consists of fuel, people, and baggage.
Finding Prospective Aircraft
With a solid mission definition in hand, the fun part begins. There are few more rewarding tasks than looking for the right airplane, and the countless late-night hours spent looking at computer screens and airplane sale rags are a testament to that. Be prepared to do some research.
Ask other pilots for their recommendations, scour manufacturer websites, and read the reviews and buyer’s guides from industry magazines like Flying, AOPA, and Plane and Pilot. Visit type groups online. Type groups (or clubs) are a collective of people who own and fly a particular aircraft. There are type clubs for just about everything that flies, and they are a great resource for prospective buyers.
In decades past, shopping for the right aircraft was almost entirely based on luck. You had classified ads, bulletin boards at airports, and word-of-mouth. This made aircraft that were located far away invisible to you as a buyer. Color photos were expensive to print, and the cost of travelling around the country to look at an airplane based on a text description was prohibitive.
Today we have an entirely online market. There are still print publications (like Trade-a-Plane) but even they have a full-featured website. The problem is that there are too many websites, and not all aircraft appear in all websites. Sellers are on a budget too, so they select only the online outlets they feel will have the heaviest buyer traffic. Some only put ads in local or free sites, meaning they won’t show up in the more popular (and expensive) sites like Controller.com or Trade-a-Plane.
That’s where AeroSearcher.com comes in. AeroSearcher is designed to save you time and effort in looking for the perfect airplane. The site does the work for you, collecting data from the vast number of individual aircraft sale sites and displaying them to buyers in a single place. AeroSearcher becomes your “search agent,” offering free searches across the multitude of aircraft sale sites. It becomes a “one-stop shop,” saving you time and adding the bonus of finding matching aircraft on sites you may not even know about or that are brand new to the web.
Once you’ve located an aircraft that matches your needs, the “pre-buy” inspection is next. It is a condition inspection of a prospective aircraft and is driven by the buyer. The goal of the pre-buy inspection is to determine 1) if a prospective aircraft meets the mechanical expectations of the buyer, and 2) if not, what is wrong with the aircraft and how much it will cost to repair. It is a critical step that, if skipped, could end in financial ruin. Don’t skip the pre-buy.
Typically, the buyer selects a maintenance shop near the aircraft’s location, but not the same shop that does regular maintenance on the aircraft. The idea is to engage a neutral 3rd-party mechanic that will look at the aircraft subjectively and impartially.
The inspection is typically paid-for by the buyer under a written “purchase agreement” that stipulates that any defect discovered over a certain dollar amount will negate the purchase. At that point the buyer and seller may agree to go halves on the repair, the seller may lower their selling price, or any variation that both parties agree to. Often a buyer will bring his or her own mechanic to do the pre-buy inspection and that is an accepted practice. It is useful to contact a type club and get a list of specific items to inspect on that model.
Escrow and Title Search
Few areas have brought more anger and frustration to a buyer than an aircraft title that is encumbered or money not changing hands properly. The answer to both is to engage an aviation escrow company.
In a title search, the company combs through all the previous registrations and transactions and determines if your prospective aircraft is legally “clear” (as far as title) to be sold. It is a step which will cost a few hundred dollars and is worth its weight in gold.
Escrow is a process by which a 3rd-party company holds all the money for the sale transaction along with the title until all terms in the purchase agreement are met. Only then are the funds disbursed and the transaction completed. Typically, buyer and seller will go halves on the title and escrow fees.
It is also wise for buyers to do a search of a prospective aircraft’s N-number on their own through the FAA. This costs less than $20 and yields a digital download of all sale transactions, damage history, registration history, and major airframe modifications (form 337s). It can be accomplished through the FAAs website under “Aircraft.”
Notifying the FAA
Once the sale transaction is completed and your ear-to-ear grin belies the fact that you just bought an airplane, you must notify the FAA of the sale. This is the responsibility of the buyer and is accomplished by sending Aircraft Registration form 8050-1, the Bill of Sale, and a small fee to the FAA’s Aircraft Registry office along with some other paperwork depending on how you assume title of the aircraft. The forms are available online.
The name under which you register your aircraft is a critical step. Decide ahead of time if you want to structure your ownership as an individual, an LLC (limited liability corporation), a full-fledged corporation, or a partnership. Each has its own liability implications and other factors which must be carefully considered and are beyond the scope of this article. Consulting an aviation attorney or calling the AOPA Legal Help line is a wise move.
You will be taxed based on the price of the aircraft. You will pay sales tax and use tax depending on your state. Tax implications are something you will need to discuss with an aviation tax attorney. There are many available online or through organizations like AOPA. These steps are important to your continued owner happiness.
Insurance is the elephant in the room. The cost of your insurance will be based on your own aeronautical experience and whether you will be using the aircraft for training others. Flight training insurance (especially if you allow others to solo your aircraft) is expensive, often costing five or six times the cost of non-training insurance. You should select one of many aviation insurance brokers out there.
Understand that your insurance carrier will likely require some dual instruction in your new aircraft before you can fly passengers. On complex or exotic aircraft, this could be quite high. A turbo-prop Bonanza (a rare bird) would require 50 hours of dual for even experienced pilots. Many biplanes and taildraggers require 20 hours or more with an instructor. Be sure to factor that into your costs.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, middle-class pilots could afford their own personal aircraft. That has been changing as aviation costs have risen in recent decades. One of the best ways to buy an aircraft today is to do so in a partnership with one or more individuals.
FAA data suggests that the average general aviation pilot flies between 25-50 hours per year and most GA aircraft fly about 50 hours per year or less. Even if you only count daylight hours, there are about 3600 hours of flying available per year. That means that most aircraft go unused for thousands of hours. The solution is shared ownership.
Buying an aircraft with even one partner effectively cuts your costs in half. Major repair costs are suddenly cut in half, as are hangar, insurance, annual inspections, and all the rest. Airplanes deteriorate when they sit, so flying them often will save you thousands in long-term maintenance costs. Shared ownership gives you others to help you with inspections, oil changes, keeping the airplane clean, upgrades, and other items too numerous to list.
AOPA has an excellent website dedicated to shared ownership, and the subject has become so important and so popular that the entire aviation industry is rallying around it, offering reams of information, free resources, great tips, sample contracts, and loads of other goodies. Shared ownership is a great option for first-time aircraft buyers.
Purchasing an aircraft is a life-changing experience for any pilot, and even in the 21st century, aircraft ownership is still a realistic possibility. There are many 2-seat classic aircraft available today for less than $20,000. Even factoring in the operational costs (many of which are quite modest), an aircraft can be owned for less than the cost of a new car, of playing golf, or of many other sports and hobbies.
Start a path to your dream today, whetting your appetite with sites like AeroSearcher, you see what is available on the market right now. Start defining your mission, looking at sample purchase agreements and shopping for a bird that matches your needs. You may find that aircraft ownership is more possible than you thought. It is the ultimate dream of most pilots, so start right now.