Sabreliner Mojave

Best Deal…or Worst Nightmare?

Crack open any airplane trader magazine and you’re likely to find small and midsized jets—including Learjets, Sabreliners, Falcons, Hawkers, and Westwinds—listed for less than $1 million, some with relatively new paint and interiors. A few may even be advertised for $400,000 or less. These are six- to eight-passenger aircraft, for the most part, and some of them have ranges of 2,000 miles or more. They’re bargains at these prices, right?

Not necessarily. To determine whether you’re really looking at a deal, you first need to consider how old a jet is, and you need to do that based not just on year of manufacture but also on how many takeoffs, landings, and engine starts it has had. In addition, you have to consider how it has been maintained, whether it has been flying recently and—often most important—how it is equipped. 

“You might like a $345,000 Sabreliner,” says Jay Mesinger, founder and CEO of Mesinger Jet Sales, a 45-year-old aircraft brokerage in Boulder, Colorado. “But before you leap, consider the after-purchase costs.”

Though there’s no Carfax for used jets and turboprops, a good broker will input the aircraft’s equipment and age into a cost calculator. Conklin & de Decker’s calculator, for example, spits out fixed and variable annual operating costs for a 1980 Sabreliner 65 that total an eye-popping five times the average current purchase price. 

How can that be? “You just can't get good support for a lot of the installed equipment,” Mesinger explains. “You can find enough engine parts around the world to be able to fix the engines, but you might not be able to get new switches for the lights or for the audio in the cockpit. 

“Cabin entertainment is another area where older business jets fall down,” Mesinger continues. “If you need engineering support, you're very apt to not be able to get it from the manufacturer, and so that gets expensive quickly.”

Corrosion. Mandated inspections. Required equipment. Operating costs. These are just a few of the considerations that could render a “discounted” used jet a poor deal. Another is that a model has essentially become an orphan: the manufacturer is gone or simply not that interested in supporting legacy airframes with their myriad of mechanical buttons and switches, hundreds of lights, dozens of pulleys, and miles of cables and wires. 

It is easy to imagine that somewhere there’s a stockpile of used parts for these machines, but aviation is not like the auto industry. With far fewer volumes (only hundreds of a particular model of these jets were ever produced), spare parts become the realm of the airplane junkyard, and those are few and far between.

And even when equipment is available, its cost may be prohibitive. If the engines on that “fresh-paint special” are Honeywell TFE731-4 or -5 type, for example, steer clear: a major airworthiness directive (mandatory government-ordered maintenance) could cost $325,000 per engine to complete. 

Has the aircraft you’re eyeing flown or been parked over the past couple of years? If it has been sitting, it may not be compliant with a whole series of rules the FAA has implemented in that time. And it is imperative that any jet whose owner wants to fly it after 2019 be equipped with the new NextGen ADS-B out avionics, which allow pilots to see and be seen by air traffic and controllers in flight and on the ground, even when not in radar contact. 

Making older jet aircraft NextGen compliant has become big business. At Fort Lauderdale’s Florida Jet Center, the job costs $80,000 on a Learjet 60 and around $60,000 on a typical Learjet 55. The pricing ranges widely, depending on the avionics already installed in the airplane, and whether other upgrades (replacing CRT screens with LED screens, for instance) are required.

Jim Becker, senior appraiser at Elliott Jets in Milan, Illinois, coined the phrase “economic and functional obsolescence” for business aircraft. “If you've owned an aircraft for 20 years, keeping it on a maintenance plan, keeping your pilots and mechanics trained to fly and fix it, and you're trying to decide whether to get rid of it, well, there might be an argument for keeping it in there,” Becker says. “But if somebody came to me today and said, ‘I'm looking at this Sabreliner they want only $350,000 for. What do you think?’ I'd say that buying it would be a poor decision.”

Sometimes, Buying Old Jets Can Make Sense

Certain circumstances can make an old aircraft worth buying, despite the caveats in the accompanying article. If you don’t intend to fly a lot, for example, you might not care much about high variable operating expenses. 

Says Jay Mesinger, CEO of Mesinger Jet Sales: “You may think, ‘Yes, it costs me $500 more an hour to operate an older airplane. But I fly only 50 hours a year. If I could find a plane that had 700 hours remaining until the next hot section or overhaul, that’s 14 years of enjoyment [before the service is needed]. My capital cost is so low. And my residual loss doesn't matter because I’m going to be the last owner.’”

Mesinger Jet Sales' Jay Mesinger

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Older aircraft, particularly those conceived and engineered in the late 1950s and 1960s by companies that manufactured the first fighter jets, are generally a pleasure to handle in flight, and pilots who fly them are extremely loyal. 

“They’re just phenomenal airplanes to fly,” says Scott Glaser, referring to his company’s three Sabreliners. All are used for training, and one doubles as executive transport, according to Glaser, who is vice president of operations at Flight Research in Mojave, California. To keep maintenance costs in line, the company has its own shop and mechanics. And since it is in the flight-training business, finding experienced pilots isn’t an issue.

Without those resources, however, these phenomenal flying machines can have Achilles heels, according to former Sabreliner and Falcon jet owner David Miller. He points out that both aircraft had maintenance issues that convinced him to sell them as they aged. 

“The Falcon 10 has a landing-gear inspection protocol that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “And our first Sabreliner? We traded it to the military for a later model because it was full of corrosion.” 

Still, a new owner willing to make the investment in the required maintenance and upgrades to keep an old beauty flying may find reason to squeeze a few more years of operation out of it. —A.L.