The search for the perfect plane is as old as personal flying itself. The difference between today and 1930, to use a random year as an example, is that instead of being limited to a handful of models, there are choices galore for pilots looking to get into a good pair of wings.
A surge in flying and airplane building throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s is largely to thank for the tremendous supply of good used airplanes, as is the fact that airplanes, unlike many hard goods, can be fixed and updated much the same as houses can. Examples of perfectly restored planes from 1903 to present around the world are proof that good airplanes don’t fade away if there’s someone willing to put the effort and investment into fixing them up.
For those pilots just looking to get into ownership, this is a great place to start.
1. Cessna 152
As the most successful civilian trainer ever built, the Cessna 152 is dear to the hearts of tens of thousands of pilots. Born in 1978 as a Lycoming-powered upgrade of the earlier Continental-driven Cessna 150, the 152 solved most of the carb ice problems of the earlier model and added 10 hp in the process, though the performance and operating differences were relatively negligible.
The 152 offered an empty weight of 1107 pounds against a gross weight of 1,670 pounds, leaving 563 pounds for fuel, people, and stuff. That turned out to be plenty, as most 152s rarely flew with a full 27 gallons of petrol aboard. Full fuel payload was 401 pounds, but if you left 10 gallons in the truck, you still had 460 paying pounds available. Optional long-range tanks boosted capacity to 37.5 gallons, but few 152s were so equipped.
CG was never much of a concern in 152s, since both occupants were seated directly on the balance point. Both pilots needed to be good friends, however, as the cabin was a snug 39 inches across.
Structural integrity and economy were especially important in the 152, no matter that the model’s mission has changed since it went out of production in 1986. It’s a tribute to the 152’s ability to bounce back (literally) that so many were flogged for 30 years as trainers before being retired to serve as short-range fun machines.
With a 95- to 100-knot cruise on 5.5 gph, Cessna’s ubiquitous 152 remains one of the easiest ways to break into aircraft ownership at minimum expense. Maintenance is generally simple, in perfect keeping with the aircraft’s design concept.
It’s hard to imagine another airplane as simple and talented in the flight-training role. If you’re eager to own a trainer or just fly for fun, the Cessna 152 is an excellent choice.
Just watch out for those ARC radios.
Price: 1978 – $19,500; 1986 – $43,000
2. Piper Super Cub PA-18-150
Super Cubs are special to me, as my first flight in an airplane back in the last century was in a Super Cub on skis, though it would hardly qualify as “super” by today’s standards. The one-hour search-and-rescue mission was in a basic J-3 Cub in Alaska when I was 13, and the engine recently had been upgraded from the stock 65 hp Continental to an 85 hp mill.
The Cub began life as a do-everything utility aircraft—bush flying, flight training, crop-dusting, pipeline patrol, animal control and a variety of other tasks fit the Super Cub perfectly.
Those early Cubs employed the USA35B airfoil, and today’s pseudo-PA-18s continue with the same wing. The tube-and-fabric Cub may seem an anachronism, but if it’s a dated design, it hardly needs any updating.
Piper Super Cubs made the switch to 150 hp in the late 1950s, and as you might imagine, the transformation in performance was dramatic. Abbreviated takeoffs were outstanding. The extra power was just what the PA-18 needed for bush operation, allowing a Cub to levitate off virtually any hard surface in less than 200 feet, and the 37-knot stall speed allowed PA-18s to land in half that. The bigger engine was especially useful for leaping out of high mountain strips or for float flying out of short stretches of river or small lakes.
Cubs offered transport for two humans, one pilot and a pair of Huskies or a pilot and as many supplies as could be crammed into the back portal.
Despite the airplane’s obvious utility value, Piper had long since stopped producing any other wood-and-tube-and-fabric airplane by 1994, and the company finally discontinued production of the Cub. Shortly thereafter, CubCrafters of Yakima, Washington, long a provider of spare parts for the PA-18, assumed responsibility for construction of new Cubs under license from Piper. CubCrafters was awarded its own type certificate in 2004 and continues building the popular bush bird.
Those who claim nostalgia isn’t what it used to be need look no further than the continuing popularity of the basic Cub design for proof to the contrary.
Price: 1960 – $51,500; 1994 – $95,000
3. Grumman Tiger AA5B
It seems anything Roy LoPresti touched was automatically a work of art. LoPresti transformed the stodgy GA Traveller into the Tiger with a series of much needed aerodynamic modifications, mostly by hanging a carbureted, 180 hp Lycoming O-360 on the nose.
LoPresti also boosted fuel from 38 to 52 gallons, made a few cosmetic changes and wound up with a carefree, fixed-gear/fixed-prop flying machine capable of 135 knots cruise on only 180 hp.
LoPresti redefined “sporty” with the sliding-hatch Tiger. The nosewheel was full-castoring, so all directional control on the ground was with asymmetric braking, allowing 180-degree reversals in the airplane’s wingspan.
If it wasn’t raining, you could taxi with the hatch all the way back for maximum cooling. You could even leave it open a few inches in flight or more.
Back in the ’70s, I flew at least 50 air-to-air sessions, flying echelon on a Tiger photo ship with the hatch full back. The hatch remained solid as a rock throughout. The AA5B made a great photo ship as long as you held position slightly above the leader’s wing.
Tigers were tough birds in other respects, as well. The main wing spar was a steel tube that ran from wingtip to wingtip. Wing skins were bonded rather than riveted in place, one reason why the AA5B is so aerodynamically efficient. A downside was that field repair was a challenge if the aircraft was damaged.
The little Grumman featured the quickest ailerons of any non-aerobatic, certified single on the market. I have it on good authority that the AA5B was capable of a beautiful barrel roll when no one was looking (or even if they were).
Your first flight in a Tiger will convince you of its true nature. It’s as playful as a Malamute pup, though it won’t lick your face. For pilots whose tastes run more toward fun than utility, it’s tough to beat a Tiger.
Price: 1975 – $35,000; $1993 – $75,000
4. Mooney Executive M20F
It seems Mooneys are forever. The first semi-four-seat Mooneys date back to the ’50s, and the little speed freaks could step along at 145 knots on about 9.5 gph. Those first, short-cabin airplanes were constructed with wood wings and empennage, but Mooney modernized the airplane to all-metal construction in 1961. The company soldiered on to become builders of the world’s most popular four-seat retractables until the advent of the Arrow in 1967.
To minimize system complexity, Al Mooney subscribed to the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The vertical stabilizer was a stubborn, perfectly erect design, a feature that was to become a Mooney signature to the present day.
Rather than use draggy trim tabs, Mr. Mooney mounted the tail on a giant jackscrew that swivels the entire empennage up and down to trim pitch. The baggage compartment door behind the cabin was mounted tall, with the bottom lip about waist high, probably to avoid cutting through a structural longeron that runs horizontally below the door.
Mooney also designed an unusual, manual gear system for the original airplanes. The bicep-powered, Johnson-bar gear retraction system is unique, as it’s the only extension device ever certified by the FAA without a backup system. It’s also probably the world’s fastest mechanism for putting the wheels to bed. In the hands of an experienced Mooniac, the landing gear can be retracted so quickly, it seems to practically disappear.
Mooney fitted his four-seat models with a Britain Industries, full-time, wing leveler called Positive Control. PC was on anytime the engine was running, automatically leveling the wings unless the pilot depressed a button on the yoke. PC was almost universally regarded as a nuisance, and many pilots chose to override the system by wrapping duct tape around the button on the left ram’s horn, locking out the wing leveler completely.
Our best buy Mooney was the 200 hp Executive M20F that came along in the mid-1960s. Unlike the earlier 180 hp M20C Ranger, the M20F was closer to a true four-seater, stretched 10 inches (five inches forward and five inches aft of the wing), specifically to benefit those relegated to the rear compartment.
In keeping with its image as the world’s most efficient, true, four-seat production retractable, the Executive offers an impressive 155 knots on 10.8 gph. That’s meaningful economy in this day of $4 to $5/gallon avgas.
Most of the Executives featured electric gear, and Mooney adopted a system that was nearly as fast as the manual mechanism—three seconds up, two seconds down. The airplane also manifested a control harmony facilitated by rods rather than cables. This imparted a direct coupling to ailerons, elevator and rudder. The result was an unusual synchronicity that created the illusion of quick control response. In fact, the Mooney’s ailerons weren’t that fast, about 60 degrees a second, but roll and pitch seemed quicker.
The airplane wasn’t universally loved by mechanics. Interior dimensions weren’t that bad, but systems were crammed into tight spaces, and seemingly everything in the wings was protected by an inspection plate.
The later LoPresti-improved model 201 had 17 major drag-reducing improvements that boosted cruise by 14 knots without a power increase. For that very reason, the first 201 sells for about 17 percent more than the last of the Executives, making the M20F a definite best buy.
The Executive won its place on our best buy list because of its overall economy, reputation for reasonable system integrity and good comfort for two plus two, all at the price of a good, used XKE roadster or older Ferrari.
Price: 1967 – $45,750; 1976 – $52,500
5. Piper Dakota PA-28-236
Piper’s Dakota, follow-on model to the Cherokee 235, Pathfinder, and Charger, was intended as a head-to-head competitor with the Cessna Skylane. It featured the same horsepower, roughly the same interior dimensions, comparable performance in every parameter and the benefits of a low wing.
Piper knew that recently licensed pilots tended to buy the type of aircraft they learned in, high wing or low wing, and the Dakota was specifically designed to fill the need for a true, family four-seater with the wing on the bottom.
The Piper PA-28-236 Dakota featured a slightly thinner, semi-tapered airfoil, known generically at Piper as the “Warrior wing” and fitted to all the other four-seat PA-28s. This airfoil imparted slightly quicker roll response than the earlier Cherokees and an allegedly gentler stall, though it’s hard to imagine anything more benign than a Cherokee’s slow, hobby-horse pitching in deep stall mode.
One area where the Dakota stood slightly taller than the Skylane was useful load. Using 1981 models for examples, the Dakota sported a useful load of almost 1,400 pounds, while the 182 managed only 1,354 pounds. Load 72 gallons aboard both airplanes, and the Dakota would have a payload of 968 pounds, while the Skylane would offer 922 pounds.
The Dakota graces our best buy list because it's slightly less expensive than a Skylane (comparing 1981 models), climbs better, offers a little more payload, and has a higher service ceiling and better visibility in the pattern. It’s also a true four-place airplane with payload to spare.
Price: 1979 – $75,000; 1994 – $140,00
6. Beech Bonanza
The straight-tailed Bonanza is one of every aviator’s favorite airplanes. Bonanzas offer a certain smoothness of response, an almost indefinable coherence between pilot and airframe rather than simply tactile communication with stick and rudder.
The first Beech model 33s premiered in 1960 with a standard, three-member tail, a 225 hp Continental under the cowl and the model designation of Debonair. Initially billed as an economy version of the V-tail, model 33 was virtually identical to Beechcraft’s model 35 V-tail Bonanza from the firewall aft and the tail forward. In fact, Beech offered the Debonair as an alternative to the controversial V-tail model.
Pilots eager to own a Bonanza now had a substitute for the model 35 that had suffered 250 inflight breakups at a rate that turned out to be 24 times higher than that of the straight-tail model.
In fairness, the butterfly-tailed Bonanza’s tail separation problems were finally addressed with an emergency AD note in 1987, and I know of only-two tail failures since then (see the NASA/University of Texas study of V-tail Bonanzas).
Beech upgraded the Debonair to the same 285 hp engine as the model 35 in 1966 and eventually granted the straight-tail airplane the status of Bonanza. The company also grudgingly acknowledged that there were no real performance differences between the V-tail and straight-tail models.
The E/F33A were introduced in the mid-1960s, and like the V-tail, cruised at 172 knots following a climb at nearly 1,200 fpm. Beech’s E/F33A cruised most efficiently at 6,000 to 9,000 feet, though they did suffer from short range because of their 74-gallon fuel capacity. Four hours was the airplane’s typical endurance at max cruise, worth 700 nm between fuel stops.
The last V35B was discontinued in 1982, and the F33A, last of the four-seat Bonanzas, was dropped from the line in 1994, leaving only the six-place A36 Bonanza in production. The A36 is a great machine, but you do pay for every bucket that’s installed, no matter how many are occupied.
Owners of F33As complain about high-maintenance costs and parts prices, but Beech still supports the airplane and parts are usually available. The F33A nevertheless represents an excellent buy for the pilot with $100,000 to spend.
Price: 1966 – $55,000; 1994 – $185,000
7. Beech Baron 58
For many pilots, the regal Beech Baron 58 has always represented an ultimate in general aviation. Just as the straight-tail Bonanza was an icon to pilots of single-engine airplanes, the model 58 was often regarded as the peak of the twin-engine pyramid. New, well-equipped 58 Barons cost nearly $1.5 million today, and even a four-year-old example can sell for our $1 million limit.
Barons were built in three flavors: normally aspirated, turbocharged, and pressurized, and like most Beech products, all reflected a build quality and control harmony not seen in many other brands. Standard power on the normal breather was 285/300 hp, per side, stepped up to 310 hp on the turbocharged model and 325 hp on the inflatable version. Like the 36 Bonanza, the 58 Baron mounted a pair of aft right-side doors for access to the rear cabin.
The standard model 58 sported a sea level climb of nearly 1,500 fpm and a max cruise of 200 knots, while the turbo and pressurized models offered the same climb and over 220 knots at 20,000 feet. Fuel capacity was 190 gallons, enough for five hours cruise plus reserve, 4.5 hours on the thirstier P-Baron.
The 58 Baron wasn’t exactly perfect, however. The fuselage was basically that of the 36 Bonanza, and that meant the Baron had the narrowest cross section of any six-place twin, a mere 42 inches at the elbows. (In contrast, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft reports the allegedly cramped Mooney offers a 43.5-inch-wide cabin.)
Similarly, model 58 Barons built before 1984 featured nonstandard placement of controls for propellers, throttles, gear, and flaps. Beech suggested it was the rest of the industry that was out of step and positioned propeller controls to the far left and throttles at center, an apparent throwback to the days of the old Beech 18, most often flown by two pilots.
Beech had also traditionally mounted the landing gear switch on the right below the power quadrant and the flap switch on the left, exactly the opposite of virtually every other retractable-gear airplane in the industry.
The result for pilots who flew several types of aircraft was inevitable, an inordinately high rate of feathered props during the landing flare and gear-up landings from misidentifying the gear and flap switches.
Beech corrected the problem in 1984 when they certified the P-Baron. It obviously would have been illogical to produce two airplanes of the same model with different positions for the same operating controls.
In 2006, Beech began equipping all Barons with Garmin’s wonder-window, glass-panel G1000 avionics suite and re-designated the airplane the G58. Pneumatic deice was a popular option, making the airplane a reasonable, all-weather machine.
Despite a down market for twins, the G58 has remained in demand. Hawker Beechcraft (now a part of Textron Aviation) sold 40 of the type in 2014, worth about $50 million, so the biggest Baron isn’t liable to go away anytime soon.
Price: 1970 – $80,000; 2013 – $975,000
8. SOCATA TBM-700
The world’s first true, corporate, turbine single is also the fastest airplane in our analysis, no big surprise since it flies behind a 700 shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A-64 turboprop. (The Cessna Caravan was actually the first single-engine turbine, but the non-pressurized Caravan is more of a utility cargo van, whereas the TBM-700 is a corporate Ferrari.)
The TBM-700 began life as the six-seat Mooney 301, the brainchild of Roy LoPresti’s design team in Kerrville, Texas. When Mooney was purchased by the French SOCATA Division of Aerospatiale in 1985, it was decided to upgrade the 301 to a turboprop and produce the resulting airplane in both Texas and Tarbes, France. Mooney subsequently ran into financial problems, and the 301 became the TBM-700, produced exclusively in France by SOCATA.
The TBM-700 premiered in 1991 at a price of $1.3 million, and initial deliveries were to the French military that needed a fast reconnaissance aircraft that could use short runways.
Today, that same 1991 model airplane sells on the used market for $800,000. That’s pretty impressive financial staying power for a 25-year-old aircraft.
In fact, the TBM-700 has endured well in virtually every area. At only 6,595 pounds gross and an empty weight of 4,025 pounds, the model 700 boasts a 2,500-pound useful load, and even a full 1,910-pound fuel load leaves a payload sufficient for a pilot and two passengers. Unlike pilots of piston aircraft, flight crews flying behind turbines rarely top all the tanks, so range would be little affected on the 700 by leaving a mere 30 gallons behind, making allowance for a fourth soul onboard.
The TBM’s cabin is a comfortable place to travel, 48 inches across by 49 inches tall, roughly the same dimension as the Piper Malibu/Mirage/Meridian. Pressurization differential is a stout 6.2 psi. If you cruise at the sweet spot, about 26,000 feet, you’ll typically enjoy a cabin altitude of 6,500 feet.
In cruise mode, the TBM-700 can turn in numbers more reminiscent of light jets than turboprops. Climb is nearly 2,400 fpm from sea level, and top cruise is 290 knots. When RVSM-equipped, the airplane has a maximum operating altitude of 30,000 feet. At 270 knots, the 700 can reach out and touch destinations 1,500 nm distant, making eastbound, one-stop, transcontinental flights well within reason.
The TBM-700 earned its place at the top of our best buy survey because it flies behind one of the most reliable engines in general aviation and represents the most performance you can buy for $1 million or less. On top of that, it’s faster than most of the twin turbines at less than half the fuel burn.
Price: 1991 – $800,000; 1996 – $1 Million
For other great deals on used airplanes, check out our 10 Cheapest Planes In The Sky.