A long-time acquaintance called me early last month; a business owner and long-time owner/pilot of his company’s early 1980s pressurized piston twin- he felt tempted by some truly stunning prices for business turbine aircraft.

Dave Higdon  |  01st November 2010
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Think It’s Time To Go Turbine?
Consider the whole package- not just performance.

A long-time acquaintance called me early last month; a business owner and long-time owner/pilot of his company’s early 1980s pressurized piston twin- he felt tempted by some truly stunning prices for business turbine aircraft.

“Tell me what you think-” he said. “It’s a (1981) Citation II with an up-to-date panel- year-old paint and interior – offered at under $800-000…or a bit more with one of the engine’s hot-section overhauled…”

This particular jet much better filled the bill than the previous one he called about – an early 1970s turbojet with low-time engines but an old panel…and not RVSM compliant. My friend’s current airplane doesn’t reach the altitudes where RVSM is required- so he was only rudimentarily familiar with the concept – and wholly unfamiliar with the constraints imposed on airplanes lacking RVSM.

Still intrigued at the prospect of owning- as he put it- “a legendary jet model-” airworthy in the barest sense of the word- and for “only a half million” he explored further – right up to the point of learning the costs of upgrading to RVSM so he could fully use the jet. Once we revisited the top items on the “care-and-feeding” list of this latest find – indeed- a deal at its price he felt- he didn’t need anti-lock brakes to haul himself down to a quick stop. “No doubt – I can afford this airplane!” he declared- sounding like the guy ready to deal. “Flying it after buying it…well- that would be a problem-” he confessed.

Then he continued with a voice of tenacity: “Maybe I should take a look at that ’81 (Cessna) Conquest…it’s a Conquest I- good panel…but the engines are only a few years away…”

A bit more due diligence – a quick review of the long-term maintenance requirements- fuel costs- pending engine overhauls- and he stepped back- again. “Moving up to a turbine isn’t quite the same as moving to my twin from a piston single- is it?” The answer to this question could be yes and no...

Buying a Turbine aircraft has never cost less - thank today’s bargain-aisle prices. But the temptation to grab a bargain while it’s still a bargain must make sense on a level beyond ego gratification. As any owner of any airplane knows – and should understand – the buying price only covers initiation fees; dues – in the form of all the other costs of ownership and operation – remain an ongoing expense. Stepping up to a turbine must be approached wisely- carefully and judiciously.

Opportunities have never been better to step into that turboprop or jet. The truth is- most pilots become seduced by the siren song of speed and seek out better – sometimes only briefly.

The glamour image and almost-magical aura of the private jet dates back to the beginning of the private jet age in the middle of the last century. But for most pilots most years- ambition dwarfed the budgets needed to support a jet or even a propjet. Hence much of today’s temptation- thanks to today’s depressed aircraft market.

For many today’s low prices and broad choices make a move into that first turbine aircraft tempting. But even if the finances- at first glance- seem easy- such a move up involves risks that could land the candidate in the wrong airplane – or- as bad- too much airplane.

Compound emotion with an all-time low cost bar and it is easy to see how – and why – the temptation exists to move up to a turbine without a good reason. Emotional decisions aside- however- operational needs should still reign where business aviation reality meets real-world resources. And precious few reasons justify moving up – least of low prices alone.

Consider the following points the Dynamic Duo of Upgrading – not just from something to a turbine- but when upgrading from one turbine to another.

1) The aircraft no longer works as needed. It makes little difference whether that mission mismatch stems from a deliberate change in what is needed or because the airplane itself no longer suffices. It may be too small; or it might need too much runway for new destinations; or cannot fulfill new missions non-stop… these are samples of valid reasons to upgrade.

2) A simple lack of cost-effectiveness in line with the company’s needs. Age-related maintenance demands- obsolete systems- engine overhauls; all can influence an air plane’s economic viability.

If the above does not match with your reasons for not wanting to upgrade – that the upgrade must perform better and more cost-efficiently – you likely ended your dreams and schemes of turbine machines.

Mission requirements and financial factors should play into any consideration of buying a first airplane – as well as moving up. Presuming you’ve already concluded that the existing airplane fails in one area or another- it’s time to consider the factors that the next aircraft must meet.

Can it carry the average number of people carried on the average trip with the prior airplane? Or- if lack of seating helped the decision to upgrade- does a prospective replacement need to carry more?

A mission profile covering average mission distance- typical stops and the airports best used for convenience of the travelers – all of these should go into the decision. Does the company have a budget covering fuel- maintenance- crew- training- insurance and storage? If so- do upgrade candidates meet those budget parameters?

You know what you’ve been spending- and on what; substitute the new aircraft into those past trips to get a glimpse of the trip costs- flight times- etc. What constitutes affirmative answers to the questions of importance – want versus need- mission versus capability- costs versus resources?

Maybe the airplane costs 50 percent more to fly – per mile – but it completes typical missions so much more quickly that it effectively contributes some of those higher costs back in terms of time and road expenses saved.

If you can accomplish more stops in a day- and spend fewer overnights on the road- then maybe higher costs can be justified. If the airplane costs more and saves time- it must fit into the same airports the older plane did – or maybe into even closer airports.

Some propjet singles offer runway performance superior to older piston twins- adding flexibility and possibly opening up a lower-cost airport option. All of the above are important factors to weigh. You may find- in weighing these and other performance elements- that costs increase and time saved doesn’t offset even part of the higher costs. The value in saving 40 minutes in the jet may make the leap from piston-twin approachable; doubtful- though- that trimming 20 minutes off the propjet time carries enough value in the overall equation.

Ultimately- though- paying for the missions and making the best of available mission capabilities is only one side of the cost equations to weigh.

As outlined above- my friend briefly flirted with a jet – and then- thinking harder- wondered if a propjet twin might be a better step-up from his pressurized piston twin. After he found a 1981 Citation he stumbled upon a Cessna Conquest I – also a 1981 model; both begged ridiculously low prices…

His basic premise: If it’s a good buy it’s likely a good choice. That may indeed be the case- or it may not be… Sadly- some attractively- priced propjets or fanjets harbor some skeletons in the family hangar - and some of those skeletons may be truly daunting at the dollar-sign level.

If you’ve been flying a cabin-class piston or propjet twin you’re likely already familiar with the concept of special aging-aircraft maintenance needs – needs that impact older King Airs- Conquests- Navajos- Learjets- Citations- Falcons and Gulfstreams. If the airplane is flying it should be up-to-date on needed maintenance- airworthiness directives and service bulletins.

Unfortunately- “should be” is not a guarantee. For guarantees- you need a thorough check of maintenance records- airframe and engine logs- with attention to type-specific issues for any given model. Also- use a shop or mechanic already expert in the type and its proclivities. Not only does a well-done pre-purchase inspection protect you against nasty surprises- it may stop the deal – or greatly impact the price.

Finally- look ahead to any requirements likely to come into play when a plane gets older – with particular attention to the costs and options of overhauling those expensive powerplants…or powerplant- as the case may be. You may find that a single overhaul of two turbine engines at TBO requires an investment well beyond any residual value available after such overhauls.

At the same time- you may find that the deal is so good that you can afford to fly the plane for what’s left of its engines’ lives and then sell the airplane for parts or salvage – including those very expensive engine cores.

Let the airplane climb beyond FL250 and some special considerations come into play; take it above FL370 and you’re into a higher set of standards in some airplanes- with single- pilot officially off the table above that altitude; but you can go to service ceiling with a second qualified aviator in the right seat. Training; pressurization issues; physiological factors; higher-plane judgment requirements… they all come in to play at levels above FL250.

The FAA learned the hard way about single-pilot jet ops from early years of business aircraft; today- no Learjet is single pilot; today- a few FAR 23 jets and virtually all the propjets are single-pilot approved; the earliest Citation boasted single-pilot friendliness. Mustangs- CJs- Premier Is- the SJ30 – all are single-pilot IFR-approved. Most propjets- singles and twins- are also single-pilot IFR airplanes.

But most business jets require two up front – and for them- that second pilot factors in the upgrade costs. To fully use the ceiling on some single-pilot airplanes- the FAA requires a second pilot in the event of decompression- not because they’re aboard a two pilot airplane.

Insurers can have a funny way of helping pilots by requiring a second pilot - maybe one with higher qualifications than those normally applied to a single-pilot’s second-in-command occupant. And then there’s the training; for a jet you need a type rating; passing the rating check ride- however- doesn’t necessarily make a pilot competent…not at first. Enter the insurance-company required safety pilot.

If you’re coming out of a single- even a complex- pressurized single- prepare for significant new training- a multi-engine rating – on instruments- too – and a long transition period with a safety pilot (or mentor- buddy or second pilot)- whatever you like to call it- the insurer will initially insist.

Make sure any move up delivers something missing with the current aircraft; assure yourself that any cost increases won’t effectively ground you- or cut you out of much flying due to costs. Be sure you’re getting a good value for the mission- and not merely a cheap deal on an airplane.

Maybe moving up less aggressively is the answer- rather than not moving at all – or- enhancing the capabilities of the existing airplane with upgrades to modern-day MFDs- WAAS GPS- PFDs; these can benefit you in added operational capability- by reducing weight and maintenance – or both.

Follow steps like these- and you may just learn to better love the one you’re with – because the one you want will possibly never be cost-competitive with the one you have.


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