When they’re looking for a good used plane to buy, many would-be owners gravitate to the best-known models. That makes sense in a way. The chances are good that a model that is well-loved will live up to its billing and deliver a fantastic flying experience. The market is changing, fast, but there are still some bargains to be had, though your wallet will need to be a bit fatter than before to make that purchase.
The crowd favorites are that for a reason. They’re great planes and, hence, wind up selling for more. It’s about as simple a case of supply and demand as you can get. The Cessna 182 Skylane and the Beechcraft Bonanza are two cases in point. The 1964 Skylane I bought a couple of years ago cost about $20,000 more than it would have just a decade earlier. And when a good used Skylane shows up on the market, it doesn’t last for long, and buyers typically get their asking price, or more. Today, that same cream puff Skylane I later sold for $65,000 would fetch even more.
But in the case of the Skylane or Bonanza, there are alternatives that aren’t as popular or as pricey. Sometimes this has to do with speed or utility. Mid-’60s Bonanzas cost a lot more than late-’50s models do, and not just because they’re new but also because they’re faster. For those buyers who are willing to be 10 or 15 knots slower, there are excellent alternatives to the Bonanza, and sometimes that might mean an older Bonanza. Alternatives.
Before you start looking for a plane, it’s important to be clear about what you’re going to use it for. You might want a used Cirrus SR22, but if your most common trips are going to be 400-mile jaunts or less, then you’d probably do just as well with a used, lower-cost and lower-upkeep model like an older Mooney M20 that will get you to your 250 nm destination a little later and with less room but for pennies on the dollar. I could go even further and say that many pilots would be wise to consider a good used two-seater. It’s no secret that pilots who have four- or six-seat birds overwhelmingly fly with a bunch of unoccupied seats. A two-seater, many will find, fits the bill for shorter, fun flights or even for the occasional longer voyage.
There are a few other factors to weigh when you’re narrowing your search terms. First, remember that buying the airplane is only part of the cost of owning a plane. How much fuel it burns and how expensive it will be to maintain are equally important factors to consider.
Another big question is, how readily available are parts? Interestingly, this is not always closely related to how old the plane is; some older planes are easy to get parts for, and some newer models are tough. And consider cost, too.
Finally, the condition of the plane you buy is critical to the purchase decision. If you were to get a plane with unknown or unrevealed problems, you could spend a lot of dough getting it back up to snuff. Engine and prop are a critical part of that calculus. The flip side is, if you’re willing to fly a plane with older paint and a less-than-chic interior, you could save a huge percentage of the purchase price because of factors not directly related to the flyability or mechanical soundness of the plane.
With all that in mind, check out our list of 10 great used planes that are not on everybody’s radar. There are a couple of well-known models that are readily available and cheap to buy, and there are some oddballs you might not have given a second thought to, until you looked more closely. In some cases, those birds can be the Avis Rent-a-Car of used planes, the number-two choice, like a Champ compared to a Cub. Sometimes there’s a lot to love in the path less traveled.
There are pilots who don’t need to be convinced of the Champ’s charm and value. This little taildragger, which was a direct competitor to the J-3 Cub for a time, is in some ways a better airplane than a Cub. Like the J-3, it’s got tandem configured seating, but unlike the Cub, a solo pilot in a Champ sits in the front seat, so visibility while taxiing is good, compared to next to none on the J-3. Which one handles better on the ground is debatable, with the two camps disagreeing on which is more susceptible to a ground loop.
The Champ, in my experience, is considerably easier to land than the J-3. Though it feels heavier on the controls than the J-3, the Champ requires a bit less attention than the J-3 while offering the same terrific view downward. There is one big Cub advantage here: It can be flown with the door latched wide open, something that Cub owners are certain to do on any given summer day.
Still, for those folks who want a Cub and who haven’t flown a Champ, I’d highly recommend begging a ride in one if you can. You can find Champs of various vintages with low-time engines (they were outfitted with anywhere from a 65- to a 95-hp Continental engine) for less than $25,000, which is at least $10,000 cheaper than a comparable J-3, and that will buy a lot of gas for a lot of memorable trips aloft, but not too high. You’d be missing the point of a Champ.CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr
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