The initial idea for this article was to pick the 10 best airplanes under $100,000, but the immediate response was, "You're kidding, right? That's impossible! And more than a little suicidal." This is because:
a) $100,000 is an unobtainable number to a lot of folks;
b) the adjective "best" is almost indefinable in this application, which leads to
c) as soon as you attempt to compile any list like this, Plane & Pilot's email is going to be clogged with nastygrams saying, "You guys are ignoramuses for leaving out the best airplane ever, the Blow Fish Mk.Vb!"
There's absolutely no way to approach the subject and not offend someone—or a bunch of someones. So, we restructured the concept to make it more affordable and went out of our way to define the mission.
Is There A "Best"? Defining The Indefinable
Basically, the concept of "best," when selecting aircraft for a given price bracket, can be summed up as "…the biggest bang for the buck in the way that it meets the mission the buyer has in mind." But first, that mission has to be defined and some assumptions made. So the mission assumptions to be used were:
• Lower-cost airplanes were seen primarily as Sunday-morning flyers with no serious cross-country capability included. These would often be two-place airplanes.
• Middle- to upper-cost airplanes had to include cross-countries as part of their capabilities, which also meant they'd usually be four-place airplanes.
Also to be considered in the definition of "best" for a given price category would be: Usability: Would this airplane deliver a better-than-average ability to meet the needs of that price bracket?
Resale: Was it an airplane with a big enough following that reselling it in a hurry, should the need arise, would be no problem?
Maintainability: Would parts be a problem? Would the airplane have a good reliability reputation? Is it a type familiar to most mechanics?
Condition: Is the airplane commonly found in good condition? For instance, Bonanzas have always been a favorite, so on average, the population is in better condition than a less-popular aircraft.
General Flying Characteristics: It's probable that each price category covers an airplane or two that, on paper, appear to be great deals. Lots of motor, some load-carrying capacity, lower-than-average price, etc. However, the low price is generally because their overall, less-than-enjoyable handling characteristics made it a marketing flop. There's no price low enough to justify owning an airplane that's no fun to fly.
What's The Age Limit?
Picking age brackets for the aircraft chosen was difficult because there are some really worthwhile aircraft, like the classics, that date back to 1946. Others don't come even close to that, age-wise. But, just because an airplane was born in the 1940s or 1950s doesn't mean it should be avoided. However, they should be closely inspected because…well…they're older than the majority of people reading this article. Mostly, we based the selection on usability. A 1948 Bonanza is "almost" as useful as a '67 Bonanza, but is it as maintainable? A '57 C-182, on the other hand, will do nearly everything a 30-years-newer Skylane will do, and is still maintainable and costs much less. A lot depends on the specific airplane type.
What Are The Purchasing Guidelines To Be Followed?
Condition is everything for every airplane, and it's always wise to buy the best you can afford in any given bracket. That will help lower maintenance costs and will aid in reselling it. In this area, "best" means:
Lowest total time. Total time is important, but general condition trumps the time.
Lowest time engine since overhaul. The overhaul should have been done in the last five to 10 years to mean anything. Avoid "low-time" engines that are decades old. "Low time" is loosely defined as 25% of quoted TBO. A 2,000-hour TBO engine with 1,000 hours on it that was built in the '70s isn't likely to make TBO. Too many things shorten an engine's life, and not being used regularly for its entire life span is on the top of that list. Also, in every airplane's life, there will be an owner who's going to have to take a terrific financial loss because he was the last in line and had to deal with an engine overhaul or sell at a very reduced price because of engine time. Don't be that person unless you plan on keeping the airplane a long time. You WON'T recoup more than a fraction of the overhaul cost when reselling it.
Zero Corrosion. Any corrosion brings the price down and increases flight concerns, so avoid it. There are lots of clean airplanes available, so take your time and don't compromise.
Modern Avionics. The avionics concern is second to the engine concern, but still must be considered. On higher-end airplanes with more avionics, beware of panels displaying seriously aged avionics. They're expensive to replace.
And Then, There's The Financial Side: How Much Do We Wanna Spend?
Everyone has a spending limit. However, most of us ignore the realities of our situations and go one bracket higher than we probably should. ("But, honey, it's just another few hundred a month!") That always places a strain on our wallets and our family relationships. To enjoy an airplane, buy one that's relatively affordable (there really are such things!) and presents a minimum of headaches to hangar and maintain. Go one financial bracket higher, and you'll literally and figuratively pay for it.
The brackets we picked are: less than $20,000, $40,000, $75,000 and $100,000. These were picked because popular aircraft types seem to cluster around them. However, do NOT take these prices as being absolutes: You'll find the specific aircraft being discussed on either side of them. Also, the types were placed in their respective brackets based on what we found in several recent issues of Trade-A-Plane, Barnstormers.com and Controller.com (the easiest to search by price).
Entry Level Birds: $20,000
There's a surprising number of aircraft that are commonly sold below $20K, and we've reached the point in time where that isn't limited to the profusion of Classics built right after World War II. However, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that a "modern" '70s airplane is still 40 years old.
Aeronca Champ—The post-war 7 series of Aeronca Champs were the Piper Cub's nemesis and provide excellent flying at less than five gallons an hour. They're easy to land. Forget the old wives' tales about taildraggers.
Ercoupe/Aircoupe—Ercoupes went through several iterations ranging from pre-World War II to the late 1960s. They're the soul of docility and super economical. Some even have rudder pedals. Better yet, some models are light-sport aircraft (LSA) compliant.
Cessna 150—Few airplanes are more numerous than the lowly Cessna 150/152, and for that reason, they represent a huge pool of airplanes that cluster around the $15-20K level. The little 150s are becoming classics in their own right, especially the early square tails.
Grumman AA-1A/B Yankees—The littlest Grummans from the 1960s are sports cars in disguise. They're quick on the controls and fly great, but with the original 115 hp Lycoming, they're challenged by loads and high-density altitudes. They're a lot of airplane for the money.
Luscombes—Although you'll find a lot of fully restored Luscombes wandering well past $30K, you'll also find a lot of "Journeyman Specials" at, or under, $20K. The less-than-perfect birds are a huge amount of fun, and cost next to nothing to fly and maintain. The 65 hp 8As are LSA legal, and the 85 hp 8Es perform really well on a hair over 5 gph. They're all-aluminum (except for the fabric wings on some), but most are more than 65 years old, so inspect them carefully.
Bonus Pick: Piper Tomahawk/Beech Skipper—Appearance and utility-wise, these little 1970s trainers are close to being interchangeable, with the Skipper having the edge on quality. They offer cheap aviating.
Cross-Country Machines: $40,000
There's a serious gray area between $20-$40K in terms of airplanes available in the $20/$30K bracket. Lots of them fall in that lower bracket, so we'll present some favorites going from cheapest to not-so-cheapest.
Piper J-Series—Hardly cross-country machines, the J-series Pipers (J-3 through J-5) will range from high-$20K to the sky's-the-limit for restored versions. The J-4 Cub Coupe (side-by-side) is the undervalued sleeper of the group, but hard to find.
Piper Tri-Pacer—The Tri-Pacers are a huge bang for the four-place buck, as long as it's understood that some of the passengers have to be light—especially with the 135 hp versions. Lots of them are found under $30K. They're steel tube and fabric, so have them inspected carefully.
Cessna 120-140—All metal, except for fabric on the wings of some models, the 120-140s offer the low-speed (115 mph) utility of a modern airplane with classic looks. Brain-dead simple to land.
Cherokees—"Cherokee" (PA-28 covers a lot of territory from 140 hp to 235 hp. Easy to fly with good load carrying capacity, the 140s and 180s are often under $40K.
Cessna 172—The breed started in 1956 and is still being built today, so prices start around $25K and go to the ridiculous! The early square tails are really good-flying airplanes for the money.
Bonus Pick: Citabria—Basically a beefed-up Aeronca Champ, the Citabria is a great sightseeing cruiser with the options of tossing in a few rolls and loops. Early ones are in this price range.
Bonus Pick: Early Bonanzas—There are a reasonable number of thoroughly functional, if not totally restored, early Bonanzas under $40K, but they're more complicated than most aircraft in this price category. Every price range from here to the moon will have Bonanzas in it.
Bonus Pick: Mooney—There are a bazillion varieties of Mooneys, but the early airplanes start showing up in the high $20K range with the newer (mid-1960s), low-time 180 hp versions starting in the $35K range. Tight cockpits, but the most economical, fastest-cruising airplanes for the money. Later Mooneys offer more performance for more money.
Serious Money For Serious Machines: $75,000
As with all of the pricing categories, the $40,000-$75,000 bracket lets us see some much higher-performing planes enter the buying fray, and we see some well-known names come on the scoreboard.
Cessna 182—Early square-tail 182s will sometimes show up under $40K, but above it, the Skylanes proliferate. Plenty to pick from, and an earlier airplane with a newer engine and more care lavished on it is a better deal than a later, higher-time airplane for the same money.
Piper Comanche—The 250 hp Comanches offer solid performance in a less expensive airplane than a Bonanza with the same elbow room.
Cessna 210—The Centurion is essentially a high-wing Bonanza in what it offers, but at a lower price. We're seeing lots of earlier 210s with work done on them, including low-time engines, appearing on the marketplace.
Bellanca Viking—The unjustified worry about the Viking's wooden wing has kept the prices low on a very high-performance airplane. It'll run with the fastest of them. Just have it well inspected.
Piper Dakota—The Cherokee 235 and its descendant, the Dakota, are seriously underrated as load haulers. They also have good cruise capabilities, but the Dakota offers better overall handling.
Bonus Pick: Piper Lance/Cherokee Six—These aircraft are seriously useful airplanes if a lot of people or stuff needs to be moved. Spend a little more money and you get into the Turbo Lance range.
Piper Arrow—There are a ton of the little RG Cherokee derivative available in the $50-$75K level. Many with low-time engines. Insurance, however, is higher on RG birds.
Lots Of Performance, Quality And Choices: $100,000
When we get up to $100K, if looking at airplanes 10 to 15 years, or more, old, the market is almost unending. That may be a lot of years on an automobile, but it's nothing on an airplane that has been cared for even remotely well. Further, moving up to $100K puts the buyer at the top end of the ranges on some airplanes already discussed. Surprisingly, however, $100K doesn't really introduce many new players. You won't, for instance, see many Cirruses under a hundred grand. Nor newish Cessnas or Bonanzas. However, that much money pretty much gives the buyer his pick of any of the top-end airplanes that showed up in the $75,000 bracket. This much purchase power lets the buyer select the very best of a given airplane type, but it doesn't let him move up into the much more expensive airplanes and still get the quality desired.
Turbo Dakota (bottom of range)—A turbo makes a lot of sense on fixed-gear airplanes like the Dakota: the higher it goes, the more invisible the landing gear becomes, but the horsepower is still there.
Turbo Lance—The lower time, better-equipped turbo Lances will come close to $100K, and the turbo becomes handy with this bigger airframe at higher altitudes.
182, RG/T-Low time—Since new Skylanes are being offered at well more than $400K, a $100K Skylane, which will do everything a new one will, is a good bargain. At this price level, the choice can be between a newer model or an older one that's rebuilt to near-new condition. Go for the older, totally rebuilt one.
Bonanza (Again)—If we're talking about V-tail Bonanzas (V35), $100K will buy a ton of airplanes, but will only get us into the late 1960s versions. The same amount in the straight-tail 33 series barely gets us in the game, and we can forget about the 36 series.
C-210, pick of the litter—Not many normally aspirated C-210s top $100K, so once again, we're in the catbird seat and can pick airplanes with low-time engines and recent everything else. The $100K price point buys a lot more airplane in 210s than with many other types.
Something For Everyone
By this point, it should be obvious that one doesn't need a huge piggy bank to find an airplane that they can enjoy owning without it eating them alive. However, the urge to go big and the urge to buy the first airplane that looks to be even remotely a viable choice has caused more heartburn than anything else in aviation. Thanks to the Internet, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble and a lot of money by spending just one evening in front of our computer. Any question anyone can have on any airplane is already answered somewhere in the wonderful world of the Web. Take advantage of it and make buying an airplane an enjoyable adventure.