Shortly before J passed his PPL, I came home to him poring over a spreadsheet. He announced that he’d done the sums and was going to buy a plane.

I was quite concerned for a while that he’d completely lost his grip on reality.

Thoughts that went through my head at the time: “no way can we afford a plane” “has he been drinking?” “have we won the lottery whilst I wasn’t paying attention?!” “surely this can’t be a sensible decision?”

So I’ve got this PPL thing…now how do I fly? 

I suppose I had always assumed that once J got his PPL, we’d just call up the local flying school, book out one of their planes and (if it was available and working properly) head off somewhere, presumably paying for fuel plus an hourly rate and a maintenance charge. I hadn’t really got my head around how expensive that could turn out to be, especially if we went flying as much as J was keen to do once his shiny new license started itching to be used!

Flying club or school planes have the advantage that you only pay for what you use – if you don’t fly, they don’t cost you anything (other than perhaps a membership fee for the right to book them). The club pays for their maintenance, keeps an eye on what needs to be done and when, keeps them legal and in most cases insures them for use by anyone deemed appropriate by the club. You basically turn up (within reason) and fly.

Many clubs will want you to fly with one of their instructors before they let you loose on their planes for the first time, but if you’re current this shouldn’t present you with a problem. Another advantage is that flying school planes don’t sit around – they will be flown, a lot – so if there’s a problem developing, someone will tend to notice quickly and it’ll get fixed before it becomes more serious.

So what are the downsides? Well, they get flown a lot – and a lot of this flying is done by people who aren’t yet particularly competent. Flying school planes get mistreated and messed about much like driving instructors’ cars, and whilst most clubs have excellent standards when it comes to maintenance, you will never know what the last person has done to the plane before you take it up. You probably won’t even know who flew it last or be able to ask whether they noticed anything unusual or untoward.

With flying school planes, you’ll also find that you’re competing with the other club members and anyone else in the vicinity with a PPL who fancies a turn. Cue the first sunny weekend of the British summer, and guess what? Everyone wants the plane at exactly the same time, and if you’re not quick enough, you’ll find yourself left on the ground!

If you want to fly a lot, the flying school or club planes aren’t likely to suit – much like hiring a car, there comes a point when it is considerably cheaper to own a plane, or part of one.

The second option – if you don’t want to use the flying school planes – is to join a syndicate. Many people opt for this route if they want a higher level of control and more chance of being able to use the plane when they want it.

This was J’s preferred path initially and he’d started looking at adverts and figuring out what it would cost. Advantages are that the syndicate planes tend to be mistreated a lot less than those used by flying clubs or flying schools, as they’ll only be flown by qualified pilots who (should!) know better. As long as the other syndicate members haven’t decided to cut corners and scrimp on maintenance, this shouldn’t be an issue either, and the chances are you’ll get to know the other syndicate members and trust their flying.

As with the flying school planes, though, the downside to a syndicate is that you’ll probably all want to go up at the same time when the weather’s good. You’ll also have to cover certain costs like maintenance and repairs whether or not you actually fly the plane. Much like a shared rental house, you’ll often have to find yourself a successor for your portion of the costs if you want to leave a syndicate, as the chance of everyone wanting to exit at the same time is slim.

Option three, which very few people are lucky enough to end up doing, is of course to buy your own plane outright. Now I’d never considered that I might one day have the chance to train to become a pilot, and I had certainly never envisaged owning a plane!

The advantages? You know exactly who has flown the plane, how it behaved, and how they treated it, because they are you! You make all safety and maintenance-related calls. Whenever you want to use the plane, you can – you can decide spontaneously (as we often do) that the weather looks nice in a certain direction, and just go. Some of our best trips have happened this way.

And the downsides? Well, you cover all of the costs – no splitting the maintenance and hangarage (if applicable), and any repairs are also your responsibility. If you don’t fly often, you will pay a lot of money to own something that is just sitting around waiting for you. You’ll also likely add to your maintenance costs in the long-run if you don’t fly – plane engines don’t like sitting around, it’s best to run them at least every few weeks. If you’re in a syndicate or using flying club planes, you have other people who do this for you – if it’s your own plane, you really need to use it or you’ll find yourself paying for a new engine much sooner than you’d planned!

I had all sorts of enormous numbers flying around in my head as I began to panic and worry that J’s life savings and a huge amount of debt were about to end up being thrown at what was essentially a very expensive toy.

The reality is quite different (OK, maybe the ‘toy’ part is spot on…). I’m not about to pretend that buying a plane is cheap and something that anyone can just do, but relatively speaking it is much more feasible than people think. A quick Google search tells me that Cessna 172s of a certain age (4-seaters) can be bought in the UK for prices starting at around GBP 15,000. Not pocket money in any way, shape or form, but not radically different from what a lot of people would spend on a car.

Many people spend many times this on their cars, in fact – we are just choosing to invest in a different mode of transport, I suppose!

We do have a car, which admittedly is used 90% to get to and from the airport, but when there is a spending decision to be made, the plane will win every time. Poor little VW – it does the job, but it will never be able to fly!

When ‘YC joined our family

So J’s spreadsheet had estimated the annual hours he’d want to fly, added up the hourly cost of flying the club planes, compared this to a few of the syndicate options currently on the market, and concluded that the best, most financially sound and safety-conscious decision was to buy a particular plane he’d seen advertised outright.

It’s fair to say I took some convincing. Granted, J is a maths graduate and they do love a spreadsheet. I felt I probably wouldn’t win a technical argument as he would spout formulas at me until I shut up. I tend to be the boring, sensible person in a group, so I took up a devil’s advocate role and argued against every possible justification he could have for wanting to spend money this way. To be fair to him, the boy did good – he managed to come back reasonably convincingly in all cases!

When push came to shove, whilst I like to believe that as a married couple we make decisions together and he wouldn’t have done it without my blessing, J was intending to spend his own savings on the plane, so I wouldn’t have had much negotiating power even if I had truly wanted to argue. Fortunately for him, a much larger part of me was beginning to get enormously excited about the prospect of him owning a plane.

That plane was ‘YC, a 1986 TB-10. Despite being older than both of us, she had been beautifully looked after and maintained and flown by her loving owner over a number of years.

Johannes fell in love instantly, and I have since that day had to accept my lot as the other woman in his life. In spite of my initial reservations, I quickly came to love her too – she is a very capable, reliable little aircraft and has taken us to some absolutely amazing places that we never could have experienced without her.

Her range is about 6hrs, or 730 nautical miles in the right weather. With reserves and with winds on our side, we could get further. The longest flight we have done to date is from Lausanne, Switzerland (LSGL) back to Biggin Hill (EGKB), which took us 4hrs 10mins. We landed with comfortable reserves but quite keen for the loo, so I’m not sure we would do a much longer leg without a fuel/toilet stop!

'YC chilling in the Scillies
‘YC chilling in the Scillies

About ‘YC:

  • Type: Socata TB-10 (TOBA)
  • Age: 29 (first flew 1986, although some of the inner workings have been replaced multiple times since then, the airframe and paint is original)
  • MTOW: 1,150kgs (Maximum Take-Off Weight – heaviest the plane is allowed to be when departing, often used to calculate your landing fee at a destination, presumably because heavier planes will do more damage to their runways?!)
  • Range: approx. 6hrs, or 730 nautical miles
  • Seats: 4 (although 3 people + luggage is the max we can take on longer journeys)
  • Fuel: AvGas
  • Cruising speed: (ground speed of course depends on the headwind!) 115 knots true

UPDATE: After we moved to Scotland in early 2017 and found ourselves commuting regularly up and down the country, with some sadness we decided to swap our beloved ‘YC for a Mooney M20K 231 (turbo-Mooney), which could cope better with the headwinds and other weather that the Scottish winter (and summer, as a matter of fact!) tends to entail. Looking forward to a new chapter and getting to know a new plane, but ‘YC will always be our first. We flew her for 6 years and almost 700hrs between us.

Happy flying!

Em x

Flying post-PPL: When ‘YC joined our family

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