Shopping For A Family Airplane? Prepare To Compromise

The robust Cherokee Six is very much like a Chevy Suburban with wings. [Photo: Jason McDowell]

Shopping for airplanes is fun until it gets serious. As with many endeavors that eventually lead to major decisions, digging into the details can leave us disappointed, frustrated, and even frightened. Aircraft prices, after all, are scary these days.

I have been looking for an airplane that can haul my family of four at a decent pace over a long distance—a classic aerial traveling machine. We love landing at remote strips so our ideal fast airplane needs to slow down enough for short-field work. After checking off the things we want, we immediately have to step back and decide what we can do without.

While it is easy to blame high prices for the need to compromise, we also have to consider each aircraft’s capabilities, and our own, realistically. Are we willing to give up some speed for the ability to explore the backcountry? Will the comfort of a roomy cabin mean more to my family than saving 15 or 30 minutes on a 500 nm trip? Is range important when everyone wants a rest stop every two hours anyway?

Prices and conditions on the used-aircraft market are all over the map. Paring down your list of candidates will take consideration and research. However, I believe the sweet spot for many shoppers is between $100,000 and $200,000. The ideal six-seat speedster with a huge useful load might not exist in that range, but plenty of fine alternatives do.

The following aircraft could be attractive “Plan-B” options for pilots who can adjust their priorities while staying on budget.     

Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six/300

If you must have six seats and are willing to sacrifice some speed—and short-field performance does not mean all that much to you—the robust Cherokee Six is worth a look. Very much like a Chevy Suburban with wings, it will carry more people and baggage in its wide, comfortable cabin than many competing family haulers. Its Lance and Saratoga siblings have retractable gear that help them look sleeker in the air but they are not much faster considering their high horsepower. Let’s talk more about that cabin. Most PA-32s have club seating in the rear with access through large side doors. It is obvious even to casual onlookers that there is room to stretch out back there. If you have one of those families that votes on things like activities, restaurants, and big purchases, the Cherokee Six might win by a landslide.

By the Numbers

Used price (range)$119,000-$210,000
Max Takeoff Weight3,400 lbs.
Max Cruise Speed144 knots
Range850 nm
Takeoff/Landing Distance (over 50-foot obstacle)1,500 feet/1,000 feet

Beechcraft V35B Bonanza

[FLYING archive]

The Beechcraft A36 Bonanza has long been the standard among traveling piston singles because of its speed, six-seat cabin, versatility and—let’s be honest— its lovely appearance. But those qualities tend to push A36 prices beyond many pilots’ budgets. It’s frustrating.

The classic V-tail version is a stylish alternative with the same Beechcraft design details people love, like those beautiful flush door hinges, and the cross-country speed for which Bonanzas are famous. The unusual tail design also gives the airplane an edgy individualism that will always be cool. All you really have to give up is that third row of seats—and any aversion you or your family might have to an aircraft forever associated (through no fault of its own) with the day the music died.

By the Numbers

Used price (range)$145,000 – $239,000
Max Takeoff Weight3,400 lbs.
Max Cruise Speed176 knots
Range600 nm
Takeoff/Landing Distance (over 50-foot obstacle)1,320 feet/1,177 feet

Cessna 182 Skylane

[FLYING archive]

Many pilots consider the Skylane the best all-around light piston single because it does many things well, even if it fails to dominate any particular category. For those who learned to fly in Cessna 172s or 152s, the 182 is a sensible step-up that outperforms its smaller relatives in just about every way.

If your missions often include short turf or gravel strips, the 182 will be more at home in those settings than the other aircraft listed here. Its rugged fixed landing gear, high-lift wing, and powerful engine mean you can start getting into fairly serious backcountry flying without expensive modifications—you’ll just want to remove any wheel pants. There are a whole lot of used 182s on the market, from Eisenhower-era relics to newer models built since the company resumed production in the late 1990s. It is safe to say your ideal 182 exists somewhere between those extremes.

By the Numbers

Used price (range)$149,000 – $245,000
Max Takeoff Weight2,950 lbs.
Max Cruise Speed144 knots
Range640 nm
Takeoff/Landing Distance (over 50-foot obstacle)1,350 feet/1,350 feet

Mooney M20K 231

[Photo Courtesy: Aldo Bidini]

Speed seems to be the costliest trait among traveling aircraft. Or perhaps it is the combination of speed and six seats that drives prices so high for certain models. The good news is that if speed tops your priority list, Mooney has a range of four-seaters that can fly to your destination faster than most while often burning less fuel than other aircraft with similar performance.

This is the airplane most likely to overcome my wife’s predisposition to Bonanzas because of its efficiency and the fact that nice, newer models (I mean as new as the early 1990s) are available for about half the asking price of 36- or 33-series Bonanzas that might be 10 to 20 years older. I even found a 1983 M20K Rocket—a modified version with a 305 hp TSIO520 engine—that would be worth a look. Depending on the model—and the size of your people—the seats in the back can be a little tight.

By the Numbers

Used price (range)$124,000 – $194,000
Max Takeoff Weight2,900 lbs.
Max Cruise Speed173 knots
Range980 nm
Takeoff/Landing Distance (over 50-foot obstacle)2,060 feet/2,280 feet

Rockwell Commander 114

[FLYING archive]

A rare sight on the ramp, one might say that is where Rockwell Commanders perform best. When I visit a new airport in my club’s Commander 114, people often emerge from the FBO for a closer look. Other pilots walking to their airplanes will divert in order to chat me up about my machine. Usually they say nice things about its looks. It is handsome, sitting on tall trailing-link landing gear with a high-mounted cruciform tail and a sleek shape that must have seemed futuristic back in 1975 when it rolled out of the factory.

I know from experience that it will haul four large people long distances on high-density altitude days, but it will not do so from a short field, nor will it fly very fast once airborne. The wide cabin that makes the airplane so comfortable for passengers also adds drag. But if style and accommodation mean more to you than speed, the Commander can be a lot of airplane for the money.

By the Numbers

Used price (range)$150,000 – $185,000
Max Takeoff Weight3,140 lbs.
Max Cruise Speed148 knots
Range675 nm
Takeoff/Landing Distance (over 50-foot obstacle)1,990 feet/1,200 feet
Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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