The cheapest planes out there are not always the best ones, so we’ve created a list of some dependable if sometimes offbeat models for you to consider. Used airplanes are more abundant than ever, and finding a good cheap one is relatively easy. Finding an affordable plane that doesn’t need some work is not so easy. The reality of airplane ownership is that it costs money, and the more plane you get, the more money you’re going to spend. That said, there are exceptions to this rule, planes with lots of capability that aren’t expensive to buy. But the bad news is, those exceptions are usually associated with multi-engine aircraft with exorbitant costs, usually involving engine updates, just waiting for you down the line.
Despite what you may think, there are ways to fly without busting the family budget. True, you won’t be aviating at 170 knots in a shiny new, near-million-dollar G36 Bonanza or Cessna TTx, but you can stay in the air for considerably less than the national debt of Peru.
Some pilots simply rent, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the apparent low price can be deceiving. By some measures, the hourly price can be stratospheric because it includes allowances for every fixed expense—tiedown/hangar, insurance, taxes, depreciation, maintenance—but unless you’re in a club, the airplane won’t cost you a cent when you’re not flying it.
Another method is to scale back your expectations and fly in an absolute minimum airplane. Since most FBOs don’t rent the oldies but goodies, you’ll be forced to buy, but you may be surprised at how little you’ll pay for a rock-bottom, economy machine that’s airworthy with no damage history. Don’t expect fancy interiors, new paint or exotic radios in this class. You very well may find serviceable machines, however, with hundreds or even thousands of hours of life left in them.
Here’s a summary of 10 production airplanes that are often available for minimum bucks. These are all extremely entry-level, bare-bones, stick-and-rudder airplanes that are intended to provide basic transportation and little more. For the most part, you can forget considerations of speed, climb, range and payload, but these airplanes will keep you in the sky at the absolute minimum cost.
For cost reasons, all the new crop of LSAs are excluded. Similarly, at the opposite end of the scale, there are no ultralights or powered parachutes here. If you’re willing to scour the pages of Trade-A-Plane on a regular basis, watch the bulletin boards at local airports and bide your time until the right opportunity comes along, you just may find a basic flying machine at a surprisingly low price. We’ve deliberately avoided setting hard dollar limits for this survey, but most of the models below should be available for less than $20,000.
1. AERONCA CHIEF
No one ever suggested that any Aeronca was fast, but the model 11AC Chief is probably the slowest of the type. (Okay, the prewar, bathtub C3 was slower.) With side-by-side seating generating a broad cross section and only 65 hp out front to protect it, the Chief manages about a 70- to 75- knot cruise speed. It’s not as quick as the tandem Champ, but the wings and engine are interchangeable. (The later Super Chief featured an 85 hp mill and delivered more like 80 knots.) Chiefs are still reasonably available; prices for a decent example start under $20,000.
2. ERCOUPE 415
The original all-metal Ercoupe was introduced in the late ’30s, but the more desirable airplanes were the 415C/D/E/G produced in the late ’40s. Designed by Fred Weick (who also worked on Piper’s original Cherokee), the Ercoupe was aimed at safety, and to that end, it was allegedly stall-proof. It featured an elevator limited to 13 degrees of pitch, twin rudders that were automatically coordinated by interconnected ailerons and an automotive-style control wheel that steered the airplane on the ground as well as in the sky. The only pedal on the floor was for braking, again auto-style. As with so many post-WWII airplanes, power ranged from 75 to 90 hp. Early Ercoupes are readily available for prices starting for around $15,000, and that should buy you a decent example that will climb at 400 to 500 fpm and cruise at 85 to 90 knots.
3. PIPER TOMAHAWK
By far the newest “el cheapo” on our list, the PA38 Tomahawk was produced from 1978 to 1982, and even the latest models are available today for around $20,000. Operating costs are similarly minuscule. The Lycoming O-235 is probably one of the most durable engines in the industry, and it sips only about 6 gph. The Tomahawk was intended as head-to-head competition with Cessna’s 152, and except for poor timing, it might have been just that. Sadly, the airplane was introduced when general aviation was starting its downhill slide in the late ’70s, so production was terminated after only five years. Expect about a 650 to 700 fpm climb, a 105-knot cruise and a little more than a 350 nm range, all for the price of an old Porsche.
4. TAYLORCRAFT BC-12
These airplanes are getting rare, but they are still around if you look carefully. C.G. Taylor, who designed the first Piper Cub, later built his own brand, dubbed Taylorcraft. All the airplanes featured tube steel fuselages and wooden wings with fabric covering. Power ran the gamut from a 40 hp Continental to a 50 hp Lycoming, a 65 hp Franklin and an 85 hp Continental. T-Crafts served as observer aircraft during WWII under the military designation O-57s. With such a wide range of engines and horsepower, it’s tough to pin down performance, but even the lesser-powered Taylorcrafts can score 85 knots with two in the side-by-side cabin. Early T-Crafts are available starting at about $20,000.
5. GRUMMAN-AMERICAN AA-1A/B TRAINER
If you enjoy quick controls, the G-A Trainer offers perhaps the quickest handling of any airplane in our survey. Launched originally as the Bede BD-1 Yankee, the Trainer was progressively upgraded by American Aviation and, later, Grumman-American to improve Jim Bede’s glitches in the original design. The airplane featured aluminum honeycomb panels, metal-to-metal bonded construction and a tube steel spar. Climb wasn’t especially impressive (550 to 600 fpm), and the stall (53 knots) was a little brisk for a trainer, but the airplane paid its pilots back with a cruise of at least 110 knots on the same Lycoming O-235 used by the Tomahawk, Cessna 152, Piper Colt and other two-seaters of the era. Plan to spend between $20,000 and $25,000 for a decent early vintage Trainer.
6. PIPER COLT
The two-seat version of the Tri-Pacer, the Colt was an underrated airplane. (Full disclosure: I earned my private in one in 1967.) The Colt was produced for three years after the PA-22 line had been shut down in 1960 as a prelude to the Cherokee 140. The Colt featured two seats and only 108 hp in place of the four-seater’s 150 hp mill. With stubby wings and even stubbier gear, the Tri-Pacer and Colt were hardly aesthetic successes, but they were durable little airplanes, despite all their uncomplimentary nicknames: Slow Pacer, Flying Milk Stool, Three-Legged Hog, etc. Performance is reasonable for only 108 hp, about 500 fpm climb and a 90-knot cruise. Colts are holding their low prices well. Expect to pay as little as $15,000 for a decent, flyable example.
7. CESSNA 120/140
As the first of the postwar Cessnas, the 120 and 140 have assumed almost cult status among some owners. The two airplanes were the same design, with an 85 hp Continental out front, though the 140 featured additional side windows, flaps and an electrical system, including a starter. Later 140s adopted a 90 hp Continental, metal wing skins and a single strut in place of the previous V strut. Most folks regarded the 140 as an attractive design, and there are hundreds in private hands today, offering their owners compact (read “cramped”) cockpits and a 90-knot cruise following an initial 650 fpm climb. As people learn about these little gems, prices are rising. You’ll probably pay around $20,000 for a flyable, albeit not cheery, Cessna 140.
8. LUSCOMBE 8E/F
The postwar Luscombes were all-metal airplanes powered by 90 hp engines that claimed to be aerobatic. That was definitely a stretch, as the airplane needed more power for decent vertical penetration, but Luscombes were agile little airplanes with light controls, and they could probably sneak through properly flown rolls and loops without difficulty. In total, some 6,000 Silvaires were produced after the war, and perhaps 1,500 are still flying. The type has a narrow gear that can present a challenge in strong crosswinds, but it’s more fun to fly than a Cub or Champ/Chief and is even marginally faster on the same power, usually 90 hp. Expect to shell out around $25,000 for an 8E with 85 hp, $20,000 for an 8F with 90 hp.
9. CESSNA 150
As everyone knows, there were about a zillion model 150s produced (at its peak, the 150 was the world’s most popular airplane), but the ones priced in the bargain- basement class are those built prior to 1972. The earliest, straight-back 150s premiered in 1959, but by 1963, the type had adopted the swept tail and rear window that were to become the signature of the entire Cessna single line. A nosewheel version of the popular 140, the first 150s featured vertical tails and fastback rear fuselages, before the ’63 models came on the scene. You certainly shouldn’t have trouble finding decent used examples, and $15,000 should buy you a 150 that will transport two people in only moderate discomfort at 100 knots for three hours at a stretch.
10. PIPER PACER
Again, the purists among us regard Piper’s Pacer as a far superior airplane to the Tri-Pacer. The Pacer actually began life in 1949 as the Clipper, but Pan Am had previously trademarked the name, and Piper was forced to change the model designation after only one year. The Pacer featured a shorter wing (compared to the Cub) but offered a larger tail, bigger fuel tanks (36 gallons) and wheel controls rather than sticks. The Pacer was a very marginal four- seater with only 115 to 125 hp available (later models used 135 hp). Many Piperphiles regard the Pacer as one of the best of the postwar taildraggers, and prices are climbing. A 1950 model goes for $14,500, and a 1954 example demands more like $16,500. As is usual with fabric airplanes, condition dictates price.
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