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10 airplanes under $20,000: Is it possible?

We’re always telling you to go find an airplane for less than $20,000, but we don’t take the challenge ourselves. This time it’s different.

Here’s what I found during September 2011 on airport bulletin boards near AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Md., as well as on and the Trade-A-Plane website.

Half are tricycle-gear aircraft, which AOPA statistics tell us most of you prefer, and half are tailwheel aircraft. If you want an airplane for $20,000 or less, you may want to invest in a tailwheel endorsement in order to shop from a wider selection.

These selections offer proof that the inexpensive airplane is indeed out there.

A 1980 Piper Tomahawk, listed for $19,500, had all the modifications required by airworthiness directives to strengthen key parts of the airframe and add stall strips to the leading edge of the wing. Buster Colvin of Big Cabin, Okla., said he gets 95 knots true airspeed with the Lycoming O-235 engine. It has 6,100 hours on the airframe, a bit high, but only 42 hours on the engine since overhaul.

“I like them because they are roomy. You sit like you do at the kitchen table with feet on the floor instead of stretched out in front of you like the Cessna,” Colvin, a former Tomahawk dealer, said.

Tri-pacerCorey Marvin, 77, of Wadsworth, Ohio, listed his 100-mph 1953 Piper Tri-Pacer for $14,900 and hopes to get an Ercoupe in the future that can be used as a restoration project.

“If it’s hot and humid, this four-seater is a two-person airplane,” said his wife, Karen. The Lycoming O-290, 135-hp engine burns seven gallons per hour and still has a few hundred hours left before it needs an overhaul.

A 1961 Piper Colt found in South Carolina for $19,500 has an economical 108-hp Lycoming O-235 engine and has two seats instead of four. There are no flaps and only one entry door.

Don Ratliff of American King Air Services in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., said he had to price the Colt at $19,500 only because the annual inspection costs $5,000. The aircraft has 2,655 total hours, but only 481 hours since a major engine overhaul. It comes with a radio, transponder, and intercom.

Dan King of KRIS TV in Portland, Texas, is offering his 1961 Ercoupe/Forney A-1 for $17,900. It has a modified gull-wing canopy that, while it can’t be opened in flight, reduces drag. The aircraft delivers 95 knots while burning seven gallons per hour with a 100-hp Continental O-200 engine.

Ercoupe This is not one of the Ercoupes that qualifies as a light sport aircraft. Those are the Ercoupe/Univair 415C and 415C/D. Even then, if the aircraft has been modified with a Continental O-200 engine, in some cases that increased the gross weight to 1,400 pounds, exceeding the LSA weight of 1,320 pounds.

Jeff Fine of Fine Aircraft Sales in Columbus, Ohio, listed a 1972 Cessna 150 in Trade-A-Plane for $16,900. He said the interior and exterior are a “seven” on a scale of 10, which he considers to be “standard.”

It is powered by a Continental O-200, 100-hp engine and has dual radios and an intercom. The total time on the aircraft, as you might expect of a trainer, is high at 11,728 hours.

CessnaThis two-seat 1946 Cessna 120 is definitely no longer available. At the time owner Loren Hirman of Lester Prairie, Minn., was interviewed he was talking with a determined buyer. The aircraft was offered at $19,500, and had flown 905 hours since the 85-hp Continental C85 engine was overhauled. There were 3,597 hours on the airframe.

He burned only 4.5 gallons per hour, but got between 110 and 115 mph true airspeed. “It’s hands-off stable in smooth air,” he said.

“It’s more of a toy for hopping around to eat lunch somewhere.”
–Bob Lemmon, Ft. Worth, Texas, talking about his Cessna 140

A two-seat 1946 Cessna 140 was offered by owner Bob Lemmon of Ft. Worth, Texas. It has flaps and an electrical system. Lemmon’s Continental C85, the same engine as on the Cessna 120, gives him about 95 mph true airspeed. “It’s more of a toy for hopping around to eat lunch somewhere,” Lemmon said.

CessnaHis Cessna 140 has a polished metal body but a fabric wing. You can learn more about the Cessna 120/140 in “Drag your tail cheaply” in the upcoming October issue of AOPA Pilot.

This 1946 Luscombe 8A qualifies as an LSA, meaning it can be flown using a valid driver’s license in lieu of an FAA medical certificate. The asking price was $19,500 (down from $21,500).

The engine was overhauled 126 hours ago. A battery is used to power lights and instruments, but there is no generator or alternator to recharge it. The battery must be recharged on the ground. “There are a lot of good ones out there but you need to watch for corrosion,” said a pilot who is selling it for the widow of the former owner.

ThousandThis 1946 Aeronca 11BC Super Chief is gone, sold on the day of the interview with Verlyn Wolfe of Wolfe Aviation in Stockton, Calif. Wolfe tried for two years to sell this Aeronca, which qualifies as an LSA. The price started in the mid 20s and ended up at $16,250.

"You are happy to do 70 knots, and are burning four gallons per hour."
—Verlyn Wolfe, Stockton, California, talking about his Aeronca Super Chief

The fabric-covered aircraft is hand-propped and has an encoding altimeter and auxiliary power port to run a handheld GPS. There is an air-driven alternator. It has side-by-side seating. There are 3,435 hours on the airframe and 994 hours on the engine, which has a 1,800-hour time between overhaul recommendation. It uses a 75-hp Continental A75. “You are happy to do 70 knots, and are burning four gallons per hour,” Wolfe said.

TaylorThis 1946 Taylorcraft qualifies as an LSA but is not for sale. It is valued at $20,000, and at least provides an idea of the Taylorcraft flying today.

Dennis Wolter of Air Mod in Batavia, Ohio, who has refurbished the interiors of five AOPA sweepstakes airplanes, can’t part with his 65-hp BC-12D Taylorcraft. “Be careful, it’s easy to lose your heart to a cutie like this!” Wolter wrote in an email. Wolter gets 95 mph to 100 mph true airspeed burning only four gallons of fuel per hour. “It’s an amazing little airplane,” Wolter said. “It will truly get 20 miles to the gallon. It’s about as green as you can get.”

Words of warning

Things to watch for when buying on the cheap.

Air Mod’s Dennis Wolter, located in Batavia, Ohio, warns buyers of older aircraft to have a qualified mechanic do a thorough pre-buy inspection. Of special concern is the condition of fabric, if any, tubing, wooden spars, and especially corrosion in all-metal aircraft such as an Ercoupe. If possible, find a mechanic who has model-specific experience.

Jeff Fine of Fine Aircraft in Columbus, Ohio, has another suggestion. “You need to be cautious with older airplanes. If there is damage, it may cost more than they are worth to repair. The insurance company won’t repair it.”

A check with AOPA Insurance Services reveals that while older, less expensive aircraft can easily be insured, insurance companies may declare the aircraft a total loss when repairs equal the value of the aircraft.

Alton Marsh

Alton K. Marsh

Freelance journalist
Alton K. Marsh is a former senior editor of AOPA Pilot and is now a freelance journalist specializing in aviation topics.

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