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Bargain retractables: now's a great time to buy a retractable single. Piper's Arrow is the best bang for the buck.

Now's a good time to buy a used airplane. Savvy buyers can snap up pretty much whatever they want, paying as little as 50 percent of what the same plane might have gone for only three or four years ago. But what to buy? Our answer always has been the right airplane for you is the right airplane for your mission. For many of us, that means a four-seater capable of cruising at around 130 knots for four hours--plus IFR reserves--and enough payload to reasonably haul four adults and bags, even if we need to offload some fuel. So, we're basically talking a retractable single.

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The good news is there are a lot of them from which to choose. The bad news? Even in this market, finding the right bargain will still take some work. To try making that process easier for you, we set an arbitrary price of $60,000 and, with a fresh copy of the Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest in hand, looked at what's available and what you can expect. We found the best bargain is the Piper Arrow IV, but many other models may merit your attention, especially if you have some special needs or desires.

CAVEATS

With the economy in the tank and some desperate sellers cutting prices well below average, it's definitely a buyer's market. Which means it's probably not a good idea to jump on the first "deal" you come across. Instead, spend some time watching Trade-A-Plane and other resources for those airframes that seem reasonably priced but which haven't sold. Then, since there's usually a good reason an airplane hasn't sold if it's priced right, ignore them.

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At the same time, think carefully about what you might be getting into. For example, some of the models averaging $60,000 these days are 50 or more years old. While age alone wouldn't deter us from a well-maintained example, buying and operating what is essentially a vintage airplane isn't for the faint of heart. Or wallet. Even a creampuff example might require a couple of years and several trips to the shop to get it sorted out the way you want. And if you find some corrosion missed on your pre-purchase inspection, your $60K bargain easily could turn into an $80,000 albatross.

Also, the very idea of buying a retract may not be the best one for you. That same $60,000 can get you into a mid-1970s Skylane or slightly older Cherokee 235, which will meet all of our basic criteria without the maintenance or insurance expense of retractable landing gear.

Avionics is another area where you may find "average" isn't what you had in mind. The Bluebook prices we used in evaluating this market, for example, may not include a moving-map GPS or autopilot, something we consider standard equipment in an airplane used for traveling. We generally urge shoppers to find an airplane with all the goodies they want already in the panel, since adding them yourself costs more than buying them already installed. When looking for one of these bargain retracts already equipped with all the goodies you want, expect the price to go above $60,000, or the aircraft to be older.

Finally, with two basic exceptions--the Piper Arrow and the two Mooney models we'll get to in a moment--all of these airplanes are out of production. While for the most part their respective factories still support them, what about five or 10 years from now? How good are you or your mechanic at scrounging parts or finding someone to rebuild what you have?

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BEECHCRAFT

The last V-tail Model 35 Bonanza flew away from the Beech factory in 1982. Twelve years later, the company rolled out its final copy of the Model 33, or straight-tail Bonanza, after introducing it in 1960 as the Debonair. Together, these two models also may be thought of as "short-body" Bonanzas, in deference to the lengthier Model 36, which remains in production. For your $60,000, you should easily be able to find either a 33 or 35 from the mid-1960s. If something newer is more your cup of tea, the last few editions of the Model 24 Sierra, known as the C24R, which went out of production in 1983, can be had for only $45,000. But caveats apply to all these choices. For example, Beech has long been known for expensive and no-longer-produced parts. The reality is a little different.

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Beech has a deserved reputation for building stout aircraft. Unless an example has been poorly maintained or suffered damage, the vast majority of consumable parts are industry-standard items or something a speciality shop can overhaul. There are exceptions involving Beech's use of magnesium in control surfaces, for example, but even those components can be rebuilt, for a price. Power-plants in older Bonanzas can range from the ancient E-series Continentals to a fire-breathing IO-550 and everything in between.

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Meanwhile, the short-body Bonanzas tend toward Dutch rolls in turbulence. Some of this results from its flat-bottomed and slab-sided fuselage, which doesn't do much to damp such tendencies, and some of it involves the type's interconnected rudder and aileron system. Pilots experienced with the Bonanza know some slight pressure on the rudder pedals helps damp any Dutch roll. Those same pilots agree flying the Bonanza is a delight, with well-harmonized controls and excellent performance.

The same can't always be said of the Model 24 Sierra, Beech's answer to Piper's Arrow. The Sierra is basically a retractable Musketeer, itself an attempt to compete against Cherokees and Skyhawks, which came on the market in 1963. The first Sierras were marketed in 1970 and offered relatively spacious cabins, at least when compared to the competition, plus substantial load-hauling ability. Later versions of the Sierra came with two front-row doors, plus a third one for loading the aft cabin and baggage area. In keeping with Beech's reputation, the Sierra is well-built and a delight to fly. It's also the only 200-HP retract of which we're aware capable of seating six, even if the last two need to be children.

CESSNA

Cessna's single-engine retractables all suffer from the same basic malady: Trying to fold into the fuselage landing gear other manufacturers stow in the wing. Starting with the earliest 210s, the basic design has depended on sometimes-leaky hydraulics, crack-prone saddles, balky gear doors and an assortment of other problems, depending on model and year of manufacture. Thankfully, the gear systems in the 172RG, 177RG and 210 have been out there long enough for redesigns (210) and upgraded components (172RG/177RG). Still, the system can be maintenance-intensive and, if the hydraulic system leaks all its fluid, the gear simply won't come down on its own.

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If you already have your complex airplane endorsement, chances are you earned it in either a Cutlass RG or a Piper Arrow. Although the Cutlass RG basically replaced the Cardinal RG as Cessna's entry-level retract, they are two very different airplanes, with the Cutlass' 172 heritage readily apparent. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the basic Skyhawk cabin fits your needs but you just need more speed. With its bulletproof engine, the 172RG might be an excellent choice if you can find one that hasn't been abused by renters.

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The Cardinal RG, on the other hand, was rarely seen on the flight training ramp. Featuring a fuel-injected version of the same basic Lycoming 360-cube engine as installed in the 172RG, the 177RG is more of a baby Centurion than it is a Skyhawk on steroids. It comes with a much larger, more-comfortable cabin, a cantilever wing and a stabilator. Huge cabin doors facilitate access, but also can get caught in the wind and break their hinges. The wing is mounted further aft than the Skyhawk's, so a pilot can actually see what's above by leaning forward.

The Centurion, meanwhile, started life as a retractable 182 with a 260-HP IO-470 and weighing only 2900 pounds. Over the years, it's changed quite a bit, morphing into a pressurized, turbocharged, 325-HP, 4100-pound business machine. In contrast, the earlier 210s were much simpler airplanes--except for the landing gear, perhaps--and soldier on in a variety of roles. Seating for six is standard beginning with the 1964 210D model, although the early rear-most seats are for children. The struts were eliminated in 1967 in favor of a cantilever wing, which remained throughout production.

COMMANDER

First certificated in 1972, the Rockwell Commander 112 emphasized looks, cabin room and comfort over raw performance. Two upgrades later, the 112B sported 16-inch wing extensions and a more-respectable 1027-pound useful load. Never known as a speedster, the 112 trades wide-body cabin comfort for leisurely cruise speeds. Perhaps because of its military-airplane experience, Rockwell built into the 112 numerous "big-airplane" features, including a stout landing-gear system along with well-engineered ventilation, electrical and fuel systems.

Original production ceased in 1979, and the design has been through a variety of hands--including a well-heeled group of pilots--with a potential new owner in the wings as we write this. That group was formed to produce parts, among other reasons, and owners report no problems in maintaining their 112s, which always is a concern with older aircraft.

The type's history has been marred, however, by a rash of airworthiness directives (ADs) targeting wing-spar cracking, plus cracks in the tail's vertical spar. A 1990 AD called for repetitive inspections until modifications could be performed. The good news is no additional ADs against the basic airplane have been issued since then. As for the ADs, most aircraft in the fleet probably have been modified and what's required to rework the rest is well-understood.

MOONEY

Any time pilots discuss the most-efficient personal airplanes, Mooneys invariably are part of the conversation. Although perhaps the most well-known example is the 201, prices for it haven't come down to our arbitrary $60,000 ceiling--yet--so we considered two more aged models: the classic "short-body" M20C and the slightly stretched M20F. Before the company changed its model names, these were known as the Ranger and the Executive 21, respectively.

Other than horsepower and fuselage length, there's very little difference between them. Both are well-built airplanes, featuring a welded steel-tube cabin enclosure, laminar-flow wings, incredibly strong landing gear and pushrods instead of the control cables other manufacturers use. The basic M20C was first marketed in the early 1960s and, while much of the cosmetics changed over the years, little else did. And why mess with success? Johnson bar-operated gear and rubber doughnuts to cushion the landing help make a relatively simple, economical single.

For those who might automatically discard the Mooney from consideration due to its diminutive cabin size--which mostly is an optical illusion, anyway--there's the longer M20F. Twenty more horsepower helps haul around the extra sheet metal, though everything else remains pretty much the same as on the M20C. Either model is a good choice for an economical cruiser. While the manufacturing company has been through more changes of ownership than we can count--raising the specter of parts scarcity in the future--enough demand and aftermarket suppliers exist to minimize those concerns.

PIPER

Despite the Mooneys' renowned efficiency, another company has done well with laminar flow wings: Piper's Comanche had them, along with a wider cabin and more engine choices. In fact, the 180-HP Comanche is a worthy competitor to an M20C Mooney in many categories. Alas, a 1972 flood at Piper's Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, plant ended Comanche production and forced the company to consolidate its manufacturing in Florida. The Cherokee Arrow was already certified and--though it didn't perform as well--Piper's single-engine retractable marketing shifted to it.

Which is a shame, since the Comanche usually is thought of as a better airplane. In addition to the wing's design--laminar flow generally results in reduced drag--its cabin is wider than the PA-28 series and it has relatively simple systems. The only real problem with Coman-ches is--like so many of the types discussed in this roundup--they're getting old.

If that doesn't bother you--or perhaps your favorite mechanic knows them intimately--any Comanche (other than the 400-HP version) offers great transportation value. The Arrow, on the other hand, is still in production. For less than $60,000, you can get into a 1979 T-tailed Arrow IV (although we'd try to stick with the normal-tail/tapered wing Arrow III, and maybe save a few thou). For a lot less than $60K, you can get an earlier Arrow II, with a slightly stretched cabin and the older wing. Either way, you'll end up with a basic, retractable PA-28 with very few ADs, one of Lycoming's more-bulletproof engines (the IO-360, with a 2000-hour TBO) and an airframe for which there are a wide variety of clean-up mods available. It's comfortable, handles well, mechanics are familiar with it and parts are readily available. Plus, its 72-gal-lon fuel capacity--22 more than earlier Arrows and their Hershey-bar wings--affords good full-tanks range and full-seats loading options. For 60 grand and a thorough pre-purchase inspection, it'd be hard to go wrong. That's why it's our bargain retractable.

WHAT'S A BARGAIN?

In this market, $60,000 can buy a lot of airplane. The examples in the table below represent the most-recent vintage of the models we explored and, according to the Bluebook, are available at that average price. Craft with better-than-average equipment, a low-time engine, and/or fresh paint and interior may command more. Run-out examples will go for less, and you'll have the privilege of sinking into it money for improvements you simply won't be able to get out of it later.

Why not a Bonanza, Mooney or Centurion, instead of an Arrow? Age, mainly. Sixty-thousand-dollar Bonanzas and Centurions can be excellent aircraft for your mission, and the chances of finding a good one for that price remain high. But you should be able to find a much younger Arrow--or even a long-body Mooney--for the same money.

If airframe and engine times, and avionics are equal, we would go with the younger airframe. For $60,000, it's hard to beat a well-maintained Arrow that's "only" slightly more than 30 years old.
BARGAIN (UNDER $60K) RETRACTABLE

MODEL                     YEAR       AVERAGE RETAIL  PRICE TREND

BEECH BONANZA S35         1964-1965  $57-60,000         DOWN

BEECH DEBONAIR B33        1963-1964  $54-57,000        STABLE

BEECH SIERRA C24R         1983       $45,000           STABLE

CESSNA CUTLASS 172RG      1985       $56,000           STABLE

CESSNA CARDINAL 177RG     1978       $47,000           STABLE

CESSNA CENTURION 210J     1969       $57,000           STABLE

COMMANDER 112             1977       $51,000           STABLE

MOONEY M20C RANGER        1978       $59,000           STABLE

MOONEY M20F EXECUTIVE 21  1977       $54,000           STABLE

PIPER COMANCHE 260        1966       $59,000            DOWN

PIPER ARROW IV            1979       $56,000           STABLE

MODEL                     STANDARD ENGINE   STANDARD HP  TBO (HOURS)

BEECH BONANZA S35         TCM IO-520-B/BA       285         1700

BEECH DEBONAIR B33        TCM IO-470-K          225         1500

BEECH SIERRA C24R         LYC IO-360-A1B6       200         2000

CESSNA CUTLASS 172RG      LYC O-360-F1A6        180         2000

CESSNA CARDINAL 177RG     LYC IO-360-A1B60      200         2000

CESSNA CENTURION 210J     TCM IO-520-H          285         1400

COMMANDER 112             LYC IO-360-C1D6       200         2000

MOONEY M20C RANGER        LYC O-360-A1D         180         2000

MOONEY M20F EXECUTIVE 21  LYC IO-360-A1A        200         2000

PIPER COMANCHE 260        LYC IO-540-D4A5       260         2000

PIPER ARROW IV            LYC IO-360-C1C6       200         2000

MODEL                     AVERAGE OVERHAUL  MAX SEATS  UAG ISSUE

BEECH BONANZA S35            $30,000           5        JUL, 1999

BEECH DEBONAIR B33           $30,000           5        JAN. 2009

BEECH SIERRA C24R            $30,000           6        MAY 2009

CESSNA CUTLASS 172RG         $19,000           4        JAN. 2009

CESSNA CARDINAL 177RG        $22,000           4        JAN. 2006

CESSNA CENTURION 210J        $35,000           6        JUN. 2009

COMMANDER 112                $21,000           4        DEC. 2009

MOONEY M20C RANGER           $21,000           4        JULY 2006

MOONEY M20F EXECUTIVE 21     $19,000           4        JULY 2006

PIPER COMANCHE 260           $19,800                    APR. 2009

PIPER ARROW IV               $22,000           4        JAN. 2008

SOURCE: Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest, Fail 2009


By Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside

Jeb Burnside is Editor-in-Chief of sister publication Aviation Safety magazine.
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Article Details
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Author:Burnside, Joseph E. (Jeb)
Publication:The Aviation Consumer
Article Type:Buyers guide
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Words:2640
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