Ingo Noka

Buying an Airplane – Part I

In Equipment, Ownership, Private Pilot License on December 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Diamond DA40 Test

I have decided to buy an aircraft. Whether that is a wise decision is questionable, but for me it is the right one.

To be honest, there is no business case for this. Renting is likely the cheaper option even if I am going to fly a lot. With renting I would have no maintenance headaches, no unexpected costs, zero cost when I am not flying and so forth.

So the question is, whether the extra hassle and money would be worth it. For me the answer is ‘Yes” for these reasons:

  • Flying is my hobby and I want to expand it beyond the occasional weekend flight. I am looking for the experience of managing an aircraft: What does it really take to get the 50 and 100 hour checks done? How does the registration work? What gadgets can I add to get even more “play time” out of my toy?
  • Eventually I want to fly to new places in Thailand, Indonesia and in East Malaysia. No doubt, I am a low time, inexperienced PPL holder and there are good reasons why nobody would let me do this with their planes. So I would need my own plane.
  • I want to go beyond the PPL to at least an instrument rating or, one day, even become a flight instructor. The more I fly, the higher my chances to meet these goals.
  • It annoys me that whenever I mention to somebody that I am flying airplanes as a hobby, I get the question whether I have my own airplane (in fact as annoying as the question whether I fly jets or do aerobatics). I can’t do anything about the jets and the aerobatics, but I would love to answer the question whether I own an airplane with “Yes, of course.”
  • There is a little bit more safety in knowing what exactly happens to the plane you fly. I have seen one instance in which a pilot did “horrible” things with a plane. Everybody else flying that same plane did so at a huge risk, because they didn’t know that the plane was taken beyond the limits of its structural integrity several times.

Light Sport Aircraft vs. Light Aircraft

CTLS Test Flight in Germany

For the longest time I was convinced I would buy a light sport aircraft. My preferred model is the CTLSi from Flight Design. This aircraft would be ideal for the sort of flying I have in mind. It has a ridiculous endurance of over 8 hours at 110 knots, it takes Avgas, Mogas (or standard car fuel). The maintenance is cheap, because most things can be done by the owner and parts are often standard parts and not the expensive certified parts that are used in light GA aircraft. The avionics is modern (Dynon SkyView or Garmin G3X) and autopilots are affordable.

CTLS instrument panel

The only problem with light sport aircrafts is the very small number of such planes in Asia and, as a result, the non-existent regulatory support from the Civil Aviation Authorities.

The only way to register a LSA would be to put into the Experimental category in Malaysia (i.e. a 9M-E… call sign). With this, I am concerned that I would not be allowed to fly into Singapore, Indonesia or Thailand. I have seen the flex wing micro-light recently flying all the way from the UK to Australia, but I think the amount of preparation would likely prohibit me from flying as often as I would like.

So, with a heavy heart I bid good buy to the LSA idea and hope that one day leisure flying becomes popular in Asia as well and the skies are opened up a bit more to us small time flyers.

My options

Having zeroed in on the light single engine propeller aircraft category, my options are fairly limited. There is no point going with something exotic that has no support in the small leisure flying “industry” in Asia. What I need is a plane that can be maintained in Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore without too much trouble and at reasonable cost.

This basically leaves me with the choice between Piper, Cessna, Cirrus and Diamond. Everything else is either too big or there are no engineers who would know how to do the maintenance properly.

I am not ready for retractable gears and I am not crazy about the additional cost and maintenance headache that comes with it either.

The types that I would consider at this point are

  • Cessna 172 or 182
  • Piper PA28
  • Cirrus SR20/22
  • Diamond DA40

Cessna

In the Cessna line only the C172 and the C182 would fit my mission profile, with the C172 having a shorter range than what I’d prefer.

The 172 has the benefit of being relatively cheap. There are plenty of used C172 on the market. I would say I could get a low time C172S for under USD 150K. This plane is reliable and easy to maintain. There isn’t an aircraft engineer in the world who couldn’t work on a Skyhawk. Disadvantages are its relatively slow speed and the range of about 500 nm. For a personal plane, the C172 is also quite old-fashioned and nothing special to look at, but I am sure one could learn to love this bird.

A step up from the C172, the C182 is probably the best selling airplane of all times. The C182S (pre glass cockpit) is affordable and overall this type has great utility. It has a huge range with its 90 gallons of fuel, great useful load and apparently can take off land in very tight spots. The engine is a bit thirsty and a C182T with a G1000 glass cockpit puts you in the USD 230K range. What I said about the design of the C172 applies to this plane as well.

Piper

The PA28-161 Warrior II is the plane I am currently flying the most. That plane went out of production in the late eighties, but is still manufactured in its Warrior III incarnation. The PA28 is the equivalent of a C172 and has a slightly more modern feel to it.

I am not familiar with the other types in the Piper line up. What is the Piper response to the C182, for example?

In any case, one feature of the Piper bothers me a bit, which is the single door, which from the pilot perspective, is installed on the wrong side.

If I could get a well maintained PA28 at a good price, I would consider it as an interim airplane. In fact I looked at one, but couldn’t agree on a sale.

Cirrus

I know next to nothing about the Cirrus SR20 and SR22, other than that they are faster than all the other alternatives on my list, can haul more load and are more expensive.

The side stick is a deal breaker for me at the moment. That may change if I ever have a chance to fly with one, but for the moment Cirrus is off the list.

Diamond

Diamond DA40 Test Flight In Singapore

The Diamond DA40 is a modern composite airplane that has been around in a couple of configurations for a bit more than 10 years, I think. It is the only plane on my list with a center control stick, which I prefer. I learned flying on gliders that have center control sticks. The DA40 is not very thirsty with its 180 horse power Lycoming, but the clean aerodynamic airframe allows for some impressive cruising speeds with this engine.

The DA40 is reasonably priced, even with full G1000 glass cockpit, auto pilot and air condition.

The only disadvantages I can see are the relatively low useful load with full fuel and the potential for damaging the avionics, because of overheating through the large canopy cockpit.

Properly leaned, the DA40 goes as far as Jakarta without refueling, even so the weather need to be near perfect for that.

There are Diamonds in Singapore (SYFC) and on Langkawi, which makes me hope that maintenance is not going to be an issue.

Avgas, Diesel or Auto gas

The only way to go with car fuel is to fly Rotax engines and that would mean Light Sport Aircraft. While an attractive options, it is at the moment not really practical. Other than that it is actually not that easy to get car fuel in and out of airports and Mogas is non-existent.

Diesel (or Jet-A and its equivalents) is a more realistic alternative. Diesel engines are more fuel-efficient than the old Continental or Lycoming designs and Jet-A is comparatively cheap and widely available, even in Asia. Unfortunately, single engine propeller aircraft have only recently been equipped with Diesel engines. Most notably Diamond has put Thielert engines and, on newer models, the Austro engine on their DA40 and DA42 aircraft. There is even a flight school in Malaysia (on Langkawi) that is operating the DA40 TDI. The final endorsement of Diesel for GA planes came with the recent announcement that Cessna will be manufacturing its best-selling C182 exclusively with a SMA diesel engine.

The only problem is that early Thielert engines (the 1.7 version) got a bad reputation and I believe Thielert engines need to be replaced somewhere between 1000 and 1500 hours (no overhaul option). The newer engines have not been in the field for very long and need to prove their mettle. Used aircraft with the Thielert 2.0 or the Austro are either not in the market or very expensive. Still, if I could get my hands on a reasonably priced Diesel aircraft (Thielert 2.0), I would consider it.

I got some feedback from pilots who think buying an aircraft with a high-time engine and replace it with a Diesel engine would be the way to go. I am reluctant to go that route, because I didn’t want to buy a “project” that is grounded for the first year of ownership.

Features

Must have

  • long range (>650 nm plus reserve) at reasonable speed (120 – 130 knots)
  • complete service history if i buy a used aircraft
  • IFR ready
  • auto pilot (for me this is a safety feature)
  • availability of maintenance engineers in SEA
  • same type already registered in Malaysia (if it goes on the 9M registry)
  • must carry at least two people (90 Kg each) and 30 Kg luggage with full fuel (a third person would be a big bonus)

Nice to have

  • air condition (I think for the DA40 with its canopy style ac is a must)
  • glass cockpit
  • constant speed propeller
  • Diesel engine

Which aircraft register?

A lot of things depend on the aviation authority that regulates your aircraft. For a starter you need a pilot license from the same country in which the aircraft is registered. Maintenance, equipment requirements, permission to fly IFR, clarity and completeness of GA regulations determine how you can use your aircraft.

The reality in Asia is that the civil aviation authorities focus on commercial aviation. There is little experience with the GA scene and “people flying around for fun” are not much of a priority.

I think for me it comes down to two options: the US register or the Malaysian register. The advantage of the Malaysian register is the closeness of the responsible aviation authority and I have a Malaysian PPL. The disadvantage is that, to my knowledge, the Malaysian DCA does not allow IFR flight plans for Single Engine Propeller aircraft.

The N-Register provides the most flexibility for IFR flying. I would need to convert my PPL to a FAA license, but I wanted to do that anyway and an IFR endorsement on the Malaysian PPL is not really possible anyway. Keeping an aircraft on the N-register stationed in Singapore doesn’t seem to be an issue (there are plenty of such planes parked at Seletar airport). In Malaysia is also possible, even so there is some uncertainty since the AIP says the limit is six months.

Endurance

I often hear or read pilots dismissing long endurance, because “they would have to go to the toilet much earlier that they run out of fuel”, which is a sentiment typically voiced by people who are blessed with ample supply of Avgas in their country.

In South East Asia, however, the question is not how long you can stay in the air. The question is, will you be able to reach an airport with reliable Avgas supply (regardless how many times you are landing on the way to go to the loo).

On the Malaysian peninsula and in Singapore there is a total of four airports where you will get Avgas: Seletar Airport in Singapore, Senai International Airport in Johor, Subang Airport in Kuala Lumpur and Penang International Airport on Penang island. There is no Avgas supply along the East coast. Saba and Sarawak (East Malaysia) are completely dry and Avgas has to be shipped in drums.

I have no experience with Indonesia, but I have been told that without special arrangements there is no Avgas between Singapore and Jakarta.

In Thailand the situation seems somewhat better. Thai Flying Club has a list of Airports that are supplied with Avgas by Petroleum Thai here. For my purposes I will assume that there is no Avgas other than Phuket, Bangkok and maybe Chiang Mai.

Range

The patchy availability of Avgas means that my aircraft should be able to fly the following distances without refueling and with at least 1h/100 nm reserve.

  • In one leg from Seletar or Senai to Langkawi (would require me to get back to Penang for refuel on the return flight) – 500nm (approx. 400 nm to Langkawi and 100nm to get back to Penang)
  • Seletar or Senai to Kota Bahru and return without refueling – 660 nm (without stop over on Pulau Redang)
  • Penang to Phuket and Bangkok – 220 nm to Phuket and 400 nm from Phuket to Bangkok
  • Seletar or Senai to Kota Bahru and cross the mountains to Penang – 470 nm
  • Crossing the water from Seletar and Johor to Kuching (East Malaysia) – 500 nm via Jemaja, Siantan and Bunguran (Indonesian Islands) or 420 nm direct
  • Senai or Seletar to Jakarta or Bandung – 650 nm (following the coast)
  • Kuala Lumpur to Medan (Indonesia) and return without refuel – 440 nm
  • Senai or Seletar to Medan (Indonesia) – 350 nm (plus 220 nm to refuel in Subang on the way back)

Given these distance, my plane should be able to fly 650 nm plus a reserve of about 1 hour.

  1. Don’t mean to be a wet blanket, but I’ve heard stories of people planning or already own aircraft in Malaysia – there’s a lot of red tape & cost is quite high! Probably the cheapest thing is the cost of the aircraft!
    Check with the guys from Team Arrow based at Bernam River.
    Also I think Malaysian DCA does not allow “private ownership” operation. You can own the aircraft, but it must be operated under an organization. Also you must show that you have contracted a maintenance company to do your aircraft’s maintenance – no such thing as owner/pilot/operator maintenance like FAA system.

  2. Awesome write up Capt. looks i would prefer the DA-40 over the over aircraft you’ve seen. having flown and working closely the in MRO with these aircraft, i find them relatively ‘value for money’ and of course with the addition of the aircon in the aircraft is a definite must to have in our tropical climate. heat sometimes disorientate the pilot in flight when you’re sweating all over. Maintainability wise, many guys out there in SG can maintain these aircraft as N reg. however, im not too sure about 9M, unless langkawi is the place to go to(which is rather far from senai). All the best in buying your first personal A/C.

    cheers,
    Fras 119

    • Hello Royce
      There is one feature of the DA40 that I like the most, which is the center control stick. I learned flying on gliders many years ago and all models I flew at the time had it.

      Other than that I am leaning towards the C182.

      However, my budget isn’t exactly getting bigger and I may have to settle for something smaller that at least keeps me flying, while I am dreaming of my favorite airplane 🙂

      Ingo

  3. Interesting proposition and very useful analysis! I have an ambition of flying further west of Medan, to Mentwai islands. There are few runways in these chain of islands off western coast of Sumatra. And there are at least four airports along the western coast of Sumatra: Padang, Mukomuko, Bengkulu, Krui, and Lampung. I am not sure about the availability of Avgas though. Sumatra mainland and islands together offer exciting destinations for recreational GA enthusiasts.
    Keep us updated, ingo!

    • Hi Paramesh
      I must admit I had never heard about these islands before. I am fairly certain however that there is no avgas available for ad-hoc purchase on any of these airports and runways you mentioned. If anybody knows differently, that would be very useful information.

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