It’s one of the most common myths among nonpilots and new pilots alike: “Owning an airplane is ridiculously expensive, certainly not within the financial province of a typical, upper-middle-class American.”
Nonpilots almost universally regard flying as hellaciously expensive. Some may have checked out local rental rates and been intimidated away by the hourly costs. What? $125 per hour for a Skyhawk plus an additional $45 per hour for an instructor? Ridiculous. A mere 100 hours of flying yearly, even after you earn the license, would cost $12,500.
Newly licensed pilots who should know better often succumb to the same belief. They’ve just spent somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000 for a private license, and now they’re faced with the reality of paying for aircraft rental on Sunday weekend flights. Forget the $100 hamburger. Try a $200 salad instead.
Suppose there was a way that you could operate your own airplane for a fraction of the cost of rentals. Would you
The airplanes in this article require minimal investments with similarly minimal operating costs. There are hundreds of variables in trying to calculate a specific hourly cost for a particular airplane, so I won’t even try to analyze that number here, but most of these models can be purchased for less than $30,000, some for much less. They’re old enough that they’ve pretty much stopped depreciating, and they can be maintained and flown 100 hours per year for half, or less, of what you’d pay to rent a Skyhawk for the equivalent time.
|1. Piper PA-20 Pacer
Several of the early ’50s Piper taildraggers represent easy-to-own airplanes because they’re generally simple and durable machines. The Piper Pacers are near the top of the list when it comes to simplicity. They’re also listed as four-place models. With arguably as little as 115 hp out front (later models are fitted with 125 or 135 hp engines), the Pacer does carry a good useful load, realistically 500 to 550 pounds. Load up with full fuel (36 gallons) and you can still fly with 300 pounds of people. That’s one adult and three small kids, but technically, the Pacer is a four-seater.
Price (1950): $14,500
|2. Cessna 120/140
The Cessna 170 is probably one of the most revered of Cessna’s tailwheel designs, and it can trace its lineage directly to the earlier 120 and 140. The 120 is essentially an economy version of the 140. Both planes premiered in 1946 using the same 85 hp engine, but for $800 less, the 120 dispensed with flaps, aft side windows and an electrical system. In other words, you had to start it by propping. The 140 sported twice the fuel capacity of other miniplanes of the day, and its range was superior as well. Many 140 owners claim that Cessna heavied up the ailerons when it switched to the 150, but both the 120 and 140 sport very light controls. Tailwheel characteristics were more challenging than many of the other taildraggers in our survey, and that results in a higher groundloop rate.
Price (C-140, 1946): $14,000
|3. Luscombe 8A
Don Luscombe had his own ideas about how to build a sportplane, and the Luscombe 8A perfectly represents his philosophy. Luscombe felt that the airplane should be highly maneuverable and inherently strong, and his 8A exudes all of these characteristics. The airplane is touted as being fully aerobatic, although, because most Luscombes were built in the late ’40s, you’d probably want to be a little conservative in your maneuvers. Luscombes of all descriptions (except the sedan) make for inexpensive, entry-level machines. They’re easy to maintain and to fly (except for landings), and they’re good starter airplanes.
Price (1946): $14,000
|4. Piper PA-22 Colt
This was the two-seat version of the sometimes-beloved Tri-Pacer. While the Tri-Pacer started with a 125 hp engine and assumed 150 to 160 hp later in its development, the short-body Colt made do with 108 hp and two seats. Intended primarily as a trainer, the Colt made its mark as a decent (if spartan), two-place flying machine. The nosewheel helped tame the Pacer’s occasional tailwheel squirrelliness, easing the learning process for students (this one included—I took my private-license check ride in a Colt). At just over 90 knots cruise, you couldn’t plan on going anywhere fast in a Colt, and the noise level was just below that of an AA fuel dragster, but for people who enjoyed the getting-there part of a journey, the Colt struck a resonant chord—it was easy to fly, cheap to operate and even fun.
Price (1961): $14,500
|5. Taylorcraft F-19
The original Taylorcraft was designed in the late 1930s by C.G. Taylor, the man who developed the Piper Cub. After leaving Piper, Taylor designed the BC-12, and over a long evolutionary period, that airplane became the F-19. The improved model replaced the early airplane’s 65 hp engine with a 100 hp Continental 0-200, and the result is a considerably improved performance, about 100 knots in cruise. Like Taylor’s more famous Cub design, the F-19 is a master at slow flight and can fit into remarkably small airstrips. The big wing provides a climb rate of 750 fpm, which is better than most in its class and an impressive performance for so little horsepower. F-19s evolved to F-22s and later models, but many pilots still regard the F-19 as the best of the Taylorcrafts.
Price (1977): $20,000
|6. Piper Cherokee 140
As the most expensive airplane in our survey, the 140 features the largest cabin and the most horsepower, typically 150. (Some early models were derated to 2450 rpm, thus the horsepower and original, misleading designation, 140.) The airplane is technically a four-seater with the snap-on seats installed in the large rear area, but few sane pilots would even consider trying to carry anything more than a two-plus-two load in the littlest Cherokee. Thousands of pilots learned to fly in the 140, though few of the type see service as trainers these days. Plan on 110 knots in a two-seat configuration and at least the capability of throwing the kids in back if you need to. Maintenance is hardly noticeable, as Piper designed the airplane for minimum care. Systems are almost ridiculously simple, and many owners do their own annuals to further reduce costs. It’s tough to find anything else that will do what the Cherokee 140 does for such low costs.
Price (1968): $26,500
|7. Ercoupe 415-G
Fred Weick’s Ercoupe was a modestly revolutionary airplane for its time. It was probably the first general aviation airplane designed with a nosewheel and the first to be certified as non-stallable and non-spinnable. The Ercoupe was built on an automotive-style assembly line, another innovation for aircraft construction in the ’40s. It featured trailing beam gear for smooth landings, a brake pedal on the floor and a semi-automotive-style half-yoke steering wheel, rather than a stick, for both ground steering and in-flight control. There were no rudder pedals—the twin rudders were automatically activated by deflection of the ailerons. The 415 flies with 65 to 85 hp and turns in a respectable 90 to 95 knots, downhill and with a tailwind. Flying qualities couldn’t be much simpler, exactly what Fred Weick intended. From takeoff to landing, the experience of flying the Ercoupe is as automotive as it was possible to make it at the time.
Price (1949): $14,000
|8. Piper PA-14 Cruiser
People must have been a lot lighter in the ’40s. Despite mounting only 115 hp out front, Piper listed the Cruiser as a four-seater. In the more realistic two-seat mode, the Cruiser introduced many late-1940s pilots to the joys of aircraft ownership. Cruise was typically in the 90-knot range following a barely noticeable 500 to 600 fpm climb. Original 1948 models were listed at $3,095, and today, the type is valued at six times that figure. Flaps and an electrical system made the Cruiser seem almost modern by the standards of the time, and even today, well-restored Cruisers are in demand.
|9. Grumman American AA-1B Trainer
The original airplane that evolved to the GA Trainer was Jim Bede’s Yankee. It remains the most unique machine in our survey, a composite design fitted with a thick, tube-steel spar that runs from wingtip to wingtip. Variously known as the Trainer, Lynx, Tr2 and T-Cat, the basic airplane is powered by a 108 hp Lycoming engine and features, unquestionably, the quickest ailerons in the class. While the airplane isn’t rated for aerobatics, it’s the most maneuverable airplane of the bunch. It also suffers the highest stall speed, the lowest stability and the worst accident rate. Still, Grumman American sold hundreds of the type back in the ’70s, and they remain in demand as a fun, private transportation airplane, capable of cruising at an easy 105 knots or so with two people and 22 gallons of fuel aboard.
Price (1973): $16,000
|10. Aeronca Champ 7AC
Ah, the Champ. We may have saved the best for last. Many pilots feel that the 7AC is as fun to fly as the Piper Cub. Both machines fly similarly, happily poking along, one thousand feet above the terrain, treating their occupants to the ultimate in low, slow and cheap. The Champ has 65 hp tandem seats with a pair of sticks instead of yokes, it has great visibility around the wing struts, and everything it does seems to happen in slow motion. Landing speeds are in the low 40-knot range, and cruise is about double that, but Champ pilots don’t seem to mind, as the airplane is in its element at low altitudes. Fuel burn is only about four to five gph, so if you’re interested in miles per gallon (certainly a valid concern these days), you can probably do better than you would in a Chevy Tahoe.
Price (1945): $16,000