I'm in a conundrum. A luxury problem, I suppose. Perhaps a pleasant one in many's views, but nevertheless one that could have big financial consequences. Warning - long thread!
My old steed, the 520, is now in for her second annual during my tenure. Last 6 months she's been nothing but the most reliable and trustworthy airplane one could wish to have. We've been to New Orleans, gone camping in Idaho, done grass and gravel strips, gruelling IR training on one engine, etc, without almost a single squawk. It took about a year, year-and-a-half to work out all the gremlins, so I'm hoping this annual should be pretty straightforward. But the fact is that she is almost 60 years old and no matter how much you spend on her, many things will never improve. She leaks oil, her engines are of a rare and expensive kind, she's rather slow, some AD's are popping up, TBO looming closer by the day, parts will get scarce in the future, no upgrades etc, etc.
Hydraulic line burst as I taxied off rwy. Brakes faded fast, so happy it wasn't on the rwy. Messy, but easy fix by my mechanic.
New brake pads, flip tires as she wears inboard more than outboard. It's constant with old aircraft.
What a difference! Now only two more windows to go...
The matter has come to it's head most recently as I'm nearing my Instrument Rating (which I'm doing in my own aircraft). I'm all about long range touring and wish to use my aircraft as a true travelling machine. I dream of one day taking my own aircraft over to Europe and do some touring there and visit places and friends I used to fly to when I lived there. And it is this in conjunction with my new impending rating that sets the stage:
I've been flying and looking at a couple of Aerostars. I've always loved these aircraft, as they bring the design philosophy of Ted Smith's work on the Commanders over to a sleeker airframe. And the mid-wing design doesn't betray my childish high-wing-only policy by too much.... We all know how fast they are and the legacy they bring, but also how this translates into economy if you throttle back. With the market as depressed as it is, they've never been cheaper. Partly because the twin market is as good as dead, but also because they've been seen as a bit of a dangerous hot rod, scaring away many buyers.
Lovely paint job. This is an immaculate 700 Superstar that I could never afford...
These are the facts that speak for an Aerostar:
1. Fast if you want it to be. 250-260kts in the FL's. 2. Economical if you want it to be. The Aerostar burns 25gph LOP and goes about 190-200kts. At the same fuel burn, my 520 does about 140kts! 3. All weather capability, w de-icing etc. 4. Long range, especially with the aux fuel tank. 5. Sturdy design, pushrods, not a single in-flight breakup ever. A pilots airplane, agile and responsive. 6. Pressurised. 7. Fully supported.
These are the facts that speak against an Aerostar:
1. Complex airplane. When shit breaks, it can get expensive. 2. Long takeoffs and not well suited to grass/gravel operation (one of the things I love about the 520 is this capability). 3. Reliability? My mechanics service two of them and say that they are pretty good, but with increased complexity also comes a higher chance of getting stuck somewhere.
No sooner had I even though the idea to myself by joining the Aerostar Owners Association to ask some questions, before a gentleman was on the other end of the line asking me to come get a ride in a 601P at Van Nuys that was for sale. This is the factory pressurised model built by Ted Smith Aerostar (and later Piper when they bought the model). The elderly gentleman who owned it welcomed me to the hangar and I could immediately tell that 981MC was in impeccable condition. You could eat of the struts and tires and the wheel wells looked like they'd never had a retracted wheel in them. 2700hrs since 1977. Books faultlessly kept. Only two owners since new. Everything complied with. Avionics not new, but had had major updates in late 90's. It had the higher power 305hp engines, intercoolers (expensive upgrade), air con and Inconel exhausts (also pricey). Most other "extras" were also fitted. Interior was impeccable, but obviously 70's in tones.
We hopped in and went for a spin and I can say I was immediately smitten. The controls are so light and so direct. None of that lumbering chains-and-cable-feel you get in the Commander. Instant response. And very small movements with the yoke produces substantial output - like an aerobat (I imagine - never been in one). Anyway, I won't bore you with all the details, but after we landed it felt like this was the plane that would best fulfil my future needs (except being able to land at short airstrips). However, the gentleman wanted a little bit too much for the aircraft considering the market ($90-100K would be realistic). It also had pretty high time engines and lacked de-ice boots. Not a complete deal breaker, but would be nice to have if one is already splashing out for all the rest of it. Later that week I got to fly in another Aerostar that gets serviced at the same place as mine, and the feelings intensified. What a great plane.
The 601P was kept in an impeccable state by the current owner. Flew very nicely.
You could eat off of that prop!
I left the elderly gentleman with the words that I had to think about it for numerous reasons. And I'm slowly getting to my point here. One is I'd have to sell my aircraft first and then most likely have to finance some of the Aerostar as I don't have much saved after a pretty taxing year financially. But as depressed as the market is for old twins, I'd be lucky to get around $25-30K for my old girl.
The things that have kept me up at night is that now she's in annual and that will cost me about $5-8K depending on what they find. Add to this that if I decide to keep the 520, she will need a complete panel upgrade. Today I'm barely scraping by with a single VOR/LOC/GS (can you imagine the workload on my instrument approaches having to switch to a cross radial and flipping freq's back and forth - it's soo painful), no DME, a GPS from WWII, no autopilot etc. Doing this would cost another cool $10K. Paint is peeling off the aircraft and a paint job is another $15-20K. Engines are getting closer to TBO and I've found a pair of O/H engines for $30K. Not too expensive, sure, but still a lot of money. Upgrading the oxygen system so as to be able to fly in the FL's is probably not that expensive, but still a hassle to be dealt with. Etc, etc. So in order to bring her to true IFR capability, I'm looking to spend $60K+ in the coming years.
So, basically - if I keep the 520 and bring her up to spec, am I throwing bad money after good? What speaks for it, is then I can do it as I go along and earn money, and not have to finance it. The Aerostar would have to be partially financed with the stress that entails (I hate owing money). Plus, I might still face upgrade costs etc. Also, my insurance would go up and most certainly my maintenance costs compared to the 520. But in the long run, and for what I want to use it for, maybe it will turn out to be a cheaper option? The fuel burn per kts of speed travelled is certainly less on the Aerostar. In fact, I have not been able to find a twin that has better MPG than this one. The engines are cheaper to O/H. The 520 will only get harder and harder to find parts for, etc, etc.
Aircraft ownership is madness financially, no matter how one tries to justify it. Makes no sense whatsoever. But in for a penny, in for a pound. And it gives me such joy... Logic would seem to suggest that a 30 year old airframe would break down half as a much as a 60 year old airframe, no?
I have about 550 hrs on a 600 Aerostar and few hours on a 601P. I loved flying the aircraft but there is no way I would own one, especially the pressurized ones. They are absolute maintenance pigs. Everything is almost impossible to access and you will see huge maintenance bills. Like how about $ 4500 to change a rear cylinder ($2000 for parts, $ 2500 for labour) because you have to remove the whole engine to access it . The twin turbo system is a bitch to rig and seems to require constant fussing to keep the engine happy. etc etc
To me the best ratio of dollars vs capability is a Turbo 310 R. The later ones are FIKI, the 285 hp TSIO520 has a good reliability record, it is a a very nice instrument platform and with deice and radar and good performance in the low to mid 20 K altitudes is a practical go places airplane. You will see 40 kts more cruise speed on the same fuel flow as you Aero Commander and there are tons available at very reasonable prices. If you really want pressurization then you can step up to the Cessna 340. I have 350 hrs hours on a beautiful corporate snag free C 340 and like the machine, but the extra systems significantly increase the maintenance costs. The owner of the one I fly wants everything perfect and budgets 50K a year for maintenance. Personally while pressurization is nice I am not sure it is worth the cost for a private owner.
The Turbo Aztec is also worth considering. A very honest flying airplane with a big fat wing and great short field performance but pretty slow and not as maintainer friendly as the Cessna twins.
What ever you decide buy the absolutely nicest one you can find it will be the cheapest way to to go. I ferried a C 421 to its new owner once. I had a 58 item snag list when I landed and the initial bill to fix it was 40K. For the next 6 months it was in the shop after every single flight. In addition to being very frustrating he dropped another 80 K in repairs before we got to the point of having a reliable airplane.
BTW I am skeptical about 190 kts on 25 GPH. The best I ever saw was 190 kt TAS at 34 GPH. The Aerostar is a niche orphan airframe. Parts are OK now but who knows in 5 years ?
However I own a Nanchang CJ6A, a completely impractical airplane that is just heaps of fun, so If you heart just goes pitter patter at the thought of being at the controls of your own Aerostar, then don't bother trying to justify it just go out and buy the sucker ! But make sure you get a deiced one as the airplane will from personal experience carry almost no ice
Last edited by Big Pistons Forever; 2nd Sep 2012 at 00:17.
Thanks, BPF. I've heard this from some people, but others claim they're not any more maintenance heavy than other pressurised twins. This specimen is immaculate, but obviously there are no guarantees in aviation. A 310R feels a little to close to what I already have - I would like pressurisation as it makes a lot of sense for the flying I do.
I would ask to see the last 5 years worth of maintenance bills on the one you are interested in and if possible the other 2 your mechanic looks after. This will give you a feeling for what you will need to spend to keep the aircraft.
The other thing I would recommend is that you talk to your insurance broker first. A low time pilot with no instrument rating on an airplane considered a hotrod will be expensive. An Initial course at SIMCOM (5-7 K) and the requirement for considerable dual before you can fly on your own will likely be required (50 hrs dual is not uncommon) and I would not be surprised if your premium quadruples over what you are paying for your Aero Commander.
I used to fly a couple of Aerostars in Australia. I really liked them. Both were Aerostar 600s - one with the wing extension mod so increase the MTOW, and the other original. The longer wing reduced TAS by ~5 kts ie 185kts instead of 190-ish. Non-turbo & unpressurised so probably the cheapest of the marque to operate.
Definitely not a short runway aircraft. Higher speeds for most things, compared to other 6 seat twins.
Not a lot of room in them either, although I seem to recall it was better than, say, a 58 Baron. At least the rear pax still sat upright, unlike a C310 or Baron with the low bum, raked seats.
If all-weather IFR in cooler, wet climates is your intent then FIKI is a no-brainer. Ditto weather radar. Whilst it's damn near always cheaper to buy something with the avionics already upgraded, don't forget that Garmin 4/530s have dropped a fair bit in price now that Garmin are into their touchscreen things. Even a 430 can display XM weather with the XM datalink module. I think XM is the biggest advance in weather safety since on-board weather radar was invented. Not for penetrating around cells, but for the bigger picture. On-board radar for tactical decisions, XM for strategic planning.
Three good rules for them:
* Always fill the fuselage tank 1st. Only the fuselage tank is guaranteed to supply fuel under all flight conditions. The type even has a double x-feed procedure to preserve fuel in the fuselage tank.
* Don't get slow. Has a high speed wing, high Vyse and the like
* Don't be in a sideslip when the gear is put down. When open the gear doors hang lower than the wheels so they need to be closed for landing or there'll be damage. Take care not to damage the doors with side air loads.
I would agree with with BPF's view on the C310 being worthy of consideration. Its short / rough field capability is akin to your current aircraft. Its not so fast as an Aerostar but is a hell of a lot cheaper to run and maintain.
Don't even consider a C421 - they are a bottomless money pit.. I sold mine for that reason.
The C310 is a fantastic twin to fly and even with two cylinders missing and extensive damage to the cowling as they departed the crankcase, relatively easy to fly and get down safely. Either a Q or R will tick all the boxes of your wish list.
Looking on from a distance, and having read and pondered the other comments, I think the Aerostar is no good for you - how long will it be, until it places you before exactly the same dilemma? I should think you either keep the current plane, with all its charms and known vices, or you switch to something recent, so as to be on the safe side for a couple of years, at least. Perhaps consider the new Tecnam twin? A good step backwards sizewise, of course, but it fits all your requirements and would be much cheaper to operate.
The Tecnam is a very interesting little aircraft and I'm rooting for it to do well. I did a spreadsheet comparison between my 520 and the Tecnam, and it kind of makes financial sense around 150hrs/year. But it's also closer to $500K to buy, almost all of which has to be financed. I'm a freelancer with irregular incomes and not a banker, so I'm normally not very popular with finance institutes. I could barely get a mortgage for the house, so I doubt they'd give me a plane. But counting operating costs, and especially if you have access to Mogas, the Tecnam is hard to beat. Single engine costs on a twin.
However - one major drawback for me is its limited range. 600nm just isn't long enough. Here's what I've learned after a few long tours: great range will save you more time than high speed. Because descending, stopping for fuel, climbing back up again, well, you lose 1hr each time, no matter what. I've never managed to refuel quicker than that with all the taxi, clearance, toilet breaks and runups. Going direct slower for longer, beats high speed with a fuel stop anytime. Anything less than 1000nm is a compromise, I think. The 520 has about 700-800nm range in realistic conditions. On my trip to Chicago last year, I think we stopped 4 times. That's 4hrs lost not counting anything else. Granted, the purpose of that flight wasn't to get there in the shortest possible time, not at all, but still. But the day will come when one just needs to get there.
Yeah, the Aerostar is about $30-50K to keep running per year, depending on how you count, which model you chose etc, according to many of the members at the Aerostar forum. I asked the question. That's a lot of money, but in these figures they account for engine funds etc. My 520 cost me $35K first year to get up to speed. That was without putting anything aside for engine O/H's! Now, she hasn't cost me a fraction of that this year, so the operating costs have come down. But will they stay there? Probably not as she ages and needs upgrades. Well, this is basically the crux and what I need to figure out...
Somebody forgot to tell the Aussies that Aerostars should only be operated from baby smooth long tarmac:
Your last post causes me to ask a question. Arenít you trying to bite more than you can swallow? To take a bank loan in order to buy an aircraft? Isnít it why we are all in the sheXX? It is nice to have an Aerostar, I know some people who did the move and bought one, I also know two who are trying to sell it but canít. I donít know what you do for living, but do you need all those empty/rarely occupied seats when you go places? Are you looking to trade one illness with another? Buy one when you can afford it, or if you want to sell your while it is still ok why not to consider something else? Maybe a PA30/39? It is smaller, it is faster and burn much less fuel than the 520.
AC-DC - that would be the ideal solution to buy it when I have the money, I completely agree. If I financed, it wouldn't be a big finance anyway, I'd put down more than half in cash, maybe more. But if I wait, then that means I'll have to spend the money I could save to buy new on the 520 instead. Engine O/H coming up, new panel etc. I don't know what's best, to be honest. Any upgrades on the 520 will not be returned come selling day.
After my annual I'll be in a better position to make a decision.
Not the same situation, but I also have recently very carefully debated, do I upgrade, or spend money on the airframe I have, Bonanza.
I have looked at 310R, because I really like them, Baron 58, newer Bonanza, and I have decided for the moment to stick with what I have got. And spend more money on her. Reason, better the devil you know at the moment.
God knows where fuel costs will go, god knows where airframe prices will bottom out. There is a reason so many airframes for sale at the moment, people cannot sell them, and a lot need to sell them, financially.
Yes, it may be a good time to buy, but purchase for all the right reasons, not for a whim. Mission profile when upgrading is so important.
There is s beautiful Baron 58 coming across my radar shortly. I know the owner, know the history, but the question I have to ask, is why????
The other option is to sell your 520 and buy a late model Shrike. You will get an airframe that is 25 + years newer and fully mature. It will also likely have a good autopilot and updated radios. Since you allready have time on type the move will be easy and insurance will not be a problem.
I'm afraid it's going to have to be a twin, Peter. Flying at night over such sprawled out cityscapes as LA - I don't know how the single guys do it without having nervous breakdowns... And every easterly trip from here involves flying over mountains 14K high, like the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies, where an engine failure at altitude in a twin is a non-event compared to in a single. If I'd lived in the flat midwest it would probably be a different story.
Shrikes are very nice. They also retain their value very well and will cost more to get into than an Aerostar. Lovely planes, though. I was also looking into earlier 680FP's (pressurised 680's), as it would be an easy transition, but the GTSIO engines will eat you alive.