Freedom to fly and airplanes will soon be almost free?

It has been 17 years since the events of 9/11 transformed the United States. Despite fears of domestic jihad, we have preserved some of our traditional liberties, including the freedom to fly (well, except in the Washington, D.C., area, any time the President is visiting, any time there is a major league sports event, etc.). From the 1920s through the mid-1980s, the idea was that a middle-class American could purchase an airplane and fly almost anywhere within the U.S. without filing a flight plan, talking to Air Traffic Control, or otherwise becoming tangled up in a bureaucratic process. Due to skyrocketing (so to speak) costs, this had to be backed out to rent an airplane rather than purchase, at least for the middle-class earner. But we still have most of the freedom of avigation that we had back in the 1920s.

Could it be that we’ll get closer to mid-1980s prices for aircraft? Read on…

I met a young pilot recently and we discussed the possibility of him buying an airplane. Here’s part of an email from him:

My game plan is to keep adding certifications and experience then buy an aircraft in 7-12 years or so. I’m a long term thinker to a fault. The market should be flooded with many small aircraft in the future. Below, per FAA data, you can see from the 2012 and 2017 charts of the private pilots they are fewer and older as time progresses.

(Complete data: faa.gov)

Certainly it does seem as though potential light aircraft owners were concentrated at 55-59 in 2012 and are now concentrated at 60-64. The composite airplanes, such as Cirrus and Diamond, that have been built over the last 20 years, are mostly immune to corrosion.

It seems as though history is on his side. The pilot-owners who knew how to fly piston twins have aged out of being able to handle these high(ish)-performance aircraft and they are now selling for under $100,000, oftentimes for less than a same-era single-engine plane.

So perhaps in 7-12 years we will still have the freedom to fly and a Cirrus SR22 will be almost free (at least to acquire, if not to maintain)?

On the third hand, what about China? They have a rapidly developing general aviation culture. They are the owners of Cirrus and Continental, the manufacturer of the engines inside nearly all Cirruses. As Americans hang up their wings, why wouldn’t there be thousands of Chinese folks interested in exploring their new freedoms?

15 Comments »

  1. PeterH

    September 11, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    1

    General Aviation’s fundamental problem is the FAA’s over-regulation, which adds cost and bureaucracy and ensures the continued use of technology, which our grandparents may recognize but our kids won’t. Accordingly, don’t expect young folks to get excited about flying a (for them) un-affordable 2017 Cessna – which is more-or-less identical to a 1957 Cessna.

    Under the FAA’s “leadership” light-aircraft GA in this country has gone from “thriving” to “on-life-support and dying”. Some of the worst junk flying around in today’s airplanes is “Certified” or “FAA-Approved” and the current regulatory structure simply assures that we will continue to have FAA bureaucrats writing more rules simply to ensure their own continued employment. At this time they are merely tinkering with ways to change the bureaucratic approval process for the next version of the half-million-dollar flying equivalent of the 56-Chevy. The mere existence of this flying equivalent is solid proof that the FAA’s ridiculous process has completely failed. Accordingly, the only way to fast-forward through 60 lost years of small-aircraft development is to get the FAA completely out of the regulatory business for light aircraft.

    There are plenty of small-aircraft experts out there who could be part of an ongoing effort to write a set of adequate standards that would apply to various classes of private-use aircraft, which could then be manufactured, sold and flown without further involvement of the FAA or any other activity-killing bureaucracy. And with the access to modern components, methods, and materials it could be done at a fraction of the cost of the currently available “new” airplanes – designed more than half a century ago.

  2. Tony Doe

    September 11, 2018 @ 1:41 pm

    2

    The freedom to fly should be maintained. The government has mostly figured out how to protect our skies from Jihad, despite some irregularities such as forgetting to ask Umar Farouk Abdullamtaullab why he was going to Detroit in the winter with no coat and no luggage.

  3. anon

    September 11, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

    3

    The Chinese own Diamond too.

  4. the other Donald

    September 11, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

    4

    In the next few years private “flying” will migrate from conventional aircraft to upsized DJI’s. Cirrus will be remembered for the ballistic parachute, which will still be a vital accessory. Some hobbyists will tinker with the old light aircraft, bracketed by the drones and the bizjets.

    Locally (Florida), a 200-ft ferris wheel just opened at the beach, a serious competitor for the Robinson tourist sightseeing fleet.

  5. Finn

    September 12, 2018 @ 12:57 am

    5

    Manned drones + electrical motors + ADSB = Future of GA

  6. JDB

    September 12, 2018 @ 1:51 am

    6

    Why wait for everyone to die and maintenance prices to go up as the planes age (like for certified twins)? Get a well known experimental (like a well built Vans RV) and learn how to take care of it while there are still a good number of people around that are able and willing to help (60-64 year old EAA chapter members).

  7. the other Donald

    September 12, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

    7

    I never understood the light twins. More dangerous to fly engine-out than just taking a chance on dead-stick. They are not even required to climb on one engine. Can one of you GA’ers explain it to me?

    Wayback on the airline, Martin 440’s were a popular piston twin. If you lost an engine on takeoff and didn’t raise the flaps before the gear, you bought it.

  8. philg

    September 12, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    8

    Yes. See http://blogs.harvard.edu/philg/2018/08/13/euthanasia-for-aircraft-engines/

    What does he think about the Cirrus? He was skeptical at first about the parachute, but now “unlike the second engine that’s out there trying to kill you all the time, the CAPS system sits there quietly until you need it.”

  9. Siegfried

    September 12, 2018 @ 3:46 pm

    9

    Because you mentioned GA in China: Have you heard about those “aeronauts”? If the story’s true, there’s a couple of folks in China who bypass all regulations, build their own aircraft at home and then just go fly them. Without any bureaucracy involved at all, presumably, and apparently there’s nobody stopping them.
    https://xiaoxiaoxu.com/work/aeronautics-in-the-backyard/
    (And the BBC article that brought my attention to that: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170312-the-amazing-flying-machines-of-chinese-farmers)

    On the other hand, when researching flying into Russia, I got the impression it’s currently still really hard to fly your own plane into China. But haven’t looked into that issue itself yet, nor into the actual state of the local GA.

  10. Dave

    September 14, 2018 @ 11:03 pm

    10

    The young pilot’s plan for purchasing cheap piston-engine planes will be foiled when the EPA bans gasoline with tetraethyl lead additives. They should have banned leaded gas years ago anyway. The small aircraft will suffer for the lack of inexpensive jet-A burning diesel and small turbine engines.

    Why hasn’t there been a surplus of small turbines from the various military drone programs?

  11. philg

    September 15, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

    11

    Dave: a lot of GA engines will run just fine on unleaded premium auto gas (though the ethanol that our government requires refiners to put in trashes everything). It is the highest performance engines that actually need 100LL.

  12. Dan

    September 16, 2018 @ 7:11 am

    12

    Good article!

    Future regulation and technology may offset the historic reduction in older private pilots. For example, 1) BasicMed, state driver’s license as a medical certificate, and 2) advances in avionics and medical technology may be a remedy.

    These factors may ‘lift’ regulation and increase creature comforts, safety, and confidence for the future of older private pilots.

    Very smart young pilot thought! 🙂

  13. Ron

    September 16, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    13

    “It seems as though history is on his side. The pilot-owners who knew how to fly piston twins have aged out of being able to handle these high(ish)-performance aircraft and they are now selling for under $100,000, oftentimes for less than a same-era single-engine plane.”

    Umm, no. Not the reason at all and a very poor conclusion.

    Maintenance and operational costs have soared while revenue and income has gone down. Commercial operators can’t afford to run them and will choose making two trips in a single over the cost of maintaining an aging complex airplane. Private operators wages have remained stagnant, reducing the amount of available “play money”. Most people, if given a twin for free, or even a Beaver, would have it rotting in some corner of an airport within five years.

    Other performance singles have quirks as well. The Cirrus mentioned has a mandatory chute repack every ten years. That’s at least $100 a month that needs to be saved during your entire ownership, whether you fly or not. Composite repairs are not for the poor, either.

  14. philg

    September 16, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    14

    Ron: Are you sure that it is a pure dollars and cents matter? The MX costs on an older Baron (twin) are pretty high, but a 6-seat Baron 58 with a 190-knot cruise speed can be purchased for $120,000. Even if it costs $40k/year to maintain, that’s less than the depreciation on a factory-new SR22, right? The Cirrus seats 4 adults, not 6. The Baron may have a useful load of 2,000 lbs. https://www.aopa.org/go-fly/aircraft-and-ownership/aircraft-fact-sheets/beechcraft-baron says “Older airframes with no deice boots, radar, or well-stocked panel can easily accommodate a family of six, full fuel, and baggage on a four-hour flight with reserves.” Even though the Baron is the most expensive and most desired of the old piston twins, it still looks way cheaper for total cost of ownership than a newer SR22.

  15. Dan

    September 17, 2018 @ 11:45 am

    15

    Ron,
    The article doesn’t deny variable costs (maintenance and operational costs) have increased over time. That’s a solid assertion.

    Perhaps you are implicitly saying the operational cost of an older aircraft is (significantly) more than a newer aircraft?

    The article is asserts there will be fewer (older & richer) GA pilots. If existing aircraft are maintained well and aircraft production is constant, then there will be more airworthy aircraft per active GA pilots than before.

    Based on those assumptions the cost of aircraft acquisition in the future may be cheaper.

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