Learn to Fly for Free? Absolutely...Sorta!

Budd Davisson, Flight Training

"Play Your Cards Right and Your Flying Won't Cost a Dime. Play Them Wrong and..."

Life is full of urban legends. Like the pet baby alligators flushed down New York City toilets which have prospered into monsters. Or the brand new, never-been-assembled Model “T” Ford in a barn on a farm somewhere which is owned by an acquaintance of a friend of someone your sister’s boyfriend met at a fly-in. Or the story that you can actually learn to fly for free by buying an old airplane, learn to fly in it while you’re fixing it up and then you sell it for much more than it cost. Voila, free flying!

We can’t vouch for the alligators or the Model “T”, but we can say a few things about the Fix-it-up-and-fly-for-free concept. First, yes, it can be done. No, it’s not a guaranteed thing. Yes, will work, if you adhere to some firm rules. No, you can’t count on anything we say from this point on as being 100% fact, because so much depends on the airplane selected, your own situation and exactly what your definition of “free” includes.

From the git-go, we’re going to make a definite statement that you CAN count on as being fact: in most situations you are better off shopping around for the best and probably most expensive airplane of its type. If it is in flawless shape, you can fly it for 100 hours and resell it for at least what you paid for it, and probably more. Inflation can be a wonderful thing! A creampuff airplane of any kind, especially if it’s a later model airplane, will always return at least its purchase price, assuming you didn’t go crazy when buying it and you take care of it. Even if you did over-pay, you’ll still get your money back, but you’ll have to wait a little longer for inflation to catch up with the price.

No, you can’t count on anything we say from this point on as being 100% fact, because so much depends on the airplane selected, your own situation and exactly what your definition of “free” includes.

The primo airplane is virtually guaranteed to work as a fly-for-free airplane because there is always a hot market for the best of any kind of airplane. Especially the more popular models. Also, its near-perfect condition means you aren’t likely to spend anything on it while learning to fly. You can get your license in it, then play with it for another 50 hours before selling it. Of course, selling it will be the really hard part: it’s sometimes hard to force yourself to part with a good flying machine. Remember, however, the name of this particular game is “Fly for Free,” and keeping the airplane for a longer period of time means you stand a greater risk of having something major go wrong. Then, all bets are off.

The obvious downside to going with a top-of-the-market airplane is the high price of the ticket to get into the game. So, what about the fixer-uppers? How about picking up a ratty C-152 or Cessna 140 or Cherokee, putting a little sweat equity into it, and letting the increased value from both rehabilitating the airplane and inflation work for you? This is where things get very gray and the possibilities for a black hole developing directly below your wallet increase greatly.

What most of us picture in our minds, when we say “fixer-upper,” is the airplane on the back line that desperately needs some TLC. It may not have flown for a while, or, if it has been flying, nothing has been done to keep it up. This is where you have to sit back and do some serious evaluating. First, evaluate yourself and your situation, then evaluate possible airplane candidates.

Who and what are you? Is your mechanical aptitude and equipment up to doing work on an airplane? And, if so, how much? Don’t forget that, while you can do relatively minor work to an airplane, working on complex assemblies needs an A & P to sign off your work. Even the minor work, that you can do yourself, however, may tax your current abilities. How do you feel, for instance, about splitting the rims and changing the tires? How about the brakes? You can do the interior and all the cosmetic work on the instrument panel yourself, but are you talented enough to do it? Actually, you don’t need the talent. All you need is the desire to learn how to do the work, because none of it is brain surgery. But it does take a huge amount of dedication.

The question of dedication to a project is something only you can measure. Only you know whether your past performance shows you can start a project and see it through to the end. If your track record lists a lot of uncompleted projects, go find a flight school and pay them the money for your fight training. It’ll be cheaper in the long run.

Projects the size of an airplane tend to expand like a dry sponge, the further you take them apart. Don’t tackle an airplane with the idea of taking the wings off and bringing it home. The airplane has to stay in one piece and the work accomplished at the airport or the scope of the project changes exponentially. The vast majority of home workshop projects that include disassembling an airplane may start out as two-month projects, but the lucky ones, those that are finished, turn into two-year projects. Most, however, are never finished and are sold for less than was paid for it. As soon as you disassemble an airplane you have to understand that you just went from an effort to update an airplane and resell it for a profit, to a restoration project. Once you get an airplane taken that far apart, you will see so much more work that should be done, that you’ll put far more time in it than you can imagine.

Don’t forget that, while you can do relatively minor work to an airplane, working on complex assemblies needs an A & P to sign off your work.

Restoring an airplane, even if it’s a Cherokee 140, is a fun, garage-type project, but don’t think it’s going to help your effort to learn to fly. Restoring is one project. Learning to fly is a totally different one.

Time is another factor you have to analyze carefully. Not even free time is free. If you are going to spend hours and hours out at the airport messing with an airplane, you aren’t at home with the family, or working, or doing any of the other stuff responsible people are reputed to do. So, look at your situation and see exactly how much time you actually have to put into the project. Little Jenny has to be taken to play-practice and Scotty has a basketball game. The gutters need cleaning and Aunt Edna is coming over. Can you fit an airplane project in between all of life’s demands? Be brutally honest about the answer. If you aren’t honest and you proceed anyway, the project will never be finished. This is another statement you can count on as being true.

So, let’s assume you have neither the time, nor talent, to do any of the work on the airplane. Now what? Do we hire it done? Not if we think we are going to make this fly-for-free thing work. The instant you decide to have someone else work on the airplane, you’ve decided two things: first you’ve decided you definitely are not going to fly for free because the labor costs will quickly eat up any margin. Secondly, you’ve decided it’s okay if you have more than the airplane is worth tied up in it, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen. When that happens you might as well decide to go all the way and do a first class job on the airplane. Then, at least, you can keep it for the long haul because it’ll be a long, long time before the inflation in airplane prices bails you out.

In case the message wasn’t clear enough: the only way the fly-for-free thing can work is if you do all of the labor-intensive jobs (paint stripping, basic interior work, disassemble/paint instrument panel, etc) and only get an A & P involved for the stuff that absolutely requires the rating.

And then it comes time to evaluate the airplane itself. In this case, it’s a mythical airplane because what we’re about to say applies to just about any airplane purchase. First, recognize we’re not looking for an airplane to do a complete restoration on. If we are then the rules have to include buying the least expensive airplane available that has a solid, straight, corrosion-free airframe. For our purposes, what we are looking for is an airplane that fits one of several categories:

• It has a clean, solid airframe with a low to mid-time engine but the cosmetics are bad. It needs paint and/or upholstery. This is the most desirable type project for the fly-for-free concept.
• It is a really good looking airplane with good paint and interior, but the engine has gone south and the difference between the asking price and what it will sell for is significantly more than the price of doing the engine. Leave a wide margin here because lots of surprises pop up when you start taking an engine apart. When doing your pencil work, always assume a worse case scenario for the engine. Lately, we’ve begun to see increasing numbers of owners put their airplanes up for sale because they’ve run out of TBO and they can’t, or don’t want to, invest the money required for an overhaul.
• The engine has a fresh overhaul from a known shop (well known names attached to an overhaul are worth a premium), but the airframe, which is clean and straight, needs everything. This is a longer-term project, depending on the situation, but a fresh engine is something that warrants the work.

There are certain things you absolutely avoid:

• NEVER buy an airframe with corrosion and check it carefully to make certain there is none. Get an A & P to poke mirrors inside of it so you can see the furthest reaches of the airframe. Any corrosion kills your chance to turn the airframe over for a profit.
• Avoid obvious airframe damage like hail. The next owner will want a pretty airplane and damage will turn them off.
• Don’t buy a super dog, which needs everything, regardless of the cost. It may be cheap, but you’ll be years and thousands of dollars away from flying.
• Be suspect of an engine that hasn’t run for a long time or has flown only a little in the past few years. Cylinder bores are easily examined, but rust loves to form on cams and these are not easily inspected. Err on the conservative side and avoid long-dormant engines because the unknown factor is too big.

Ideally, the goal should be to get an airplane that requires the type of work that doesn’t interfere with the airworthiness of the airplane for any length of time. You can be stripping the paint and still have a flying, although ugly, airplane. You can have most of the interior lying around the hangar and, as long as you didn’t have to disconnect any wiring to get it out, you can keep taking instruction in the airplane. There is nothing illegal about flying an airplane that is incredibly ugly inside and out, as long as none of the primary systems have been altered.

There will be obvious times when the airplane has to be taken out of service. If your airplane falls into the category of being clean and needing only a little cosmetic work, but the engine needs an overhaul, then obviously it’s going to be down for a month or more. If you’re painting the airplane, don’t even think about doing it yourself unless you own a paint shop. A badly done fresh paint job detracts from the value while a well-done professional paint job greatly increases the value. While it’s being stripped the airplane will be flyable, but while they are blowing the paint on, it’s definitely going to be down for a while. The better shops will remove all the panels and control surfaces so plan ahead because it’ll be down a month or more.

About radios: don’t get sucked into the big black hole labeled “avionics.” Next to the engine, upgrading avionics is the easiest place you can go wrong quickly. Look for an airplane that has fairly current radios that you aren’t going to be forced into replacing because of age or regulations. You’ll get every dime back out of a decent paint job, but it’s really easy to install an avionics pack and only realize 30% of its value back.

Glass is another area you want to give premium points to, when selecting an airplane. If it’s scratched you can polish them out. If it is crazed, it’ll need replacing which can be a real pain in the butt, if you do it yourself.

So, what kind of airplane do you start looking for? Does it have to be a trainer? An argument could be made that it makes some sense to look for the type of airplane that resells the quickest. That automatically says, “clean, late-model Cessna 172.” But there are alternatives. A case in point is the “Desert Dog” the author and his wife purchased. It was a 1949 C-140A. Being an “A” model made it special within the Cessna 140 clan, which was a definite plus, but it was a very scroungy looking airplane when we bought it. It had no paint and had the skin pallor of a long-discarded cooking pot. The basic interior was reasonable, but the instrument panel was a fifty-year collection of hastily done radio and instrument installations and had never been repainted. Plus every exposed piece of metal in the cockpit had been chipped and dinged from so many years of people getting in and out. Its real saving grace, however, besides being an “A” model, was that it had clean sheet metal and the engine was a 400 hour 0-200. The engine was not only an STC’d larger engine, but also it qualified as low time, even though the airplane didn’t look it.

The Wife started taking flying lessons in it and The Husband started cleaning up the ugly places. The entire panel was eventually removed, all the bent parts straightened and everything painted. It cost about $35 in spray cans custom-mixed to match the instrument panel and interior plastic and another $35 for a replacement plastic panel behind the throttle and mixture. The little comm radio and ugly ARC transponder worked fine, but the installation was redone to make it look better.

The exterior took a giant leap forward when a friend wanted an airplane to take to Oshkosh and he agreed to do a complete polish job and paint the side stripes on in exchange for the trip. After 100 hours of flying, when we sold it, the $16,500 Dog brought $20,500. We put a lot of our own time into fixing it up, but it was fun and the effort paid off. What made it work, however, was that we started with a basically good airplane. Underneath all that grime and oxidation was a cute little airplane waiting to be freed. All it needed was a lot of hours put into the cosmetics. Nothing was done that couldn’t be done easily by the average airplane owner with no input from a licensed mechanic.

So, can you buy an airplane, learn to fly in it and then sell it for enough to recoup the costs of your lessons? If done right, absolutely. Ignore a few basic rules, however, and you’d be better off renting because you’ll find yourself spending far more time fixing than flying and that’s not our goal. The only thing free in aviation is your imagination and brainpower, so use the gifts you were given to orchestrate the right union between you and the machine. It can be done, but you have to think about it first.