How to buy the right airplane!

by Bob Worthington


Let me begin by stating that there is no single “RIGHT” airplane for almost anyone. Even if having all the money in the world, I doubt if one could buy the perfect plane that is able to accomplish every single mission flown. Most pilots have constraints and limitations that automatically place restrictions on what we can purchase, for most of us, our chief limitation is financial; we don’t have an unlimited supply of cash available for a plane.
But there are other wants, needs, and limitations we must consider. Buying an airplane concerns more than just selecting what you want. Pilot certification and ratings must be considered, where will it be kept, insurance, operation costs and who will be flying with you. Another concern is maintenance; where will it be done and availability of spare parts. In the selection process, you must be prepared to compromise. This usually begins with why you want a plane, what you expect it to do, and what you can afford.

In the 40 plus years of being a pilot, I have owned 9 planes. Four Cessnas, three Mooneys, one Grumman, and one American General. One was new, and the rest were used from 2 to 42 years old. All were compromises between what I wanted, what I needed, what equipment I wanted, and what was available within my price range. Sometimes the amount of money you are willing to spend is not related to what you could spend, but what you are willing to spend.

I had an airplane down for a major rebuild after a collapsed gear. I lived in NM, but the plane was being repaired in AL. I knew I would never fly that plane again, so I would sell it. After being fixed I calculated I could sell it and walk away with $85,000 cash. I arranged an $85,000 line of credit to be paid upon selling my rebuilt plane. I needed a plane but did not to spend any more of my cash. I found and bought a 42-year-old C-182, equipped as I wanted, for $80,000. Six months later, I sold the repaired plane, paying the loan.

All planes I purchased had to be equipped to accomplish my stated missions. Most of my flights were extended IFR cross-country trips. Thus, the plane had to be IFR equipped and have an auto-pilot with altitude hold. Hand-flying 2000 miles in extreme weather is not fun. Most trips included my wife, taking a couple weeks, so we needed baggage capacity. What the plane looked like (inside or out) was of little concern but how the plane operated was. Each time I changed planes, it was for a specific need, which the current plane couldn’t provide.
Flying my first plane, a 172, returning from an 800-mile trip, fighting stiff headwinds. my wife commented on our speed, asking if we could fly faster. In less than 3 weeks I had an almost new 182. The 182 was replaced by a Mooney 231 because it could fly faster and higher for long IFR trips.

In the mid-1980s my career changed from business professor and consultant to full-time non-fiction writer, doing many motorcycle and 4WD articles, flying less. Writing magazine articles reduced my income, considerably, so I sold the Mooney and joined a local flying club. But flying a rental plane doesn’t compare to flying one’s own plane, and I missed teaching. So…. I returned to the university, but this time as a journalism professor, teaching writing.
Then fate intervened, a student with a very unhealthy driving record, smashed into my motorcycle, and me. My left arm was almost chopped off and my left leg was destroyed. My arm was reassembled, but not my leg. Recovery took 9 months and because of my damaged left leg, I couldn’t walk without crutches or a cane. But, a pilot doesn’t need to walk to be able to fly. I received an extensive checkout by a CFII and passed my flight physical so was able to fly again.

I wanted my own plane again, for long distance flying. In ’91 I bought a used, IFR Grumman Tiger. Cross-country trips were interesting, after landing and parking, I would exit, grab crutches and amble away, with on-lookers staring, open mouthed. My disabled leg was deteriorating, needing to be completely rebuilt.

Not knowing the outcome of the procedure, I sold my Tiger before the operation. But the rebuilt was perfect and I could walk again, unaided. I needed another plane. Several months before the operation I test flew a brand-new 1992 American General Tiger. The article compared the new Tiger to my old Tiger. The new Tiger was for sale, so I bought it. The first year, I flew over 500 hours. Yeah, I missed flying.

On a winter trip from Reno, NV back home to NM, I departed IFR to get above the clouds. Unfortunately, we had to climb quickly to our enroute altitude but couldn’t. Luckily, no one else was around so departure let us arrive late. While both Tigers were a lot of fun, our increased demand for IFR flying and a need to fly faster led to selling the Tiger.

As an aside, buying a new plane should avoid expensive maintenance. Not true. Several months after purchase the FAA found a problem with the wings. On some new Tigers, where the wings joined the fuselage, the connection was loose requiring expensive wing removal for repair. My Tiger was one, but still under warranty. Shortly after learning my Tiger needed repairing, the Tiger manufacturer went bankrupt, terminating my warranty.
Next was a Mooney 201, not quite as fast as the 231, but it was faster and more powerful than the Tiger. Eighteen months later, on climb-out in West Texas, the newly rebuilt engine quit, so I made an unscheduled, off-airport landing, totaling the plane but my wife and I walked away.

Needing a plane, I bought an excellent 17-year-old, IFR equipped Mooney we flew for 9 years, the longest we owned an airplane. Trips took us to Canada, Alaska, and the Bahamas. By the mid-2000s, age got the best of us. Almost 70 with injuries due to combat wounds, parachute jumps ending badly, and motorcycle mishaps, getting in and out of the Mooney became difficult. Speed was desired but being easier to enter and exit was necessary.
We traded the 231 for a completely rebuilt (to my specifications), 24-year-old 182 RG. This plane performed perfectly until April 2013, when, after landing at Birmingham, AL, while taxiing, the nose gear collapsed. After several months of renting a plane, I bought another 182, which was described in the beginning of this column. That airplane was sold in 2016 to a pilot who needed a plane for a 1200-mile weekly commute to work.

Buying a plane almost always involves compromise. I try to locate a plane within 600 miles of where I live. I decide what is important (engine time and IFR equipment) and what isn’t (how it looks). I limit my search to what I am willing to pay, what I need/want, and what the market bears. My favorite plane has always been the one currently owned. I have never been dissatisfied with any purchase and never felt remorse for any plane I sold. The key to getting a good plane is to set limitations (compromises) and do your research. Obtain a good pre-buy inspection and learn how to evaluate the plane’s logbooks, taking the time needed to understand the history of the plane. I have bought airplanes with damage histories or missing log books. But the damage or absent logbooks were ancient history, as either the plane had flown successfully for years or most of the vital parts of the plane (such as engine) had long been replaced. Therefore, what had happened or was missing, was no longer a factor.
Finding and buying my “right” plane has always been fun and exciting, and following my rules, I have never regretted any buy.