A Plane of our Own (kinda)
Early last month, Dawn and I were out flying the Cherokee around on a sunny Saturday when she mentioned that she would really love to have a plane of our own. The last time she made a similar statement, I bought my BMW motorcycle within a week. This time I was paging through Trade-A-Plane within hours and had soon set my sights on a beautiful '67 Cherokee with 3000 hours, a new engine, new paint, new interior, and all the right mods for $27k. It looks like the recession has finally impacted light single-engine piston plane prices.
Dreaming aside, I knew that buying our own plane would be silly at this stage of our lives. We could afford the purchase price and fixed costs, but there wouldn't be much left over for five dollar 100LL. We wouldn't fly it nearly enough to justify having our own plane. It'd end up being far more expensive than renting on a per-hour basis. Sitting unused is also hard on airplanes, particularly pistons. And really, any disruption to our income would result in our dream bird becoming a financial albatross we'd have to sell in a down market.
Shared ownership, on the other hand, makes a great deal of sense for us. I ran the numbers on a 4-person partnership and concluded that with the fixed costs split four ways, you'd only need to fly about 2 hours per month to save money over renting while still retaining most of the benefits of sole ownership. The problem is generally finding like-minded partners. It's often said that aircraft partnership is like marriage, which I suppose would make a 4-way partnership like Bill Henrickson's marriage(s). You need more in common than miserliness. The ranks of NewCo pilots would provide my most likely partners. Setting up a partnership as a first time owner, though, seemed a rather daunting prospect. I started investigating the details.
In the meantime, I was keeping an eye on the Minneapolis craigslist. It was there that I saw an ad for a flying club with a 1949 Cessna 170A; no buy-in, no monthly dues, $50/hr dry. That seemed almost too good to be true, so I inquired. The 170 turned out to be a new purchase by two guys who are already partners in a 182 on straight floats. They wanted a wheel plane for the winter and when a floatplane is inconvenient. However, realizing that the plane would potentially sit for long periods with no use - particularly during the summer when they mostly fly the 182 - they decided to start an informal 5-person flying club by finding three other insurable pilots willing to fly it at least 25 hours a year. It's potentially a win-win scenario; they partially defray the cost of a plane they don't often fly, and the plane gets steady use to keep the engine happy. Meanwhile I get to fly a classic 4-seat taildragger for cheaper than an equivalent FBO spam can, retain the flexibility of a rental arrangement, but enjoy much of the ownership experience.
The devil is always in the details, but with no buy-in cost it seemed pretty risk-free to check it out. I met the partners and looked at the plane. It won't win Grand Champion at Oshkosh but seems pretty well maintained and is in good condition for a 62-year old airplane. It has a low-time engine, good interior, original VFR panel, Horton STOL kit, beefed up main gear, larger-than-stock tires, and a Scott tailwheel. The six-cylinder Continental O-300 runs amazingly smooth to someone who's used to 4-cylinder Lycomings. It's set up for snow skis, which the owners are hoping to have it on this winter.
I submitted my experience to Avemco and they approved me the same day with a 5-hour checkout requirement. I flew with a CFI friend of the owners, who happens to be a Mesaba pilot. The five hours were a nice introduction to what turned out to be a very sweet flying airplane. It's similar to a 172, as you'd expect, but a bit more nimble. The visibility is actually much better than a 172 due to a lower instrument panel and downward sloping cowling. In fact, visibility is so good you don't need to S-turn during taxi and the runway remains in view during 3-point landings, which this plane loves to do. Like most taildraggers, the 170 is particularly in its element on grass runways. My first few takeoffs and landings on pavement were a bit wobbly - the 170 is heavier and less responsive in ground handling than the Cub, and needs to be led a bit more - but it was a no-brainer on grass. Eventually I got things sorted out on pavement, even making passable wheel landings (where the 170's spring-steel gear turns out to be a bit of a handicap). The last hour of the checkout was a workout making wheel landings in a gusty 20 knot direct crosswind. It's less harrowing once you figure out to give the downwind brake a little tap as the tail comes down.
The weekend after that, Dawn and I rode the BMW out to the airport where the 170 is currently being kept and went for a sunset flight over Lake Minnetonka and the surrounding countryside. It was a clear evening with gorgeous soft, golden light blanketing the rolling, green dimpled hills. We lazed along, throttled back at 500 feet, and I couldn't resist opening a window; an icy blast reminded me that it's still spring in Minnesota. To further prove the point, upon returning to the airport the wind across the runway was blowing harder instead of dying down as forecast. I was glad for that last hour of the checkout as I slid down final in a mighty crab. A kick of the rudder, a twist of the yoke, the chirp of the upwind main touching down softly. In a trike the work's pretty much over at that point, but in a taildragger the fun is just beginning! It all worked out quite nicely this time; it would have been very bad form to groundloop my first time in a taildragger without an instructor (to say nothing of my wife's first C170 ride!).
So far, the flying club arrangement is working out great. The other members have been cool and availability is great. It's nice to fly the same plane all the time and know its quirks, and know who else has been flying it. Even though I don't own the plane, it feels like mine. If I continue to get back into GA more heavily and finances permit, ownership may well be in my future. In the meantime, this is a very nice way to get my toes in the water.