Yes! You can build and fly a “real” airplane for the cost of a new SUV.
Contrary to popular opinion,
airplanes don’t have to be outrageously
expensive-at least not
all of them. The Sport Pilot/Light-Sport
Aircraft initiative is one program that
promises to lower the cost of ready-to-fly
aircraft. But many of these Special LSAs
and Experimental LSAs will be priced
well more than $40,000 and can run
upwards of $85,000.
One way to get airborne for less
than $40K is to choose an ultralight,
powered parachute or weight-shift
trike. But if you want something more
conventional, more comfortable or
larger, you’re likely to find what you
want in the world of kit aircraft. After
all these years, building an Experimental/
Amateur-Built airplane still qualifies
as one of the least expensive ways
to get a get a great airplane into the air
on a reasonable budget.
Our $40K benchmark is designed
to narrow the field for builders on a
budget-and that benchmark means
a completed, ready-for-flight airplane.
We’re not going to play the marketing
game and list $39,900 airframe
kits that will approach or exceed the
$100,000 mark by the time they’re in
the air. It’s not an easy goal, but it can
be achieved. To prove it, we’ll detail
more than a dozen interesting machines
from across the spectrum.
But what’s so special about
$40,000? After some contemplation,
we determined that $40K provides the
best estimate of what a typical, medianincome
builder might be able to afford
without being forced to sacrifice the
rest of his or her life. In today’s market,
this figure might buy you a fine
automobile or (extra-fine) motorcycle,
a mid-level SUV, or even a small boat.
If airplanes can remain in the same category,
price-wise, as these other luxury
items, they’ll have a lot more appeal to
that average builder.
But to have a cross-country aircraft
that’s roomy and reliable for this
sum of cash will take some effort. You
may have to forego all the bells and
whistles (high-tech instrument panels,
luxurious interiors, award-winning
paint jobs and souped-up powerplants),
but the following kit manufacturers
insist that you can reasonably expect
to get these airplanes into the air for
the target amount. We are assuming,
however, that you’re starting with an
average stock of tools and a decent
workshop to build in; starting from
scratch can add thousands to any
project. And we’re omitting things like
sales tax on the kit and local use taxes.
To choose from the hundreds of
kit aircraft available, we established
some basic criteria for our selections.
These rules weren’t written in stone,
but we tried to limit the field to
proven designs that will appeal to the
flying interests of a wide number of
To help define our target, we elected
to specify a minimum cruise speed
of about 100 mph-even though as a
practical measure we all want more.
Why this requirement? We figured
that most pilots would want an aircraft
that was capable of at least short crosscountry
trips and one that would get
them there faster than an automobile.
Many otherwise highly enjoyable aircraft
weren’t designed for such speeds
and were not included; on the other
hand, reaching toward 200 mph will
dramatically raise your powerplant
and prop costs.
We also searched for aircraft with
interiors that invited two people of
normal size (pilot plus one passenger)
to fly for 2-3 hours in relative comfort.
Many pilots will prefer side-by-side
seating, but we included some tandem aircraft. We wanted full enclosures,
the preference for most pilots who
wish to pursue cross-country flying.
Seeing America from an open-cockpit
airplane is great in the summer and for
short periods, but this kind of adventure
eventually wears quite thin.
And, for the purpose of staying
within budget, we’ve eliminated any
quickbuild kit options from the equation.
Unless noted, prices listed and
used in calculation are for the airframe
alone with no quickbuild components
or optional add-ons. This is where you
save money, but contributing your
own efforts to the cause.
Most pilots prefer four-stroke engines.
This eliminates many ultralight
aircraft that make good use of the high
power-to-weight ratio of two-stroke
engines. When we limit ourselves to
four-stroke engines, however, the powerplant
cost alone can hit or exceed
half our budget.
You can choose an 80-hp Rotax
912 for about $12,000 or lower your cost
significantly with the similarly powered
AeroVee engine from Sonex, Ltd. for
less than $6000 (it’s a kit engine, so you
have to build it). However, if you insist
on Lycoming or Continental, a used
engine will be required in all cases to
keep within budget. Lycomings in
particular are available in large numbers
on the used market in various states of
time remaining before overhaul.
Other economic engine choices
include the Jabiru line-the company’s
120-hp 3300 model ($15,400) will lift
any of the following aircraft without
problems, and some will do fine
with the 85-hp 2200 model ($10,400).
Others may be interested in VW, Subaru
and other auto conversions.
Most pilots are awed by the
impressive capabilities of fancy glass
cockpit avionics. Ken Scott of Van’s
Aircraft says RV builders are installing
more avionics than in the past: “With
IFR panels, you can spend $40,000 in
the panel alone,” he said.
With avionics consuming a substantial
percentage of many builders’
budgets, will you have to suffice with
ordinary instruments? Probably not,
unless IFR flight is your desire. New
software-based electronic instruments
are available that have far better prices
for features even including attitude instruments.
Some of these units are in
the $3000 (or less) range for a surprisingly
capable unit that also does not
take up much panel space.
Or, you can opt for only the
necessary analog gauges and put
together a functional panel on a really
But first, a disclaimer… Using the above
criteria, we selected nine companies
and nearly 20 aircraft models from a
large field (more than 600 kit/plans
aircraft are available). Winnowing
this group to a few aircraft forced us
to omit other choices. Consider this a
sampler more than an exhaustive survey
of what’s available. Moreover, pay
particular attention to our selection
criteria so you can use it on models not
Are you ready to build? Expand
your search beyond these airplanes,
but keep in mind some of the following
points as they apply to many designs.
As always, a good place to start
is the 2005 Directory of Homebuilt
Aircraft, Published in Kitplanes Magazinethe December
2004 edition of KITPLANES® and also
available in electronic format at www.
Our candidate list represents a wide
range of types and design styles. The airplanes
are not presented in any particular
order-choosing the right airplane
for you is ultimately a personal decision
based on your individual situation.
According to Zenith Aircraft President
Sebastian Heintz, “$40,000 is more than
most of our customers spend on their
projects. Ninety percent of builders keep
it under $40K.” Continuing the common
theme heard while in researching
this story, Heintz said the only thing that
pushes the final price above $40,000 is
the builder’s choice of avionics.
Heintz broke down the typical
cost for a CH-601 or CH-701 (the latter
Jeep-like airplane typically costing
less because interior appointments
and fancy avionics are rarely added):
$12,000-16,000 for the airframe kit;
$17,000 for Rotax or Jabiru powerplants
with propeller and accessories;
$1000-2000 for paint using a local auto-body shop; and anywhere from
a few hundred dollars to $3000-4000
for upholstery depending on how fancy
builders want their airplane to be.
The 701’s interior is typically simpler
with some seat cushion and carpeting;
the low-wing 601 might use leather or
other higher-quality materials, which
raises the cost.
Assuming the averages, that
leaves more than $5000 to devote to
an instrument panel while allowing
the builder to come in at less than
$40,000. And Heintz says that builders
can even take advantage of some of
the company’s quickbuild components
with a target $40K maximum.
With more than 1500 flying, one of
the most popular light planes in the
world is the RANS S-6ES Coyote II. The
S-6ES features a Dacron wing and fuselage
covering, which saves the need for
paint-a built-in budget saver. The S-6S
model is essentially the same airplane
with dope and fabric covering. Another
popular RANS model is the tandemseat
S-7 Courier. Both the Coyote II
and Courier airplanes can be built and
flown for less than $40,000, one more
easily than the other.
An S-6ES kit costs $14,700. If
you opt for the common Rotax 912,
you’ll add about $12,000 plus a $3000
motor mount kit for a total of around
$30,000. Since you don’t have to paint
(unless you choose the S-6S) and because
the interior can remain basic,
you can spend the balance of your budget
on propeller, instruments, avionics,
radios, wheelpants and other goodies.
In other words, it’s pretty easy to stay
within your means. One option-a
thermal-formed interior-adds $650
but will greatly speed your interior
finish. You can either select from the
extras mentioned or order the quickbuild
kit (about $5000 more) without
The S-7S is the kit version of the
much-refined C version of the Courier.
It retains the keep-it-simple theory that
company founder and leader Randy
Schlitter designed into it from the beginning.
Keeping the S-7S below $40K
is possible but more of a challenge
than with the S-6.
The base kit costs $18,265. Add
the same 80-hp Rotax 912 plus a $4000
engine install kit and you’ve spent about
$34,000. That leaves $6000 for paint
(this model is fabric-covered), propeller,
instruments and other options. It’ll
be a tight squeeze and you’ll have to do
without many extras, but you can still
build an excellent Cub-like airplane for
the allotted budget.
Both the S-6 and S-7 series aircraft
began life behind two-stroke Rotax engines.
And if you’re willing to sacrifice
horsepower and opt for a two-stroke,
you’ll have a lot more money left to
devote to extras.
As with all the manufacturers, my first
question to Sonex General Manager
Jeremy Monnett was straightforward:
Is it possible to build any of your kits
and get airborne for $40,000 or less?
His answer? Yes, all six Sonex airplanes
(the Sonex, Waiex and Xenos models,
each with two engine choices) can be
built for that amount.
Monnett supplied a spreadsheet
illustration (Figure 1) for specific cost
breakdowns of the Sonex models. Each
total price includes full paint and interior
treatment and a Sensenich wood
propeller, plus you can select most of
the company’s more popular amenities.
In coming up with these estimates
Sonex allocated $2500 for a basic instrument
panel that includes a Stratomaster
EFIS system for instrumentation,
plus a radio and handheld GPS.
Improvements and additions must be
factored into the leftover funds.
“Unless they choose exotic or
expensive avionics, nearly every Sonex
builder achieves this ($40K benchmark)”
during the build process,
|Empty weight||600 lbs|
|Gross weight||1,150 lbs|
|Wing area||128 sq. ft|
|Wing loading||9.3 lbs/sq. ft|
|Useful Load||550 pounds|
|Length||19 feet 9 inches|
|Cabin Interior||38 inches|
|Height||6 feet 1 innch|
|Load Limit||+5.7, -2.28 g|
|Fuel Capacity||12 gallons 1|
|Baggage area||hat rack|
|Notes:||1 Optional wing tanks available at 7 gallons each.|
|Standard engine||Rotax 912, 80 hp|
|Power loading||14.3 lbs/hp|
|Max Speed||120 mph|
|Cruise speed||90-100 mph|
|Economy Cruise||Duration-3 hrs, Range-250 miles, Fuel Consumption (Economical)-about 3.0gph|
|Stall Speed||35 mph|
|Never exceed speed||120 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||800 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||350 ft|
|Landing distance at gross||400 ft|
|Notes:||Service Ceiling (est.)-10,000 ft.|
|Empty weight||700 pounds|
|Gross weight||1,300 pounds|
|Wing area||132 square feet|
|Wing loading||9.8 pounds/per square foot|
|Fuel Capacity||24 gallons, usable|
|Standard engine||Rotax 912 S|
|Power loading||13.0 pounds/hp*|
|Max Speed||180 mph|
|Cruise speed||132 mph**|
|Stall Speed||44 mph|
|Never exceed speed||180 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||900 fpm|
|Takeoff distance at gross||550 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||500 feet|
|Range (powered)||600 miles|
|Notes:||* Assumes the Rotax 912S engine, per factory literature.
** Meets the proposed light-sport aircraft category with correct prop, assuming maximum continuous power.
|Empty weight||1,105 1|
|Gross weight||1,600 2|
|Wing area||97.1 square feet|
|Wing loading||16.5 pounds/square foot|
|Useful Load||495 pounds|
|Cabin Interior||40 inch width|
|Fuel Capacity||25-61 gallons 3|
|Baggage area||80 pounds|
|Notes:||1 equipped as Schmidtbauer’s Mustang II
2 flown in normal category, the factory allows up to 1850-lb. gross, but only if the additional weight is fuel in the wings; aerobatic category limits gross weight to 1350 lb.
3 37 gallons in aircraft tested
All specs and performance were provided by the factory and assume a conventional Mustang II kit with a 200-hp engine. Figures stated in the article were for Schmidtbauer’s customized Mustang II.
|Standard engine||200-hp Lycoming IO-360|
|Power loading||8 pounds/horsepower|
|Max Speed||230 mph 1|
|Cruise speed||220 mph|
|Stall Speed||58 mph|
|Rate of climb at gross||1,900 fpm|
|Service Ceiling||20,000 feet|
|Takeoff distance at gross||470 feet|
|Landing distance at gross||680 feet|
|Notes:||1 for 200-hp engine; 210 mph with 160-hp engine|
|Seating||2, side by side|
|Empty weight||620 lb|
|Gross weight||1,100 lb|
|Wing loading||11.22 lb/sq.ft|
|Useful Load||480 lb|
|Payload (with full fuel)||384 lb|
|Cabin Interior||40 inch|
|Fuel Capacity||16 Gal|
|Baggage area||50 lb|
|Standard engine||AeroVee 2180|
|Prop Diameter||Sensenich 2 blade fixed-pitch|
|Power||80 hp@3400 rpm|
|Cruise speed||150 mph (130 kt) 8000 feet @ 75% power|
|Stall Speed (Flaps)||40 mph (35 kt)|
|Stall Speed||46 mph (40 kt)|
|Rate of climb at gross||500 fpm (1,200 at aerobatic weight)|
|Takeoff distance at gross||400 ft|
|Landing distance at gross||500 ft|
|Fuel Consumption||4 gph|
|Options||Engine: Jabiru 2200
Engine: Jabiru 2300