Flying Four-by-Fours

The most popular airplanes are four seaters powered by four-cylinder engines. Which is right for you? Dick Collins explores the subject.



Four-cylinder, four-place piston singles

The four-seat, four-cylinder, tricycle fixed-gear singles are in large part the basis for general aviation flying. There are a lot of them out there. They fly a big percentage of the general aviation hours, and one of them is often a first airplane with many pilots satisfied with them as the only airplane they will ever own. (And, yes, pre-1968 Cessna 172/Skyhawks had six-cylinder engines, but the horsepower was 145, close to many of the four-cylinder engines.)

There is a misconception that these airplanes are for first-time owners and relatively new pilots only. They are great for that, but they are also great for an experienced pilot who wants to have an airplane and fly it without busting the budget.

Because these airplanes were built over a long period of time, a lot of them were built, and there were many different versions of the same model, so there's a great selection in the used airplane market.

Before going into the characteristics of the airplanes let's look at the dollars which are, when compared to more esoteric airplanes, one of their primary attributes.

The best way to think about the cost of airplane ownership is for the first hour every year, which is whatever the fixed costs total. Hangar, insurance, an annual inspection, and an allowance for maintenance surprises must be charged to the first hour flown each year because you must spend that money for one hour or hundreds. I estimate that the first hour in one of these airplanes is about $8,500, plus or minus, depending on a lot of factors, including where the airplane is based and whether or not it is hangared. It's up to the individual to quantify this; the number offered here is just a starting point.

After you pay for the first hour with its fixed costs, each hour thereafter costs the price of fuel, and an hourly reserve for engine overhaul plus oil changes and other routine maintenance that is driven by the number of hours flown. These airplanes offer good low-cost flying after the unavoidable and infamous first hour. If you fly 100 hours a year or less, though, the total annual out-of-pocket dollars would probably be more than it would cost to rent an airplane for those hours. The difference between renting and owning airplanes is, however, like the difference between petting the neighbor's dog and having your own to curl up on the foot of your bed on those cold nights.

There's little or no depreciation in these used airplanes, but any pilot would be kidding himself to not put some bucks in the budget for new gizmos. The airplanes and engines change little over the years, but the avionics and other accessories that we want are becoming more exciting every day.

The four-seat airplanes in this group can be bought for widely varying prices. Looking at 1979 models, the high year of production for most models, in one issue of Trade-a-Plane, the asking prices ranged from $40,500 for a 150-hp Grumman American Traveler to $83,000 for a well-equipped 180-hp Piper Archer. There was a 1976 Cardinal in there at $85,000. The airplanes range from high-time trainers to low-time personal airplanes with prices adjusted accordingly.

So, the initiation fee is not too high. Go for older airplanes and it will be less, while newer ones are more. A 1997 Skyhawk is shown at $93,000 in Vref, an aircraft value reference.

Most of the airplanes that are 30 or less years old have avionics adequate for IFR flying and some have IFR approach-approved GPS. Most, however, have pretty old but adequate avionics. The weakest are the Cessnas with ARC/Cessna/Sperry avionics.

Some of the airplanes were built with either 150/160-horsepower or 180-horsepower engines, and some have been converted in the field to the higher horsepower. Power counts in the asking prices, too, with 180-horsepower airplanes worth about $20,000 more in the case of Warrior/Archer and Cheetah/Tiger airplanes where horsepower is the primary difference between the models. The used price difference is under ten grand in Cessnas when the fixed-gear Cutlass is compared to the Skyhawk, though few Cutlasses were built. There are actually more Skyhawks that have been converted in the field to 180 horsepower than there are fixed-gear Cutlasses. Such conversions are available for both the 172/Skyhawk and 150 Cardinal according to Aircraft Bluebook-Price Digest. Cessna built the fixed-gear Cardinal with 150 and 180 engines but not at the same time.

Why is 20 horsepower such a big factor in pricing? That cuts back to the usefulness of the airplanes. From a performance standpoint, with 150/160 horsepower the airplanes have adequate performance. They get off the ground okay, they climb okay, and they will cruise maybe 120 knots on a good day. The full-fuel payload isn't all that great. There is just not a lot of spirit there and those 20 extra horses add enough to all the numbers to brighten the day.

The cruising speed of these airplanes makes them quite sensitive to headwinds and the extra knots from more horsepower help on this as well. As one who has flown the length and breadth of the country in a variety of these airplanes, I can attest that there can be some long slow days when the wind is strong and from ahead.

On the other hand, the basic four-seaters can be effective business airplanes in a lot of applications. I had a Skyhawk for a couple of years that was used for business travel and, except with fierce winds, it was good for day trips out to 300 nautical miles. I was late in the evening getting home at times, but that was okay.

For a business pilot working most states (Texas, California and Pennsylvania excepted) from the center, one of these airplanes can be great. Using Arkansas as an example, a business pilot based in Little Rock can cover the state with a 120-knot airplane handily because there aren't many more than 120 nautical miles between Little Rock and the far corners of the state.

How to tell which is the best airplane for you? The most numerous are the 172/Skyhawks and PA-28 Cherokee types. High wing versus low wing, the choice is yours. The 180-horsepower variant of the Cherokees, the Archer in later versions, is a substantially better airplane than the Warrior and it is in the used airplane fleet in good numbers. The 180 Cherokee/Archers also tend to bring a premium price when compared with the other airplanes in this field.

There are, according to Vref, 6,660 180-horsepower Cherokee/Archers in the current fleet, a larger number than 150/ 160-horsepower Cherokee/Warrior airplanes. Piper also built a 140 Cherokee, as a trainer, and these were, in effect, two-seat airplanes.

The Beech Musketeer series is also here with an interesting twist. The original airplane, the 23, had a 160 Lycoming and was built in 1963. A lot of pilots thought the airplane was a poor copy of a Cherokee. So, in 1964 Beech remedied that with the A23. It is the only airplane in this category, and of the ages we are talking about, that was built with a fuel-injected engine, a Continental IO-346-A that develops 165 horsepower. The engine is, in fact, two-thirds of an IO-520, which came to the Bonanza S35 the year before.

The 23-series was back to a 180 Lycoming in 1968 and later became the Sundowner. There are a total of 1,458 of the airplanes on the FAA Registry according to Vref, so there are some on the used market. Beech also built the 150-horsepower Sport version of the 23, mainly as a trainer.

Another player here is the American General (nee American and Gulfstream American) AA5 Traveler/Cheetah with 150 horsepower and Tiger with 180 horsepower. There are just over 1,000 of each on the Registry and where the 150-horsepower airplane is worth $42,000 as a 1979 model, according to Aircraft Bluebook-Price Digest, the 180-horsepower Tiger of the same year has an average retail of $58,000. There was only about a $6,000 price differential when the airplanes were new so time had been kinder to the airplane with more horsepower. Fly each one and you will see why.

As far as comfort goes, there's not a whole lot of difference in these airplanes. They will all seat four though the payload is limited, especially on the lower horsepower versions. The Beech airplanes might be the most comfortable because the seats seem to sit you up a little higher and the cabin has a roomier feeling. The Cherokee types grew a slightly longer fuselage for more rear seat legroom and tapered wings in the '70s. The Cessna cabin size has been much the same since the 1956 introduction of the airplane (yes, it will be 50 next year and holds the production record) though in 1963 the fuselage shape was changed and aft facing windows were added. The six-cylinder 145-horsepower Continental was replaced with a Lycoming 150 horse engine in 1968. That was later upped to 160.

That year, 1968, was when Cessna added another four-banger to its line in the form of the 177 Cardinal. In fact, it was originally dubbed the 172 and was to replace that airplane. The Cardinal never quite made it big, though there are still 1,780 150- and 180- horsepower fixed-gear Cardinals on the Registry. The Cardinal was built with a 150 horse engine only in 1968; thereafter it had a 180.

All the numbers of aircraft pale by comparison with the 21,388 pre-1987 172/Skyhawk types on the Registry. Cessna built a total of 33,629 of these airplanes pre-1987.

Cardinals have become almost cult airplanes and all you have to do to understand this is look at some of the paint jobs on them. Used demand for Cardinals is not as high as for 172/Skyhawks but for like year models they bring a substantially higher price. The airplanes most in demand, according to Vref, are the Skyhawk, Sundowner and Tiger.

If used isn't your bag, Cessna or Piper will sell you a brand new Skyhawk or Archer with a glass-cockpit, something that you can't replicate in a used airplane. New Tigers are also available.

I remember a friend from Texas long ago telling me that he could take a Buick Roadmaster (with four portholes on each front fender) and get places quicker than he could in a Skyhawk. They did drive pretty fast in Texas back then but that isn't the point. A Roadmaster would only fly low, as we used to call going fast in a car, where a Skyhawk will really fly.

Most users of these airplanes fly them locally, or to relatively close places within a few hundred miles. When I had a Skyhawk I flew it IFR in pretty much the same weather that I have flown in twins and high-performance singles. Effective range with a headwind is probably the biggest IFR limitation because there are weather systems that are bigger than a Skyhawk's range with a headwind. Still, I thought it was a pretty good IFR airplane and never felt like I was working with a short paddle.

There was one other limitation. My Skyhawk had a carburetor and a limitation: full carb heat had to be used in heavy rain. That cut power and in heavy rain the ceiling of the airplane was pretty low. Except for those few Beech 23s built with an injected engine, all the airplanes in this class have carburetors and the accompanying necessity to pay attention to potential ice and other limitations. I'd add that the only reason carburetors were used was because they are cheaper than fuel injection which also requires more complicated plumbing.

All the airplanes have good, forgiving flying qualities. Some of the early Cessnas have too much flaps extension at 40 degrees, later reduced to 30, but that's easy to work around. The Beech 23 types can get into porpoising if a pilot approaches too fast and gets out of synch in pitch. That can be hard on the nosewheel. The Cardinals are a little tender in pitch, too, but on balance all the airplanes are pilot as well as pocketbook friendly.

One thing these airplanes are supremely good for is an annual (or more often) flying odyssey. No hurry, just lollygag along and take some time and see the country in what is the best possible way.

I'll tell you a tale about a trip that was, to me, one of the most fun things that I have ever done in an airplane and one that illustrates what you can do with one of these basic single-engine airplanes.

It was April of 1962 and I was looking for something to write about in relation to the Cherokee, which was just coming upon the scene in numbers. Cherokees were made at Vero Beach, Florida, in the lower right hand corner of the United States. How about ferrying one to the upper left corner?

Hillsboro, Oregon, was what worked and early one morning I had the keys to the airplane, N5490W, a 160-horsepower version with a full-panel, VFR avionics, a $13,700 price tag and a useful load of 948 pounds.

When I took off and pointed the Cherokee's perky snout toward the northwest I knew there were 3,000 miles ahead, many of which involved the Rocky Mountains through which I had never flown.

The first day was over familiar territory to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with stops in Dothan, Alabama, and Little Rock, Arkansas.

The next day the territory was unfamiliar after Wichita was passed and the sightseeing was great. The first stop was at North Platte, Nebraska. Then it was on to Sheridan, Wyoming, where the big mountains start. The weather was deteriorating but, as I was to do for the rest of the trip, I started getting advice from local pilots.

Following the good advice I had a most beautiful ride up the Yellowstone River valley, then down highways and railroad tracks to Helena, Montana, for the evening.

The next day there was more inclement weather. I found those local pilots who described valleys to follow, told of landing strips along the way just in case, and assured me that the valleys to be used were wide enough to turn around in and retreat.

I made Hillsboro on the third day. It wasn't a trip over the mountains but a trip through the mountains. Thanks to the advice from those locals, it was an uneventful trip and a fine adventure.

The total flying time was 23:10, which reflects some tailwind at various points along the way. The fuel burn averaged 8.4 gallons per hour and the total fuel bill for three days of great flying was $89.11. I left the airplane in Hillsboro and took the airline home to New Jersey. The airplane must have liked it in the West because, according to the FAA Registry, it now lives in Mount Shasta, California, which is not far south of the border with Oregon.

That was a great trip. Maybe I'll do it again someday. It was a different type of flying than I do today, and also enjoy fully, but the simpler flying life and those really friendly airplanes will always have a strong appeal.