Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Plane of our Own (kinda)

A few months ago I wrote about getting my tailwheel endorsement in a 1946 Piper Cub and expressed hope that I would be able to join the flying club that owns the Cub by summer. As it turned out, the club was too good of a deal. None of the members could be persuaded to sell their share, even the inactive ones. In the meantime I got checked out to rent a 1969 Cherokee 140/160 at a nearby flight school.

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.


Bob said...

My uncle first owned a Cessna 140, which he flew all over, including from Minnesota to Havana (this was in the early 50's). He graduated to a Cessna 170B, which he owned for nearly 40 years. Your set-up sounds like a can't-lose opportunity.

Anonymous said...

She's a beaut' Clark! Looks like a great find!

Frank Van Haste said...

Pretty bird, Sam. I'm sure you'll take good care of her, and she'll return the favor.

I was in a joint ownership of an Archer for about four years before I bought the 182. I can't say that the economics of solo ownership are totally in my favor (even tho' I fly 100-150 hrs/yr, but there are great satisfactions to being master of your own (and your faithful steed's) fate. I think you've got an airplane in your future.



sequ said...

Sounds like so much fun Sam,

I miss GA flying so much, and doing something like that here in Ecuador is practically impossible.

Enjoy your flights.



Fred said...

Fantastic, Sam.

This is why I think I'll be happy to have you as a pilot and CFI any time, any day: the continued push for competence. I mean, how many ATPs get a tailwheel endorsement?!


Sounds like you got a great wife as well!

Tim G in MN said...

Wave if you are over Maple Grove!

Derek said...

Pic's look it's time
for a plane trip(one you don't need a ticket or flight plan for)

Timmy said...

Captivating story, the plane photos look awesome.

moving company

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Lilia Dyal said...

Well, there’s nothing wrong in dreaming about something, no matter how “impossible” you think it is right now. The important thing is that you keep on pushing towards achieving it. Anyway, you have a good point on shared or fractional ownership. For one, owning and maintaining that property would not be your sole responsibility, but you’ll be able to have someone to share the costs and the responsibilities with. It would indeed make owning one more cost-efficient, practical, and realistic.

Lilia Dyal