Trade-A-Plane: It Told Us We Could All Do This


The smell of Varsol—a petroleum-based solvent that’s essentially paint thinner—all but makes me nostalgically woozy. It’s cheaper than drugs and probably healthier, too. It’s the smell I remember when I walked through the pressroom every morning at my first newspaper job. A decade later, when I became a magazine editor, the job changed but the smell of printing didn’t. The pressmen use Varsol to clean the rollers and plates between runs.

Maybe if we just hang on for a few more years, this digital thing will blow over and we’ll return to the wondrous roar of a multi-gang press in full throat. Sure, and maybe slide rules and the Narco Omnigator will emerge from the crypt, too. Obviously, neither is going to happen which is why the news of Trade-A-Plane ending its print edition has such a sad finality. Cue the predictable blather about the end of an era.

But it is the end of an era and not having that thick yellow tabloid to spread out on the kitchen table with a cup of coffee diminishes the world. If the face of Helen launched a thousand ships, Trade-A-Plane must have certainly launched thousands of aviation careers, not to mention hundreds of thousands of happy airplane buyers and maybe no-so-happy sellers.

I’m pretty sure it launched mine, because Trade-A-Plane is my earliest memory of a publication that conveyed this message: Yeah, you can do this. My memory of the details is hazy, but I think I first encountered TAP in the office where I worked at Fort Bragg, probably brought in by the battalion XO, who was an Army aviator. Seeing me browse it, he said something like, “You know, you can do this.” He revealed the existence of the Fort Bragg Flying Club where I’m sure I found yet more issues of Trade-A-Plane in the dilapidated shack that served as a clubhouse.

Trade-A-Plane’s unique position in the aviation universe was due partly to timing and, as is so often true of startup businesses, partly to a market gap between established players picking the easy fruit. Cosby Harrison started it in 1937 and it soon flowered because he discovered—and ignited—a market of thousands of disparate buyers and sellers with no outlet for their commercial interests.

Like the daily newspaper upon which it was loosely modeled, Trade-A-Plane had a place for every advertiser, from manufacturers selling new airplanes to a private owner trying to sell a surplus heater muff for a post-war Cub. And that unrestricted range is what made Trade-A-Plane more than just an ordinary shopper.

It never had any editorial, other than the cover photo and the cartoon. But the astonishing variety and number of ads made TAP a reliable indicator of the aviation economy and a bellwether for what was new, what people were buying and what market trends were lurking beneath the surface that the slick aviation magazines hadn’t noticed yet.

Once a month, I’d page through Trade-A-Plane to sense the trends on used aircraft sales. That’s where I first noticed there were good buys to be found in used Cessna 172s equipped with the early G1000s and where the same trends dumped a lot of perfectly serviceable GNS 430s on the market at bargain prices until owners—probably reading TAP—noticed the same thing and started snapping them up.

Trade-A-Plane was one-stop shopping for what was going on in the maintenance shops along Tulsa’s Sheridan Road. Those businesses remain intensely competitive and even as down-in-the-weeds as we get at AVweb, we wouldn’t necessarily have noticed market shifts that Trade-A-Plane would telegraph through its advertising. That’s how I found out that the refurbished cylinder market was exploding due to price hikes by Lycoming and Continental. And that a company called Superior was building its own cylinders.

The advent of digital publishing has proven disruptive but in slow motion. Industry wide, revenue from digital has increased over print at a glacial pace and for some publications, it hasn’t at all. The advertising market has just become less concentrated and more diverse, impacted heavily by Google and Amazon.

I have an indelible soft spot for print, but I’m hardly a Luddite about it. I no longer read print books because I always like to carry something to read and that’s an e-reader. I get most of my news from digital sources, for the timeliness and the convenience.

But Trade-A-Plane was and is different. Spreading that tabloid out on the desk allowed you to browse and both find things you were looking for and discover things you weren’t. That changes with the digital-only version and is further impacted by there being no deliverable. Gone is the three-times a month paper arriving in your inbox. While many businesses have found a home in digital-only advertising and its evil cousin, social media, I wonder how many have not and how the demise of TAP’s paper will impact them. Also, the company used to hand out free issues at the major shows, stuffed into a brand-touting yellow shopping bag. I thought that was brilliant promotion and I will miss it. We all will.

I’ll go all schmaltzy romantic here for a sentence and concede the dream-sheet quality of Trade-A-Plane. You could always peruse those classifieds and wonder, if only. Then, before you know it, you’ve written a big check and if only has become, I did it. TAP proved that, yeah, you could do this. And many of us did.

But like it or not, we’re moving on. The march of time and the progress that goes with it is relentless. My only hope is that the local Ace Hardware can still order Varsol. 

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  1. To experience a similar feel and smell, for a few more years you will probably be able to buy a clone of the yellow tabloid format TAP which came off the same Crossville, TN, presses a dozen years ago on white paper as “The Sport Pilot Encyclopedia”. The author saw how many cheap azz gypsy CFI’s and unethical flight schools were simply photocopying the Gleim and ASA books and deliberately made his difficult or impossible to fit on a photocopy machine hoping thereby to increase sales . Aircraft Spruce has a seemingly unlimited supply individually well-preserved in plastic wrap which they ship year after year inserting an annually updated regulatory sheet.

  2. As a kid growing up in a large city with almost zero small airports nearby, TAP opened the door to aviation for me. Someone had left an issue lying around the restaurant I worked at and I was almost instantly hooked into the “dreamer” category. Also as an avid reader I will miss the three times a month deliveries…..sigh….at least they are still around and I can still read it on my Kindle, but I agree with you Paul, it just wont be the same.

  3. The is nothing like the smell of Varsol in the morning (to semi-quote a famous line in a movie). And, the yellow TAP was a young man’s (and now old man’s) dream sheet of aviation possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to find my perfect, affordable, airplane. I live in the electronic age also, but what is a real FBO without a stack of old, well-worn, TAPs on a table somewhere for the young lad, old guy, local and transient pilot, to review while waiting for fuel, or the weather to clear, or a passenger for a trip. oh well…

  4. Oh, you’ll still be able to get your Varsol(tm) Paul, just not from your friendly local hardware store.

    Remember, ACE homogenized the neighborhood family-owned hardware stores into franchisees, carrying the exact same stock, even when there were better local products available. And now ACE is fighting a losing battle against the hardware megastores.

    You’ll order Varsol(tm) from Amazon (because it’s cheaper) and it will be delivered by drone. Of course, it will have been reformulated to eliminate all the carcinogenic and environmentally-unfriendly petroleum compounds, and it will smell like lemons. And you’ll need a gallon of it to clean one pair of wheel bearings.

    But otherwise it will be, just like the digital version of TAP, the same old Varsol(tm) you remember.

  5. Yes, it’s true. Because of TAP, I did it. After scanning, then scrutinizing, then hemming and hawing, then dealing with pre-emptive buyer’s remorse, I did it. I walked past the open copy of Trade-A-Plane a few dozen times over about a week before I picked up the phone. After I called I tore out the page on which the ad appeared and kept it on my desk. After the deal was done, the ad ended up in the binder with all the receipts and maintenance records. Oh, I did it using a digital source too, you know, BS dot com, but the experience was altogether different. The process Trade-A-Plane brought carried much more personal significance. Maybe it’s me. Your mileage may vary, as they say. I’ll miss Trade-A-Plane’s printed presence in the “terminal”/”pilots’ lounge” and all the other hangouts, municipally-provided and private, along the ramp and taxiways.

  6. Most unfortunate for TAP to exit out. Many small businesses advertise in there and gives them the visibility that they could never receive on the internet. The ability to have back issues is great for looking and researching historical pricing and companies. I personally think its a big mistake to exit, I think the publication will be missed more than they anticipate.

  7. Good to see some sentiment from my fellow aviators. Of all the print publications, TAP will be the one I miss as well. I don’t know how many insights into the marketplace this yellow thing has afforded me when I got started in aircraft sales, but I would never skip going through an available copy. By far not as eloquently formulated as what Mr. B. produced, but at least some feedback from the peanut gallery. Our rapidly increasing social media addiction will do our industry more harm than anything out there. (

  8. Print publications are costly with limited and difficult lines of distribution. I think that the digital TAP will continue as a good aeronautical trade source hopefully becoming more efficient and profitable. Think eBay.

  9. I always enjoyed reading TAP, but like so many, I never subscribed. Lately, with my aging eyes, it has been getting harder to read the tiny print used on the airplane classifieds. So, I used it more for reviewing the ads and looking for companies that might fix or overhaul parts of my plane. I think that one reason for ending the print edition is that an airplane shopper can get quicker and better results with the on-line competition like Controller, ASO or Barnstormers. There you get photos of the plane as well as a description of its features. TAP’s on-line site is much better suited to compete in that arena. Still, it is kind of sad to see the passing of an icon for pilots everywhere.

  10. I will truly miss the printed version of Trade-a-Plane. I was used to see them at pretty much every FBO I landed at and always browsed through it. When buying and then selling a plane and during my job as chief pilot (while being involved at purchasing and selling aircraft to fit new contracts) it always gave us an idea where the industry was by looking at the aircraft prices of similar makes / models. This is obviously not going away with the move to digital.
    But there was a more important element to the printed TAP for me personally. As maker of one of the cartoons in there (Chicken Wings), I really enjoyed the numerous comic strips people had cut out of the magazine and posted all over the FBO’s message boards and bathrooms wherever I went. What I found interesting and exciting was that it was never the same comic. It looked as if we had found something to laugh at for everyone in aviation at one time or another. That element is gone now and I will miss it more than most.