Which plane matches your travel plans?
When you tell other pilots you’re shopping for an aircraft that can cover great distances, some are likely to respond with a short list of “travelling machines”. It’s a general aviation shorthand for fast models like the Beechcraft Bonanza and Mooney 201.
But these suggestions can stem from a lack of creativity or a sense of adventure. The most thoughtful flying friends will probably ask for three things:
- Where are you headed?
- Who’s with you ?
- How long do you need to get there?
My own translation of range, cruise speed and payload as a pilot new to the ownership game provides a good starting point for characterizing the missions you plan to fly and finding the best aircraft for the job.
Speed isn’t everything
Pilots tend to be obsessed with speed. We want to reach our destination as soon as possible. But going fast usually requires trade-offs, like living with less interior space or giving up short-field performance and carrying capacity. Models best suited to heavy lifting and backcountry exploration typically cruise at a “relaxed” or “steady” pace at best.
As my wife and I shop for our first plane, the biggest challenge is finding one that’s fast enough to get us from New Jersey to Deer Isle, Maine in about two hours instead of the four you have to in a Cessna 172. But we’d also like to visit the short strips of grass and gravel that dot the islands along the coast. Some are only 1,500 feet long. Suddenly the 172 shines again.
I believe that deep down, many of us want to fly the world in our own plane, on our own schedule. Or at least take a significant bite out of the United States, using its thousands of general aviation airports to access a huge range of attractions. The truth is, you can do it on any plane that suits you.
Authors James and Deborah Fallows spent several years criss-crossing the United States in a Cirrus SR22 while researching and writing our cities, an extensive exploration in 2018 of the country’s communities and cultures. By contrast, in 1966, teenage pilot brothers Rinker and Kernahan Buck flew coast to coast in a radioless Piper Cub. Rinker recalled their experiences in a 1997 memoir. Passing flight.
Whether you’re writing about your adventures or just enjoying them, you’ll need an aircraft that fits the mission. The following list includes aircraft pilot categories that airline pilots might consider for personal or family transportation, and what they can expect in terms of the performance of each. Of course, your budget will affect your purchasing strategy. But since aircraft pricing is a huge topic in itself, we won’t dwell on it here. The planes below likely cover a range from the price of a basic used car to more than you paid for your home.
If you’re traveling alone or as a couple without kids, the wide world of two-seater planes could be your oyster. The category includes the Cessna 150 and antiques like the Aeronca Champ and the Piper Cub. Many older tube and fabric planes, such as the Champ, qualify under current lightweight sports rules. This has been a boon for many pilots who no longer want to deal with the hassle of a third class medical certificate, which is not required for a light sport pilot certificate. While prices have recently increased in the light aircraft market, the cost of many early two-seat Cessnas, Pipers, Luscombes and Aeroncas is among the lowest in aviation. The trade-off in most cases is slow cruising speed and a back-to-basics flight experience, more like the Buck boys in 1966.
Cessna’s best-selling 172 is among the usual suspects in this category, with Piper’s PA-28 and Beechcraft Musketeer usually joining it on airport tie-downs around the country. Many people learn to fly in these machines and later find that they are versatile enough to meet their personal transportation needs, such as the family car. If your travel plans include short trails and remote turf strips, it’s hard to beat a 172, even if it’s not particularly fast. Although they have four seats, many of these planes are more like two- or three-seater planes from a practical standpoint if you want to carry luggage and fill up fuel tanks. Still inexpensive by aviation standards, these models have seen their prices rise over the past couple of years as more and more people have started flying.
That’s where speedsters like the Cirrus SR22 and Beechcraft Bonanza come in. With cruising speeds often reaching over 180 knots, these planes will get you to your destination noticeably sooner than, say, the 172. The Cirrus also comes with an airframe parachute that many buyers are used to convincing members of their family that they will be safe in a small plane. This is a large category that includes familiar models ranging from the Mooney 201 and Piper Saratogas to the rare Meyers 200. Most have retractable gear – Cirrus is the exception. Few people can comfortably work short strips like a 172. But if you mostly stick to paved runways of 3,000 feet or more, one of these planes might strike the right balance.
Between the basic four-seater and their high-performance cousins are the Piper Cherokee Six and the Cessna 206, with powerful engines, sturdy fixed landing gear and large cabins that fit easily between passengers and crew. freight. Indeed, this pair of six-seat utility planes is in its own class. They parallel sport utility vehicles in that they are designed to not only get you to your destination, but also to make sure your stuff gets there. While many aircraft owners are disappointed with a lack of payload, these aircraft are less likely than others to let you down. As a large pickup truck, the 206 and Cherokee Six are known to burn a lot of gas, but fuel economy isn’t a huge factor for most drivers. Speed is also not a priority, as this pair lives in the neighborhood of 140 knots.
Sometimes, pushing the 172 out of our clubhouse hangar, I see our neighbor towing his Pilatus PC-12 up the ramp. We’re both private pilots at a sleepy rural airport, but otherwise the contrast is stark in many ways. The PC-12 is huge and makes the Cessna look like a toy – a well-used toy. Aircraft like the Pilatus, the Daher TBM series and the Piper M600 represent a big leap forward in terms of speed, range, load-carrying and technology. And yes, we are entering the price range of luxury houses. Yet these planes offer a travel experience that invites comparison with airlines, but without crowds or security checks. They also require more of a pilot than a typical piston single. With more systems to operate, staying one step ahead of the aircraft becomes more critical, and that’s not easy when you’re sailing at over 300 knots. To stay up to date, you will need to practice more. But think of the rewards…