FailedIt: Owning a Plane

Another time I failedit, was when I bought a plane. Yep. Honestly, it’s not as big of a deal as it sounds. I think I bought it for around $20k or something. Actually, I think it was a bit less than that, but immediately needed some radios and those things are pricey.

Maybe it is as big of a deal as it sounds. 😉

Read the whole FailedIt Series.

It was a Cessna 120 which is a taildragger (tail wheel) instead of a nose wheel. They take a bit more attention when flying so in the end, you’re a bit better off.FailedIt - Owning a Plane

Here’s the logic…

My wife, for Christmas, bought me a ‘discovery flight.’ It’s basically an intro flight where the pilot shows you around the plane and takes you up for a flight. They explain how things work and usually let you take the controls for a little bit. If you’re doing well, they might let you land the plane. It’s seriously awesome!

It’s also a great way to get people interested in flying.

Well, it didn’t take that much for me. Within about 17 seconds of opening the present (a note that said “Discovery Flight”), I was already planning on taking flying lessons. How stinking cool would it be to fly a plane!?!?!!? You’re right – very cool!

Soon after that, I scheduled the discovery flight. It was with a family friend so it was a very relaxed and fun experience. Well, of course, I started talking about taking lessons. His plane was a “complex plane” so I wouldn’t start by taking lessons in his plane. That means I’d have to rent.

As we all know, renting is like throwing money away! Side note, I’m more and more tempted to rent these days after a) my experience with homeownership and b) the rest of this story.

After the discovery flight, the pilot and I both thought it would be a good idea to buy a plane to take lessons. You may start to see a pattern here – when I get into something, I take it too far, too fast. I’m sure there’s a positive side to this, but that’s not what we’re here for today.

I started looking for a plane and found a bunch and was ready to hand over money fast. I had help from others to put my wallet back and actually consider what I was getting. It was a slow process… well, I should have been a slow process. I was pretty gung-ho.

If you’re thinking to yourself, how is this guy still alive? How is he allowed to have children and operate a car. I’m with you! I probably should be locked up.

Eventually I found a plane people approved and bought it. Well, that’s where the money hemorrhaging starts. Paying for a plane around $20k is around $500/month because plane loans don’t have the best interest rates (at least they didn’t in 2001).

But you also have hangar fees (or wherever you keep it), insurance and maintenance. And if you want to fly it, there’s gas. At that time, gas for a plane was about 2.5 times the cost of gas for a car. Also, gas for a plane is generally measured in time like 7 gallons per hour.

Since you might have a tailwind and go farther or a headwind and go slower, you can’t really measure it in miles per gallon.

So we’re talking about $20-$30 per hour to fly. Oh, and if you’re taking lessons, there’s another expense. Who knew owning a plane could be so expensive? Probably everyone.

However, I was trying to take lessons twice a week and it takes several months to get your license. So I probably was saving money over renting. And I was gaining equity in a great asset… a plane. Well, an asset. “Great” might be debatable. Here’s why…

FailedIt - SoloingSo on August 28, 2001, I took my test, did well and got my license. Two weeks later, 9/11 happened. Things were locked down pretty tight and it was hard to fly. Also, I wasn’t taking lessons anymore so now flying a lot, while saving me money over renting, was just costing more money.

There’s a rule of thumb when owning a plane: whatever you spend in gas, put the same amount away for maintenance. So the more you fly, the sooner you’ll need maintenance and it’s not cheap. So I’m paying for the plane, hangar and insurance no matter what. And if I want to fly for an hour, it’s $30 in gas and $30 in maintenance. What’s happening to me!!?!?!?!!

Of course, I can’t fly because the world has changed and aviation along with it.

Then, a few months later, my company shutdown our development lab and I was laid off. Hey, more time to fly! Hey, no money to do it!

If I could go back, I don’t think I’d do it. To me, that’s pretty much the definition of a regret. I regret it.

I got a job fairly quickly, but flying was feeling more and more like a burden. Most of the time when I got to the airport, there were 5 planes blocking mine in the hangar. In Texas heat, I had to juggle planes to get mine out while sweating my little pilot brains out. Then either my tail wheel would be flat or my battery would be dead… or both.

I could manage both of those, but it was frustrating… and hot. Airing up the tire would last a couple hours. I could hand prop the plane, but by myself it was risky and not wise. I always hand propped from the right (passenger side) so that I could push the prop down and move my hand back out of the way as I did it.

But propping from the passenger side meant I had to run around the back of the plane to get in… while the engine is running. If I didn’t set the throttle high enough, the engine wouldn’t start. If I didn’t set it low enough… the plane is taxiing down the run way with me running to jump in.

If you’re thinking to yourself, how is this guy still alive? How is he allowed to have children and operate a car. I’m with you! I probably should be locked up.

If you’re thinking, why didn’t he climb through? Check out that picture above – not much room. Also, it runs the risk of hitting the throttle or similar. And clearly I’m risk averse.


But once the plane is running… and I’m inside it… I could fly. Of course, in 1946 they didn’t put air conditioning in planes or anything else. Did I mention the heat?

Aviation was opening back up after 9/11. There were new rules, but mostly things started to return to normal. However, I took a pay cut to get my next job and I no longer had the justification of “it’s cheaper than renting during lessons.” So the plane just felt like a suck on our life. Basically we’re spending the equivalent of a little vacation each month to sweat in a two-seater antique.

We decided it was time to sell the plane. It was a terrible market for planes after 9/11 and I was a motivated seller. It could take months to sell it and meanwhile it’s costing us a ton. I think I sold it after around 8 months or so.

In the end, I think the better logic would have been, take what it costs to own it for 8 months, knock that off the price and see if you can move the thing quickly. Failedit. That’s probably not the best tactic, but I think it might have worked in this case. The plane market is not like cars. It’s more like vacation homes or gold bars – they don’t move.

My new job was crazy stressful and I go another job after about a year and a half. It was another cut in pay (that I was happy to take). The week before I started, we’d sold the plane. My wife and I flew it to Oklahoma City to the new owner. That was the last time I flew as a pilot. That was July 2003.

I intended to get checked out on another plane and rent. My instructor’s plane had a rough landing and was out of commission. He was crazy busy and I don’t know if it ever got fixed. Eventually it probably did, but not while I was around.

The next Fall-Spring I took a course in Biblical Greek which was intense so I put off staying current. Then we were expecting our first child and I figured I wouldn’t have time to fly for a while so I kept putting it off.

It was a wild time with memories of intense studying and flying and learning. I took a computer (CDs) course on a business trip with me to Oslo. It was crazy cold so I mostly staying in the hotel in the evenings and on the flights studying for ground school. I was eating it up.

I felt like Neo from “The Matrix” when I got back: “I know kung… ground school.”

But I should have counted the cost better: failedit. What started out as a great, fun, exciting Christmas present turned into a millstone around my neck sucking a lot of time and money away from me and my wife.

It was awesome to fly when I was flying. My wife and I, no kids at the time, would fly to various airports around North Texas (they’re everywhere) and have breakfast or lunch. The concept is “$100 Hamburger” because that’s what you’re paying in the end.

We flew to Galveston for the day one time. That’s another adventure story for another time, but it was exciting, fun and it probablyFailedIt - Flying into Galveston, TX my “go-to” story for owning a plane… “Yeah, we flew to Galveston Saturday… in our plane. What did you do? How cool am I?”

Meanwhile, I don’t tell people how I had to hand prop the plane to get it started and was nervous 99% of the time. Looking back now, it’s one of those “what was I thinking?” moments. Granted, it wasn’t risky and for the most part flying 10 miles is the same as 100 miles. I’m proud of myself for doing it and figuring it out, but now I wonder how I did it.

Also, remember, back then there were no smart phones. I had a GPS, but it wasn’t FAA rated so technically I couldn’t rely on it. Plus, if it went out, I would have been completely lost if I wasn’t prepared so I still had to plan the whole trip out using maps and an E6B.

One big lesson I learned from this is, be careful what doors you open. Some are very difficult to shut. You can’t just walk away from a big purchase like this. Well, I guess you can, but that would be a fail in itself.

But I should have counted the cost better: failedit.

When you’re excited about things, it’s easy to think you’ll always have the same excitement. But if you’re like me, you might get just as excited about something else in a few months or so.

What happens when the idea of a boat is taking over? Think of the limitations a commitment like a plane puts on you for time and more so for money. We’d love to take that trip, but we have a plane. We’d love to get a larger house because we’re having kids, but we have a plane.

I often drive by small houses and see really nicely restored vintage cars in the garage or even just nice new cars. I think, I wonder how having that limits them from doing other things. I’ve been there.

If I could go back, I don’t think I’d do it. To me, that’s pretty much the definition of a regret. I regret it.

Maybe it is as big of a deal as it sounds. 😉

If I had to do it over, I think I’d rent while taking lessons. I had a great instructor with a great plane I could have rented. I thought I’d make money on the plane. In a sense, I probably could have if I’d kept it longer and took my time selling it, but then the expense of keeping it in the meantime would off set that. I wasn’t going to sell it for $40k or anything.

I probably would have paid more per month while taking lessons but SO much less after that. Plus, I wouldn’t have had the burden and risk. Also, if the tire was flat or battery was dead, it wasn’t mine to fix.

Also, since things like a plane are non-essential, renting means you can walk away from it if necessary.

I’m not saying everyone should rent and not buy. That’s not the lesson. But consider the costs carefully and don’t let excitement write a check your life, family, future, etc. may not want to pay.

My son recently started violin. We’re renting.

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