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Make your airplane a thing of beauty and joy forever

Are you flying an airplane that’s older than you? This is not uncommon in general aviation. The sturdy airframes from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s hold up well. That’s because they were designed to withstand the hard landings and clumsy handling of new pilots.
Photography by Chris Rose.
Zoomed image
Photography by Chris Rose.

It’s also what makes these older airplanes more affordable for the first-time buyer. Sparkling new airplanes roll out of the factory at upwards of $300,000, and if you can afford that, congratulations. If not, read on. While the used airplane market is still brisk as of this writing, you can still find a 1960s-vintage Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee with a sound airframe and a mid-time engine with plenty of life left in it for under $100,000.

While the thought of flying around in a machine that is the same demographic as you can be uncomfortable, remember this. With a few exceptions, the aerodynamic design of single-engine airplanes is the same as it has been since Clyde Cessna was strolling around Wichita, Kansas, dreaming up new ways to sell airplanes. Piston engines are robust, their technology is fairly consistent over the years, and thus they can be overhauled or replaced when they reach the manufacturer’s time between overhauls, which is usually 2,000 hours.

What wears out well before the airframe and sometimes the engine are its paint and upholstery, and its communication and navigation equipment. Fortunately, these can be readily replaced with after-market products.

Fixing up your new-to-you airplane to make it just how you want it can be a fun and ongoing project. Just as you get one thing installed, something else catches your eye. But if the result is going to make you want to fly the airplane more, then you’ve made a good investment. Some items you can install or replace yourself, or with a mechanic’s signoff. Other improvements require a professional to do the installation, such as for avionics.

You can spend a little, or a lot. Here are some suggestions for making your older airplane better than the day it came out of the factory.

Safety first

Older airplanes frequently lack the safety equipment we’ve come to expect from driving cars. For example, although lap belts are standard, shoulder harnesses are not. You can make your flights safer with an after-market shoulder harness kit or a five-point harness that replaces the original seat belt, or even an airbag seatbelt system. You can install the simpler systems yourself with a mechanic’s signoff, but more complex systems such as an airbag seat belt will require a professional installation, not to mention a yearly check of the airbag’s condition when your airplane is getting its annual inspection. Simple three-point restraints start at $200 but can cost as much as $2,000, while airbag systems start at $2,580.

Why you should do it: When properly restrained in the cockpit, you’re much more likely to walk away from an off-airport landing with few or no injuries. When I owned a 1968 Piper Cherokee 140 that came with lap belts, shoulder harnesses for the front seats were among my first investments. I almost never carried backseat passengers in the underpowered Cherokee, so I saved a little money by not installing a complete set.

Does your airplane have one of those little stick-on carbon monoxide detectors? When was the last time you changed it? Ditch the sticker and get a portable carbon monoxide detector. Similarly, you can carry a portable pulse oximeter that lets you know if you’re not getting enough oxygen at the altitude you’re flying. Portable carbon monoxide detectors start at $75, and they are small and lightweight. You can stick one to your panel with Velcro. Pulse oximeters that attach to your finger and measure the percentage of oxygen in your bloodstream are an even better buy, starting at just $30. Why not buy one of each?

Why you should do it:

If carbon monoxide seeps into the cabin, you won’t know it because you can’t smell the odorless gas. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real hazard, particularly in the winter. Most general aviation airplanes utilize rudimentary cabin heating with a shroud that covers the muffler and uses airflow from inside the cowling that is heated and directed into the cabin. This design is effective, simple, and lightweight, but if the airplane’s muffler has a crack, carbon monoxide could enter the cabin. Oxygen starvation is another hazard that you may not recognize until it’s too late, and it can affect pilots flying at higher altitudes without supplemental oxygen.

Comfort: Sun visors

Cut the glare and keep yourself cooler with sun visors. Even if you’re sporting a good set of sunglasses, you and your front-seat passenger will be thankful the next time you fly toward the sun for any length of time. When it comes to price and functionality, you have more choices here: Sun visors can be as simple and inexpensive as stick-on pieces of film you apply to the windscreen. RAM Mounts, a company that specializes in mounts for automobiles, boats, and airplanes, makes a portable sun visor that attaches to the wind screen and can easily be installed and removed. For a more permanent and stylish option, Rosen Sunvisor Systems makes visors that are permanently mounted to the airplane’s headliner, and they rotate and swivel.

Why you should do it:

We used to use paper charts as impromptu sun visors, but now what are you gonna do—hold up your iPad?

Aesthetics: Paint and upholstery

A paint job that’s losing its luster can get new life from a paint restoration and new ceramic coating.

An aircraft’s paint job will last as long as the airframe does, but it will begin to show wear and tear—chips, fading, scratches—from its exposure to the elements. That aside, nothing dates an airplane’s exterior (and interior, for that matter) as much as the paint job from the decade in which it was made. If you’ve ever seen a pea-green Cessna or a brown-and-white Cherokee on the ramp, you know.

That’s why many owners don’t mind paying for a quality, professional paint scheme. It makes the airplane look brand-new in a way that few things can. And a fresh paint scheme improves the resale value of the aircraft by thousands of dollars.

You cannot paint an airplane yourself. It is a complex and lengthy job that requires stripping old paint, sanding the surfaces, fixing any corrosion that’s discovered, applying the new paint, and balancing the control surfaces when everything else is finished. A paint job takes weeks and will cost upwards of $10,000.

A less expensive option is to get a vinyl wrap for the airplane. A few companies sell these, and they’re less expensive than a complete paint job. You will frequently see vinyl wraps used to display advertising; see, for example, the blue-and-white Cessna 172 flown by aviation educator Jason Schappert for

Aircraft upholstery can wear out, get torn, or just look grotty after several decades. The foam inside upholstery can harden as it ages, making seats unbearable after an hour or so. A makeover can be as simple as updating carpet or seat leather, or as complicated as refurbishing everything from headliner to sidewalls and door panels. An aircraft interior refurbishment shop can take you by the hand and lead you through the process. Airtex Interiors sells kits for certain makes and models. No upholstery replacement will be a quick-and-dirty process, so plan for lots of down time whether you farm it out or tackle it yourself. Prices will vary according to how much or how little is done and who does it, but Aviation Consumer said you can expect to pay $2,000 for a “spruce up,” $3,000 to $7,000 for a face lift that doesn’t include high-end materials such as leather, and as much as $10,000 or more for high-end improvements.

Why you should do it:

John Majane III of Germantown, Maryland, had been happily flying his 1955 Beech F35 Bonanza with its original paint scheme and might have done so for the rest of its life, until one day when he was pushing it into his hangar and noticed spots where surface corrosion had begun to bubble the paint. He found a shop and had the work completed, and he said he is very happy with the results—even though he thought the old scheme “had character.”


Pilots love the latest and greatest technology, and fortunately there are plenty of after-market doodads for your antiquated panel. The six-pack purist can replace the original analog instruments with new analog versions, and that can be done on a case-by-case basis (i.e., as these instruments wind down or fail) to keep costs more manageable. You can also replace some or all those analog instruments with digital displays that present airspeed, vertical speed, altitude, attitude, and more in a clean graphical format.

Crackling older radios that are functional but annoying can be swapped out for newer ones. You can back up your airplane’s VOR receivers with a panel-mounted GPS that is legal to use as a navigation source in instrument flight. Or you can improve your situational awareness with an angle of attack indicator that helps you detect when a stall might occur.

Most mechanics can remove and install basic instruments, but they may not have the proper tools to do more complicated jobs such as a GPS upgrade or an autopilot installation. Here’s where you find a repair station that specializes in avionics to perform the work. As with paint and upholstery, prices will vary according to the shop used, the amount of time required to install the equipment, and the equipment itself.

Why you should do it:

Jim Cunningham of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, replaced the Garmin 430 panel-mounted GPS in his Piper PA–28R Arrow after Garmin announced it would stop manufacturing the 430. “I’d have kept it for the rest of the time I owned the airplane had the unit been sustainable,” Cunningham said, adding that he was concerned parts for the 430 would become unavailable.

My 1968 Piper Cherokee was originally equipped with two VOR receivers and an automatic direction finder (ADF)—navigation technology that is practically obsolete. When I could scrape together the cash, I replaced the aging radio with a nav/com with moving map. That necessitated pulling out the ADF (good riddance) but also required replacing one VOR, as it would not communicate with the newer equipment. This isn’t uncommon when updating avionics, but it can be a pain in the wallet. Still, I was more than pleased with the results, which made cross-country travel in the airplane much more practical and fun and enabled me to do more effective instrument training. While I didn’t recoup my investment when I sold the airplane, the GPS did boost the airplane’s resale value, and the added utility made up the difference.

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Jill W. Tallman
Jill W. Tallman
AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

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