Airplane Shopping on a Budget

You wanna fly, but you’re not made of money, right?

Amid skyrocketing prices in the used single engine piston aircraft market, it seems as if it would be difficult to find a good airplane for under $50,000. As a Buyer Broker, I occasionally have a client who wants to do simple flying on a budget. They’re not interested in glass panels, high cruise speeds, or impressing their pilot friends. They just want to exercise their stick-and-rudder skills regularly, and fly a reliable aircraft which is easily serviced and well supported by the aviation community with good parts availability. How does a pilot find an aircraft for under $50K that fits the bill?

In general terms, the best bargains are found amongst the models with values that have gone soft on the market. Usually, there is a specific reason why they’ve gone soft. However, if that particular reason is an attribute which works well for you, then it can be a viable opportunity for you to do a lot of really great flying on a tight budget.

There are a couple of specific attributes which tend to soften the market for an aircraft:

Tailwheel – These aircraft often see softer values on the market because some pilots are intimidated by them. The truth is, one can argue that becoming proficient in a tailwheel aircraft will greatly improve your pilot skills, and that the challenge of flying a tailwheel brings many hours of enjoyment. Nevertheless, there are fewer pilots in the world now, than ever before, who have the skills and the endorsement to fly a tailwheel airplane. So, with fewer buyers in the market, demand is lower and prices remain soft.

Fabric Covering – Many aircraft which are either partially or fully covered with fabric have softer values on the market, often because pilots don’t like fabric covering for various reasons. Some think it’s just old fashioned, and yes, it’s an older technology, but it’s still used on many new aircraft today, and it’s well proven after decades of use. Some are afraid of fabric-covered aircraft because the fabric doesn’t do well when stored outdoors. That’s a legit issue. Fabric does not do well outdoors, as the sun does accelerate fabric aging. So, the owner of a fabric-covered aircraft thinks he or she needs a hangar. Is that true though? Several companies produce covers designed to shade the wings and fuselage from the sun. So, there are ways to care for fabric even when it’s stored outdoors.

So, what aircraft with these attributes have soft values and, as a result, are more affordable? Here are my suggestions of aircraft that should get a hard look:

Luscombe Model 8 – while the tailwheel-equipped, side-by-side 2-passenger Luscombe Model 8 comes in several variants (8A, 8B, etc.), they’re all basically the same airplane: a whole lot of efficient performance and a great opportunity to significantly improve your pilot skills. The Luscombe has a cult-like following of devout owners and has good parts availability. While some will say the Luscombe is the most difficult aircraft to land, I know from personal experience that they’re no harder to land than any other tailwheel – they are simply more sensitive on rudder input and therefore are easy to over-control (leading to disaster for some pilots who haven’t figured this out). The pre-war Luscombes had fabric wings and an aluminum fuselage, and the post-war aircraft were all aluminum. Many of the 8As qualify as Light Sport (LSA). A very nice Model 8 can be found for well under $50K.

Piper J-3 Cub – the venerable J-3, to which many succeeding aircraft owe some of their heritage, stopped production earlier than most others in this crowd, yet is going down in history with the highest production numbers and likely the highest popularity amongst its peers. Many non-aviators have heard of the Cub, dressed in yellow, and even picture it in their head when they hear about a “small taildragger”. The wild popularity of this tandem-seating 2-passenger basic stick-and-rudder airplane has driven prices upwards, and nowadays a very clean, well maintained and restored J-3 is north of our $50K budget. However, with persistence and patience, you can still find nice J-3s out there for under $50K.

Stinson 108 – like the Luscombe, the Stinson Model 108 is a tailwheel aircraft and has a devout group of owners. However, this one has a back seat and a faster cruise. While the factory covered the Stinson 108s with fabric, there are STCs available to recover it with aluminum, and quite a few out on the market are now all aluminum. There are a number of engine possibilities in these aircraft, as STCs have been developed for other engine models. The Stinsons are known for their gentle manners and relative ease of handling during landing. Though there are some very nice models which sell for well beyond our $50K budget, with persistence and patience, a nice one can be found for under $50K.

Short Wing Pipers – Piper made several models which fall into the beloved category of “Short Wing Piper”, and none of them disappoint! Some will argue that fabric-covered Short Wing Pipers are the absolutely best bargain available on the used piston single engine aircraft market today. They score high ratings in the fun department, and they’re no slouch for performance either. With the venerable Piper Cub deep in their roots, it’s tough to go wrong with any Short Wing Piper. Personally, my favorite Short Wing Pipers are the 4-passenger PA-20 Pacers and the PA-22 Tri-Pacers. Both aircraft are nearly identical, the only basic difference being a tailwheel (PA-20) or a nosewheel (PA-22) landing gear configuration. They’re so similar that you’ll often come across nosewheel Tri-Pacers that have been converted to taildraggers, known as PA-22/20 Conversions. What I like best about these aircraft is that the tailwheel versions simply look good. And, they offer a heck of a lot of bang for the buck too.

Cessna 120/140 – Cessna couldn’t stand by and watch Luscombes and Cubs enjoy all the trainer aircraft success of the 1940s, so they came out with a competing product that looks nearly identical to a Luscombe. There are some interesting rumors as to how Cessna’s 120 and 140 models became so similar to the Luscombe 8A, but suffice it to say that these Cessnas are also good little performers. Like the Luscombes, these 2-passenger aircraft had all aluminum fuselages, with fabric wings pre-war and aluminum wings post-war. The 120 is a no-frills aircraft with no flaps, and the 140 has a few options including flaps. Some 120s may or may not have a rear side window, but other than the flaps, they’re essentially the same airplane as the 140. You’ll find these models under $50K all day long (I recently helped a client get into a gorgeous, low time Cessna 120 for well under $30K).

Aeronca Champ – If you look up “grass roots stick and rudder flying” in the dictionary, the first thing you’ll see is a picture of an Aeronca Champion. Just kidding, but it might as well be true. The “Champ”, as it’s known, is as basic and fun as an airplane gets. And, you can often find a nice one for under $25K if you’re patient. Built to compete with the Piper Cub, the Champ has been overlooked for years by many aircraft shoppers. Nowadays, though, this 2-passenger tandem seat aircraft is growing in popularity. A Champ stands to teach you more than you learned in primary flight training, and is easy on the pocketbook with its 65 horsepower engine that sips avgas.

If you’ve got a tight budget and just want to do a lot of honest stick-and-rudder flying, you’ve got a lot of options. You may pay a bit more for tailwheel aircraft insurance, or for wing and fuselage covers, or maybe even for a CFI to develop tailwheel skills, but in the long run, your budget will be much happier with one of these models. As with any aircraft purchase, especially with these classics, it is recommended that you have an aircraft inspected by an IA/A&P who knows the specific model of aircraft well.

If you are looking for professional assistance with the shopping and purchase process, reach out to me and we can work together to find you a suitable aircraft.