The Cost of Transportation

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If you purchase a plane which is in active service, it's relatively easy to get it from place to place -- just fly it back to your local airfield. If the plane is in pieces, however, it's an entirely different matter.

The plane needs to move from Indiana back to my home airport in Oakland, CA, some 2300 miles.

The plane weighs 700 pounds without fuel or passengers. That amount of weight can be easily carried by many vehicles. The thing that makes it difficult to ship is the size of the big pieces -- the fuselage and wings. The fuselage (the "frame" of the airplane, in which the passengers sit) is 14.5 feet long, 4 feet tall, and 3.5 feet wide. The wings are 13.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide, and a little less than a foot thick.

I researched various modes of transportation, which broke down roughly into two groups: full-service and self-service.

Full-service options included air, rail, and truck. Air and rail weren't practical because the entire plane would have to be crated, short-haul trucked to a transit hub, shipped via air/rail, then trucked again at the delivery end. Direct point-to-point truck transport ended up being the cheapest in this category. I got quotes from two shippers: $2,500 and $4,000. Ouch.

With those prices, I knew I was going to have to do something myself. One-way box truck rental was $1,500 using the cheapest national chain. While that rate had no per-mile charges or mileage limits, it didn't include the cost of fuel. For the 12mpg stated on the truck information page, and assuming about $4 per gallon of fuel, that's about $770 to get from there to here. $2,270 is better than $2,500, but not by much.

We own a big 4-ton truck which I considered using. But that wasn't a great idea beause the plane wouldn't be a good fit -- the truck bed is only 12 feet long. Like the rental box trucks, our truck gets about 12mpg, so fuel charges for a there-and-back journey would be $1,540. That's better than $2,270, but I suspected I could do better.

I did a bunch of searching online, reading airplane forums to find out how others moved planes around. For long-distance moves like mine, the vast majority employ a vehicle plus trailer. One-way trailer rentals were anywhere from $1,200 to $2,000. Buying a new trailer was quite a bit more than that, so I started poking around for used trailers to see if I could come up with a solution where my total transportation costs could be minimized.

Flatbed trailers weren't a good fit, because those which are large enough to accept an airplane are designed to carry many tons of cargo (they're called "utility" or "car" trailers). Many of these trailers have more than one axle, require an electronic braking system (which neither of our vehicles have), and need something large to pull them (a pickup truck or larger).

Many online denizens recommended finding a boat trailer and modifying it to accept an airplane. This made sense to me. Boat trailers have a minimal structure (quite light in and of themselves) yet are designed to carry an amount of weight which can easily accommodate a small plane. Furthermore, the price was right -- looking online, I found many candidate trailers in the $300-600 price range.

Such a trailer needs a structure built atop it to support the airplane. As it happens, there's a big stack of 2x8 lumber sitting in my driveway. My wife and I puchased this wood with the intention of framing out two ceiling spaces in our house, but didn't realize that it had the beginnings of decay (brown rot). We therefore didn't want to use it inside, so it's been sitting around waiting to be used on something utilitarian. The year previously we'd built a deck on the back of our house, so I figured I had enough skill and experience to build a structure in wood that could support an airplane.

The overall weight of the resulting trailer would be small enough that it could be towed by a car with a Class I hitch. Our diesel VW Golf has such a hitch, and gets 50mpg on the freeway. Conservatively estimating that I'd get 35mpg when pulling the trailer, that works out to about $600 in fuel costs.

So the plan came together: buy a used boat trailer, build the airplane support structure out of wood, and tow it with our diesel car. Estimated total transport costs: $1100.

So I set out to buy a boat trailer...

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