I am often asked in today’s aviation market, “When is an airplane old? Or, too old?”
It’s a good question and warrants a discussion because most of the general aviation fleet is now approaching 40 years old, or older.
So how old is “too old”?
For an airplane, the actual answer is there is no age limit in most cases if you follow the FAA maintenance requirements. Several beautiful examples of 1930′s era biplanes and even DC-3′s are still safely flying today because the owners have spent the necessary money to keep them airworthy.
That is really the answer to this question: Money. At what point will most owners no longer be willing to spend the money on the required maintenance plus the maintenance that just accrues due to an aging airplane and powerplant?
At the point where an owner, or group of owners, do not, or cannot financially afford to keep a certain type of aircraft truly airworthy, you will start to see that model slowly disappear and then become part of the “classics” seen at Oshkosh and Sun N’ Fun.
I am starting to see that now with some of the very early V-tail Bonanzas and early Mooneys and Cessna 210′s ( complex airplanes with retractable gear being the common denominator).
A buyer will generally buy the “most” airplane he can afford, but rarely truly takes into account the real maintenance costs of that model. That’s why you can buy a Cessna 310 ( an early one) for about the same price as a Cessna 152. The reason? Fewer people can keep up the older twin ( and afford to feed the @ thirsty Continental engines), so prices keep declining. A buyer gets intrigued because of the low initial purchase price, but then becomes disheartened when he sees what is costs to maintain, so it goes back on the sales block. This process is repeated over and over again, but each time, more accrued maintenance is piling up. If you are going to buy and older ( let’s say 50 years or older) airplane, then know what you’re buying when you buy it (through a pre-buy inspection) and then be honest with yourself about what it will really cost to operate, both in gas and age-related maintenance.
There is nothing more fun than seeing a beautifully restored Sky King era Cessna 310 or early, polished V-tail Bonanza, or early Cessna 210 with a factory-correct paint job at an airshow. But this represents an owner’s commitment of time and money, and patience. These are becoming “fun” airplanes and that is their future. They will gain in value pretty much on par with the economy in general, rising and falling with the times, but there will be fewer and fewer flight worthy examples of these great birds that really launched general aviation, so their long term prospects are good. My best advice: Own and fly and older, vintage, golden-era general aviation airplane for fun and throw your calculator away. The return on investment is your happiness and enjoyment and watching others’ look and marvel at what a great airplane you have! See you at Oshkosh!