Home » You Can Buy An Awesome Plane For Half The Price Of The Average New Car

You Can Buy An Awesome Plane For Half The Price Of The Average New Car

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There’s no real way around it: flying gets expensive quickly. Almost everything about being a pilot is expensive, including training and renting an aircraft, let alone owning one. But it doesn’t have to be a hobby reserved for those with six figures or more to play with. In fact, you can get an awesome plane for less than half of the price of the average new car. This is the Aeronca Chief, a real piece of history and a beloved aircraft that can be had for an affordable price.

I recently received my latest issue of Sport Aviation, the magazine for members of the Experimental Aircraft Association. Most issues tell the story of some sort of rare aircraft as well as what’s new in aviation plus, some heartwarming enthusiast stories, too. The May 2024 edition of Sport Aviation caught my attention for one of its cover stories.

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Sport Aviation says you can fly affordably by choosing a ready-to-fly aircraft for $35,000 or less. That’s still a lot of money, but as the magazine rightfully points out, the average new car sold in America did hit $48,000. There is a strong draw to the idea of buying an entire flying machine for less than what people are spending on their next crossover. The Sport Aviation article is beginning to sound like something we’d write over here!

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Mercedes Streeter

I can tell you firsthand that flying gets expensive in no time flat. Currently, it costs me about $500 for two hours of flight lessons. That gives me the rental of the aircraft, fuel, and the instructor. Ideally, you want to fly at least once a week, which means you’ll blow through $2,000 a month. You need at least 40 hours for your license, which will cost you around $10,000. Some people pay up to $20,000 before they finally get their license. Then you’re going to want to keep flying. Rentals are cheap enough, but if you plan on flying a lot, those rental costs are going to escalate quickly.

A Cessna 172, a popular training aircraft and practically the flying Toyota Corolla, will still cost you $70,000 or more – and that’s for one that rolled off the line in the 1950s. This is where Sport Aviation’s list of cheaper aircraft comes in. There are lots of great choices on the list and I’ve even written about the Mirocopter SCH-2A helicopter in it, but I’m going to highlight what sounds like a decent deal.

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Getting Americans On Wings

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While Aeronca is hardly a household name today, in the years before and immediately after World War II the company was a serious player in general aviation.

Aeronca’s story starts in 1906 when Frenchman Jean Roche arrived in New York with his family at 12 years old. This was just three years after the Wright Brothers flew into the history books and just about everyone was obsessed with aviation. Roche was no different and he loved to tinker with model aircraft, propellers, and gliders. As the American Aviation Historical Society writes, Roche’s model aircraft were award-winning and aviators loved his propellers enough to pay him to make some. Roche is said to have spent a lot of time on Long Island, where he got to mingle with aviation pioneers like barnstormer John B. Moisant and engineer Gieuseppe Bellanca.

Aeroncac 2
Aeronca C-2 – National Air and Space Museum

Just five years into his new life in America, the Smithsonian Magazine writes, Roche applied for what would be just the first of 20 patents. That would be enough accomplishments for any person, but Roche pushed forward, earning an engineering degree from Columbia University. It wasn’t long before Roche graduated from model aircraft to designing the real deal. Later that year, Roche found himself with the U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation Section at McCook Field in Ohio. As the Smithsonian Magazine writes, Roche found himself busy at McCook Field working in America’s first center for military aviation.

There, Roche joined forces with fellow engineer John Q. Dohse to create a personal aircraft with automatic stability. The Roche-Dohse Flying Flivver weighed around 400 pounds and measured just 20 feet from prop to tail and had wings spanning 36 feet.

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Aeronca via the Smithsonian Institute

This aircraft was delightfully simple. Its fuselage was draped in cotton and the aircraft had a distinctive razorback type of shape. Wires kept the wings in shape both when the aircraft was flying and when it was parked. The Roche-Dohse Flying Flivver didn’t have a windshield, brakes, or even a tailwheel. That’s right, this aircraft slowed after landing by having the pilot reach out with a gloved hand to drag a tire to a stop with friction. At first, the aircraft didn’t even have an engine and the builders attempted and failed to get the aircraft to fly with a four-cylinder Henderson motorcycle engine. The aircraft had its first engine start in 1923.

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When that engine didn’t work, the Flying Flivver got 29 HP two-cylinder engine and the aircraft took flight in 1925. Around 200 test flights were conducted before this engine was destroyed in 1926. Its replacement engine would be a 26 HP 107-cubic-inch two-cylinder engine built by Army engineers Robert Galloway and Roy Poole.

It would take until 1928 before Roche and Dohse caught a big break with their personal plane. That year, several businessmen, including Dow Chemical and Drug Company executive I.C. Keller plus Robert A. Taft, the son of former U.S. President William Howard Taft, formed the Cincinnati Aeronautical Corporation. This was only a year after aviation was on the minds of Americans once again thanks to Charles Lindbergh’s successful trans-Atlantic solo flight in 1927. The Cincinnati Aeronautical Corporation would later be known as the Aeronautical Corporation of America, shortened to just Aeronca. There was just one problem, this company didn’t have an aircraft to sell!

Aeroncac 2
Aeronca C-2 – National Air and Space Museum

The new Aeronca took the Roche-Dohse Flying Flivver, which evolved into the Roche Original, and used the aircraft as its first place. The company added some windows before calling the aircraft the Aeronca C-2. Magellan Aerospace, the current owner of Aeronca, explains what happened after:

Aeronca was the first U.S. Company to produce and market a truly light airplane for the general aviation market. The Aeronca C-2 opened up flying to the public and helped make the company a major force in the general aviation market.

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The company, which moved operations to its current location in Middletown, Ohio in 1940 and changed its name to Aeronca in 1941, continued to grow. During WWII Aeronca provided the military with versions of several of its popular aircraft. The Aeronca Grasshopper, a light liaison and observation monoplane saw extensive duty in all theaters of operations. Aeronca also manufactured hundreds of trainers and gliders for the war effort.

Aeronca would see a boom after World War II. Post-war Americans were obsessed with flying and countless people took to the skies. It was a good time for companies like Aeronca. Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last and the company ceased building light aircraft in 1951. Still, despite a relatively short existence in general aviation, Aeronca produced over 17,000 airplanes spanning 55 models. Aeronca is still around, but nowadays it’s known more for its components for military aircraft, missiles, and contributions to spacecraft.

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The 11-Series Chief

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Airplane USA

Post-World War II Americans wanted to get up into the sky and the nation’s aircraft manufacturers were quick to deliver aircraft that were easy to fly and love. Aeronca decided to send new aircraft into the market that fit this purpose. Among them were the Model 7 Champion and the 11-Series Chief. While the Chief was a name Aeronca used for a comfortable personal aircraft launched before the war, this one would be a new clean-sheet design from Chief Designer Ray Hermes.

The new Chief also wouldn’t be designed entirely on its own. The development of the Chief occurred alongside the development of the Champion. Both aircraft would be designed with forgiving dynamics and training in mind, but the Champion was Aeronca’s direct answer to the popular Piper J-3 Cub. The Champion would have tandem seating while the Chief would have a side-by-side seating arrangement. A pilot of a Champion had a stick while the pilot of a Chief had a yoke.

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Aeronca Champion on Trade-A-Plane

Aeronca streamlined the manufacturing and design of the two aircraft by having them share 70 percent to 80 percent of their parts. An 11-Series Chief and a Model 7 Champion share ailerons, wings, tail surfaces, landing gear, and engine. A mix of wood and steel is used in the Chief. The fuselage consists of welded steel tubing and plywood formers. Meanwhile, the high-mounted wings are wood spars and aluminum ribs. Fabric covers the aircraft’s structure. This was a fairly typical arrangement for aircraft back then and thankfully, you do get brakes and a real tailwheel.

Production of the 11-Series Chief began in 1946 and while both the Chief and the Champion were considered trainer aircraft, the Chief was marketed as a step up. Occupants got to enjoy a comfortable interior featuring flocked taupe sidewalls and a zebra wood grain on the panel.

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There were a handful of versions of the Chief. The base model was the 11AC Chief, which had a Continental A-65-8, a 171 cubic inch flat-four making 65 HP. The middle of the range was the 11BC Chief, which had a Continental C-85-8F, a 188 cubic inch flat four pumping out 85 HP. Then there was the 11CC “Super Chief,” which had the same Continental engine, but upgrades to the interior, brakes, and elevator.

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A modern test in Pilot magazine suggests that the Chief is an easy way to fly, but with some caveats. The review describes the process of moving around on the ground:

For a vintage taildragger, the Chief is a relatively easy aircraft to taxi, as long as it isn’t too windy. If it is windy it can soon become a bit of a game, as the big fin turns it into a perfect weather-vane. Still, at least S-turning is unnecessary, as visibility over and each side of the nose is quite good, due to the lower cowling line. The steerable tailwheel is linked to the rudder via springs and works well. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the brakes, which are probably the worst facet of the Chief (although, in its defence, most aircraft of a similar type and vintage are no better).

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These are ghastly heel-operated cable actuated drum units. The pedals are overly large and attached to the rudder pedals (weirdly, on the Champ they’re tiny and set into the floor) and their geometry relative to the brake pedals is not good for the ankles. With such simple systems, the pre-takeoff checks are very straightforward and I roll out onto the runway, line up with the centreline and open the throttle. The ambient conditions are a density altitude of about 650ft and less than 10kt of wind straight down the runway.

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As well as flying the Chief:

In common with most of its contemporaries, the Chief is very much a ‘rudder aeroplane’ and possesses a significant amount of adverse yaw. Furthermore, the harmony of control is not perfect, as the relatively weighty ailerons are actually slightly heavier than the elevators.

The roll rate is as leisurely as you’d imagine while the field of view in the turn (and most phases of flight) is typical of this type and vintage: not great but acceptable. Moving onto the stick-free stability, the standard checks confirm that it is?unsurprisingly?very stable around all three axes, being strongly positive longitudinally, positive directionally, and essentially neutral laterally.

In fact, while checking the spiral stability to port it is so steady (and the air so calm) that we hit our own wake! The directional stability is not quite as strong as I’d anticipated, bearing in mind that the fin is quite big. Nevertheless, it is very stable around all three axes, proof that (in common with most American designs of this period) the emphasis was much more on stability than control. However, that’s not to say that the controls are inadequate.

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The pilot, Dave Unwin, goes on to describe both arrival and departure stalls as non-events. He goes on to describe that if you stall in a turn, the aircraft will roll itself back to wings level, making recovery much easier. If you don’t fly, a stall isn’t when the engine quits, but when your angle of attack is so excessive that the wings can no longer produce enough lift. While stalls at slow speeds, such as during approach or departure, are common, you can cause a stall at high speeds, too.

An aircraft that is easy to recover from a stall is generally considered better for learners and the casual pilot. It would appear that Aeronca achieved its mission with the 11-Series Chief as by accounts, it is an easy plane to fly.

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A Cheaper Way To Fly

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Sadly for Aeronca, the post-war aircraft boom was short and sales tanked. The similar Champion outsold the Chief 4 to 1. Despite that, over 2,300 examples were built between 1946 and 1950. There’s more good news, too. Since the Chief shares 70 to 80 percent of its parts with the far more popular Champion, aviators are still keeping these aircraft alive today. The EAA mentions that the Aeronca Chief and Champion both have strong enthusiast communities.

Yet, because the Chief isn’t as popular as its sibling, you can find them for bargains. The EAA’s Sport Aviation magazine says that you can find a good Chief for around $20,000. Some searching around the web suggests that EAA is right on the money. A decent example can be had for $20,000 or for a few stacks under while a really nice example is still around $30,000. If you fancy yourself as a plane rescuer, projects can be had for under $10,000!

Now, I won’t say that this is a totally cheap way to fly because nothing in aviation is truly cheap. However, if you’re willing to fly a piece of history, you really can own a plane for half of the cost of the average new car in America. Either way, if you’re sitting on the fence, unsure if you want to hop into that pilot seat, I’d say you should do it. Flying is an experience unlike any other and it’s a total blast no matter your age. And it’s always good to know that you don’t have to spend a million bucks to enjoy it.

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Cars? I've owned a few
Cars? I've owned a few
4 days ago

In 1996, bought into a four-partner shared Cessna 150G for $1,750. Splitting tie-down, maintenance, insurance, repairs/reserves and the annual inspection four ways made ownership and flying about as cheap as possible.

It also had an autogas STC which allowed us to run regular unleaded fuel in it where available. Many little airports only had 100LL which was about double the price of unleaded.

We were able to save a little on the annual because the A&P guy let us save a little labor unscrewing and resecuring the various inspection plates.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
4 days ago

In my view, these old ‘cheap’ personal aircraft should be required to be converted to unleaded fuel, be scrapped or put into a museum.

Eslader
Eslader
5 days ago

I admit I was kinda rolling my eyes at that article. Most of the planes in there are on the low end of the light sport category if not outright ultralights. Those that aren’t are antiques, which means the purchase price is fine but have fun affording all the shit the annual discovers that needs replacement, and you’re just hoping the damn thing has at least a rudimentary GPS since the VOR system is being steadily decommissioned.

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
5 days ago

Cheap way to dump leaded fuel and noise on people I guess

Mister Win
Mister Win
1 day ago
Reply to  Rabob Rabob

The millions of cars driving around, huge passenger planes and massive cargo ships keeping us all alive are putting WAY more smog in the atmosphere than a few thousand hobbyists in tiny planes, maybe prioritize your wet blanketry to ‘actual environmental concerns’?

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
1 day ago
Reply to  Mister Win

No I don’t think I will

Adrian Clarke
Adrian Clarke
5 days ago

None of these appear to be a Piper J3 Cub.

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
5 days ago

I remember talking with a nice lady I met at an airshow a few years back who owned a really sharp Aeronca and she described it as her “new truck”, meaning she had about $35K into it at the time. There was no mention of upkeep.

I’ve wanted to get started on my pilot’s license for many years now, but I likely have many more to go considering the dollars involved. I used to have a nice sim-rig set up at home running MSFS 2004, which is getting to be quite awhile ago.

Nowadays, I’d probably start from the ground up with a new simulator set-up, this time with VR. It’s far from the same thing, but the costs are downright cheap compared to an actual pilot’s license. Even adding a decent motion-rig can be done and still keep it under $10K. Plus, it could be thought of as a down payment on the real thing!

Last edited 5 days ago by Boulevard_Yachtsman
SteamTroller45
SteamTroller45
4 days ago

FAA allows up to 2.5 hours of simulator time to count towards your private pilots license. But the real benefit is the practice that a simulator gives. Once you’ve drilled the basics until you can’t mess them up, and have passed the class/written exam, then worry about paying for the real thing.
VR is a great option, personally I hate motion rigs- I always end up seasick, something that doesn’t happen in VR or real planes. Also, even the RedBirds or whatever dont feel much of anything like a plan.
A VR-motion rig hybrid for auto simulation, however, is goals.

Marc Miller
Marc Miller
5 days ago

I’ve owned and later sold two small aircraft (a Cessna 150C and a Beech Musketeer) and with the way prices have gone up, flying on the cheap has gotten almost impossible. I live near Nashville, TN and a Cessna 172 these days is renting for $200 per engine hour. Instructors go for $85 an hour. Renters insurance is around $800/year. Ownership is the best way to go if you will fly at least 100 hours per year and that’s a lot of flying for a hobbyist. Any plane you own needs a place to park. Around these here parts, a hangar is around $300 a month and many airports have waiting lists. If you own an aircraft, you pay for all maintenance, and this also includes an annual mechanical inspection that runs at least a grand if no problems are found. The aircraft in this article is a very nice plane, but it’s a lot harder for pilots to learn the fine points of operating a taildragger. The center of gravity is back behind the front wheels and the tail will swing out in one direction or the other when taxiing. This is not ideal when it gets windy. You won’t find taildraggers used for training pilots these days.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
5 days ago
Reply to  Marc Miller

Speaking of a Cessna 172, they were introduced in 1956 with an MSRP of $9,000 (equivalent to $105,300 today, with inflation), but a new 2024 172 starts at $359,000.

The Piper PA-28 Cherokee launched at $9,995 in 1961, also equivalent to about $105,000 today with inflation, but a new 2024 Pilot 100i is $299,000. It was never a cheap hobby, but the cost to get in has surged vastly, vastly faster than inflation over the past several decades.

Phuzz
Phuzz
4 days ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

The RAF’s Battle of Britain memorial flight have a couple of DHC-1 Chipmunks on hand to train fast-jet pilots to fly taildraggers, before they’re let lose in the Spitfires or Hurricanes

Joshua Mackay-Smith
Joshua Mackay-Smith
5 days ago

When I were but a lad, one of my favorite books was The Tin Goose by Gene Olson. It was from the point of view of a teenage boy who got a summer job with a small air freight company; the boss (also fairly young) had gotten hold of a Ford Tri-Motor (which in 1962, when the book was published, was just an old plane, not a flying icon) and was pinning his hopes to its larger capacity and its ability to take off and land in a fairly short space. It comes to mind because the other planes mentioned–I don’t remember offhand whether they all belonged to this guy’s company or a competitor–were Stinsons and Aeroncas, which he called “Airknockers.” Oh, and Our Hero’s grandfather (who insisted on being called by his first name, the first time I’d ever come across a grandparent resistant to the title) drove a Doble steam car.

DadBod
DadBod
5 days ago

The closest I will ever get to general aviation is watching people crash in Air Safety Institute videos

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
5 days ago

I had a boss who was an avid pilot. The one thing I learned after he bought his Cessna was that a maintaining a plane in flying shape can be alarmingly expensive. While I love aircraft and appreciate the physics of flight, my boss’s woes cured me of any desire to own an airplane myself.

Buzz
Buzz
5 days ago

Paramotors are like 8k. Why aren’t they more common? It seems like you could reasonably launch & land one if you had an acre or two of backyard space. Are they more dangerous than any other hobbyist aircraft? Do they have worse range? It seems like they’d have way less collateral damage in the event of an incident. What gives?

Last edited 5 days ago by Buzz
MrLM002
MrLM002
5 days ago
Reply to  Buzz

I’d argue they’re more dangerous than other hobbyist aircraft. Since the wing itself has no structure other than that which the air gives it it is extremely reliant on said air.

I had a neighbor with one leg because as they were getting close to landing a sudden updraft collapsed the wing, and they fell hard.

Personally I think ultralights will get a ton more popular with advancements in battery tech, but the more common they become the more likely the FAA with F with them like they did with “drones”.

Tomato Cards
Tomato Cards
4 days ago
Reply to  Buzz

Yeah. Way more dangerous. And you are in the elements. Much much slower. Much much shorter range. It is really more a subset of folks who get a big kick out of skydiving than pilots as such.

Pointy Deity
Pointy Deity
5 days ago

If you really need to make a bunch of noise and crop dust people with toxic crap on a budget you could get a Harley Davidson with straight pipes and a diesel pickup truck with a roll coal tune for half the price of this plane.

(No, I’m not a fan of small recreational aircraft. They should have to go out to the middle of nowhere to play with their toy planes like I do with my toy car.)

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
5 days ago

“Where are you finding Harleys and tuned diesel trucks for a combined total of $10,000?”

Try looking in Florida! I don’t know if we have cheap used Harleys here, but we seem to have a lot of low-priced diesel trucks. I am a bit obsessed with diesel pickups so I search for diesel trucks on a daily basis. I see first generation Super Duties with the 7.3 regularly for sale in good driving condition for as low as $5,000.

Here is a ’99 F250 7.3 for $3,750:

https://fortmyers.craigslist.org/lee/cto/d/lehigh-acres-1999-f250/7741022340.html

A ’97 Silverado 2500 diesel for $5,000:

https://gainesville.craigslist.org/cto/d/trenton-97-chevy-c2500-diesel-20mpg/7743626308.html

A nice looking ’97 F250 crew cab 7.3 for $9950:

https://tampa.craigslist.org/pnl/cto/d/palm-harbor-97-250-hd-73/7745873406.html

Florida trucks also usually don’t have rust issues. I’m not sure why they seem to be so much cheaper here than other places. I’m tempted to start buying these and sending them up north to sell.

DadBod
DadBod
5 days ago

There’s no rust-free trucks in Florida, though. And do you really want to spend your precious time on Earth dealing with the kind of people who have clapped out diesel trucks for sale in Florida?

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
5 days ago
Reply to  DadBod

Florida trucks are not as perfectly rust free as desert trucks, but compared to midwestern trucks they are amazing. You see minor rust, but almost never holes in the body or structurally compromised frames. The trucks above are good examples of what you get here. They aren’t perfect, but they are far nicer than comparably priced trucks up north. And if you want perfect, those trucks are available for a few thousand more.

DadBod
DadBod
4 days ago
Reply to  Stig's Cousin

I dunno, the rusty trucks I’ve seen near the Florida coast are hard to distinguish from the rusty trucks up here in Maine. Maybe if you shop in a hellhole like Tallahassee or Orlando, but again life is too short

Last edited 4 days ago by DadBod
Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
5 days ago

These are only the trucks available at the moment; there have been much better deals over the last few weeks. I recently saw a lifted ’97 250 4wd 7.3 manual for $7500; that was in comparable condition to the ’97 above (and the ’97 above is a really nice truck). There were also two ’99 regular cab 4wd 7.3s for $5,000 a few weeks ago; both had high miles but looked nice and were rust free. There are also a lot of nice options if you go slightly over $10,000.

I think there is money to be made in Florida diesel truck arbitrage.

Studdley
Studdley
5 days ago
Reply to  Pointy Deity

Nice attitude

Hotwirez
Hotwirez
5 days ago

LUK had an Aeronca hanging from the ceiling of the terminal building. The City of Cincinnati shut down the terminal to the public a few years ago. There were plans to rehab it into an art deco hotel, but those plans have fallen apart. I wonder what happened to the Aeronca?

Gene1969
Gene1969
5 days ago

I would love to own a plane. Unfortunately, my optometrist gave me a hard no on that dream.

MrLM002
MrLM002
5 days ago
Reply to  Gene1969

Gliders (which includes motor gliders) don’t require a medical certificate to fly, same with Light Sport Aircraft. Ultralights are also an option.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
5 days ago
Reply to  MrLM002

Like the commenter above, I am also in a position where obtaining a medical certificate might be challenging. I thought about a sport pilot license, but my biggest concern is aircraft availability. It seems aircraft approved for a sport pilot certificated pilots are much harder to rent. I’ll have to look into it more, though. I really want to learn to fly.

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