In this article I will share the selection process I went through in order to narrow down my search for my first airplane to a few models. This is my thought process, and your mileage may vary. Purchasing your very own personal airplane is something very special, and the airplane that’s the best fit for myself might not be the one for you. Where you live, your typical mission profile, proficiency level, financial means and interests all influence your choice.
Like the vast majority of private pilots in North America, I lead a very busy life, and I fly less than 100 hours per year. I fly once or twice a month, either alone or with one passenger, mostly for short hops on the week-ends, and only fly cross-country multi-day trips once or twice per year, in fair weather. I do not hold an IFR rating, and even if I did, I would probably not practice often enough to stay current and actually confidently file IFR on a regular basis. I fly out of a busy airport in controlled airspace. In the Canadian winter, darkness falls early. I need to be able to safely come back to the airport at night.
Why not renting from the school? I like to decide at the last minute to go flying. During the week-ends, the school’s airplanes are almost always booked when the weather is nice, and when I can rent, oftentimes I can only rent for a few hours. I want to go flying when I want, for as long as I want, and even travel with the airplane and not having to come back to base on the same day.
Why not partnering? I am open to the idea, but the other person and I would have to be able to get along, have the same mission profile/needs and agree on an airplane model, and have the same philosophy with regards to proactive aircraft maintenance and avionics upgrades.
Now, let’s discuss budget. As you know, the sky is the limit as to how much one can spend on an airplane. If money was no object, I would own a Mustang P-51D!
I earn a comfortable living as a software consultant, but I don’t want to spend all my money on an airplane. There are other things vying for my hard earned money, things like the groceries, the mortgage, saving for retirement, etc. I personally have a hard time borrowing for what is essentially a recreational vehicle, so I would rather pay cash for an airplane I can afford right now rather than borrow money for a more expensive airplane. My rationale is that I will have enough money left in the bank and in my monthly budget to fly the airplane, because if I pay too much for the airplane I will end up owning a hangar queen that doesn’t fly much.
Minimizing maintenance costs. Some systems in an airplane add up to the initial purchase price but can also be very expensive to maintain and repair in case of a failure. Furthermore, complex airplanes with retractable landing gears and constant speed propellers not only cost more to purchase and maintain, but also cost more to insure. Personally, I am busy enough as it is while on final approach to an airfield, I don’t need to also deal with the retractable landing gear, the cowl flaps and the propeller pitch angle. So I wanted an airplane with a fixed landing gear and fixed pitch propeller. The airplane will be tied down outside all year long, including in the cold Canadian winters. So that eliminated airplanes with fabric wings. The only nice to have equipment for me would be an auto pilot, because on long trips it can significantly reduce pilot workload. Another consideration for keeping maintenance low is that the aircraft parts must be readily available at an affordable price. This means that I will not purchase a rare airplane that’s been long out of production and for which parts availability might be a problem.
And why have I chosen to keep the airplane outside instead of inside a hangar? Hangars are pretty expensive here, and I just cannot afford it. Besides, for the price of a hangar, I could afford to repaint the airplane every five years.
Like the majority of private pilots, I’ve spent plenty of time in Cessnas, including the 150, 152, 172, 177 and 182. It took me several years before I was able to clearly define my mission and my personal tastes, and that was extremely important in the choice of airplane.
A good friend of mine owns a very nice Cessna 182, and I have been lucky to be his copilot for quite a few flights over the years. The 182 is a very nice IFR platform. Relatively fast, stable and reliable, nice avionics and autopilot, but it feels heavy. 182s are sought after on the used market, and they retain their value over time. That makes a used 182 over my budget unfortunately. Also, the fuel consumption on the 182 can sometimes feel like someone’s burning though my wallet.
I once flew a long cross country flight in one of my school’s 160HP Cessna 172 that could barely cruise at 105 knots. The trip took longer than expected with a strong headwind, and we had to land enroute to refuel since that particular Skyhawk did not have extended range fuel tanks. I can only imagine how long it would have taken us if we had been in a 90 knot machine like a Cessna 150. The difference between a three hour flight and a four hour flight might not seem too big, but that extra hour really takes its toll on the body.
I have read several accident reports of the last twenty years in general aviation. Many accidents occur in the vicinity of airports. Just this year two pilots crashed and died either in base or on short final at airfields in my area, and I suspect in both cases the problem was sloppy airspeed control followed by a stall at low altitude. So I feel a lot safer in airplanes with lower stall speeds. Also, I believe in airplanes with a great view outside, which allows me to perform a more thorough scan of the sky watching for incoming traffic.
Since I have spent so much time in Cessnas, I know them inside out, and I can land these suckers on the numbers at will, even in strong crosswinds, which I find to be a nice challenge. The downside of Cessnas is that they are relatively slow with regards to their fuel burn. I also dislike the tall instrument panel which blocks much of the forward view. However, it must be said that Cessnas being ubiquitous means that there is a wide choice of used ones for sale, and good bargains can be had. Actually, if you are on a budget and need a 2+2 airplane with decent cruise speed, you really can’t go wrong with a 172.
So even though I would prefer a 2+2 configuration, a used DA20-C1 most closely matches my budget and mission. It sips fuel, easily cruises at 130 knots, offers great visibility, has a very low stall speed, and simple systems (fixed gear, fixed propeller, no autopilot), which should keep the maintenance costs down. The Cessna 172 comes in a close second, with its 2+2 capability, but the higher fuel burn, restricted forward visibility and slower speed coupled with sluggish handling makes it somewhat less interesting to fly.
There are two important downsides to the DA20-C1 which I decided I can live with. The first one is that due to the composite structure, the aircraft is not and cannot be IFR certified. If you regularly fly long cross country flights and need to fly through bad weather, this is not the airplane for you. In fact I believe that any serious IFR pilot should consider an airplane with an autopilot, as this device considerably lowers the pilot’s workload. The second downside of the DA20 is that it can only carry up to 44 lbs of luggage, roughly two backpacks containing your pajamas and toothbrushes. If like me you travel light, then no problem. Otherwise, a Cirrus SR-22, Cessna 182, Diamond DA40, Piper Cherokee, Cessna 172, Cessna 177 or Grumman American Tiger might be better suited to your needs.
Recently I flew a DA20-C1 over the multicolored fall foliage of the Eastern townships in Quebec, accompanied by a spectacular scarlet sunset. It was a sweet evening, without turbulence, alone in the sky, everything was quiet in the cockpit, despite the 140 knots ground speed indicated by the GPS. Life is good.
Summary of my criteria:
- Two seater or 2+2
- Nimble and fun to fly
- Low stall speed
- Fast enough for the occasional cross country trip
- Low maintenance costs (not overly complex, no retractable gear, no constant speed propeller)
- Good climb performance for safety at high density altitude
- Low insurance rates for low time pilots
- Must not be an orphan airplane. Manufacturer must still be in business and parts must be readily available
- There must be an AME who is familiar with the type at my homebase
- Reasonable fuel consumption
- Engine that still have life in it (not nearing an overhaul or other major maintenance items)
- Mode C transponder
- Easy to resell down the road (popular model)
Nice to have:
- Autopilot, for reduced pilot workload on long trips
- Capability to land on grass and gravel strips
- Glass Primary Flight Display (PFD)
- 406 MHz ELT
- ADS-B transponder
Based on these criteria and my financial means, I have narrowed down my choice to the Cessna 172, 1975-1980, or the DA20-C1 1999-2005. A well-maintained fixed gear Cessna 177B 1970-1978 could be a good choice too. The Cessna 150/152 with its low cruise speed and anemic climb performance at high density altitude is in my view not a suitable cross country machine.
My thoughts on other airplanes
Piper Cherokee: These are nice 2+2 airplanes, with gentle flight characteristics. Think of them as a low wing 172.
Cessna 172. A sure value. Will be your faithful companion for years to come, will land on grass strips without fuss. You can easily get nicely maintained and equipped ones at reasonable prices since they are plentiful, and you can be confident that you’ll get a good resale value when the time comes to let go of it since it is such a staple of general aviation and is still very popular with flight schools. Downsides include a relatively slow cruise speed considering the fuel consumption, sluggish ailerons, and an instrument panel which blocks your front view somewhat.
Grumman American Traveler, Cheetah and Tiger: Great 2+2 aircraft with the fastest ailerons in their class. They go fast and they look good. However, they suffer from higher accident rates than 172s, mostly due to their short wings, high wing loading and relatively high stall speeds. Also, these are orphans. As such, parts availability might be sketchy.
Cirrus SR20. Great looking, fast flying machines. They are a pricier than my budget allows, and they too suffer from relatively high accident rates due to their laminar flow wings and relatively high stall speeds.
Mooneys M20: Great IFR platform, with retractable landing gear, constant speed propellers, auto pilot, etc. These are great cross country machines offering great cruise speeds. The view from inside the cockpit is not great though. Mooneys have a reputation to require longer runways. As with all slick airframes, speed management is paramount.
Beechcraft Bonanza. Great six place airplane, great IFR platform. Expensive to operate and maintain. People owning these magnificent birds should fly them often in order to keep current.
Cessna 150/152. Super affordable and reliable airplanes. You can buy one and you can be confident that you will be able to resell it for the same price down the road. The cockpit is not very wide or tall. Two adults fit inside, but if you are 6 feet tall, you might not be comfortable. I chose the significantly pricier DA20-C1 over the 152 mostly because of the slow cruise speed of the 150. If you have ever been flying a 150 with a strong headwind, you know that you will not go anywhere fast and you might have to refuel en route, which adds significant time to your trip. So a 150 is a great airplane for a hamburger run, but not so great for any type of cross country flying.
DA20-C1. The DA20 is a nimble two seat sporty airplane. It’s the perfect airplane for the weekly hamburger run and fast enough for the occasional cross country trip, as long as you travel light. The bubble canopy offers outstanding outside view. Compared to a 150 or a 172, this low wing airplane is less suited for operations on unimproved runways, although it can be done. This is definitely not the airplane I’d choose if i was mainly interested in bush country. The control stick makes you think you’re in a fighter plane (I like it a lot), and it connects to the ailerons by using pushrods, which provide great feedback compared to the cable and pulleys of Cessnas.
DA40 Diamond Star. A four seat composite airplane, just slightly larger than a DA20, that’s suitable for hard IFR flying. Offers greater visibility, speed and efficiency than a 172. Its only downsides are that since they only exist since 2002, they are unfortunately out of my price range. Furthermore, compared to a DA20, they handle like the heavier aircraft that they are. Still, if I had the money, I’d go for it.
Piper J3 Cub. The classic low and slow bush country airplane. Fitted with toundra tires, these simple fabric covered airplanes can land pretty much everywhere.
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