Friday, March 21, 2008

Slipping the $urly bonds

She's tiny. She's pretty. She's graceful. But oh, is she ever high-maintenance!

As time goes on, it is getting harder and harder to justify owning an airplane, even an ancient (built in 1959) two-seater, with any rationality.

It's a bottomless money pit any way you look at it.

Parts for old airplanes are not easy to find, and when you do find them, they are impossibly costly.

Aviation gasoline is staggeringly expensive: it's $4.71 a gallon at my airport. My Cessna 150's engine burns 5.5 gallons an hour. That's $26 an hour just for avgas. There's oil to buy, too.

There's a hangar to pay for as well. Fortunately I'm sharing mine with a fellow who has an equally small airplane.

There's an "engine reserve" to think about. The little Continental four-banger in my airplane can run about 1,800 hours before having to be overhauled -- and that costs $12,000 and up. So I've got to feed the engine reserve account regularly.

Then there's insurance -- both for the airplane and for me.

The biggest item: The annual inspection, in which the mechanic takes apart the airplane, examines the innards, then rebuilds it. Even with me helping by unscrewing a million little screws and screwing them back in, the annual costs between $1,000 and $2,000 each year, depending on what needs to be replaced. Occasionally a really big-ticket repair shoves the cost over $3,000.

All told, it costs me somewhere between $100 and $125 an hour to fly a very small and simple airplane around my little patch of southern Wisconsin, or between $5,000 and $6,000 a year. That's a lot of leisure dough for a retired newspaper guy to throw around.

Especially when I could not fly the airplane between last November 4 and yesterday, March 20. Most of the time this winter the weather was just too rotten. And when the sun did come out, the hangar aprons could not be plowed, and my aching back is too achy for me to shovel things out by hand. Almost four and a half months grounded!

And so yesterday I drove up to the airport, the first day nice enough to haul the plane out of the hangar, intending to see if my first flight of 2008 justified keeping the airplane another year.

Rolling old N5859E out wasn't too difficult. Gassing it took some grunts and groans; that fuel hose gets clumsier and heavier with each passing year.

So does the preflight inspection, this time exceptionally painstaking after so long a layoff. Getting down on my knees to peer at things wasn't so bad, but getting up again resulted in loud creaks from abused joints. I won't mention the ordeal of folding myself into the tiny cockpit.

But as soon as the wheels lifted from the runway I knew I was going to keep this baby another year.

In no other human endeavor does the sweep and joy of flying lift the spirit so. "Up, up the long delirious burning blue," sang John Gillespie Magee Jr., and while a Cessna 150 is to a Spitfire as a sparrow is to an eagle, the exaltation is the same.


  1. You claim to be an impoverished pensioner but you own an airplane? Something isn't right here.

  2. I'm an impoverished pensioner BECAUSE I own an airplane!

  3. Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
    And danced the sky on laughter silvered wings
    Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things
    I’ve wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence
    Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting winds aloft
    And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air

    Love this one-- especially when John Denver sings it!