Plane & Pilot
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Buying Your First Plane

It’s an issue practically all of us must address at one time or another. Virtually every pilot—student, private, commercial or ATP—dreams of owning an airplane.

In most cases, the first question a pilot must answer is the obvious one: How much money are you willing to spend on an airplane? In the majority of cases, this will be a finite number that will make the selection process easier. In others, a prospective buyer may be willing to spend as much as he or she needs to buy the airplane he or she wants. One way or another, a smart purchase, like a small fight, begins with gathering all the important information." />

In my case, as a new private pilot, I rented Piper Cherokees for a few hours, but quickly decided I needed my own airplane. I had the hots for a Globe Swift, a small, cramped, underpowered, late-’40s two-seater that looked a little like a miniature P-40. This was many years ago, and when I found a well-used but pristine 1946 model owned by an A&P, I remember being intimidated by the price tag of $3,700. Eventually, I bought my Swift, flew it for seven years and finally sold it for $5,000. Today, Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest suggests that the same Swift GC1B with the stock 125-hp Continental engine would sell for more like $27,000. That was the first of five airplanes I was to own, culminating in my current Turbo Mooney.

These days, the minimum price of admission to aircraft ownership is $10,000 to $15,000. Excluding homebuilts and ultralights, such an amount should purchase a fairly old two-seater, such as a Cessna 140/150, Aeronca Champ, Ercoupe 415, Luscombe 8A or even a Piper Tomahawk, the newest of the entry-level airplanes.

If you need four seats, you’ll be looking at a minimum investment of $25,000, which will buy an older Stinson 108-3, Cessna 170/172, Cherokee 140 or a Beech Musketeer. Some of these models have their roots in the late 1940s, so you need to consider that you’ll be buying a true antique, a half-century-old airplane, possibly fabric-covered with wood wings. One saving grace is that most of the models above are extremely simple machines with basic, easily maintained systems.

For pilots interested in higher performance, the ante increases to more like $40,000, enough to afford a reasonable early Navion, Bellanca Cruisemaster, Comanche 180 or Mooney. It’s important to remember that retractable-gear and constant-speed props introduce additional complexity and maintenance, which directly translates to higher operating costs.

Upping the price limit to $50,000 opens the door to Piper Arrows, Beech Sierras and even some Cessna 182s, the latter not a retractable, but universally regarded as one of the best airplanes ever built. Youth may be more important than performance, however. You might even consider buying a later model of a lesser airplane rather than an older model of a higher-performance machine. Fifty thousand dollars will buy you a 1976 Skyhawk, a 1975 Cardinal or a 1982 Piper Warrior, but only a 1967 Mooney Chaparral or a 1969 Piper Arrow. You can spend far more and expand the possibilities to another 100 or so models, but $50,000 represents a reasonable maximum investment in your first airplane.


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