In my decades in aviation, I have come across individuals representing a wide financial demography—from folks who could buy a Boeing with a personal check to others who are deeply locked into the very middle of the middle class and yet still find a way to pursue their flying dreams one way or another. One of my mentors owned four aircraft, a Baron, a Cub, a Cessna 185 and a Glasair. They weren’t for business or to flip, they were his cherished personal aircraft. Yet his old Chrysler was on its second engine and his shop boots, their third soles. Priorities.
I am living proof that a poor teenager raised by a single working-class parent could scrape my way to a private pilot certificate working part-time at minimum wage. True, this was in the 1970s. But I did it, mainly because I had an unquenched passion driving me on.
How different was it then? While going through some old logbooks, I stumbled upon a receipt documenting the rental of a Cessna 150 for $16.50 (see photo). Correcting for inflation, that rental rate would be roughly $75 an hour today. I’ll come back to that.
In its infancy, all aviation was experimental—with a lower-case “e” because we hadn’t yet come up with the idea of Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft. It didn’t take long before governmental regulation needed to step in to organize the chaos, and both good and bad things have resulted ever since. Even so, general aviation enjoyed a surge of a growth spurt immediately after WW-II, with a proliferation of (relatively) cheap simple trainers and fueled in part by Uncle Sam’s G.I. Bill. Everyone expected wartime pilots to come home and want airplanes of their own, and the manufacturers spooled up for high demand. The postwar bump soon flattened and many companies closed or consolidated with stronger players. The short-lived vision of an “Air-coupe” for everyone—even, perhaps, an Ercoupe—never came to be.
Aviation took a breath, and by the ’60s and ’70s, business was good again. Only this time, the makers were directing their attention to lower volume, higher margin creations. Turbocharging, pressurization, cabin-class comfort—cha-ching, cha-ching. Social and economic factors drove growth in the ’60s and ’70s, while product liability, changes in tax credits and rising interest rates conspired to stand on the brakes by the early 1980s. On top of that, the manufacturers had done too good a job; the aircraft were more durable and held their value better than expected, depressing demand for new replacements.
The Experimental View
I don’t intend this treatise to be an indictment on the certified side of the fence. Most of us came from there, and all of us have benefited immensely from that industry. There are several production-line models that I have long admired and in which I would gladly invest if an attractive opportunity were to present itself. Like much in life, however, it’s all about the Benjamins. I have also built, owned and operated an Experimental aircraft for several years. There are advantages and disadvantages to both realms. Still, when it comes down to dollars and cents, Experimental/Amateur-Built has several significant cost advantages. Some are obvious and tangible and others are more nuanced and almost subjective.
The biggest advantages are the initial costs and continuing maintenance—especially for builders with the repairman certificate. I have seen several examples. At one point in my build, I found myself short of a tie-rod end, a common widget of numerous applications in most aircraft. I took one that I did have to a local FBO, and they were able to cross-reference factory markings on it to a unit packaged and documented by one of Wichita’s finest with the exact same factory markings. The price was about $80. Had I been stranded somewhere, I would have gladly paid the price. But in this case, I chose to endure the two-day delay and got a replacement shipped by Van’s Aircraft for about $11. Yes, I understand the inherent cost associated with flooring parts and spares in conveniently located brick-and-mortar locations, just like I appreciate the Amazon vs. Best Buy conundrum with consumers (and who is winning). I appreciate the convenience of my local FBO and try to support them all I can within reason, of which a greater than 700% price differential is often not.
In another example, a buddy of mine with a nice late-70s Wichita product needed a new fuel sender. Since a new unit would be around $800, he got a salvage one for $400. That same week I got a new one for my airplane from Van’s for $35. Different product, sure, but same function and purpose. And, yes, I know there are sometimes differences between certified and Experimental parts that go beyond the paper trail and supply-chain markups, and I appreciate the responsibility put on the builder/maintainer of the Experimental that does not land on the shoulders of the Bonanza owner. Still…
Growth For Us
The significantly lower costs of Experimental aviation have broadened the market outreach to the point that once again, you don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy aircraft ownership. We’ve benefitted from mature companies producing mature kits, which turned a cottage industry of dreamers and, yes, companies fueled by passion more than good business sense and practices into something of a juggernaut. Aside from the very high end of the market, if you’re still looking for innovation at a price point an “average Joe” could consider, you’re not looking at factory-built aircraft.
Some would say that Experimentals are a detriment to the legacy certified side, even the last stab in the back of an already wounded victim. My rebuttal would be that the flourishing Experimental industry keeps alive hundreds of related suppliers for things like tires, components, avionics, consumables, engines, etc. A healthy and vibrant Experimental industry is also producing innovation flowing back to the certified side. Every RV that lands at a small airstrip and buys a load of fuel supports the students in the 150s and the Piper fan keeping his Comanche alive.
Early in this article I mentioned renting a Cessna 150 in 1976 for $16.50 an hour. At the minimum wage of the day, it took 8.25 hours of labor to pay for one hour of rental charge. In prep for this article, I looked for a comparison. I found a listing for a flight school renting a Van’s RV-12 for $99 an hour. At today’s minimum wage of $12 in my state, that equates to the same 8.25 hours of labor to rent a trainer for an hour—albeit one that’s of a newer design, nicer to fly and better equipped. Amazingly not what most folks, including me, would have guessed.
Without a doubt, the significant cost advantages of Experimental aviation can open up flying opportunities to a much broader range of enthusiasts. Aviation is expensive. Dollars and sense are both required.