Cheap to Keep

There are many factors to consider when buying an airplane: speed, useful load, comfort, cost per hour, and of course, price. But if money alone drives the buying equation, read our survey of the absolute best values in five categories of used airplanes.


“Cheap” and “aircraft ownership” are mutually exclusive terms, it seems. If you own an airplane, you’re resigned to the fact that the privilege will cost you a handsome sum, perhaps much of your disposable income.

Yet if flying isn’t the center point of your life but you still want to own an airplane, there are affordable ways to have both an airplane and enough money for dinner and a movie once a month.

Herewith then is our survey of some of the cheaper airplanes to both own and keep, thus “cheap to keep.” Now let’s cut through the confusion here at the outset: We’re not saying these are the best airplanes in their class, the fastest or the prettiest, just the cheapest to buy and maintain based on current Bluebook Price Digest values. Now pay attention here. Cheap is not always the lowest purchase price but the best value for the dollar.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re picking five categories: putt-around-the-pattern flivvers, entry-level trainers, fixed-gear cruisers, economy retracts and affordable twins. If you’ve got the wallet to consider a medium or cabin-class twin, cheap-to-keep is not a consideration.

That Value Thing

When purchase and maintenance cost is a primary consideration, airplane shopping is tricky. It’s sometimes worth spending a little more for an airframe or a type that’s easy and cheap to maintain than buying rock-bottom into a maintenance hog.

Older Bonanzas are a good example of this. They’re out there for a song but the airframes are dated, some are historically poorly maintained and parts can be both hard to find and expensive. For that reason, picking the oldest model of anything is not always the least-expensive way to own an airplane over the long haul.

When buying cheap, it’s important to avoid models with long-as-your-arm recurring AD lists. These can be both a nuisance and expensive. And watch for nice airframes that have oddball, expensive-to-overhaul engines, such as pre-1968 Cessna 172s. We’re not saying they’re not good buys, but know the engine numbers going into the deal.

Generally, when cheap tops your list, the more of a particular model that was built, the better. Why? More have crashed and are in the boneyard, where they can be cannibalized for parts. We know it sounds cynical but would you rather pay $1200 for a new aileron or $300 for a used one?

Last, resale. If you buy something truly odd – dare we say it, a SeaBee – the market may be limited at resale time if you really want to unload the thing. On the other hand, if you buy a fast appreciator – a J-3 Cub – you might actually realize a slight profit at resale time and you won’t lack for buyers when you’re ready to sell.

That also argues against something that’s too weird or likely to be considered an acquired taste by a potential buyer. Examples: An Alon Aercoupe or a Rockwell Darter or Lark. All are cheap but hardly what we would call mainstream choices.

Pattern Knock About

If you never fly far, fly only in the warm months and then only a few hours a year, why own a fast retrac? Wouldn’t an old ragwing with a small engine and tandem seating be just the ticket for an evening jaunt over the estate?

We think so and there are a number of choices in this category, ranging from the venerable Piper Cub, the Aeronca Champ, more shortwing Pipers such as the Super Cruiser, the Pacer and, what the heck, the Tri-Pacer, plus the Cessna 120/140 series. A lesser known choice is the Luscombe 8.

We’ll tell you right now which choice you’ll want to avoid: the Piper Cub. Every now and again, we get a call or letter from some about-to-retire-was-once-a-pilot kind of guy who learned to fly in a Cub and wants one for a retirement toy. For someone who paid $5 an hour for flight lessons, the price of a decent Cub is a shocker, averaging around $20,000 to $24,000. Super Cruisers, with their 100 HP Lycomings, go for a bit more. But if you once flew one of these things, the cramped, uncomfortable cabin is still the same.

If a traildragger Piper is your wont, the Pacers (PA-20) are a better deal by far, averaging in the $15,000 to $18,000 range, albeit lacking the classic panache of a yellow Cub. It also has two extra seats and is side-by-side up front, not tandem.

(click any chart for a larger version)
Pattern Knock About Cost Comparison (25 Kb)
For basic value in a cheap-to-keep airplane, the Aeronca Champ tops our list. It’s plentiful, easy to maintain, does everything a Cub will and is more comfortable for the occupants.

Casting an eye toward the Cessna side of the equation, the 120/140 series sell in the $15,000 to $17,500 range and we see these as excellent values, still well-supported by a combination of Cessna and used parts and owner groups. If hangaring isn’t in the cards for you, the good thing about the Cessna 140 is that they can be found with metal rather than fabric wings.

Trolling near the bottom pricewise, look for the Aeronca Chief, Champ and Super Champ. These sell in the $13,000 to $15,000 range, well below the somewhat loftier price tags sellers are slapping on Cubs these days. Bluntly, they’ll do anything a J-3 will, are just as supportable through parts from Univair – you can practically built one up from the data plate forward – and are just as fun to fly. Although a Champ doesn’t quite have the snob appeal of a yellow Cub, we’ll suffer the snubbing and pocket the $5000 price difference, thanks. That’s enough to run the thing for five years or so.

Our first choice, then, is the Aeronca Champ. But one caveat: To keep it cheap, it will need to be hangared, or else you’ll be faced with recovering and worry about damage to the wooden spar. If hangaring isn’t a choice, a metal-winged Cessna 140 is a good cheap-to-keep alternative that can live outside. In closing, one sleeper worth considering is the Taylorcraft F-19, a ragwing made as recently as the 1970s. We don’t think it has quite the charm of a Champ, but is just as cheap.

Entry-Level Trainer

We’re sticking with tri-gear airplanes for this category, chiefly for insurance reasons and to keep things simple. When most buyers think trainer, they automatically start with the Cessna 150/152 series, which is logical, because that’s what the airplane was designed for. Other possibilities in the two-place category include Piper’s Tomahawk, the Beech Skipper and the AA-1 Yankee. An oddball is the Varga Kachina, a tandem two-place trike with sticks and sliding canopy; sexy and cheap but a little too exotic for everyman’s taste, in our view.

For absolute cheap, we can rule out the Cessna 152 and stick with the Continental-powered 150s, which range in price from $14,000 for a 1959 model to about $22,750 for a later model (1977) Aerobat.

Piper Tomahawks are a bit cheaper, ranging from $15,000 to $18,000 but there are fewer of them and we’re not a fan of their handling, compared to other models.

Entry-Level Trainer Cost Comparison (28 Kb)
For an entry-level trainer, the Cherokee 140 is not the cheapest buy but it’s by far the best value. $25,000 buys a mid-1960s model, while the same sum buys a Skyhawk that’s 10 years older. The Cherokee’s Lycoming is cheaper to overhaul than the Cessna’s Continental.

On price alone, the Yankee series AA-1 Clippers are also competitive, but we think the handling is too sporty for a true trainer. The Beech Skipper is probably the best-handling trainer of the lot but also the most expensive, averaging about $25,000. Its Lycoming O-235 is cheap enough to overhaul but all Beech parts are expensive and the low population of the Skipper makes it a relative rarity. An automatic nod then to the Cessna 150? Yes, but before buying, consider this: There’s no reason a trainer can’t have four seats, thus doubling as a modest cruiser, too. That automatically includes two other airplanes we think are worth considering in this category, the Cessna 172 and the Piper Cherokee series.

Back all the way up to the first Cessna 172 in 1956 and you can have one for $24,500, while the early Cherokee model, the PA-28-140, goes for exactly the same price. If you’re paying say $20,000 for a decent Cessna 150 – and we use the adjective “decent” in a qualified way – another $4000 buys the back seat and a much-roomier cabin in general. The early Cherokees weren’t true four-place machines but they will carry three people of average weight.

Further, the Cherokee’s Lycoming O-320 is about $2000 cheaper to overhaul than the Continental six-cylinder O-300 in the pre-1968 Skyhawks. Our first choice for best value then is a circa-1966 Cherokee 140 retailing for about $25,000. Even though that’s more than you’d pay for a Cessna 150, your chances of getting a moderately low-time 140 are far better.

Fixed-Gear Cruisers

Picking top value in a cruiser is complicated by defining just what a cruiser is. Certainly it’s a true four-place airplane and for our purposes, we’re sticking to fixed-gear models. There’s obvious overlap between models like the Cessna 172 and 182 and the Warrior and Archer. But adhering to the lowest price/best value equation helps narrow the field.

We think the models worth considering are the two Cessnas we’ve mentioned, plus the 177 Cardinal, and the Piper 150/160/180 Cherokee series and the Grumman Tiger. Newer models, such as the Cirrus SR22, are obviously out because they aren’t cheap. The Cessna 170/180 series – taildraggers – are also worth a look, but the 180s are too much in demand as utility aircraft to be considered cheap.

Looking at the Cessnas first, a very early Skylane – 1956 model year – retails for a hefty $45,000 compared to $24,500 for an equivalent Skyhawk. Of course, the 182 carries 100 pounds more and cruises 25 knots faster, burning 3 to 4 GPH more fuel. As the model years progressed, the payload Delta between the two increased.

The earliest Piper competitor in this realm was either the 1962 PA-28-160 – which became the Warrior – or the 1963 PA-28-180, which became the Archer. The earliest Cherokee 160 retails for $26,500, while the 180 retails for $36,500. Worth noting is that during these early years, the useful loads of the 180 HP Piper products were a bit less than those of the Skylane, but comparable. As both models matured, the Skylane’s payload outpaced the Pipers’ significantly.

What about the Cardinal? Nice-looking, nice to fly, but the 150 HP was no prize in the performance department and the 180 HP Cessna 177B version didn’t arrive until 1969. One of those will cost $48,500 which, considering payload, cruise speed and relatively small population, is no bargain.

Fixed-Gear Cruiser Cost Comparison (34 Kb)
The Piper Cherokee 180 evolved into the Archer, one of the most popular models in Piper’s line. Compared to the 172, the Cherokee 180 remains undervalued.

The earliest Grumman Tigers, which are wildly popular with their devoted owners, didn’t appear until 1975, thus by our cheap-to-keep standards, it’s a relatively recent model. It retails for about $49,000 – same as the Cardinal – carries about the same but cruises a solid 10 knots faster. So with cheap as our guiding light, we gravitate back toward the Cessna-versus-Piper standoff. All things being equal – which, of course, they never are – we think it makes sense to buy the latest-model-year airplane you can afford that meets your requirements. In that regard, the Piper cruisers enjoy some margin over the Skylane, although not the Skyhawk.

For example, the $45,000 you’ll spend for a 1956 Skylane will buy you a 1970 Piper PA-28-180E, an airframe that’s 14 years newer and with a cheaper-to-overhaul four-cylinder Lyc rather than the six-cylinder Continental. (The overhaul difference is about $1500, plus the Continental burns a bit more gas.)

What’s the tradeoff? Not much, in our view. The 1956 Skylane had a useful load of about 1000 pounds, while the Cherokee bests it by about 80 pounds. Both carry comparable fuel loads so the Cherokee can deliver about the same range, even though it’s 10 to 12 knots slower.

Although we think the Cessna is better-supported in parts and service, we think that the Cherokee is just as easy and cheap to maintain, thus we pick the Cherokee as the better value of the two and about the best choice in this category, if cost controls it.

Budget Retracts

Moving up from a fixed-gear airplane to a retractable is not always a “step up” in the sense that you gain significantly more speed or payload. What you’ll definitely have to confront, however, is higher purchase price and marginally greater maintenance costs, to account for the gear and controllable pitch prop.

The candidates here are the Beech Sierra and the Bonanza series, Piper’s early Arrows, Cessna’s 172/177/182/210 retracts and pre-201 Mooneys. Later stuff like the Socata TB-20 is too new to qualify as cheap and the two-place Swift is too weird. The Commander 112 is a possibility, however.

There are so many choices here that we’re going to undertake a brutal cut and Beech fans, fair warning. We’re throwing out the Sierra as too slow in this field of choices, even though it’s cheap to buy if not cheap to maintain. Ditto the 35-series Bonanzas after 1964; nice airplanes, but not cheap. That leaves the pre-1964 Bo’s and the early Debonairs. Along the same lines, why bother with the Cessna 172RG? It’s slow and complex, although a good retract trainer. For the sake of sanity, let’s establish a baseline of a $60,000 purchase price as a value anchor against which to measure these airplanes.

Budget Retracts Cost Comparison (28 Kb)
Among the retractables, the Mooney isn’t the fastest nor does it carry the most. But for a given purchase sum, it buys a newer airframe and its Lycoming four-cylinder is both cheap to operate and overhaul.

In the Piper Arrow market, $60K buys an average 1970 model with the more desirable and reliable fuel-injected Lycoming IO-360, a cruise speed of 135 to 140 knots and 1100 pounds of useful load. Throw that money at the Cessnas and you’ll be about $60,000 shy of the cheapest 182RG, close to the range of a 1971 177RG and good to go with a 1963 Cessna 210C. Of this lot, the 210 is obviously the fastest, carries most and burns the most gas.In the Beech product line, you’re back into the Eisenhower administration, with a 1959 or 1960 K or M model 35. Nice airplanes and serviceable, but a full decade older than the “modern” Mooney series. Squeak the budget up a little and you can afford a 1960 Debonair, the straight-tailed 33. Except for classic taildraggers, our view is that airplanes made earlier than about 1960 aren’t always good bargains. Given the price of Beech parts, a bargain buy could be no bargain to bring up to snuff.

That same $60,000 budget will buy an early 1970s Mooney M20F, with a bulletproof and cheap-to-overhaul 200 HP Lycoming IO-360. The F-model was the most immediate forerunner of the popular J or 201. You can expect an honest 145 to 150 knots on 10 GPH. We also like the E model; same engine but a fuselage four inches shorter. A good one can be bought for $55,000.

If you slide the reference line up to $80,000, you can afford a late-1970s F-model Mooney, a late-1960s Cessna 210, a mid-60s V-tail or late-1970s Arrow. Given the Mooney’s miserly gas consumption and reasonable maintenance costs, we think it continues to be a walk-away winner in this cheap-to-keep category unless load carrying is important. In that case, the Cessna 210 is the top choice.

Economy Twin

Did we actually just say that? Economy and twin in such cozy juxtaposition is, admittedly, absurd. But if you’ve always wanted two motors – we won’t debate the reasons for that here – and you don’t want to pay much, you’re limited to the realm of the light-light twin. While it’s true that there are impressive bargains in medium twins or even cabin-class rides such as a Beech Queen Air, these airplanes are expensive to operate.

The choices in light-light twins are the Grumman Cougar, the Beechcraft Duchess, the Piper Apache, Aztec and Seminole and the Piper Twin Comanche, Piper’s second run at the light twin market. Also in this category is the Beechcraft 95 Travel Air, an often-overlooked twin. After years of softness, the prices of some of these twins has inched up, evidently due to their demand as trainers.

That’s why we’re tossing out the Seminole and the Duchess straight away; too expensive to buy and the Duchess has high parts prices. Out goes the Cougar, too. We think it’s a terrific airplane but there are too few to make it a practical buy and it’s no bargain on price, in any case.

This narrows the choice down to the Apache/Aztec line, the Twin Comanche and the Travel Air. Early Apaches – the model first appeared in 1954 – are dirt cheap, even by twin standards. You can snag one for under $40,000. But just as with a single, we prefer an airframe no older than mid-1960s vintage, a period which gets into the Apache PA-23-235 series, with 235 HP Lyc O-540s. Decent performance but also thirsty engines and not cheap to overhaul. These airplanes retail for about $54,000.

Aztecs are both better performers and better values, since all were equipped with the O-540 series engines either carbureted or injected and have roomier cabins than the early Apaches. Expect to pay about $67,000 for a good mid-1960s model. For as much as we like Aztecs for their payload, respectable speed and voluminous cabin, we don’t like them for one thing: fuel burn relative to speed.

Economy Twin Cost Comparison (29 Kb)
Thanks to its stingy fuel flow and cheap-to-overhaul Lycomings, the Twin Comanche is a good value in an economy twin. Although marginally more expensive to maintain, the Beech Travel Air is a good second choice.

And that leads us back to the Twin Comanche, which sports a pair of miserly 160 HP Lycoming IO-320s, engines that are reliable and relatively cheap to overhaul. Putting numbers on that, if you had an Aztec, you’d pay about $15,000 more to overhaul both motors over the cost of doing the same for the Twin Comanche. That’s a piece of change that’s worth three or four years of fuel for a twin. But Twinkies aren’t exactly cheap to buy when compared to Apaches and Aztecs, just cheap to own. A late-model Twin Comanche – that’s a 1972 CR – retails for $116,000, or more than twice what an old Apache sells for. That sounds a little overvalued to us, compared to what else that much money will buy. A mid-1960s Twin Comanche retails for about $90,000 and even though it’s pricier than the Apache/Aztec line, we think it’s the better cheap-to-keep value because of the economical engines. This is especially true if you fly many hours a year.

The downside: Twin Comanches have dated panel layouts and systems and they’re a bitch to land well. Nonetheless, we pick the Twinkie as the best value in a cheap-to-keep twin.

But there’s a second choice in this category, and that’s the Beech 95 Travel Air. This model was made from 1958 to 1968 and had 180 HP Lycoming O- or IO-360s throughout the production run. Rare for Beechcraft, even a relatively late model – 1968 – sells for about $84,000; cheaper than the Twin Comanche.

But in our view you’ll spend more on maintenance for the Beech so the two are very close in value.