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AOPA Aircraft Buying Guide: WWII biplane or a Cub? It's a matter of dollars and 'sense'

Defining the mission for your aircraft is the obvious first step in the buying process—and one of the easiest to get wrong.

“[Pilots buying their] first aircraft probably have an idealized picture in their mind of how they’re going to use their airplane,” said John Downing, 62, an Atlanta private pilot who has bought and sold nearly 100 airplanes during more than 40 years of general aviation flying. “They envision taking their whole family on vacations to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. If they’ve got four kids, they figure their plane’s got to have six seats, long range, an IFR panel, and a turbocharger to fly over the mountains.

“They wind up with an A36 Bonanza or the Cessna 210T when what they really want to do is practice touch and goes, fly around the local area, and maybe get an instrument rating,” he said. “A simpler, less capable, and far less expensive aircraft probably would have suited their needs far better.”

Don’t feel bad about misjudging the mission.

Airlines with entire staffs of professional fleet planners make errors in acquisition strategies, too. So take a clear-eyed view of the ways in which you plan to use your airplane. And don’t fall victim to the appearance of pragmatism.

“An airplane is a large purchase, and lots of people—particularly business people—feel they need to justify it on a dollars-and-cents basis,” Downing said. “Sometimes they can, and an airplane turns out to be a great business tool. But most of us fly because it’s something we’re drawn to do. It’s something we’re compelled to do. If that’s the case, it’s far more intellectually honest to just admit that up front.”

Downing owns a Bucker-Jungmann, a two-seat, Swiss-built, World War II-era biplane and a Piper PA-11 Cub that he uses for local flights. He also volunteers for medical Angel Flights flying a twin-engine Beech Baron B-55.

“No one airplane is versatile enough to cover every mission,” he said. “A sport plane isn’t a utility plane, and a utility plane isn’t a long-distance traveler. Be honest about the way you’re really going to use your airplane or you’ll never find the right one.”

Downing says he enjoys flying his Cub in warm weather, with the door open. A typical flight involves landing on grass fields, a few chandelles and lazy 8s, and a Young Eagle or someone (preferably a small person who fits into the Cub’s tight cockpit) he can introduce to aviation in its “simplest, purest form.”

Flying the Bucker is more adventurous with at least a few aerobatic maneuvers thrown in.

“What’s the point in taking a plane like [the Bucker] up if you don’t get upside down a time or two?” he asks rhetorically.

The Baron is meant for long-distance flights and instrument conditions.

Just as a carpenter uses a variety of different tools, pilots should make sure they select the right ones. Local-area flights in good weather are best suited to different airplanes than long-distance flights in the clouds.

“A screwdriver can work as a chisel,” Downing said. “But if you need a chisel, get a chisel.”

Budget considerations play a central role in most aircraft purchases, and finances can determine whether a buyer selects a new or used aircraft; forms a partnership, joins a fractional ownership group or flying club, or enters a leaseback agreement with a flight school.

But Downing says money can steer aircraft buyers in the wrong direction on both the low and the high end.

Stretching beyond one’s means to buy an airplane can cause obvious hardships, financial stress, and resentment from family members. Soberly evaluate fixed costs such as hangar or tiedown rates and insurance as well as variable costs including maintenance, training, and direct operating costs such as fuel and oil. [See AOPA’s Operating Cost Calculator.]

Surprisingly, too big a budget can have a downside, too. Downing said a wealthy friend bought a Bonanza for a business/personal aircraft and wanted to learn to fly in it as well.

“He thought he was going to save money and time by learning to fly in the same airplane that he was going to use for business,” Downing said. “But when it was all said and done, he could have learned much faster in a less complex aircraft and then transitioned to the Bonanza. After a couple of years of high costs, an irregular schedule, lots of maintenance, and not much progress learning to fly, he ended up selling the Bonanza and not flying at all.”

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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