Deciding on an Airplane

Next step is figuring out what you want to buy.

I suspect this starts the moment any of us decide to take our first flight lesson. We begin to fantasize about what airplane would suit us best, always with the assumption that we have a bank account stuffed to the top with money. We go wild in our vision of home ownership of a Gulfstream VI. But in the end, we're realistic, and start defining what we can use and what we'll end up getting. Here's the process I went thorough, and what I learned.





I learned on Pipers, so the first speculation early in my training was "buy a new Piper". Many visits to the Piper web site., decided that I could certainly afford a Piper Warrior. Of course, 115 knot cruise and 500 mile range wasn't all that great. And $220k (after options and taxes) was a lot for something that doesn't go.

OK, maybe a Cessna. Yuuuuk. A multi-engine DiamondAir Twin Desiel? Well yeah, but it's not going to be type certified for a few years.

That leads to the next, more logical way of deciding what airplane you look to buy; What the heck do you need? We're looking at a purchase that is probably going to last 10-20 years, and you'd better be comfortable with the choice. What did I need?

Here is a need matrix to base your decision on, this is the one I used. The needs matrix varies for each of us, we weight characteristic differently, our decisions about speed or support vary by our experience, plans, age, family status, and many other factors. I've consolidated most of the factors and given some ideas about why you will want to consider this factor. There are others that you might specifically add, build a good martix for yourself.
Speed Cruise range IFR capable Usable weight
Operating cost Insurance cost Overhaul cost Support
Avionics Complexity Seat count Safety
Speed This was co-#1 for us. How fast does the thing go? For me I wanted as fast as I could afford, I had already taken some long trips at 110 knots in a rental Piper, and was not happy, so knew that speed was a key attribute.
Range Second #1. Range. How far can you go in one hop? Some of us only want to fly in the local area, a 200 mile trip is the farthest we'd ever consider, so it might be weighted low. For me this was as important as speed. One of my goals of aircraft ownership was to fly from the US to my house on Cozumel. Of course, there is the creature comfort side of range, also, Karen indicated that 5.5 hours at one sitting was probably the longest she'd even consider going in the airplane.

You spend extra to have an IFR certified aircraft. Do you need it? The avionics needed to make an airplane IFR rated also help with VFR flying, but if you don't need them don't pay for them. I need IFR.

Usable Weight How much can you haul? Do you regularly want to haul passengers and luggage for trips? This I don't care too much about. We need us, full fuel, and 3 suitcases for anything we could consider. Figure 200 pounds of baggage after fuel and us would be fine.
Seat Count Seats. 2,4 6. A freind of mine bought a used Piper Lance specifically because he has a passel of kids and the Lance has enough seats to seat 'em. My decision is, as long as it has 2 seats I'm good.
Operating cost Month to month money you'll be putting out. You need to do as much research as you can on the cost of the beast you're considering. How much does an annual on a brand new SR-22 cost? If there is an AD on the Cessna you're looking at, how much per flight hour is the inspection? Even more mundane, does this model of aircraft eat tires quickly? The internet is a great place to search dilligently for these factors
Insurance cost A 1961 Cessna 150 is going to be pretty easy to insure cheap. A new Lancair 350 is going to be expensive. Factor it, no matter what you know you will be paying a few hundred to a thousand dollars a month for insurance.
Overhaul cost That danged engine. If you're buying used, how soon before you have to overhaul the engine in the aircraft you're buying? Be realistic, if it's in a few hundred hours you better factor the overhaul cost ($10,000-$20,000) into your picture of the purchase price.
Support Who flys 'em? Is there a group of Erocoupe pilots at your local airport? Does the Cessna Pilots Association site make you feel that you can get answers to your questions? Is there a strong aftermarket for parts and accessories for the make and model you want to buy?
Safety One word :NTSB Do your research. All the accidents or serious incidents the airplane you're looking at are stored in the NTSB database. Take a look, and look for trends.
Avionics Do you want the latest pre-installed, or are you willing to live with orginal equipment? This one gnaws at me, I want the latest and greatest glass doodads, but realistically airplanes have been flying IFR with Loran and VOR/DME for a very long time. I still don't have a good answer in my head to this one.
Complexity Dead simple, or retractrable gear, constant speed props, multi engine, etc. What style of flying do you want to do?
Low wings My own criteria. Has to be a low-winged airplanes. Flying high winged airplanes makes you look like a dork.
















I went through my needs matrix, and came up with a few likely models. New airplanes that met those needs and were theoretically in my price range, the choice was limited pretty specifically to the Cirrus SR-20.

and possibly a Tiger (though the range was not what I wanted).

So I asked for a test flight on both. Cirrus responded immediately. Tiger didn't. Tiger, quite frankly, was unresponsive, arrogant, and insulting. Bad idea for a company struggling to stay alive. I discarded them becuase of the company attitude. A few years later: Tiger did go out of business, should have been nice to me....

SR-20: Great flying airplane! (read my pilot report on this test flight) Loved everything about it. Then did my homework further. This would be a get-in cost of about $250,000. I'd have to pay state sales tax on top of that (yes yes, you can work to avoid that, but those options limit your airplane use and I believe are risky) of $10,000 or more. Insurance quote was about $8,000 a year (composite repair is expensive). It's a brand-new airplane, I'd better find a hangar at higher-than asking rate, since the wait for normal-priced hangars here is years.

Heck, owning an SR-20 is looking like it's going to cost me $2,500 or so a mionth.after I actually throw in some flying hours. I could do it, but do I want to?

Answer in my head came back: Nope. Look at your needs matrix, what does buying a new aircraft get you that you are looking for? Newer avionics and longer time to overhaul costs. How heavily weighted are those two factors for me? Well, actually not that high! It doesn't make sense to spend an extra $150,000 to get some of the lower rated items on my list.

Time to look used. Used airplanes are certainly a safer bet than used autos, but you have to be careful. There are many sites that offer advice on used aircraft purchasing, look for them, I'm sticking to decisions.

OK, what used airplanes make sense based on my criteria?

Piper Cherokee 235

Nice little airplane, good range, decent (140-ish) knots of speed, and Pipers are pretty rock-solid. Only problem is these are somewhat older.

Multiple models of Mooney

In fact, 8 Mooney model variants fit my needs. Narrowed down based on range, age, and speed.

OK, I've gotten my airplane type down, now how much do I want to pay? I decided on somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000, depending on equipment, time, etc.

Searching for the airplane comes next. The internet makes this a no-brainer. ASO and other web sites allow you to keep very up-to-date both on equipment availability and on realistic pricing.

So start watching. I watched for months, checking daily to see what new aircraft were coming on the market.

As you do this you will find that you become very adept at pricing airplanes yourself. If you see a 1982 Mooney 201 just listed on ASO and it costs $130,000, you'll say to yourself "Hmmmm, he put a Garmin 430 in it" before you even open the ad. You will become an expert on what time left on the engine is worth, what the market bears for the equipment, and so on. And you'll learn your type-specific issues. I can now look at any year/hour/price of a Mooney and tell you if the airplane has had a gear-up landing.

If you see a real bargin, well, you'll quickly find that there is something wrong before you even think to contact the owner. One of my favorite scams/warning signs is a lack of a tail number. You'll see pictures where the seller has actually used an image editing application and removed the tail number from the picture of the aircraft. Is that a big old red flag to you? Oh yeah[1].

You'll also find that, well, they're all pretty much the same. There are no secret hidden bargans. You are going to pay appropriately for what you're getting, so it's back to the Needs Matrix.

My matrix finally put me squarely in the Mooney camp, and more specifically because of speed and range balanced against cost, looking for a Mooney M20K 231.

Why a Mooney 231 ? Lets go through my needs matrix :
Speed A 231 can theoretically cruise at 191 knots (hence the 231, 231 MPH). We know that's not really going to happen, but a stustainable cruise of 160-170 knots is very possible, so meets the speed criteria
Range 930 naut. miles. Plenty far enough. And look at support for more.
Usable Weight Don't much care. The 231 can haul 1100 pounds, or 650 with full tanks, plenty for me, Karen, and a few bags.
Seat Count It has 4. Don't care, I'll convert the back seat into a restroom. You know why.
Operating cost Mid range. Fuel flow in the 12-15 gph, extra annual time for swinging the gear.
Insurance cost Not bad at all. 2-4,000.
Overhaul cost It's a turbo, and all reports say it can run hot and need a top end early. OK, I can handle that for the other benefits, not a barrier.
Support 3 good Mooney pilot organizations. Many many modifications available, for adding extra fuel tanks to sealing all surfaces to make it even speedier. Nice community.
Safety Great. Look at the records, look at the design. People actually live after a Mooney crash (not that I want to crash, but good to know).
Avionics 1979-1985 type avionics are at least full digital.
Complexity It's complex, but that's not an issue. I'm a tinkerer, so keeping up with the engine in flight is fun.
Low wings an must .

Finding the right 231


[1] I had a dealer contact me about obscuring tail numbers in ads. She said that she deliberately does this. She clarified that this is not done to be misleading, or to hide history. She does it to keep a potential buyer from going directly to the airplane owner to make the sale around her. That is reasonable, she is doing the marketing and management of the airplane sale, and should not be cut out of the loop, or commision. So not all obscurations are bad.

questions or comments: email me