Low-Buck Fun Flyers

By Budd Davisson, EAA 22483

This piece originally ran in the September 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

The following statement is going to come as a shock to some longtime sport aviators: There are actually some airplanes that pilots bring to fly-ins that aren’t flawless. In fact, their flawed nature is one of the many things that the owners like about them. The owners use them to go anywhere they want, when they want, and they absolutely don’t worry about them getting a few dings here and there. In fact, when seen on the show line amongst the finished-to-perfection airplanes we’re used to seeing, these old birds often have a patina that reminds one of the much loved Velveteen Rabbit. It has obviously given the owners so many hours of pleasure that the airplane has acquired that “lived in” look that comes from being seriously loved and frequently used. However, as loved as they may be, low-buck fun flyers are not without their shortcomings. The acquisition of one must be approached in a very logical manner that includes some do’s and don’ts.

Definition of Fun Flyer

First of all, the term “fun flyer” doesn’t have a definition because it’s a made-up term used to categorize those airplanes that people buy for one reason and one reason only — to fly them. Period! Yes, they’ll tinker on them when it’s needed, but basically, they want to fly for as long as possible, for as little as possible, and as safely as possible, all while having as much fun as possible. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Of course not.

In other words, cosmetics and complexity take a back seat to affordability and function in the fun flyer community. Trophies and crowd adulation don’t figure into the equation. In fact, the pilot/owner/family doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of their airplane. They’ve risen above all of that in favor of out and out fun.

Do Fun Flyer Airplanes Fit Into an Age Bracket?

Initially, when the fun flyer concept was formalized, the average fun flyer was a 1940s classic that needed a lot of TLC but was still viable transportation. It might be a Piper J-5, Luscombe, or another of that peer group that has the look that comes from lots of time spent running around the country and no time in the shop being made to look better. However, it would be a mistake to think that 1940s flivvers are the only type of fun flyer to be found on the fly-in flightline. Later, we’ll get into some of the other aircraft types that could be considered fun flyers but with less age and more horsepower.

There’s a Difference Between a Fun Flyer and a Junker

There’s a tendency to think that because the paint around the screws is starting to flake or the Plexiglas is getting cloudy that the airplane is less safe than something that’s all shined up with a $15,000 paint job. That’s wrong! The looks of an airplane actually have nothing to do with safety of flight issues. Also, it’s a proven fact that pretty paint and upholstery quite often cause a buyer to overlook more important items that actually determine the airplane’s value as a mode of transportation versus a showpiece.

The majority of items that make an airplane undesirable from a safety point of view are practically invisible. The bad stuff is hidden. This is especially important when buying an airplane that will be flown “as is” rather than buying it as a project to be dismantled and put in the garage to be restored. If buying an airplane to be flown with minimal work done on it, it’s critical to look past the appearance and concentrate on internal factors. If an airplane is going to be restored, then nothing inside or out is important because it’s all going to be replaced or rehabbed in the restoration process. This is not the case with a fun flyer. None of the external stuff is going to be touched. If something is not important for safety of flight, it’s going to be ignored in favor of keeping the airplane in the air. However, the market has told us again and again that when all of that surface stuff (like paint) is well below average, the airplane will also be priced well below average. And that, assuming all of the internals are average or above, is what makes them beautiful as fun flyers.

Certain factors are more important to a fun flyer than to a restorer, and we’ll get to those in a few minutes.

There Is Tinkering, and There Is Restoring

Owning a fun flyer type of airplane doesn’t mean that right from the get-go it’ll be nothing more than a gas and oil airplane. There are always little things that need to be done on all but the newest airplanes. This is especially true of fun flyers because they are generally older, and a myriad of little honey-do projects are part of the reason they are for sale at a lower cost in the first place. However, none of those items affect their airplane’s basic airworthiness. Maybe it’s a panel on a door that needs the edge of the upholstery reglued or a really ugly, dirty carpet that needs to be replaced and whatever lives in it evicted. These are not tasks that absolutely must be done but fun and inexpensive projects to take care of when the mood strikes us. Things like chipped paint on the cowling edges or minor dents in the leading edge will be ignored. Besides, they add to the airplane’s character. Some items are, however, important.

Shopper’s Guide to Fun Flyer Acquisition

The goal when evaluating a prospective fun flyer acquisition is to determine that, if you don’t do a thing to it, you can fly it 50 hours a year (more than the average sport pilot flies) for seven to 10 years without spending major money. Minor money, yes. Major money, no. So, we’re talking 350 to 500 hours of future aviating, during which time nothing major is likely to pop up. That said, we all know it’s impossible to guarantee that something won’t go wrong on an airplane.

So, let’s put together a shopping list that initially focuses on 100-hp or less postwar classics. We’ll get into newer airplanes later.

Engines: The Most Important Component

The engine is the heart of the airplane, and quite often the cost to overhaul an engine is more than the airplane is worth. So, avoid airplanes that haven’t flown in a few years because engines, especially Lycomings, don’t like to sit. Continentals are a little better but are still at risk for corrosion unless properly pickled. Regardless, if one airplane has 800 hours on an engine that was regularly flown for its entire life since overhaul and another engine has 500 hours but logs show it had years where it didn’t fly at all, go for the higher-time engine. There are “hours,” and there are “hours.” They’re not all the same. Also, while theoretically it is suggested that an engine be overhauled every 12 years, there are far too many other things to be considered to just rely on this one factor.

Some engines are easier to maintain and last longer than others. Continental A-65s, C-85s, and O-200s are probably the most-produced engines in this category so parts are easier to find and less expensive. Lycoming O-145s are less common and less powerful, and parts are harder to come by. Lycoming O-235s are good little engines, but don’t let them sit around unused. The little Franklins are also good engines, but they are hard to find parts for or mechanics who know them well. It’s safest to stay with mainstream engines.

Does Flight Time Matter?

In theory, a lower-time airplane is preferred over a high-time airplane. In theory, that is. However, it is seldom we run across a postwar puddle jumper with enormous flight time. While it’s not unusual to find a later airplane, like a C-150 with 15,000 hours as a trainer, it is seldom you run into a Luscombe, Ercoupe, Cub Cruiser, etc. that has 5,000 hours on it. Most will have 3,000 hours or less. So, to answer the question about whether or not flight time matters, the answer is not really. The real deciding factor is the general condition of the airframe.

When talking about classics and even the vintage airplanes from the mid-’50s, we’re talking about machines that are 70 years old, give or take a few years. So, when we’re talking about condition, without knowing it, we’re actually asking how well the airplanes faired during that time of their lives when they were looked at as being obsolete and of little use and/or value. Almost all airplanes of all types go through a down period that generally lasts for 10-15 years, depending on the airplane. Many of them sat on the back tie-down line at small airports around the country being beat on 24/7 by Mother Nature. At the same time, they were providing shelter for birds and field mice. Almost all of the aircraft from that period have been restored at least once. However, back in the day “restored” didn’t mean what it does today. At the time, restored meant getting it flying and looking halfway decent. It was repaired, not restored as we generally use that word today. Today restored means taking it down to the last nut and bolt and bringing it back to better than new. That’s not what we’re looking for.

Things to Avoid

When buying a fun type airplane to be flown with a minimum of hassle and expense, the following are factors to avoid:

  • An engine that has sat for a long time since its last overhaul.
  • An overhaul that’s 15-20 years old.
  • Engine time more than 1,000 hours.
  • An airframe that exhibits lots of bird and mouse activity via nests or droppings.
  • Corrosion that appears deep, especially anywhere near fittings or spars.
  • Tubing, especially in the lower rear fuselage, that shows even a little surface rust. If rust is visible, there’s generally a lot more below it. Also, inspect carry-through tubing carefully.
  • Inoperative instruments that show a lot of sun and water damage can be expensive to repair or replace.
  • Major ADs that have yet to be done (unless aircraft is priced accordingly).
  • Oleo struts that are stuck (they can be a bear to break loose).
  • Paint that is coming off in flakes due to poor adhesion.
  • A propeller that shows delamination through the finish or excessive damage to a metal one.
  • Badly crazed windshield (not an easy DIY project).

The Perfect Combination

First of all, the price spread between the best and the worse of a particular type can sometimes be astronomical because the highly restored ones bring such high dollars. Once you discount those, however, you’re left with those that will fall into a range that is likely to be $15,000-$25,000, depending on type. We’ll be looking for aircraft that are at the bottom end of that range because their cosmetics put them there. Ugly is always cheap. Shiny is always expensive. We are looking for those airplanes at the bottom end of the range that are solid, worthwhile flying machines that include all, or most, of the following.

  • Mid-time (500-700 hour) engine with time evenly spread since overhaul. Minimal oil leaks.
  • Fabric that passes a punch test everywhere on the airplane.
  • If aluminum, there’s little or no corrosion, but dents and dings are acceptable.
  • Paint that may be faded and oxidized but is solid.
  • Plexiglas that is solid with few, if any, cracks or crazing.
  • Brakes that appear to work but may need pads or rebuilding.
  • If wood spars, etc., the finish on the wood appears intact with no checking, and ribs are solidly attached.
  • Zero evidence of nests of any kind inside the wings or fuselage.
  • A working radio, although this is not necessarily a deal-breaker.
  • Electrical wiring that shows little age or cracking.
  • Minimal dirt, oil, etc. on the inside of the belly.

An airplane with the above won’t be totally trouble-free, but it is likely that what difficulties it presents will be fairly easily solved at minimal expense. Plus, the group of aircraft we’ve been discussing will burn between 3.5 and 5 gph. They’re lots of fun and a big bang for the buck.

About More Modern Fun Flyers

Around 1980, when the rules for defining the various categories in the EAA Vintage Aircraft Association spectrum — Antique, Classic, and Contemporary — were established, the cutoff was 1970. That means that, at that time, the original Tri-Pacers, C-172s, etc. were 15-17 years old. Today those same aircraft are 70 years old, give or take a couple of years. Seventy years old! Who’d a thunk? So, because tens of thousands of airplanes have been built after the vintage cutoff, it stands to reason that there are lots of “modern” aircraft that have the proper low-buck fun flyer qualities. They’re a little ragged around the edges but still good flying machines at a lower than normal investment.

In some cases, we’re talking about airplanes that were built for so long, their price and condition ranges vary wildly. The Cessna 150/152 line, for instance, ran from 1958 to 1985. That means the oldest is 62 years old and the newest is 35 years. With around 30,000 of them built, quite a number of them have visually deteriorated but still have usable engines. As a single type, you’ll see a higher percentage of them with really high-time airframes because of their roles as trainers. However, there have been no major structural ADs that address time-related problems.

The Cherokee PA-28 series began in 1961 (59 years old), and the early 140/150/160 models have lived through their training days, making them fairly inexpensive. However, it’s important to research the wing ADs on Cherokees, which are predicated on flight times and can be pretty expensive.

With intermittent interruptions, the original Aeronca Champ was manufactured through the ’50s and mutated into the Citabria in 1964. The type is still in production. With thousands of them sitting around, they are also in the running to be higher-dollar fun flyers, but they too have wing ADs that need to be researched.

One Final Warning

It is hyper important that we all go into the fun flyer concept with no illusions that we can take a tired but airworthy airplane and make it into a first-class, high-dollar asset with a few cans of Krylon and some elbow grease. That just isn’t going to happen. The costs involved in improving the airplane can spiral out of sight in a heartbeat. Yes, you can do low-budget cleanups that improve some cosmetics, but otherwise fly it as you found it. Above all, be very, very vigilant in selecting an airplane that fits the criteria as outlined earlier. Look for an engine that has lived a good life and still has enough hours left to fit your plans and an airframe that will need no major work to keep it breathing. Otherwise, go to the other extreme and spend a lot more money (a lot more!) and buy the best airplane in the category. It’s only by being at one extreme or the other on the appearance scale that it works out financially.

Budd Davisson, EAA 22483, is an aeronautical engineer, a columnist and regularly contributor to EAA Sport Aviation, has flown more than 300 different types, and has published four books and more than 4,000 articles. He is also a flight instructor primarily in Pitts/tailwheel aircraft. Visit him on www.AirBum.com.

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