You Want to Learn to Fly, But… Part 2

by on December 10, 2010


The last post talked about how much it costs me to fly my own plane compared to what it cost me when I first bought it.  This time we’ll look at estimates for getting a pilot’s license through a flight school or buying an airplane and using it to get a license.

The Flight School Route

Flight Training Costs

I did some searching for flight training within 40 minutes of my house.  I looked at flight schools using Cessna 172 rentals (new, old, glass and round dial) and Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) . I used search methods that I thought a  prospective flight student might use. The lowest rental rate that I found was a Cessna 150 that had been converted to the tailwheel configuration – going for $99/hour wet (fuel included). That was considerably less than the available glass panel aircraft which were renting in the$120-$180/hr range and about the same price as a Zenith LSA being rented in a nearby town. The cost of the flight instructor varied with the rating sought rather than the aircraft type and was in the $50-$65/hr range.

The flight requirements (FAR 61-109) for a private pilot license specify a minimum of 40 hours total time and minimum amounts of instruction (20 hrs) and solo(10 hrs) flight time. The national average for students getting their Private Pilot’s License (PPL) seems to be more in the 60-80 hour range. The Sport Pilot certificate has fewer training hour requirements (FAR 61.313), specifying a total time of 20 flight hours with a minimum of 15 hours of instruction and 5 hours solo. Sport Pilot training can be accomplished in any aircraft, however the flight evaluation must be accomplished in a Light Sport Aircraft. For that reason, most students elect to receive all of their instruction in the LSA they will use for the check ride.

Adding things up for the PPL, 70 hours of flight time at $100/hr is  $7000. Of those 70 hours,  let’s assume 40 hours of instruction.  (Some schools state that no matter how long it takes you to get your certificate, you will only get the minimum 10 hours of solo time – apparently their insurance rates are better if the flights include an instructor. At $50/hour for the instructor the total becomes $9000. Add in study materials, test costs (computer and flight) and miscellaneous expenses and you can round it up to $10,000. That number compares to a local school’s ‘accelerated training’ program that they list as just under $12,000.

I have not seen any figures on the actual time that it is taking to receive a Sport Pilot License.  If you assume the same relative increase in training times as the PPL when compared to the minimums required by regulation you would expect to end up with 35 hours of flight time and 30 hours of instruction. The bottom line for a Sport Pilot License would then be  around $6000.

The 8 December 2010 AOPA Aviation eBrief newsletter included the results of their poll on the length of time their readers took to obtain their PPL.  The results shown here indicate that 40% of the respondents completed their training in the minimum required time, while 60% took longer.

AOPA Flight Training Time Survey

There is no indication how many people responded to the survey which appeared in their December 6th issue of the newsletter and ran for roughly three days. Nor was there an indication of when the respondents received their training. The flight environment was considerable simpler 20 years ago.

My impression has always been  that you could easily beat flight school costs by buying your own plane and then just ‘renting’ an instructor. So my next step was to see if that was really a viable alternative.


Aircraft Purchase Method

I looked in the latest issue of Trade-A-Plane for possible training aircraft that could be purchased for a reasonable cost.  I checked prices for just about anything that could be used as a training aircraft such as the Cessna 150/152, the older C-120, 140 and 170, the Piper series of Pacer, TriPacer, Tomahawk and Cherokee, the Luscombe 8A/E and Taylorcraft BC-12D.

I did not look at LSAs other than the vintage aircraft that would qualify in the category. The newer LSA models are out of my price range. I watched a video today showcasing the Kitfox S-LSA model – available as a basic aircraft for  about $83,000 while a new Aeronca 7EC is advertised at $103,000. The vintage trainers – the Luscombe, Taylorcraft or an older Aeronca Champ 7EC are quite a bit cheaper to purchase as used aircraft,  and in my opinion teach you more about flying (read tailwheel), but they require more care and will have higher insurance rates. You will probably also have to find ‘vintage’ instructor to teach you how to fly one.

I decided to assume a purchase price of $40, 000 for our mythical trainer. Yes, there are lots of aircraft out there with a lower purchase price. I didn’t look at details (avionics, interior, paint, etc.), just the bottom line. At this price you should be able to find a reasonable Cessna C-172/Cherokee 140. These models will be able to accommodate a student, instructor and reasonable fuel while still performing well. Trade-A-Plane had listings for over 60 Cessna 172s. I averaged all their asking prices, deleting the highest and lowest prices, and came up with $39,000 – rounded to an even $40,000.

Purchase Price $40,000
Loan terms 20 years at 7%, 15% down
Monthly Payment $264
Insurance on Aircraft $1000/yr
Tiedown Rental $55/month
Fuel  ($5/gal, 9 gal/hr) $45/hr
Flight time 100 hr/yr
Maintenance Fund $20/hr
Cost to fly $ 113/hr

I’m sure that you can take any one of those numbers and make them lower or higher with additional research – a cheaper aircraft or a better loan or different insurance terms. My largest fixed cost is my hangar rental – this example uses the cost to rent a space outside on the ramp at my local airport. The going rate for hangar rent is all over the map, determined primarily by one thing – location.

One source I checked gave a rule of thumb that operating costs would be 3-4 times the cost of fuel. That was probably when fuel was at a reasonable cost. It also cited a (no longer available) AvWeb article  estimating maintenance costs of two times the fuel cost plus an additional 25% of that value for each 10 years since the manufacture of the aircraft.

The cost of the instructor would remain the same, so the benefit of buying your own aircraft would be it’s availability, it’s use after you receive your license and the resale value at the completion of the course.   With aircraft ownership you also have the option to place the aircraft in a lease-back program so that you can recover some of your costs and depreciate the aircraft. You could also bring in a partner (or two or three) to share the aircraft costs or you could start a flying club and spread out the costs even more. These are both benefits that you wouldn’t have with the flight school route.

It’s Not Just The Cost of Flight Training

After crunching some numbers what have we figured out? Well, it appears that, for our analysis anyway, the rental costs of the aircraft are reasonable. If you figure in a new aircraft loan for a $100,000-$500,000 aircraft, insurance to cover a total loss and it’s use as a training aircraft, overhead on the training facility, salaries, maintenance and some sort of profit it’s no wonder the rental rates are so high.

There are all sorts of ways to spend disposable income these days. When you start comparing costs, the $10,000 figure for a PPL is really not that much. If you have a car I can almost guarantee you paid more than that for it. Remember:  a Pilot’s Certificate is valid for life – your car probably won’t last that long. Compared to college tuition,  a year at a resident state college is pretty close to $10,000 and more than that if you live out of state.

The problem with the flight training costs must then have something to do with the  perceived value being received by the student. The ones who begin flight training seem willing to spend the money, but only if they feel that they are getting value in return. That seems to be the key to the drop-out rate.

What is your opinion of all this? Have I left something out that would change the conclusions?

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