Flying in the Ford World

If you've ever thought that owning your own airplane was out of reach, think again.


That’s that you say, Binky? The high cost of flyings got you down? You’re tired of renting an airplane built during the Eisenhower administration for $100 an hour? Magazine articles that trumpet new glass-panel composite airplanes that cost more than a nice house with a two car garage-including the cars in it-just don’t grab your attention anymore? Your Aunt Wildebeestes little legacy, which sounded so good when the lawyer called, only covers two tanks of gas?

Well, you aren’t alone. Sit down here by the fire, and let Uncle Ishmael tell you how you can own an airplane and fly it for the same amount of money you’d spend on a 4-year-old Ford pickup truck, say, about $12,000. Stop snorting.

There are three places money goes in the airplane world: acquisition, fixed costs and maintenance. That means how much the airplane costs to buy, how much it will cost to keep it at an airport and insure it, and how much it will cost to keep it operating safely and legally. All three of these must be minimized if you’re going to stay in the Ford pickup world.

The first step is to figure out what kind of flying you really do. Really, right hand in the air, honest-to-Pete, really do. Most pilots don’t consistently fly long IFR trips, nor do they enjoy pukeover aerobatics. Most of their flying is done VFR, within 300 miles of home: weekend camping trips just over the ridge, visits to other airports and short hops for pancakes or burgers. There are seldom more than two people in the airplane, and more often than not, just one. Nothing at all wrong with that…most pilots fly this way because it is fun and affordable.

So lets say thats you. First rule of Ford-world flying: Forget certified airplanes. New ones-even small, simple airplanes intended for the new LSA category-cost far too much. As for old ones, well, you might find a cream puff if you hunt long enough, but it wont be cheap. And the idea of a cheap fixer-upper is a nonstarter. Parts for certified airplanes can be immensely expensive, and certified mechanics who can work on them cant afford to work cheap. No, if you’re going to get an inexpensive airplane, you’re going to have to build it yourself. Before you go slapping your brow, listen up; a lot of good things can come out of this investment in time.

Ford-world flying does not require a sophisticated airplane; such an airplane is more comparable to a 1947 Fordson Stegamaster tractor. (The Ford pickup is just a cost comparison. Mechanically, it is much more complicated than a simple airplane.) It doesn’t have to be blindingly fast, because for 300-mile jaunts, 100 knots will do just fine. It doesn’t require a fancy panel, because nobody’s going IFR. There’s no need at all for retractable landing gear, fuel injection, turbochargers or leather upholstery. For that matter, it probably wont require lights or, depending on what it’s made of, even paint. All it needs is a simple airframe with a comfortable seat or two, a sturdy cabin and a reliable engine.

The airframe can be made from a variety of materials. Wood might work for some craftsmen, but it tends to be time-consuming and labor-intensive. Composites are the same, but worse. Tube-and-rag is a good choice, but nothing beats sheet metal for simplicity and cost. Kit or plansbuilt? You’ll have to do your homework here. Kit manufacturers buy in bulk, so even pre-formed parts can cost less than an individual would pay for raw material. On the other hand, if you haunt aerospace surplus stores and fly markets, you may score some deals on materials and hardware.

So lets narrow our choice to a fixed gear, low-wing (you’ll see why in a minute), sheet-metal airplane with a cheap engine. It will have one or two seats, but if you stick to one, the airplane can be considerably less expensive. It will have an empty weight of about 600 to 700 pounds. We can divide this airplane, like most homebuilts, into three sections: airframe, engine and panel/avionics.

What It’ll Cost

Ishmael’s going out on a limb here and saying that you can build the airframe for $5000, the engine for $4000 and the panel for $3000, thus hitting the Ford target on the nose. Aluminum for a small airframe will probably cost about $3000. You can cut and form it with hand tools. Pieces like wingspars will probably need a long brake to bend them, but you can get that job done at a commercial shop for a reasonable amount of money. Hardware and materials for the rest of the airframe might cost another $2000. Landing gear along with wheels and brakes for airplanes weighing 550 to 700 pounds are commercially available. You are probably money ahead to buy them, though they will be one of your more expensive purchases. If you choose (or design) an airplane with a flat-wrap windshield and canopy, you can make them yourself. Streamlined bubble canopies are usually free-blown from Plexiglas. Its not beyond the range of possibility to do this yourself, but its definitely a learned skill. Thats why bubbles are expensive if you buy them. Control linkages for a low-wing airplane are much simpler than for a high-wing or a biplane, and you can easily make them yourself from aluminum tubes. A simple flat-wrap aluminum cowling with a commercial fiberglass nosebowl is about as cheap a way to cover the engine as there is, except for designs that don’t cover the cylinders at all. For slightly more money and a lot more work, you can make a complete cowl of fiberglass.

Engines are the traditional money pits on airplanes, which is why we are going to avoid traditional airplane engines. The Lycoming and larger Continental engines found in most certified airplanes are brutally expensive. You might be able to find a run-out and rebuild it yourself, but its unlikely you can do so and stay in the old-Ford world. The exception might be the small 65- to 85-horsepower, four-cylinder Continentals, which were produced in large quantities and are still available for reasonable sums. Fortunately for us Ford-world fliers, thats enough power to do the job. A Continental 65 can still be had for $4000 if you hunt for it. They are heavy, and you have to hand-prop them, but they are as reliable as a stone ax and will burn car gas without a hiccup.

You could save even more money by using a two-stroke engine. They deliver considerable power for their weight and cost, and used ones cost less than dirt. Converted four-stroke automobile engines are another possibility. Your Uncle Ishmael is not flying across shark-infested waters in either of these, but if you fly within the limits set by such engines and accept the compromises they impose, they will provide a lot of good Ford-world fun with minimum risk. A fresh VW conversion, if you build it yourself from VW and Great Planes or AeroVee components, can cost as little as $3000 and deliver a quite reliable 50 to 55 hp. Add a wood propeller ($500) and you have propulsion.

You made a funny squeak when that $3000 panel was mentioned. Actually, there’s no need to spend nearly that much. Uncle Ishmael speaks from experience here, having just put a perfectly functional panel in an airplane for less than half that. What, he asked himself, did he require from an avionics package? He needed to know where he was, and occasionally he needed to talk to somebody on the ground. For that he needed a radio and a GPS. Transponder? Ishmael lives in the dark north woods and avoids big cities, so nix on the transponder. What is necessary to know about the engine? Its speed, oil pressure, oil temperature, volts and fuel pressure, and because Ishmael is a big fan of knowing his manifold pressure, even with a fixed-pitch prop, he will have an MP gauge, too.

Avionics and Miscellany

Flight instruments? No need for attitude information on the panel. This is strictly a VFR airplane, and attitude information is free-just look out the window. Airspeed and altitude are necessary,
a compass is a good thing, and a slip/skid ball comes in handy. All of the instruments are readily available used, often from those converting to glass panels and tossing the old analog instruments. Total cost of instruments listed above, bought from Barnstormers and local sources: $730. Avionics? A Garmin GPS III and an Icom handheld mounted on the panel, both bought on eBay for $150 each. Add some wire, a couple of switches, headset jacks, and the total cost of the panel barely hit $1200. Put that in your EFIS and smoke it!

Upholstery? Seat cushions are all you need, and you can get them almost free at boat yards, especially yards that are reconditioning yachts and tossing the old upholstery.

Lights? Don’t need them when the suns up.

Paint? Adds weight, costs money. You don’t need it on a metal airplane, anyway. If this offends your aesthetic sense, mask and rattle-can a stripe down the side; it worked for thousands of Cessna 120/140s. Fancier vinyl appliqu swooshes can be had from many sign shops for slightly more.

Fuel gauge? A bucks worth of plastic tubing makes a foolproof sight gauge.

Are there any airplanes that meet these criteria? Sure there are. There’s Bruce Kings neat little BK-1, the Hummelbird, the Thatcher TM-1. Two-seaters include the Sonex, which can largely be scratchbuilt and flies on a Volkswagen-based engine. Escaping the low-wing metal box for a minute, Bert Sisler’s Cygnet is often overlooked. Even though its wood wing is labor intensive, anybody who can weld and handle simple woodworking tools can build it. Its a delightful airplane if you aren’t too big yourself, certainly one of the most benign taildraggers in existence. Check the KITPLANES directories and advertisements, and you can probably find several more designs that fill the bill.

So now that you’ve built your Ford-like airplane, you can start to reap the cost benefits in the other realms of aircraft expense: fixed costs and maintenance. One of the reasons Ishmael favors small low-wing airplanes is that they fit nicely in the corners of hangars under the wings of big high-wing airplanes. There are thousands of lonely Cessnas sitting in T-hangars, and their owners, already beset with certified-world parts and maintenance costs, are hungry for hangar partners to ease the pain. If you cant find a deal there, well, a metal airplane can survive outside for many years with only moderate care.


The other major fixed-cost, after storage, is insurance. Ask yourself: If you have so little invested, and can fix your airplane yourself if it is damaged, do you really need hull insurance? Ishmael says no. Buy liability and medical insurance by all means, as you’ll want to protect your passengers and others. But thats $300 to $400 a year. Hull insurance, even on an inexpensive airplane, can exceed $1000. A few years of that, and you’ll have bought the airplane all over again.

Finally, the biggest weapon in the battle against excess aviation expense: Get a partner. Sounds simple, and when it works, it works very well. Went it doesn’t, it can be ugly. So choose your partner(s) carefully. Compatible personalities, work styles and a written agreement that spells out expectations, schedules and financial obligations are all mandatory. Ishmael has had partners in two different airplanes, and in both cases they have increased his enjoyment of airplane ownership while dramatically reducing the pressure on his wallet.

Well, the fires dying down, Binky, and your Uncle Ishmael’s getting cold. Toss in the rest of that big-bucks aviation magazine, will you, and let’s see what we can find here in the aviation section of the Nickel Ads.


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