So in the previous installment I shared the wide range of airplanes I had considered purchasing. I was really overwhelmed with options and it was clear I needed to focus. I recognized I really no longer knew exactly why I wanted to buy an airplane. I mean I knew I wanted to fly, but that can mean a lot of different things. Where? With who? Under what conditions? Was there an end goal? How safe did I need to be while I flew? How much was I comfortable spending to be in the air? If I couldn’t sort all that out how I could I get the right plane?
What do I mean by the “Mission”
So somewhere along the way I was introduced to the idea of the “mission”. I don’t think I came up with myself but I did start to look at the problem with that focus. So what does that mean exactly? Its the idea that you understand all the elements of your flight and what the criteria are for success or failure. It didn’t need to be exact in every detail. It certainly wasn’t that I’d need to know to the minute or exact details of the flight. I knew it wasn’t like I was planning to drop a bunch of bombs on someone but there were parallels that could give me focus. So lets explore the major elements I realized should drive my airplane selection.
Private Planes for Travel
First lets talk about how someone might want to use an airplane. One of the first of those for a lot of folks is to travel from place to place. I have had some real experiences with just how much better flying from place to place in your own plane can be compared to commercial air travel today.
The first was when a friend took me to the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas from Phoenix where I was living at the time. Normally that is a relatively cheap flight of around an hour. This was back when travel with airlines was a lot easier, no security checks and you could expect to get on the plane if you made it to the gate as late as a few minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave. But even then there was still hassles. You had to park your car in some big parking area and you walked a lot to get from your car to the gate. If you had baggage to check more delays both departing and arriving. It wasn’t horrible, certainly nothing as bad as today but it took time and it was a hassle.
So lets look at that first private plane experience was like. We agreed on a convenient time in the morning to leave. I arrived at the private hangar that the plane was kept at. The owner kept it at a larger commercial hangar that had the plane prepped and fueled when we arrived. There was great parking there for folks using their business. So I arrived, parked my car, met my friends, walked less than a 100 yards to the plane, got in and within 20 minutes we were in the air and on our way! We probably spent less that 30 minutes from the time we got to the hangar to being on our way. That same experience if we had decided to go commercial we would have been lucky to be in the air in less that an hour after standing in several lines. So clearly the departure was a much better experience than if we had flown on some airline.
Now lets look at the flight. We were flying in a Cessna P210 with something called a “Riley Rocket” conversion. This meant the plane had a bigger engine and some other modifications to make it faster and more capable. It could hold six folks but on this flight there were only four of us. This is a pressurized airplane so we flew up quite high. With planes flying high almost always means fast. It also means smooth air. We were probably only 15 minutes longer getting there than an airliner would have taken. Of course inside of the plane is smaller and no niceties like in flight beverage service! But we got to Vegas almost as quickly as if we had flown commercial. The arrival was easier as well. We basically had a similar service to the one we had in Phoenix to leave the plane with when we got there. So within 20 minutes we were in line waiting for a cab to go to the conference. The fight home was basically the same experience in reverse with particular emphasis on the fact we left when we wanted to leave. We were not limited to any airline schedule. My only complaint was that in this particular airplane the cabin heater was not very effective. So I was freezing on the way home. This was early January and the outside temperatures at the altitude we flew home at was something like -10 degrees bellow zero! Brrrrr! Here is a picture of a plane similar to the one I flew in:
So lets look at the costs for this arguably better experience. This is about a $200K airplane. It probably costs at least $250 an hour over all to operate (fuel+hangar costs+maintenance+annual inspect costs+insurance all divided by the number of hours it gets flown every year). We probably used the plane for 4 hours total. So the plan cost us $1000 for that trip but there were four of us so it cost us $250 a person. At that time a round trip ticket was around $15o for a standard ticket and around double of that to fly first class. So at first glance maybe it was almost the same costs in the end. But lets see what we needed to make that true. First we had four folks on the flight. I am also not including the cost of the pilot. Lets say you would be flying the plane yourself. You would easily spend $10K to get the experience and training to fly that plane. So it is a pretty expensive alternative in the end. But it was a nice experience for that specific flight. If we had needed to go to someplace further our flight time will soon be longer than that a commercial flight. And a long time on a smaller plane is not nearly as comfortable as a typical airliner.
I am also not considering that if the weather is poor it may be much safer to fly commercial than by private plane. If you want to be safe flying in poor weather you need to make sure you continue to keep you pilot skills up and you airplane in good condition. Critical instruments are going to determine if at the end of the flight you are still living or not.
Lets look at my second experience. If you are like me you hate to fly commercial. These days you have to plan for hours to get onto the plane. You are asked to take off your shoes and submitted to all manner of scans and searches. You will be charged for things every chance the airline can find a way. Every bag will cost you. Folks are always going to push the limits of carry on bags. Also getting onto and off the plane is a long dragged out experience. It just isn’t much fun.
So every year I attend the Reno Air Races. These days I usually choose to drive there. One year a friend was attending and he was going to fly his own plane. A Beechcraft Debonair. His was a very nice example and he is a very competent pilot. So this a high performance single engine airplane. It is capable of flying on instruments but is not pressurized. So its were limited to altitudes below ten thousand feet for the most part. So my friend had flown up himself and offered to let me fly back with him to Seattle after the event. I jumped at the chance. I had flown in the plane before with him and was very confident it would be a great flight. A side note this was a couple of years ago when there were massive forest fires in the region. So lets look at that experience. Here is a picture of this type of plane:
I met met friend around 8:00 in the morning at the Reno airport where he had had his plane tied down with an FBO on the airport. I returned my rental car on the other side of the airport and I got a ride to the FBO where his plane was. My friend checked in at the FBO and paid the tie down bill. He also made arrangements to have his plane fueled. His plane easily held enough fuel to get us back to Seattle. Prior to that my friend had filed a flight plan to allow us to fly an IFR route (basically saying you were flying a more precise route using instruments). We didn’t need to but it allowed us to take advantage of some air routes and have the safety of having additional radar tracking of our flight. By the time my friend settled up his bill and we got fuel we were in the plane and in the air 30 minutes after we had gotten to the FBO. Very hassle free. My friend quickly had us at our planned altitude and we headed home. His plane had a beautiful very comfortable leather interior and we had noise cancelling headsets. We could see how extensive the smoke was from the fires. It was a very pleasant flight and around four hours later we were landing at Renton airport. I grabbed my bag and I was at my desk at Microsoft around 2:00 in the afternoon. This was probably sooner than I would have been back at work if I had flown commercial. A great flight and a wonderful experience!
So what did this flight cost. I am not totally sure I have the exact numbers correct but here are my best guesses. This is a $100K airplane. I know people that own boats or motor homes that cost more. His plane over all probably costed $175 an hour. He probably had to pay $500 for the tie down at Reno. So total flight was something like $1200. Divide that by two and we get $600 a piece. A little over double of a commercial ticket. But so much more pleasant.
The point of looking at those two different flights shows that a private plane can be a very good way to travel. I have other examples I can think of where friends flew their own planes places with really great results. I am convinced that having a plane to travel can be a wonderful thing.
Shortly after I moved to Houston I went to an airshow at Galveston airport. A great airshow, I hope they still hold it! One thing that really impressed me was a fellow had flown there from Scottsdale, AZ in a home built airplane called a Questair. They made a slight break in the event for him to head home. This is a two day drive by car! This was middle afternoon and I realized he was going to be home in time for dinner! I was a little home sick and I thought how wonderful that seemed. There had been another departure break earlier in the day for another airplane and that produced a slightly different result. It was fun but I’ll save that for later but I will also say it left an impression! Here is what a Questair looks like:
I love them and would love to have one. 300 MPH!! You can buy one for less than $100k. Writing this I want to buy one again!! 🙂
So for quite some time while I dream of finally taking the plunge and getting an airplane I thought about that convenient traveling experience. I thought that was the “mission”. But I never found myself in a financial position to feel I could afford a plane for that. So I never really moved forward with a plan and over time I seemed to lose the dream of flight. Ot at least as a pilot anyways.
Fast forward to me slowly thinking of flying again. I was still attending aviation events every chance I got and still thought about a plane but I was mostly letting other things in life distract me from the dream. But over the last couple of years a good friend slowly brought that dream out in me. I’d fly with him whenever I got a chance and we largely would fly someplace for breakfast or lunch. Sometimes regional aviation events too. Even once in a while we’d even camp out at the events. It was really fun.
A pattern emerged. I realized I really enjoyed flying “low and slow” to our various meals. His plane was not particularly fast but the flying was every bit as fun as the meal! I realized how much I loved seeing the classic planes we’d see at various fly-ins. I also started really thinking about the cost of flying. Finally while I did really enjoy flying in planes that were capable of serious travel I also realized I just don’t have any places I’m needing or wanted to fly to. The speed of the plane wasn’t big of a factor for me. I also realized most of the time I’d be flying by myself or on rare occasions a single passenger.
I wasn’t going to be trying to use my own airplane as the primary way to go on trips that had to be in specific dates. I didn’t need the hassle of being able to fly in IFR conditions. That my flying would be in good weather and just for the fun of it.
My “mission” would be the following:
- Low and slow is fine, even desirable.
- The journey was going to be as important as getting to the destination.
- I wanted to fly regularly so I needed to be able to afford it.
- I wanted to regularly attend fly-ins with a “classic” airplane that might even “stand out”. (I remember going to a fly-in with two friends. One had an amazing $100K plane that was a newer production plane. My other friend had a pretty ragged older plane but it was a “classic”. I was flying with the friend in the newer plane. We were directed to parking with a hundred similar planes. My other friend in the “classic” was directed to a very premium place! I realized I wanted to be in the “premium” place with my plane!)\
- I would mostly be flying by myself.
- I was going to almost entirely flying during daytime in good weather.
- It would be a bonus if my plane had a “story”!
- didn’t want to take on the challenge of finding exotic parts to stay in the air.
So with all that lets build the equation to select the plane.
The criteria for my perfect plane:
- No need to be particularly fast.
- Two place is all I need.
- Classic to be fun to bring to a fly-in.
- Easy to fly – hey I’m not getting any younger so I don’t want to need razor fast reflexes to keep from bad outcomes.
- Safe – I’d like to live way past 100!
- Affordable – Low price to acquire and low cost to maintain and fly. I didn’t want a plane where I didn’t know if I could afford the annual inspection!
- Able to operate off of grass on occasion as some classic fly-ins are on grass.
- Available – I had some rarer planes on my list and I didn’t want this to turn into a life long quest to find the right plane.
- Maintainable – A rare plane I couldn’t get parts for could end up spending too much time on the ground while I chased some odd part down. Or a plane I can’t find a mechanic for.
- Quirky – OK, being honest I tend to enjoy quirky things more.
- Electrical system – I wanted radios, transponders and I did not want to have to hand prop my plane to fly it.
- I needed to enjoy flying in it and that meant seeing the world as I flew. So visibility mattered.
So in the previous installment I called out a lot of possible planes. Lets look at the ones that came close to meeting all the criteria:
The Cessna met all the criteria and I kept these on the list to the end. The only negative I saw was I kept seeing the same excellent examples showing up to the fly-ins and sucking up all the attention and awards! 🙂 A great plane I decided wasn’t the “perfect” plane. Also the visibility out of these while while flying is not ideal.
Short wing Piper’s
These really met most of my criteria. The Tripacer was briefly in the lead after I met some owners after the last Concrete fly-in. They made a really great case for the Tripacer. I also will always love the Vagabond after a family friend flew one to our R/C flying sites when I was a kid. I decided Tripacers have less fly in appeal than I wanted, Vagabonds are a little harder to find and I have heard too many stories about them being tricky tail wheel planes to fly. May have been a solid choice.
Triple tail Bellanca
Man I wanted one!! I finally decided a little too much money and a little more worrisome due to the tail wheel. I hope there may be one in my future. I have also been sad to see them not get the attention at fly-ins I think they deserve.
Money and complexity made me give up on these.
Stinson 10A Voyager or (L-5)
Looked for one of these right till the end.
DH1 – Chipmunk
I decided outside my budget. I hope there is a richer “me” in a parallel universe that has one!
PT-19 through PT-23
Maybe too expensive and I admit I read enough to make me think a little more tricky to fly than I wanted. I also worried the engine could be hard to get parts for and open cockpit could be cold some times of the year where I currently live.
Just couldn’t find an original one. I did find a couple of replica’s. 😦
Looked at these till the end.
I thought about these till the end. I heard visibility could be an issue. They seem be hard to find. Maybe this is what I should have bought? I will always wonder.
Prices were all over the map and I wasn’t sure I knew why. I was also a little scared by the reputation of being tricky tail draggers to fly. I should mention a really awesome friend/pilot I know ground looped a Super Cub and caused a major amount of damage. So maybe I am too worried about how I might screw up flying tail draggers.
Too expensive and more “airplane” than I need for my “mission”. Cool planes though!
So I am going to finally admit I’ve tricked you. There is one plane I have not talked about. It was a design that was built to be simple to fly and above all safe. It featured a lot of elements no planes in the general aviation category had ever featured till it was introduced. A number of them had been built by several companies over the years. Parts were still available. There was a very active owner community. When they were first introduced you could get a pilot’s license in half the time than other planes because they were considered so simple to fly. In fact they were designed to be more like driving a car than flying an airplane! And bonus, there are enough of them to be available and affordable! Finally they even have some “warbird” cred. They were even the first airplane to ever be flown with a “JATO” rocket booster!!
So what is this “wonder plane”? The Ercoupe!! Here is an Ercoupe:
It is a low wing airplane with tricycle landing gear. It has the rudder controls linked to the ailerons so you steer it like a car. The elevator travel is limited to make it impossible to stall or spin. It has great visibility and you can even open the side windows in flight! A nice one will get attention at a fly-in. An Ercoupe was even the Grand Champion at the Arlington Fly-in a few years back!
They are affordable to own. The are so simple that the dreaded “annual” inspection can often be in the low “hundreds”! Insurance will be as cheap as any plane you can own. No special training will be required for the most part to safely fly one. They are faster than many of the other classics. A good one will reliably do 105 MPH while burning very little gas. When I thought about it the Ercoupe checked all my boxes! So when I thought about what I really wanted to get out of an airplane this was clearly the best choice!!
So although there were a lot of possible choices I realized I had finally picked the best type of plane and now I needed to commit. To help with that I had a chance to talk to a couple of folks that owned Ercoupes and all I heard just let me feel confident that the Ercoupe was the plane I needed!
Now I needed to find one! The next blog entry will talk about the process of finding a plane. What I did to find one and the plane I eventually ended up with. After that I will share some of the amazing things I learned about the Ercoupe and some of my plans for mine once I get it home to my hangar!
By the way, remember when I mentioned a second break in the Galveston Air Show for another plane to depart. That second plane was an Ecoupe! The plane left on a much shorter flight. Back north to its home base at David Wayne Hooks airport. There was a headwind so strong (30 MPH) we could see the plane for almost 45 minutes after it took off! The pilot of that plane may have taken nearly as long to get home as the faster plane flying back to Scottsdale! At the time I thought maybe that was a bad thing but now I’m not so sure. 🙂 Ercoupes aren’t fast! But if the journey is the real point of it all then with an Ercoupe all the more time to enjoy the journey!
As a bonus one more Ercoupe picture:
So be sure to check out my next installment!
Flew the Coupe! – Part 4- Ercoupes and the search for mine!