5 Tips for Finding Your Perfect Airplane

When buying your first airplane, it’s time to ‘think outside the box.’

Airshows offer an opportunity to build working familiarity of various types of aircraft and the unique ownership concerns of each. [Credit: Stephen Yeates]

If you're entertaining the idea of purchasing your first airplane, you likely have dozens of aircraft reviews and buyers guides bookmarked in your browser. You’ve learned how important it is to match an airplane’s capabilities to the sort of flying you expect to do most often. And if your daydreaming has evolved into analysis, you might have already begun to narrow your choices down to a handful of potential candidates.

But how do you determine which type is truly best for you? In a market where competitively priced examples sell within minutes of being posted online, what factors should you anticipate ahead of time to make your entry into ownership as painless as possible? Anymore, it’s about getting creative and thinking outside the box.

Attend Fly-Ins

Imagine if there was a nationwide network of airplane dealerships that specialized in everyday, real-world, used airplanes. Chances are your local dealership would become a regular haunt, and you’d constantly find reasons to stop by on your way home from work.

That dealership network doesn’t exist, but local fly-ins do. On any summer Saturday morning, there’s bound to be a pancake breakfast or EAA chapter event taking place in your area. Simply look for event calendars online and drive out to them as you’re able. There, you’ll get to see an ever-changing variety of airplanes up close and in person. Better yet, you’ll be able to chat with their owners about what those types are like to own. If you’re invited to sit in them, you’ll learn how comfortable they are (or aren’t), and indeed, whether you even fit. At the end of the day, you’ll walk away with a working familiarity of various types and the unique ownership concerns of each.

Get Out There

While the web is a wonderful resource that should be fully utilized, it’s no substitute for the connections we can make with others in person. Most of the time, this process begins—again—on a Saturday morning, but this time, at your local small town FBO. There, the regulars will likely be gathered around a table, swilling 100-octane airport coffee, telling tall tales, and solving the world’s problems. Bring a friendly smile and a fresh box of doughnuts for the group and you’ll be welcomed into the fold. Before long, you may have a lead on an airplane that the owner has talked about selling, but that isn’t yet on the market. And just like that, you’ll have beaten hundreds of other shoppers to it.

This is how I found my own airplane. While whining about my lack of success in finding a reasonably-priced Cessna 170 to a friend, she vaguely recalled her hangar neighbor mentioning that a friend of his was thinking of selling his 170. After working my way through the three degrees of separation, I struck up a friendship with the owner and, ultimately, ended up buying his airplane. While you’re out nosing around small airports, be sure to seek out the physical bulletin boards that are invariably found inside each FBO or clubhouse. There, you'll find leads on airplanes, many of which will never appear online. Powerful though the web may be, it doesn’t contain these lush grapevines of local gossip. 

Embark Upon Fact-Finding Missions

When you manage to narrow your choices down to two or three types, there’s a good chance one of them will be something other than a common Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee. Maybe it’s an old Cessna 140 taildragger, maybe it’s a Piper Tri-Pacer, or maybe it’s a Mooney. If that airplane is indeed one of your finalists, seek one out that's available to rent, and travel to it. Go up with an instructor for a couple of lessons. Evaluate and consider how well it matches your tastes. This may involve the purchase of an airline ticket to the opposite end of the country. It may involve two or more nights in a hotel. But in the overall scheme of airplane ownership, it’s a drop in the bucket...and the investment will steer you toward a good, well-researched decision and away from a hasty, ill-informed one.

Discover Local Resources

Ask any aircraft owner, and they’ll tell you that one of the most valuable assets imaginable is an experienced mechanic available locally who is familiar with your make and model. They'll be able to identify issues before they become problems, and they’ll likely be pretty quick with routine maintenance. Personally, I’ve had good luck reaching out to owners groups. Some host their own website with a dedicated forum where you can ask about experienced mechanics in your area. Other groups may only have a Facebook page.

After you’ve narrowed your search down to a few different models, ask each type’s respective owners group what mechanics and resources exist in your area. It may be the case that there are none nearby, and that you’d have to take a unique type, like a Porterfield Collegiate or Culver Cadet, to a local mechanic who’s never actually seen one before. That A&P will almost certainly overcome their learning curve, but it will take awhile—and you’ll be footing the bill along the way. Should you happen to be torn between two types and are seeking some sort of tiebreaker to help determine which to choose, the presence of local expertise might very well break that tie.

Buy With Your Heart—and Your Brain

My own airplane-shopping spreadsheet contained about six tabs, many formulas, and an entire sheet of color-coded charts that compared the airplanes I found. Important as it is to pay attention to the technical details, it’s also important to pay attention to the less quantifiable factors, e.g.: a paint scheme that you find completely irresistible; a fascination with a type’s overall design; or maybe the attachment to a model that comes from a parent or grandparent having owned one during your childhood. When it comes to a purchase of an airplane, sound decision-making should be grounded in the usual fundamental issues: lack of corrosion, a well-maintained, regularly-flown engine, etc. But so long as those boxes are checked, it’s acceptable to err toward the one that tugs at your heartstrings.

Jason McDowell is a private pilot and Cessna 170 owner based in Madison, Wisconsin. He enjoys researching obscure aviation history and serves as a judge for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association. He can be found on Instagram as @cessnateur.

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