Tom Horne

The Sweeps Debonair: Sign of a Trend?

October 25, 2012 by Thomas A. Horne, Editor At Large

Now that AOPA’s Debonair sweepstakes is under way, I’ve been thinking about the previous owners of this very special 1963 airplane. Our/your Debonair was previously owned by two partners. One was 90 years old. The other wanted a newer airplane–an A36 Bonanza, I understand. The 90-year-old is still flying, by the way, and the day I checked out the Debonair I watched him taxi out in a Skyhawk with an instructor. For him, the Debonair was too much expense for too little flying. For the past five years he averaged just 20 hours per year in the Debonair. Keeping it made no sense.

This sounds a lot like the previous owner of the 2011 sweepstakes airplane–a 1974 Cessna 182 we dubbed the “Crossover Classic.” The owner was in his late 70s and only flew his Skylane 10 hours per year. Though he couldn’t justify keeping the Skylane he, too, kept flying. He purchased a Piper J-3 Cub, restored it with a partner, and now flies it under Light Sport Aircraft rules.

Let’s go back further, to AOPA’s 2004 “Win-A-Twin” sweepstakes airplane–a 1965 Piper Twin Comanche. Same deal: an ex-airline pilot rarely flew the airplane. He was getting out of the twin because, you guessed it, he didn’t fly so much any more.

It strikes me that these pilots represent a groundswell in sales of older general aviation airplanes. All three owners were deeply involved in GA flying, and emotional about parting with their beloved airplanes. In each case it took years for the owners to come to the decision to sell. And in those years, I might add, each deferred essential maintenance. They became inured to their airplanes’ signs of wear and tear.

I’ll bet that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of owners and airplanes out there in the same situations. And guess what. Those owners and airplanes were part of GA’s glory years, which ran roughly from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. That’s when more GA pilots were trained, and airplanes built, than ever before–or since. It was the apex of GA’s bell-shaped activity curve.

Now many of those older owners are getting out of “conventional” GA and into light-sport flying. Others are simply walking away. No surprise here, but my point is that there aren’t enough younger pilots entering GA to compensate for the older ones leaving. That’s why AOPA’s many initiatives designed to promote growth of the pilot base–our flying club iniative being the latest–will be so essential in the years to come.

20 Responses to “The Sweeps Debonair: Sign of a Trend?”

  1. Tony Guardalabene Says:

    The price of fuel is killing flying, period. Fix that and it will come back

  2. Mike Hand Says:

    It is not just the fuel. It is all about the tradeoff. I haven’t flown 20 hours in the past two years.

    GA has always been expensive, but the rewards were great enough to justify the expense. Now the rising expenses (purchase, hangar, maintenance, etc) have conspired to tip the balance away from GA.

    Other elements the prospective pilot has to fight: staying current in an increasingly complex airspace structure, which limits the utility of the airplane and the potential for ticket ending enforcement on every flight.

    Other things that conspire to reduce the utility of GA: indifferent line service; slow or non existent service from the airport to one’s ultimate destination; phoney security procedures; equipment that breaks and requires either an airline ticket or rental car to get home; insurance companies more interested in avoiding exposure than covering pilots.

    GA is not the airlines and I tell everyone who travels with me exactly that phrase. But, in order to revitalize it, it the tradeoff has to swing the other way.

  3. Pier Dutcher Says:

    I agree with Mike — it’s not the fuel price. Adjusted for inflation, it’s no more expensive than it was back in the late 60′s when I began flying. Many of the LSAs today burn ~5 gal/hr, which comes to around $30/hr. in most locations. Compared to all the other expenses involved in owning/flying light planes, that $30 shouldn’t be a big issue.

    I think the bigger issue is how to make flying attractive enough that folks would rather fly than do some of the other activities that use up their discretionary income (e.g. golf, skiing, power-boating…) In my case, my wife and I are in the process of buying a house ~450 NM from our current home. Our little Mooney is the only practical way to get up there – no airline service and much too far to drive on a 3-day weekend. I had a friend who owned an Aeronca Champ, and even with tie-down, insurance, maintenance, and fuel, our “$100 hamburger flights” cost less than $100. Didn’t fly very fast, but flying low-and-slow was wonderful fun. I recently took a co-worker on his first GA flight (S.F. “Bay Tour”) and he loved it. I’ve “ruined” 4 friends this way – they ended up becoming pilots and 2 ended up buying their own planes.

    I can’t emphasize enough the importance of sharing your passion for flying. Taking a friend up for a hamburger flight or just sight-seeing is enjoyable for both of you. At least for me, doing it by myself is much less so. The only reasons I fly alone are 1) I need to go someplace, or 2) I need some approaches or night landings for currency and can’t find another pilot to fly with me. Share the experience! It will keep your interest up and may interest a non-pilot to join our ranks!

  4. Steve Magnuson Says:

    As the previous owner of a 1964 Deb, I can tell you that the fuel prices are what reduced my flying time in that particular aircraft.

  5. jake williams Says:

    I have operated my 1965 Debonair on auto fuel for the past 20+ years and 2100+ hours saving an average of $2 per gallon and only burning 10 gph for 140 kts. Accept a little less performance for a lot less cost.

  6. Ray Crandall Says:

    Thanks for the report. I have often wondered over the years where these rebuilt beauties wind-up.

    The coments from Tony, Mike, Pier amd steve reminds us of the black hole situation that we have created with our beloved low time well maintained 1977 Seneca II. We have flow it 900 plus hours over the years and struggle to get 20 hours per year now.

    The $5000.00 regular maintenance and annuals (if were lucky) the $3000.00 insurance premium and 20-25 gallons per hour burn rate just doen’t add up to a sound investment at $500.00 per hour. We are very fortunate that we have been able to afford the enjoyment and freedom it has provided for us over the years but now know that reality needs to kick in soon.

    Talking with a broker the other day getting a feel for the market and values he made a comment that realy hit home. He said “Ray until you wake up some morning and seriously look yourself in the mirror and decide that it is time to sale the Airplane no one in this industry will be able to help you escape the love or misery you are dealing with”. I am sure there are many more Pilots Owners out there struggling along with us on that decision.

    Good Luck

    Ray and Valora Crandall

  7. Charlie Branch Says:

    Ditto for me, as it was hard to part with this 1946 Aeronca Champion as those retirement dreams of refurbishment and visiting other fans of the type around the country are forced to give way to the realities of family, friends, and new community needs. Blue Thunder is going to good home shortly, closer to Rochester, WI , home of the current Type Certificate holder. I will remain a member of my local airport association, the Aeronca Aviators Club, and other organizations. Naturally, once you start looking up at the sound of an airplane, it’s nigh on impossible to break the habit, so I suppose I’ll be an APB (AirPort Bum, according to Gene Soper, author of the COE history book) forever.

    A volunteer for Heritage Wings in 2012, and 2013 will be a fly-in, cruise-in lunch in August!

    Charlie Branch

  8. Mike Hand Says:

    Jake-
    I operated my 1969 Skylane on auto fuel as well. I didn’t even mind (too much) the hassle that went along with toting all those gas cans around in the back of the pickup. My point was that it wasn’t “just” the fuel cost that killed my aviation habit, it was the sum of everything.

    The cost benefit ratio just wasn’t there, even when I factored in the ease, convenience, freedom, enjoyment etc.

    I guess I hit that wall before Ray Crandall did.

    To everyone who hangs in there despite all the obstacles arrayed against you-fantastic job everyone! I wish I was one of you.

  9. Adam Randall Says:

    I’m 35 years old and in my 9th year of aircraft ownership – a Mooney 201 now, but had a Mooney M20c for the first 3 years. i budget roughly 25k per year to the airplane, which is a significant investment, but we do around 20 trips per year and the airplane allows us to spend time with our families back home. As a younger generation aviator I will be looking for a newer airframe than my 1989 201 for my next bird. When most of the GA fleet ages to 40+ years, I think the market may turn for newer airframes, but the older birds will continue to decline – especially the x-country aicraft with old and outdated equip.
    Adam

  10. Pat Weddle Says:

    After reading Tom Horne’s article I wondered if he had interviewed me for the piece. My airplane partner, Jim and I flew our 67 Debonair for 30 years. We loved that plane. But, maintenance costs, poor quality parts and fuel costs had almost (but not quite) taken the fun out of flying and, in June, we sold our old friend. Since part of the fun of flying was ownership and since we still loved flying we purchased a Technam P2002 Sierra LSA. The fun is back! Fuel burn of 4.5 gal./hr vs. 12.5 in the Debbie, auto gas at about $1 per gallon less than 100 LL, modern affordable technology, simple but robust all metal construction, etc., has made the experience pretty sweet so far. Downsides like 2 place vs. 4 and 120 knots vs. 150 aren’t lost on us but our wives never shared our flying passion and we don’t fly far anymore anyway.

    BTW, our Deb had the 260 HP Continental which really is a better match than the stock IO 470K with no appreciable difference in fuel burn.

    Airplane partnerships and LSA’s are keeping flying affordable for those of us who love to fly but hate living in poverty because of it.

  11. Larry Mast Says:

    I didn’t start flying until I was 45. My spouse gave me lessons in a float plane. Before I had my license, I bought a partnership in a C35 Bonanza. As partnerships go, they change. It ended up with just two of us. We sold our C35 and bought a 36 Bonanza. My partner was instrument rated and encouraged me to get my rating. When I received my rating we would fly together to keep our skills up and maintain our currency. Living in the Northwest, having an instrument rating is almost a necessity if you want to fly east, because of our weather and the mountains. In September of each year we would pack our Jepps, golf clubs and just fly for a week. Our spouses had no interest in going with us. We flew all over the US, not knowing where we were going to go until we filed our flight plan. Eleven years ago that all changed when my partner had a stroke. I now own the plane, but I must admit, I do not fly it as much as I used to. I do not have anyone to regularly fly with, so maintaining currency is a big challenge. The expense of maintaining my plane is not the obstacle but having someone to fly with is. I have two grown sons with young families, whose spouses are concerned about the safety of GA. Their spouses concern about safety and the expense associated with owning an airplane prevent them from taking up flying.

  12. Randall Garriott Says:

    Guys, I read your comments & weep.

    These fixed costs ( tie downs or hangars ), operational costs ( fuel, oil, engine depreciation) and ” relational costs” ( insurance) are the reason we all neeed to be in a good flying club & spread every cost that is not a direct result of air time… and if we take a flying buddy along, we can halve the air time co$t$, too !

    Sorry if you live in an area where ” nobody” flies – RECRUIT !!!

  13. Mark C Says:

    Well, looking on the bright side, as a 51 year old fairly new pilot, what I get out of this article is that there should be a pretty good supply of affordable used aircraft for the next few years while I figure out what set of compromises best suits my flying needs and convince my wife that I really do need an airplane other than the Champ I’m in partnership on.

  14. mike Says:

    Here in Memphis I had a friend tell me about a couple of older gentlemen who owned a 182 at a local field and weren’t flying it much. I got a phone number of one of the partners and found out that the other partner had lost his medical. Try as I might to convince the flying partner to allow me to buy in or at least buy time on their a/c I could not persuade them. Even when offering my A&P services free to help them with mx I could not get them to see this was a good deal for all. The aircraft sits on flat tires outside rotting away. I just don’t understand it.

  15. Steve Says:

    In response to Mike, thpse two old gentlemen wit the 182 probably have been together with the airplane for many years almost like a marriage. They are quite used to each other. So, they likely view any stranger offering to join in as an unkown third wheel. mNo matter how benificial it would be, they just don’t want to now justify themselves to a new partner on how they operate the airplane or accomadate a new partner in anyway. Too bad as they will soon pay the price of neglecting their airplane.

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