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 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.
With that being said, let us look at the cheapest airplanes in the used market today.
When the Cessna 150 was introduced in the 50s a revolutionary airplane at the time. This airplane gave instructors and students exactly what they were looking for, an easier-to-fly and -land trainer that held up to a seemingly endless succession of bad student landings.
The Cessna 150 is a great airplane, with good visibility for sightseeing, space for a couple of good-sized duffle bags behind the seats, and enough room to seat two friendly, lean people.
There are a lot of Cessna 150s out there, too. The engine in the 150 is the Continental O-200, which produces 100 hp and burns around 7 gph. The O-200 is relatively cheap to overhaul, and parts are readily available for it.
Early 150s, like their 172 and 182 relatives, had the straight tail and fastback upper fuselage design, which some people think looks cool. Later models were slicked out with the swept tail and rear window. Because they’re so plentiful and offer such modest capability, the Cessna 150 is a terrific value. You can get a good used one for as little as $15,000.
The all-metal Skipper was Beechcraft’s mid-’70s attempt to create the perfect new trainer to grab market share from Cessna, which owned the training game at the time.
The plane is, as you can see, a low winger with a rounded canopy and, the clincher, a T-tail. The Skipper is a great flying airplane, with terrific control harmony and easy landing manners. The real selling point for many is the cockpit, which is roomy, nicely appointed, and strangely luxurious looking for a trainer.
The guess at the time is that Beech didn’t know how to design them any other way. The biggest challenge with buying a Skipper might be in finding one. Beech built only around 300 of them, and they don’t show up frequently on the used listings, but when they do, you can get them for around $25,000.
The ERCO Ercoupe airplane has been around so long, even before the second world war. Over the decades, it was in off-and-on production by at least five different companies, including Mooney, which made a single-straight-tailed version of the ERCO Ercoupe called the Mooney M-10.
Overall, more than 5,500 of the planes were produced. In 1937, Fred Weick designed this plane to be hard to stall, easy to fly, and to land.
The plane is all-metal, tricycle gear and, unusually, features two-axis control, so there’s just pitch and roll, no rudders. This means you can’t slip it as you can do to a conventional-control bird, but they’re still surprisingly easy to land even in a slight crosswind.
With a cruise speed of around 90 mph, the ‘Coupe isn’t fast, but it is pleasant to fly. Though there isn’t a lot of shoulder room in its narrow cockpit, you can slide the canopy back in flight and enjoy the breeze. This feature might sound quaint, but many owners love having their very own flying convertible. While ERCO Ercoupe has started creeping up in price, you can still get a nice one for $18,000 or less.
The Cessna 170 is, of course, the immediate predecessor of the Cessna 172 and the 170 is a taildragger while the 172 a tricycle gear plane, but the two shares so much in common and it is fair to say that they are two sides of the same coin. Still, despite the similarities, the personalities of the planes are very different.
One is a fun, sporty grass strip time traveler, and the other is a utilitarian jack-of-all-trades that’s equally at home as a trainer, IFR platform, short-haul transportation plane, or just a weekend fly-thing.
Both have their limitations, but for pilots who don’t need more than they offer, it’s hard to beat the value of an all-metal, proven, supremely easy-flying four-seater with great visibility and a heritage that would make any owner proud.
Earlier Cessna 172s and all Cessna 170s came with a Continental six-cylinder engine up until 1968 when Cessna switched to Lycoming power.
Cessna discontinued the 170 in 1956, shortly after the introduction of the 172, which would go on to become the most-produced plane in aviation history with over 50,000 built.
The Cessna 170 has soldiered on as a beautiful alternative, one that borders on being an antique but still has a clean, modern look to it that attracted pilots 60-some-odd years ago. And both planes are quite affordable, in part because of their sheer numbers.
You can find decent examples of either plane starting at around $27,000, a price that many owners in waiting can afford and that is sure to hold steady or increase in value over time even as you fly them, be it from a remote grass strip or the less-romantic-but-more-convenient paved runway of the local airport.
This airplane was designed to compete with the Cessna 140. Luscombe added rear windows and an open compartment to the previous Luscombe models and began production in 1946.
This airplane features a 15-gallon wing tank, which, with its roughly 5.5 gph fuel burn, will still keep the plane up in the air for a reasonable length of time.
Cruise speed comes in at around 100 knots. Further improvements in the form of a new 90 hp Continental engine, better landing gear, and a full electrical system were added in 1948. With full fuel, the Silvaire can carry about 400 pounds.
The narrow landing gear and responsive controls can make it a bit interesting to land, especially for pilots without a lot of tailwheel time. Currently, you can find this airplane listed for around $20,000.
Piper Cherokee 140.
Planned as a replacement for Piper’s high-wing PA20 Colt, the Piper PA28-140 Cherokee arrived early in 1964.
The all-metal, low-wing aircraft was primarily intended for use as a trainer, competing with the Cessna 150. It might not have won that battle, but it did grab some market share and for good reason. The entry-level Cherokee 140 has a reputation for reliability and easy handling.
The Piper Cherokee 140 is powered by the 140hp Lycoming O-320 engine. The two-seat design was updated just a year later, becoming the 140-4, which could be configured as a four-seater. The update also bumped the engine on the 140 up to 150 hp.
The 150 hp version cruises at 108 knots and will travel a respectable 465 nautical miles. It can haul around 950 pounds useful load, a decent figure for a 150 hp airplane, but many owners look at the Piper Cherokee 140 as a good-sized two-seater with a large luggage bench in the back. For a nice used 140, the price can be as low as $21,000.
The Stinson 108, built by Stinson Aircraft Company around the 40s and 50s. This airplane features a fabric-covered steel-tube fuselage, though Aftermarket modifiers obtained supplemental type certificates allowing conversion to an aluminum covering.
The four-seat Stinson 108 can cruise at better than 110 mph and can operate comfortably from unimproved strips, though its short-field performance with the stock Franklin 165-hp engine isn’t as sprightly as some of its competitors.
Still, the Stinson 108 packs an impressive useful load of 1,100 pounds, and it has proven a popular plane among float and ski operators in the bush, with many remarking how much better-looking the Stinson 108 is when it’s airborne or on skis or floats.
Many Stinson 108s have been modified with larger or non-Franklin engines, and a good number have been “metalized” with sheet metal instead of fabric over the original tube-built fuselage.
With its ability to carry four FAA-sized passengers, full fuel, and a good amount of cargo on top of that, the Stinson 108 arguably competes with the Cessna 182 and Piper 235, two planes that are popular and command much higher prices than the Stinson 108.
You can find nice 108s for anywhere from around $28,000 up through around $38,000, and many of these planes have been not only updated but also taken care of like the prizes they are.
The speed of this airplane made it desirable, and it holds its value strongly. The Mooney M20C Ranger and the M20E Chaparral (or Super 21) models can be acquired at bargain prices if you look around.
The Chaparral is a particularly attractive airplane. With its 200-hp Lycoming engine, the plane is a reliable 160-knot cruiser with a good useful load (around 1,000 pounds) and a decent range (around 600 nm).
These planes are somewhat cozy in front and tight in the back. But for pilots who fly most often solo or with one passenger, they work beautifully. Prices start in the $40,000 range (or occasionally much lower), and for that, you can get a nice airplane, sometimes with mods, and sometimes with a newly overhauled engine.
There are few or no high-performance used planes that can compete in terms of value, cost of ownership, and operating costs with a good older Mooney.
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.
The Champ 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.
For those folks who want a Cub and who haven’t flown a Champ, I’d highly recommend begging for 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.
Now, before you decide to buy any of the planes listed here, First, remember that buying an 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. Also, consider how readily available the parts are parts. Finally, consider the condition of the plane you are buying.
If you were to get a plane with unknown or unrevealed problems, you could spend some money getting it to perfect condition.
Engine and prop are a critical part of that calculations. 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.