Classic Trainers: Save Money and Be a Better Pilot

Budd Davisson, appeared in Flight Training Magazine

The classic airplane is, in many ways, a better and much less expensive way to learn to fly

The automatic first thought of the new flight student is “which flight school do I use and where are they located.” It is very, very seldom a student says “I wonder if it makes sense to buy an older airplane and learn to fly in it?” This is too bad, as the second thought pattern can, in many situations, offer lots of benefits, some obvious, some not so obvious.

 Okay, so what are those benefits and how do you quantify them? Also, when we say “ an older airplane...” exactly what do we mean.

First, buying any airplane and learning to fly in it, makes financial sense, assuming we’re talking about a training type of airplane. Although it’s not unheard of for someone to buy something like a Baron and get their PPL in it, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re saying, you buy a C-152/Cherokee/C-172, then hire an instructor and go for it. If you buy carefully, meaning a quality, relatively low time airplane, you’ll recoup every dime you spend on it. There is however, another way to do this same thing and that’s to buy a classic trainer like a Cub, Champ, etc.. This approach has both advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll get to in a minute. First, however, let’s talk about the instructor aspect of buying your own airplane for flight training.

If the airplane is a relatively modern one, there are actually at least two ways to approach finding an instructor to teach you. The first is to buy the airplane, lease it back to a training school and take training with their instructors. This makes a certain amount of sense in that the airplane isn’t just sitting around between lessons and is paying for itself. One downside to that kind of approach is that the airplane is accumulating flight time much faster than if it was just you flying it and flight time is one of the primary basis’s for establishing an airplane’s value. Another problem with lease backs is that it is quite possible for the airplanes to be, shall we say, treated less kindly than you’d like. No one is as good to an airplane as the guy or gal who owns it. It’s a little like rental cars. If you don’t own it, small scratches and smudges on the upholstery don’t mean much to you. As the owner, however, it’ll mean something to you in terms of devaluation of the airplane. Therefore, when you structure the lease back agreement it’s important you detail specifically how the condition of the airplane is to be maintained. You can also limit the number of hours to be flown.

In the lease back scenario the instructor situation is exactly as if you walked in off the street and wanted to take instruction. The instructor will be available the same and, unless you stipulate otherwise in the leaseback agreement, the charges will be the same.

The second possible approach is to buy the airplane, keep it for yourself and hire an instructor separately. This can also be done several ways: Hire a freelance instructor or contract with one through a flight school. If you hire one through a flight school, you’ll pay a premium per hour change as almost all schools charge more for instruction given in a customer’s airplane. The advantage of this approach over the freelance instructor is you are more likely to be able to hold a firm schedule with the instructor. Freelance instructors are often part time and scheduling will be more difficult. Also, their life-situations may change and leave you looking for another instructor.

If we’re talking about buying a classic airplane (Cub, Champ, etc.) then we’ve added yet another, surprisingly difficult variable to the instructor portion of the equation: Tailwheel instructors are hard to come by and experienced ones even more so. So, before you even think about buying a tailwheel airplane to learn to fly in, first establish that there’s an instructor available who can put in the required time. It is the rare flight school that has a current tailwheel instructor on staff, so it is likely your tailwheel guy will be freelance.

It should also be mentioned that many tailwheel aircraft aren’t properly equipped to take the PPL check ride, so, if you plan on doing so, make sure it has the right instrumentation.

Okay, now what about the airplanes? Which ones make the most sense and what are their pros and cons?