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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Wischful Thinking
The Cost of Flying

by Jay Wischkaemper

I knew it was inevitable, but I wasn’t looking forward to it. Every day it didn’t come, I breathed a sign of relief. I knew it would be bad, but I really wasn’t prepared for how bad it was. It was the dreaded annual bill. Even in a good year I dread it, but this year wasn’t a good year. We weren’t expecting it, but the landing gear needed some bushings, and they weren’t cheap. I had been told that one part was $800 or so. Mentally, I had told myself that the typical $1,500 or so would probably be $2,500. But then it arrived. At first I couldn’t bring myself to open it. It lay on my desk for several hours. But knowing that it had to be done, I finally mustered the courage to face the inevitable. The parts list was the top of the bill. It was two pages. $1,400. That was just the parts. When you have that many parts, it would seem obvious that somebody had to work to install them. They did. The total tab came to just over $3,700.

It’s at moments like this that you do two things. First, you question your sanity for owning an airplane. Secondly, in my case, you thank your lucky stars that you have partners to help pay for it, and since your part is based on how much you’ve flown the plane in the last year, you quickly regret every minute you spent in it, and hope there weren’t too many of them. You also wonder how you’re going to explain to your wife, who doesn’t approve of any of this in the first place, why you wrote a check that big. And you are very grateful for credit cards, which allow you to satisfy the mechanic while agonizing about the financial results of his efforts.

There’s a certain numbness at a time like this. That empty feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you wish it hadn’t happened, but at the same time, the realization that this is simply part of the responsibility of owning an airplane, and that paying the price for proper maintenance, while unpleasant, is far better than paying the even higher price of shoddy maintenance.

People have searched for years for an inexpensive way to take to the air. It doesn’t exist. I look at the cost of renting airplanes, and shudder at the thought of having to do it while wondering how those who do it justify paying over a dollar a minute to operate a machine that might be getting 120 knots on a good day. And yet when I look at what it costs the FBO to operate that machine, I also don’t see how they manage to make enough money to pay for it and maintain it at $75.00 per hour. By the time you factor in fuel, insurance, 100 hour inspections, hangar, overhead, and overhaul reserve, there might be $10.00 per hour or so left over. Factor the liability issue into that $10.00, and you can understand why a lot of places are finding it not worth the hassle to operate a flight school. Yet, to charge even more would drive many of those now flying out of the market.

Not a lot has changed over the years in that. When I started flying in the late 60’s, you could rent a Cherokee 140 for $14.00 per hour and an instructor cost another $4.00. New Cherokee’s, fully equipped with a Narco Mark 12, were going out of Piper’s door at $12,000 per copy, and Wes-Tex aircraft always had three or four new ones on the ramp. I worked for a while as a parts man in a local shop, where labor rates were $8.00 for an A&P, and $6.00 for a helper. Cheap you say? It sounds like it, until you consider that I was working for minimum wage of $1.65 per hour, so it took about 8 hours of work for one hour of flying. Maybe it’s a little worse today, but not as much as you might think.

Cheap flying is an oxymoron. It has never happened, and it probably never will. Those of us who love to do it simply have to find a way to afford it, and there is always a way. The money comes in the passion. It comes in the dream. Life has a way of allowing us to do the things we really want to do. I’m not sure how I’ll explain to Dianna how much this annual cost. I’m not sure if I will explain it to her. I’ve found it’s better not to discuss things like this unless absolutely necessary. I’ll try to gradually and somewhat painlessly get the money out, hoping that she will kindly overlook my folly. Every month that I write the check for the expenses, she usually has this disgusted look, but she doesn’t say anything. After this, the look will be a little more disgusted.

But life will go on, and hopefully, in spite of my part of the annual, I’ll find enough excuses and money to continue to take to the air on occasion. And the annual? Time heals all wounds. Eventually the shock will be forgotten, and eleven months from now, we’ll be in for another one. Hope springs eternal. At least the next one couldn’t be as bad as this one, could it? I’m beginning to sound like a farmer.

Texas native Jay Wischkaemper is a successful MassMutual life insurance agent based in Lubbock, Texas. He is a long time partner in a Bellanca Super Viking, which he uses for both business and pleasure. Jay’s first article “Dreams,” published in the Feb/Mar 00 edition of Southwest Aviator, was so popular we decided to bring him on board as a regular columnist. - ed

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