What Is Your Next Airplane?


The most common questions I am asked by pilot friends is which airplane I plan to buy next, and which airplane do I think they should buy next. Clearly it is a topic every pilot thinks about a lot, and it remains a hot topic because there isn't any clear-cut answer.

For many years the discussion following the question revolved around a step-up airplane. But lately, as we all get older, fuel prices skyrocket and we contemplate the diminished income of retirement, an airplane that is a step or two down in cost and complexity is discussed almost as frequently as the faster, longer range and bigger model.

Life wasn't always this complicated for pilots. For decades the move to the next category of airplane was clear. You started in a fixed-gear single, moved to a retractable single, and as the budget allowed, into a piston twin, pressurized twin and then on to a twin turboprop and maybe, for a few, to a jet. Sure, there were choices to be made, such as to move into a Bonanza or Cessna 210, but the steps from one category to another were obvious. And for those of you who study the AIM far too much, by using the word category I don't imply the FAA definition which is far too broad to be useful.

This predictable path to the highest rung of the aviation ladder that your finances could sustain was abolished several years ago by several factors, including new airplane designs and insurance companies' pilot experience demands.

For example, nobody in the 1960s -- a period to which many airplanes still trace their design roots-- would have considered installing the most powerful available piston engine on a fixed-gear four-seat single. The philosophy was to first retract the wheels for extra cruise speed, and then go up in power. Mooneys, Comanches, Arrows and others had folding wheels with only 180 hp engines. But then Cirrus and Columbia came along and bolted 310 hp engines to fixed-gear four seaters and wiped out one whole rung on the performance ladder. These airplanes are already as fast, or faster, than the retractables, giving new pilots quicker gratification but one less opportunity to move up. Insurance companies applauded this move and punished pilots without retractable gear experience, making a change to a retractable even more complicated and expensive.

Insurance companies, and high maintenance and fuel costs, ganged up on the piston twin too, making it less available as a move-up airplane. The high-powered singles closed in on the cruise speed of the twins for just about half the operating cost. Ice protection and real time weather radar, plus redundant electrical power sources, long exclusive twin advantages, also became available on singles. And many pilots became convinced you need to be superman to fly a twin, so desire for an extra powerplant was actually replaced by fear for many who would have been candidates for that category in the past.

So when my friends in the high-performance fixed-gear piston singles ask me what I recommend they buy next, the list is a short one. They want more speed, of course, but many are also looking for more cabin room and payload. An A36 Bonanza has more cabin space than the four-seaters, but not necessarily more payload nor speed. The Piper Meridian is faster at its pressurized cruise altitudes, has more cabin room, but not more full-fuel payload. The new unpressurized Matrix is both fast and has good payload and cabin space, and will be looked upon more kindly by insurance underwriters because they charge more for pressurized pistons and typically impose higher requirements for pilot experience and training. Piper has orders for all 100 Matrix airplanes it can build this year, so its value as a step-up for many pilots has been recognized.

If the budget doesn't allow moving up to a brand-new airplane such as a Matrix or Meridian, older Malibus converted to the Continental TSIO-550 engine are a good value. The 550 has performed much better than the original 520 installed in the Malibus but preserves the long range and good payload of those earlier models.

Of course, there are those who can afford to move faster and the turboprop singles provide a clear path to more performance. The Piper Meridian is a very popular airplane even though most owners wish for more range and payload. It won't go a lot further than the high-performance piston singles, but it turns in 250 knots true airspeed at high-speed cruise and has a comfortable pressurized cabin. And it is the least expensive of the pressurized turboprop singles.

Probably the best value for the move up is a used TBM 700. The airplane is fast with 280 knot cruise and has long range. Earlier models are restricted in full-fuel payload, but everybody will want to make more frequent stops if you fill the seats in any case. The bad news for a pilot buying a used TBM is that prices start at nearly $1.5 million for the oldest models, but that excellent value retention turns into an asset when you want to sell. No airplane is an investment, but over the past several years the TBM series has been returning most of what a pilot paid for it.

The big PC-12 is also an exceptional move-up airplane for the single-engine pilot with the resources and travel requirement. It's not as fast as the TBM, but the Pilatus has incredible range and a cabin the size of a large twin turboprop. The PC-12 is an airplane for serious travel, and its enormous capability is reflected in the price of nearly $4 million for a new one and used prices that stay well above $2 million for the oldest models built in 1995. PC-12s that are a few years old are trading for more than their new price because the waiting list for new airplanes is long. Clearly the PC-12 has hit the sweet spot.

An airplane that may not be an obvious candidate for a move up is the King Air 90. It's a twin, it's pressurized and it's a turbine, all issues with the insurance companies. But the King Air has a decades-long record as an owner-flown airplane, and the record is good. A pilot moving from a high-performance single to a King Air will get more scrutiny, require more training and checking, and will initially pay a higher premium than for a turbine single, but the move is possible and practical.

The King Air 90 can't keep up with the TBM 700, and certainly not the new 850, but it delivers a huge, comfortable cabin with a private and usable potty. If you're trying to get a new airplane approval from your spouse, those two features will make the sale a slam-dunk.

The new 90GT is a terrific airplane with the Dash 135 Pratt engines that up cruise speed to 270 knots. The cockpit has a state of the art Collins Pro Line 21 avionics system with big flat-panel displays and an excellent autopilot system. The GT version has been a huge hit with owner pilots and sales have doubled. If the $3 million for a new GT isn't in the budget, you can buy an older 90 and have the Dash 135 engines installed under an STC and transform the cockpit to the highest level with Garmin's new G1000 system recently approved in the airplane.

The King Air will cost more to operate than the turboprop singles because you are feeding and maintaining two engines, but the time logged in the King Air will nicely set up a pilot for stepping into a light jet. Turbine time in any airplane is good when moving up to the jet, at least in the eyes of insurance companies, but twin turbine time is better.

An unknown for any pilot looking ahead now is how the single-engine jets will work out. Diamond, Cirrus and Piper are each designing their jets with the single engine piston pilot in mind. Diamond and Cirrus will restrict the operating envelope to 25,000 feet and below to keep the new jets in the same conditions as the pressurized piston singles have operated in. Each jet will have to meet the maximum stall speed of 61 knots that is required for any single-engine airplane, so airspeeds in the airport environment will be familiar to a piston pilot.

However, because they are jets a type rating will be required to fly them, and that means attendance at an approved school and passing a check ride flown to ATP standards. Even if you have a private license, all type rating standards are at the ATP level. The training and testing will undoubtedly sort out some pilots who would be comfortable in a turboprop single but not in a jet. And it is impossible to predict how insurance companies will treat the jet singles initially, but I would expect the first pilots of the jet singles to be scrutinized closely and charged more than for equivalent coverage in a turboprop single. That may not be logical, but underwriters are suspicious of any new category of airplane, and there is simply no history of single-engine jet loss rates.

The remarkable aspect of the jet singles is that Diamond and Cirrus are pricing their airplanes below a Cessna Caravan, the lowest-cost turbine single. If it is possible to deliver a single-engine jet for $1.5 million or less, that will be a price breakthrough that nobody has achieved. Cirrus has not announced a specific price for its jet, but is hinting at a figure around $1 million. That is an amazing number when you consider it is only a little more than double the cost of an SR22, which lacks pressurization, retractable gear and a jet engine. I can't see how a single-engine jet can be designed from scratch and then built for hundreds of thousands less than the price of the turboprop Meridian, which is a derivative of the Malibu, but we can hope.

For pilots already in the game and looking for a way to downsize, the path is, if anything, even less clear than for those moving up. The reason is that it is emotionally hard to give up anything you have enjoyed. The idea of being tied to the low altitudes by moving from a pressurized to an unpressurized airplane is very unappealing. You can tell yourself how reliable engines are, but when you are used to flying with two, one always seems a little less safe. With two you never think about leaving the shoreline behind, but with one, it's always on your mind. And every knot of cruise speed or minute of fuel endurance that you sacrifice by trading down is painful. You will compare every trip in your new, less capable airplane to the faster one that you sold. It's a recipe for unhappiness.

Of course, some backward moves are more acceptable than others. For example, I could live quite happily in the V35B Bonanza that I loved in the 1980s, I think. But I couldn't say the same for, say, a Skyhawk. Basic airplanes are essential and deliver a lot of capability for their cost of ownership, but we humans are ill-suited to step back and be happy about it.

My advice for any pilot who currently has an airplane that he isn't using enough, or can no longer justify the cost of, is to move to an entirely and dramatically different category of airplane. For example, if the fuel bills for your piston twin or turboprop are driving you crazy and forcing you to opt for the airlines for trips, sell it and buy an antique or classic. It's much better to ride around in, say, a Stearman on sunny days and leave the trips to the airlines, than to move way back in performance and still try to travel in your own airplane.

The ultimate move down for many of us as the clock ticks by should probably be to a light sport airplane. There are some very interesting reproductions of classics such as the Cub that would be very appealing for fun flying. You could get an affordable new airplane and avoid the hassle of restoration, but more importantly you could just let your medical lapse and fly on so long as you can keep a driver's license. Imagine how much lower your blood pressure would be if you never had to think of an AME again?

Back to the original question. What is my next airplane? I am afraid I'm stumped. The budget doesn't allow a move to a turbine, single or twin, which is what I would like. Trading my unpressurized Baron 58 for a piston twin with pressurization would add some comfort, very little usable cruise speed and considerably more cost for ownership, so that's out. A Baron climbs so well that I average 183 knots over the ground in all phases of flight as recorded by my Garmins, so no piston airplane is going to do much, if any better. And I like the baggage and cabin room of the airplane, along with its payload versus range flexibility.

I see why the Baron 58 has remained in continuous production for 38 years. It leaves you dreaming of your next airplane while delivering more than enough of everything pilots want to keep you from straying. Sounds like I married the thing, but don't tell Stancie.