Even though I parked the Cubbie on a grass field for the beauty shot above, I’m really not much about the romance of flight. While I savor the fragrance of wet turf mixed with avgas exhaust as much as anyone, the thought of a $5500 annual—and I’ve paid them—tends to turn the rose-colored glasses into a darker shade of cynical.
Not that I expect to ever pay a $5500 annual for the Cub, which is exactly the best reason for owning a legacy LSA—not the magic of slipping the surly bonds on rag wings, but the smug satisfaction of doing it for the price of a cheap date at Bob’s Big Boy.
How to do that? Split the cost of an already cheap airplane two ways, three ways or four ways. If owning your own airplane increasingly sounds unaffordable, it’s much less so in a partnership to the point that the monthly cost can be well under even a modest car payment. There’s no pretending the capabilities are remotely similar, but if you want to fly or even own, there’s an affordable way to get there.
The Big Picture
I’ll run the numbers on our partnership Cub in a moment, but first, we were curious about what other pilots and owners are doing. Through e-mail, we hear a constant litany of complaints from owners and pilots exiting aviation because of high costs, many reasoning that airplanes aren’t affordable to buy, fuel costs are ruinous and everything else related to flying is too expensive to consider. The LSA rule was invented to address this and although there’s evidence that it’s attracting both retiring/retread pilots—so-called full-circle pilots—and new entries to the industry, it’s also true that the growth has been anemic. The FAA’s recent 20-year forecast, which may be less accurate than throwing darts, predicts growth in the U.S. LSA segment of about 56 percent from 2010 to 2032, but that’s only about 180 airplanes a year. It doesn’t count legacy airframes being flown as LSAs. And it doesn’t make much of a dent in the 500 airframes a year that are crashed or otherwise scrapped.
Not So Bullish
This is not a bullish market picture and we’ve always assumed that the cost of airplanes is the major driver. If that’s true, then wouldn’t far cheaper legacy LSAs—the Cubs, the Champs, Luscombes and Ercoupe—dominate LSAdom? You’d think, but a survey we conducted recently on our sister publication, www.avweb.com, suggests just the opposite. We heard from 168 readers involved in LSA and the majority—78 percent—owned or flew late-model LSAs. Moreover, a third of these were valued at $30,000 or less, but half cost more than $60,000 and another third cost $90,000 or more. Clearly, LSA participants aren’t really tilting toward the cheap seats.
Nor do they complain much about the cost/value relationship of owning an LSA, no matter what they paid for it. Two thirds of the pilots who replied to the survey said they thought for what they paid to fly their LSAs, the airplanes were great values.
“There is more than monetary value involved,” wrote Joe Fulton. “The hangar can be a refuge. The plane gets me into another zone, removed from some of my everyday cares.” We asked our survey participants about costs for their LSAs, and these are shown in the chart above. For our Cub, we’re right in the middle of the pack, although far cheaper on an individual basis because we have four partners in the airplane. If our survey is accurate, not many owners form partnerships to make a cheap LSA even cheaper, which surprises me, given the benefits. Only 7 percent of the LSAs surveyed were in partnerships. This adds further credence to the idea that cost isn’t as big a driver as we think. Lots of owners are perfectly happy owning a $90,000 airplane that they fly themselves twice a month for a couple of hours.
As LSAs go, our 1938, no-electrical-system C-65 J-3C is probably overvalued at $36,000. But the partnership has shuffled members for a number of years, so the buy-in has been established at $9000 per share.
The two single biggest expenses are insurance—about $1900—and hangarage, which costs $294 a month in southwestern Florida. Hangaring a ragwing is a must, so there’s no potential savings here, even if we wanted it. Routine maintenance is a bit of a giggle. If Mr. Piper intended the J-3 to be the proverbial no-maintenance battery, he succeeded. Last year we flew the airplane 129 hours and the only maintenance costs were oil changes and one tire. This is one downside of an old classic, however. The 800×4 tires are $250 item, plus tubes.
Annuals are rarely of the eat-you-alive sort. We’ve paid as little as $325 and as much as $1964 last year when the struts had to be repainted.
Partnerships divvy these costs out in various ways, but we’ve settled on a $110 per month fixed fee per member that covers hangar and, theoretically, either oil changes, some routine maintenance and part of the insurance. Sometimes it works that way, sometimes it doesn’t. We’ve had to assess each partner the odd $100 to $400 from time to time. We could hike the monthly fee to avoid this, but why tie up the money for such small expenses?
Some partnerships bill hourly flight costs dry, some wet, some not at all. We pay $10 per flight hour, dry. Theoretically, that would generate the $16,000 required for an engine overhaul, but in reality, it gets spent on other things so we’re running our airplane with two significant financial vulnerabilities. One is the engine, and the other is re-covering.
This is another downside of fabric-covered legacy LSAs. The fabric won’t last forever, even if hangared. Our airplane has a $4500 per partner liability for the re-cover and another $4000 for the engine—coincidentally the value of each partnership, although we certainly didn’t plan it that way.
If this airplane were in sole ownership, those liabilities would be considerable, but not anything like a serious certified airplane like a Mooney or a Bonanza. Adding up the hangar, insurance, 50 hours of flying, the gas and the odd assessment, cost of ownership in this four-way partnership is about $2500 a year—about as cheap as flying it gets, without stepping down to an ultralight or a powered parachute.
As legacy LSAs go, the Cub is hardly the cheapest to buy and on purchase price alone, it’s not necessarily a good cost/value option. You can do better with an Aeronca, a Luscombe or an Ercoupe. But cost of purchase of these airplanes is so low, that a few thousand either way at purchase doesn’t make much difference in ownership and operating costs.
For our survey, we asked owners about insurance costs, hourly operating costs and such expenses as maintenance and hangarage. These vary all over the map, literally, but we were a little surprised at how many people just don’t track the cost of owning an airplane.
“Costs? Not calculated. I don’t want to know,” said one owner of a Van’s RV-12 ELSA. But many owners are more fastidious and do want to know. If we thought our Cub was as cheap as it’s possible to get, not really. As mentioned, insurance and hangarage are big cost drivers. Our survey revealed insurance costs from a low of $240—a single owner with no hull coverage—to $5500 for an LSA in a flight school. The insurance average cost added up to $1467. Many owners don’t carry hull insurance, only liability. That strikes us as rational for an airplane worth only $25,000, but not for one worth $60,000. On the other hand, you’d insure a car costing that much, so we’re not sure how much sense it makes. A surprising number said they had no insurance at all, which, no matter how cheap the airplane is, isn’t rational. You could lose your shirt for the sake of $400 insurance premium.
Hangar costs vary by locale, with coastal areas costing more and sleepy Midwestern and country airports with the lowest hangar costs. Some owners share hangars with other airplanes and because some LSAs have detachable or hinged wings, hangaring two-for-one is practical. The lowest hangar cost was $57, the highest $500 in the Washington, D.C. area. That LSAs have become a retirement toy was evidenced by the number of owners who reported zero hangar costs. They live on residential airports where hangars are built into the houses. (That’s not truly zero, but it’s not an additional ownership cost.)
While some owners hide their eyes and just pay the invoices, others are brutally honest with themselves about what it costs to fly their airplanes. These range from a high of $252 to a low of $6, with the average of reported costs about $45. (For our Cub, my real hourly costs are between $40 and $50—cheap by airplane standards, but surprisingly high for an airplane of not impressive utility.) One reason we surveyed owners is to take the temperature of LSA owners with regard to owner satisfaction and overall sense of cost/value. Although we’ve heard complaints that LSAs are over-priced and under-capable, we didn’t hear much of that kind of carping in our survey. “I bought this Legend Cub in 2005 for $81,000 brand new,“ said Rich Gianotti. “The base price for a new Legend then was $69,000. Excellent value. Unfortunately, the company couldn’t make money at that price.“
Said Cub owner Jeff Russell, “Pilots complain a great deal about the cost of flying. So be it. It’s really about the cost of priorities. If you want to fly, you just might have to not eat out so much or own a top-of-the-line new SUV. I consider my airplane wholly affordable. It does everything I want it to do and more at a very competitive hourly cost. There is, of course, no way to put a price on the fun, adventure and enjoyment it provides. Like the commercial says—priceless.”
One idea to reduce costs even further came from owner Gerald Waddell: “My LSA is an SLSA, not ELSA. If buying again, I would strongly consider an experimental because of the extra operating cost. The manufacturer all too often has ‘Mandatory Safety Alerts’ which are expensive to comply with and, in my judgment and aircraft experience in the maintenance and of corporate to homebuilt aircraft, are generally unnecessary. The best solution to sport or recreational flying cost is the elimination of the Third Class Medical for certain types of GA aircraft, as is promoted by AOPA and EAA.”
If our survey and research produced any surprises, it’s this: Just as you think your own airplane couldn’t be any cheaper to own or operate, someone will show you one that is. Money aside, it’s really all about having something to fly. One Legend owner who wrote us summed it up nicely:
“I’m a retired airline pilot and have been a pilot for 57 years. Flying is in my DNA. At this point, I may or may not be able to pass a Third Class physical, so having an LSA reasonably assures me of being able to continue flying into the future. Flying, family, friends and morning coffee are what gets me out of bed each morning.”