Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Many, if not all of us, have at one point looked at an airplane and thought how neat it would be to own something like that. Just like how many of us stared at our Countach posters in our bedrooms and thought the same thing. A few of us even become inspired to be actual pilots so we can have a shot at flying something like that. But few of us have an opportunity to crawl into a supercar and drive off at age 16, and likewise strapping yourself into a WWII warbird as soon as you get your private pilot's license isn't a realistic possibility. Car ownership tends to have a clear progression - from Corolla or crossover to Miata or SRT Charger to Porsche or 458 Italia. Airplane ownership isn't any different - in fact it's pretty much mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Here's how to achieve those first steps towards owning that fighter jet, and a few choices which you might think are fun enough to hold onto for keeps.

First, What You Can't Buy

First, let's clear up the air and establish rational expectations with what you aren't going to fly off in right away:

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

I think most people aren't going to expect to be able to get a P-51 or any other obviously high-performance ex-military plane right off the bat. In addition to their million dollar price tags the performance and flight characteristics are simply far too complicated for a newbie to handle or even (and unfortunately) often for highly experienced pilots flying these things for years and requires an entire ground crew to properly maintain (along with the associated expenses). You might as well be owning a business jet.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image credit Bill Larkings via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License

But something like this Beechcraft Bonanza is more reasonable, right? I mean, look at how mundane it is! It's like a Camry with wings!

Nope!

You really can't judge a book by its cover. It may look fairly plain (plane?), but they don't call the Bonanza the Doctor Killer for no reason. Most infamously the Bonanza is what Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in which gave rise to the song Miss American Pie. The daily driver-esque looks belie a surprisingly complex flying machine capable of speeds not appropriate for a freshly-minted pilot. The general rule of thumb is that if it has retractable landing gear and has an engine well north of 200 horsepower, you better defer that dream for a little bit longer. Hell, the FAA outright says you need a "complex" (that is, any airplane with two of the following features: retractable landing gear, flaps, and a variable-pitch propeller) endorsement and a high-performance endorsement from a qualified flight instructor before you can legally fly something like that. You can also cross off anything that has more than one engine off the list, as that requires a completely new training regimen with hundreds of hours of flight accumulation behind it in its own right.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Well what about the Cirrus SR20 then? It's got fixed landing gear! Plus even though it technically has a variable-pitch propeller, the propeller is actually controlled by mechanical mechanisms outside of the pilot's control, therefore also falling outside of the FAA's definition of a "complex" airplane. It's even got a parachute in the back so it has to be safe, right? I mean, if it's good enough for the Air Force to train fresh pilots on it's good enough for me right?

...not so fast.

Indeed, Cirrus themselves marketed a stripped-down, detuned "SRV" for the civilian training market (which the Air Force T-53A is based on) and many training clubs offer (or even outright push due to profit margins and the high-tech "gee whiz" factor) flight training in the SR20, but it's not an ideal choice for a first airplane to own. In fact the SR20 has an unusually high accident rate even with its parachute. The SR20 is equipped with a high-efficiency, low-drag laminar-flow wing that can make certain landing scenarios very tricky for novice pilots at altitudes too low for the parachute to be effective. To truly operate the SR20 safely requires hundreds if not thousands of hours of experience flying more forgiving types and exposure to those tricky situations in aircraft less likely to kill you. The reason why the Air Force can get away with it is because they have highly experienced instructors accompanying newbie pilots in tightly controlled environments, plus these students usually check out in more forgiving unpowered gliders first (hence why they have so many tow planes).

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

...well what about a Stearman biplane then? I mean, look at that thing! It's a biplane! These things were the first thing many WWII fighter pilots first flew! Plus they're slow so they have to be safe right? You're going to tell me this isn't an appropriate first airplane either?

Yes, exactly.

Besides being well north of the "high performance" endorsement cutoff, the slow speed performance belies a highly aerobatic aircraft that can quickly get a pilot who doesn't know what to do in trouble (these were designed to train fighter pilots after all). You probably can fly it safely right off the bat but given its large size and horsepower (both which make ground handling especially tricky) you should gain a few hundred hours in more forgiving types first.

The whole point of this exercise is to illustrate that various aircraft have certain quirks that can get pilots intro trouble, and very often the people who buy and fly these aircraft are not aware of this problem (particularly when it comes to the Cirrus). Garnering hours in simpler, more forgiving aircraft will help give you the preparation needed to handle the unique performance characteristics and scenarios that may arise through your flying progression and make you a safer pilot.

Available Buyers' Resources

Just like in the automotive world, a plethora of buyers' resources exist to help you get your first aircraft. Ebay Motors also sells aircraft (under the "other vehicles" tab as seen here). A few aviation-only marketplace resources exist too, the most notable being Controller.com and Trade-A-Plane. Both of these resources have print and web-based trade publications available for your perusal. Also worth checking out are aviation magazines (some of which publish buyer's guides on an annual basis) such as Plane & Pilot and AOPA Pilot Magazine, the official magazine of the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). AOPA itself is a great resource, and if you're serious about purchasing an airplane you might want to strongly consider joining.

Perhaps the most underrated resource towards airplane ownership is your local flight club. You can talk to experienced flight instructors and airplane owners about their backgrounds in aircraft operation and ownership. Also worth checking out is the Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) of the prospective airplane you're looking at. Literally the aircraft's owners manual (but POH does sound more pilot-y) the POH lists all the performance characteristics and limitations of the aircraft and will give you a good idea whether or not the plane is simply too much for you to handle right now.

So What Airplanes Are Great For First-Time Ownership?

Chances are, the exact same type of airplanes most flight clubs train their students in. After all, those types are popular as civilian trainers for a reason.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Andrew Wadman via Wikipedia, used under GNU Free Document License

The Cessna 150/152 pair is probably the most ubiquitous civilian trainer with over 20,000 produced. They're small, lightweight and as simple as a '62 Ford Falcon. Originally conceived as tricycle-gear version of the Cessna 140 (which we'll get to later) the Cessna 150 ended up being a completely new design from the ground-up, and continued to evolve with the later 150s and 152 only having a passing resemblance to even the first model 150. The main difference between the later 150s and the 152 is the type of engine, but the horsepower characteristics are going to be pretty even regardless. Best of all, they're about the cheapest aircraft you can buy. You can pick up a decent example for about the same price as a new Elantra. View a listing of Cessna 152s here.

Despite being purpose-designed as a civilian trainer, there are some things to be aware of. Many of those thing actually pop up because of its trainer heritage. For starters, chances are whatever 150/152 you buy will be an ex-flight club trainer, so an inspection to ensure it hasn't been overly-abused and worn-out might be a good idea. The 150/152 also has slightly less forgiving flight characteristics than its bigger brother, the 172, by design (to allow for spin training) so it won't be as stable, but hardly to a deadly degree. Still might be something to keep in mind if you're concerned about that. The 150/152 also has extremely poor "hot and high" performance out of high-altitude airports in the summer, so depending on what you intend to carry stepping up to a 172 might be mandatory. There's also an aerobatic version, appropriately called the Aerobat, which brings its own set of issues. 150/152 Aerobats should be thoroughly inspected to ensure they haven't been flown outside of their structural limits, and an aerobatic aircraft might offer too many temptations for a novice pilot. That said, the Aerobat is an ideal trainer for wannabe stunt pilots. Tailwheel conversions and higher-power engine swaps are also available if you want to add more excitement.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is another ideal first-time aircraft with simple flight characteristics and low cost of ownership. Decidedly not sexy, it's still a good balance of performance, safety and ease of operability. For these reasons many smaller air forces love using it as a trainer as illustrated above (the USAF used to use a more powerful version, too). Originally simply a tricycle-gear version of the 170 (another type to be covered later) the 172 evolved to become a very different aircraft, but almost no matter what version you'll get will be safe and reliable. The 172 is the most mass-produced aircraft in history with almost 50,000 built, so it doesn't' exactly have unique ramp presence, but that shouldn't be your priority right now anyway.

Because 172s are also popular as trainers, you should consider having a prospective aircraft inspected to ensure it hasn't been overly-abused. Other than that I can't think of many issues. With a reputation for being highly spin-resistant, the 172 is a great choice for a family flier. As with the 150/152, performance upgrades exist including tail conversions and engine swaps. Newer 172SPs offer the engine swap from the factory (to 180 horsepower) and more technological goodies but are accordingly more expensive. There have been other "sexier" Skyhawk models in the past too: the 172 Cutlass was a version with retractable landing gear specifically for the training market. Because the gear retracted into the fuselage with a somewhat overly-complicated design, the maintenance headaches lend its own reputation (most owners end up removing the landing gear doors) and the weight of the mechanism gives the nickname "Gutless Cutlass." There was also a relatively rare fixed-gear version with a higher horsepower engine and the Hawk XP with an even higher-rated engine bringing it more in line with the larger Skylane (this version was marketed to floatplane and bush pilots). Depending on age and condition, prices can range from Ford to Ferrari. You can view a listing here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Aktung Ates via Wikipedia, used under GNU Free Document License

Nearly the entire Piper PA-28 Cherokee range offers great first-time buys as well. The Piper Cherokee has gone through about half a century of evolution so far and has branched out into a plethora of sub-models which admittedly makes things confusing (and you thought Infiniti was bad at this). The most basic and earliest models were distinguished by horsepower ratings of 140 all the way up to 235 and were later divided into separate submodel ranges. The Warrior is the most basic with 160 horsepower and not much in the way of amenities; it's a stripped-down model made cheap for flight schools. Good enough for them; good enough for you. The Warrior is hard to beat for sheer simplicity. The most common model is the Archer which itself has gone through several iterations but all of them offer the same 180 horsepower engine that's been with the plane since the 60s and 70s (with the exception of a recently added diesel engine option - yes, I suppose that does make it more Jalop). Depending on what model year you're looking at the Archeralso offers a few amenities like leather and computer navigation and flight aids; expect to pay higher prices for these newer models but they still represent a good buy compared to competitors. The Dakota and its 235 horsepower engine just breaks the "high performance" cutoff but still makes a good aircraft to get that endorsement on, as well as a great first-time family cross-country flier if you need something with a little more oomph than an Archer or Skyhawk. Unfortunately production stopped in the 80s due to lagging sales, so you won't be able to find the latest gear in one without upgrading it yourself. The Arrow is specifically adapted for "complex aircraft" flight training and makes a great first-time buy for someone looking for that kind of aircraft, but its relatively marginal speed advantage does little to justify the increased ownership and insurance costs (a Dakota or Skylane makes for a smarter buy).

As these are also very popular with flight clubs, you might want to check out the ownership history before you buy. There have also been various issues with the entire Cherokee line in the past, so you might want to check out all the Airworthiness Directives (ADs) for that particular model and hit the dedicated message boards. The price range is as diverse as the Cessna Skyhawk;you can view a listing here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Peter Bakema via Wikipedia, used under GNU Free Document License

The Cessna 182 Skylane is basically a 172 Skyhawk with a "high performance" engine in it. Some models are also turbocharged, not necessarily for added speed but better high-altitude performance. Like the 172 Skyhawk the 182 Skylane has a reputation for being a very stable flight platform and is a very appropriate choice for a slightly higher-performing cross-country family flier or as a lead-in trainer towards more capable aircraft. Like the Piper Archer, the Skylane also has a new diesel engine option. Past versions include the Skylane RG with "RG" standing for "Retractable Gear." Like with the 172 Cutlass, it was meant for the trainer market but also had better success with private owners. Also like the 172 Cutlass it's questionable if the gear retract option really justifies itself. The aftermarket is pretty extensive as well, including STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) kits available and a Cirrus-like parachute option. James May used one to race a Bugatti...which probably wasn't the best choice, all things considered.

Like the smaller 150/152 and Skyhawk, the Skylane has seen extensive service in training fleets but tend to be somewhat better taken care of as pilots gain experience on the smaller aircraft before stepping into this. More than a few engine and fuel tank tweaks have been made over the years and many models, so check the ADs and message boards to get a handle on the more "interesting" quirks. Earlier Skylanes had "fastback" fuselages and square vertical stabilizers borrowed from their tailwheel progenitors which many pilots feel is more attractive and distinguishable, while the latest versions have cowling tweaks and reshaping for a more streamlined look. A listing of 182 Skylanes for sale can be viewed here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Alan Wilson via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License

The Diamond DA20 series of aircraft is adapted from an Austrian motorglider design and is manufactured in Canada. As such, it's nice, big long wing provides inherent stability and extended safety margins. I haven't heard of many issues with these aircraft, though I found the somewhat hard seats and large bubble canopy to be somewhat uncomfortable on hot days. Because it is a relatively new design, prices can be on the high side. View a listing of available DA20s here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

The Diamond DA40 Diamond Star is Diamond's answer to the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. As such, it offers more performance than the DA20 and two extra seats. The Air Force used to use them as trainers (designated T-52A) but due to a somewhat complicated leasing deal they were replaced with actual Air Force-owned Cirruses. They also got into the diesel engine game before Cessna and Piper, using adapted Mercedes-Benz engines no less. Once again, it's a safe and highly efficient cross-country and family flier option.

One of the downsides of entering into the diesel engine game early is running into early-adopter problems; the company that converted the MB engines for Diamond, Thielert, ran into a bit of a scandal which took them ultimately into insolvency. Thielert still lists their engines as being in production, but Diamond has since gone to Austro Engine designs, a company owned by Diamond itself. The DA40 is also going to command higher prices on the used market than the older Cessna and Piper designs. Finally, I just plain-old think it looks ugly. I mean, it kind of looks like a deformed flying tadpole. But if that's your thing you can view a listing here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Photo by Adrian Pingstone, released to the public domain

The Cessna 120/140 is what came before the 150/152 and fulfilled the same niche of civilian training right after WWII. It was also highly popular with private pilots who need not carry more than themselves. To fly one of these today requires a tailwheel endorsement, but depending on the quality of training isn't hard to knock out and can be done soon after or even concurrent with your private pilot training. The 120/140 are exceedingly simple (the last version, the 140A, added such fancy luxury gadgets as landing flaps) and features a clean and attractive all-metal fuselage attached to fabric-covered "rag" wings. They're also pretty economical to operate.

The "rag" wing does bring up higher maintenance concerns as they require periodic redoping and are vulnerable to holes, tears and UV damage you wouldn't see in a metal design (but by the same token, are less vulnerable to dents). As these are older aircraft, many are in a state of rebuild. As these are regarded as classic aircraft, prices aren't as low as they once were, but still affordable. They also aren't nearly as ubiquitous as their newer siblings and owners tend to hang on to them - Controller.com currently has only a single listing.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Likewise the Cessna 170 is the tail-dragging predecessor to the Cessna 172 Skylane. First-generation Cessna 172s were in fact little more than 170Bs with the third wheel on the wrong end and a squared-off tail. Essentially a 140 stretched for a second row of seats, the first 170s retained the "rag" wing but the 170A introduced an all-metal wing. The Air Force ordered a special model of the 170 which Cessna designated the 305, more famously known by its Air Force designation L-19 Bird Dog which served with distinction in Korea and Vietnam. The Bird Dog featured a more powerful engine and the clear-window "notch-back" fuselage that likely served as inspiration for the later 172 models.

The 170, as with the 120/140, also has a high owner retention rate and its "classic" status has kept depreciation rates at bay. It's especially popular with bush pilots for its rugged design and the tailwheel which keeps the propeller out of the rocks and weeds. Controller.com, in fact, currently lists a whopping three.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Jerry Gunner via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License

The Piper J-3/PA-18 Cub/Super Cub has had such a long production and development history with so many spin-offs it can use its own dedicated buyer's guide. The original J-3 Cub was described as the Model T of the air - and it's only become even more true given the myriad of reproductions and aftermarket options turning the basic design into almost whatever you want it to be. All Cub/Super Cub variants follow the same basic layout of a fabric-covered tube frame with tandem seating (the pilot typical sits in the back). Other than that, it's entirely dependent on what you're willing to spend towards what end. A basic trainer, bush plane or fully aerobatic aircraft are all within a fairly straightforward rebuild given you know what you're doing (or just buy one where someone already did the work for you). You can find a listing of various Cub models here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

A related development is the Piper PA-17 Vagabond with side-by-side seating as opposed to tandem. They tend to be more rare than Super Cubs but that hasn't effected depreciation at all. That said, good luck finding one.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Phil Vabre via Wikipedia, used under GNU Free Document License

The Piper PA-16/20/22 Clipper/Pacer/Tri-Pacer/Colt was a more successful adaptation of the PA-17 Vagaond design, though its all-fabric design was already seen as antiquated compared to the contemporary all-metal Cessna 170A. The Clipper extended the fuselage to add extra seats and refined the fuselage compared to the Vagabond. Pan American Airways which owned the copyright to the "Clipper" name didn't like Piper using it, so while they were at it Piper revised the fuel tanks and control scheme to invent the PA-20 Pacer. Later a clumsy nosewheel setup was added to compete against the Cessna 172, creating the PA-22 Tri-Pacer. So awkward and clumsy-looking, in fact, that many owners subsequently put the wheel back on the back (both aircraft above are actually PA-22s). The Colt deleted the rear seat to make a stripped-down trainer, basically turning it into a tricycle-wheel Vagabond.

These planes, being structurally related to the Super Cub, also have an extensive aftermarket so if there's something you don't like or think is wrong with it, chances are you can change it. Popular as bush planes, they're pretty common, so prices are kept low even for especially nice ones and making them highly capable alternatives to even newer Cessnas. See for yourself here. The Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser is the same idea but done earlier with the longer Super Cub frame; it never took off in popularity as much as its narrower brother or even shorter cousin for some reason and they tend to be snapped by by bush pilots. That said, PA-12 Super Cruisers aren't too hard to find (a variant of the Super Cub with an extra wide back seat for three people total that was expanded into the Family Cruiser).

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

The Aeronca Champion series was a competing answer to Piper's Cub and Super Cub; although not as famous, they're very common, cheap, and have a huge aftermarket behind them. The many variants and sub-variants again can fill its own buyer's guide. They include versions with the third wheel on the nose and even the very rare Lancer which was a twin-engine fixed-gear version meant for the training market (sales were stymied when the FAA said it was too simple to qualify towards multi-engine training). After Aeronca went belly-up, the design proved too good to go with them; it passed through various companies and acquisitions (not unlike Jeep) and the design remains in production today by American Champion as the Scout and the aerobatic-capable Citabria (the name being Airbatic spelled backwards) and Decathlon/Super Decathlon. When James May isn't busy racing Cessnas against Bugattis, he's flying Super Decathlons with interesting registration codes. The earliest and most basic variants with the smallest engines are especially economic with fuel burn rates being compared to some large SUVs (yes, that's considered Prius-territory when it comes to airplanes).

The Decathlon and especially Super Decathlon are fully aerobatic aircraft frequently used for displays and competition so it's outside the scope of a first-time buyer, though the Citabria is frequently used as an aerobatic trainer. Once again, the aftermarket is so active the plane can be changed to better suit your tastes. Because it's been through multiple manufacturing licenses tracking down listings can be a challenge, but you can view one such listing here.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by Andre Wadman via Wikipedia, used under GNU Free Document License

The Aeronca 15 Sedan is to the Champion as what the Piper Pacer and Cessna 170 were to the Super Cub and 140. It's so simple and forgiving Aeronca never bothered to fit the design with landing flaps - the large wing pretty much floats down on its own. Despite its forgiving flight profile and SUV-like ruggedness and payload, its slow speed compared to the competition (it had a 115 horsepower engine up front when Piper and Cessna were running 135 horsepower and up) relegated it to also-ran status. Consequently it's more rare than Piper or Cessna offerings and they tend to get snapped up and modded to decent extremes by the bush pilot community (including more powerful engines). Given all that, if there was one airplane I'd buy on this list, it'd probably be this one. You can view all two listed at Trade-A-Plane here, including this beautifully restored floatplane.

Your First Airplane: A Buyer's Guide

Image by "Cavebear42" via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons License

The final aircraft on this list isn't an aircraft at all, but a very broad category of aircraft known as Light Sport Aircraft. LSAs come in all shapes and sizes and are as diverse as the field of aviation itself, but they all share the same general flight and performance characteristics as established in FAA LSA guidelines. The LSA category is specifically designed to provide an easy and affordable way into recreation flying. Options include kit-built aircraft and factory new-builds and range from the more simple Cub and Champion variants as listed above (both older aircraft grandfathered in and new production frames) to ultra-modern fiberglass European exotics like the Czech Sport Aircraft SportCruiser, sold in the US by Piper as the PiperSport. There's in fact not one but two separate companies making LSA-complaint Piper Cub replicas. Yeah, things can get kind of crazy when it comes to LSA shopping.

Because of the immense diversity and relative uniformity in actual performance in the LSA market, navigating it can be daunting. It might behoove you to look on various aviation forums and ask around for various people's opinions, and start narrowing it down from there. Just because the FAA says they have to fall within the same performance envelope, doesn't mean they're all created equally.

Ownership Alternatives

Regardless of which airplane you decide is right for you, owning and operating it can be expensive as costs add up real quick. In addition to the plane itself, there's fuel, insurance, labor, hanger rental, and it goes on. For this reason many new pilots simply elect to rent aircraft from their local flight clubs.

When renting, be sure to check out the various policies of the flight club (including the stipulations on their insurance policy). Also give the aircraft a thorough pre-flight inspection - if for any reason you feel uncomfortable with the aircraft, ask to see if another one is available. Be prepared to provide evidence of appropriate endorsements for a particular aircraft type, and don't try to bite off more than you can chew. If you feel comfortable only in Cessna 172s, then that's what you'll be renting. Finally, remember that rental aircraft are just like their automotive counterparts - often flown by younger and less experienced pilots who are prone to hard landings. Some shakes and rattles can probably be lived with, but there's no reason to fly a plane you think has been unsafely compromised or is simply too uncomfortable for a cross-country flight.