Entry-Level Travel

You can use basic airplanes to travel, but not the same way as more-capable choices.


The problem with an airplane like that is you can’t really use it for travel,” said a pilot looking out the FBO window at a Cherokee 140 sitting on the ramp. That pilot was saying that an entry-level airplane—think two or four seats, fixed gear and no more than 160 hp—can’t go places. Show me where it says that. It’s hard to imagine Charles Lindbergh shrugging off the Ryan NYP because it barely made 110 mph. “Sorry, St. Louis, I’m not flying to Paris unless I can average a buck-fifty….” No. Lindbergh flew more than 33 hours between Long Island and Le Bourget, averaging 107 mph over the 3600 sm.

So yes—slow, entry-level airplanes can travel great distances. Still, they’re…slow. They also demand an operational mindset different from making the same trip in a known-icing Turbo SR22, for example, or a King Air. Because of their limitations, they often don’t get the respect they deserve. But entry-level airplanes remain popular, often because they’re the most airplane the owner can afford. So how to use it to travel?

Gotta Start Somewhere

In fact, it was my family airplane on the ramp being so cruelly maligned by the pilot in the window. We didn’t take it personally. The critic was a renter and lacked the knowledge of the liberating elements of owning even a “slow” airplane. Ours got us into general aviation aircraft ownership and taught us how to go places. In our first 22 months of ownership, we racked up 335 hours of traveling, all of it VFR, mostly to destinations at least five hours away.

Many pilots find ample satisfaction flying around their home airspace. Our goal was traveling by general aviation airplane, and we found a clean 150-hp 1969 Piper Cherokee 140D right in the local area. Purchased in 1995 for less than the 1990 Isuzu Trooper we drove to look at it, the jaunty little PA-28-140 offered the kind of low-cost flying my late wife Annie and I were looking for.

Five weeks after taking possession, the Cherokee helped me pass my private pilot checkride. Six days later, we flew from Wichita for a fuel stop near the Mississippi River, south of the St. Louis Class B airspace. From our perch at 7500 feet MSL, we looked down at the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-55 as we descended toward our fuel stop, which gave us our first true thrill of airplane ownership. “We could be stuck in that,” Annie said, motioning toward St. Louis, where we could see miles of headlights and taillights crawling along the choked ribbons of pavement.

After topping the tanks, we were off on a night flight to Indiana, where we overnighted. The next morning, we launched on a nonstop leg to an airport outside Washington, D.C. We’d flown nine hours from Wichita to reach D.C., foregoing 28 hours of driving. Our bags came with us, and we faced no security checkpoints. There also were no speed traps or traffic jams.

But there was some pucker factor: Tackling a 2500-NM round trip with a week-old private pilot certificate and 45 hours in the airplane. Planning was key.

Flexible Planning

Most of us put minimal effort into planning a long drive to see family or friends. When you know where you’re going, the need for maps and guidebooks eases. You check the car, of course—air in the tires, oil in the crankcase, washer fluid and fuel for the road. Pack a snack and you’re off to Grandma’s. Flying? We started looking at weather days ahead of our desired departure date.

Traveling a few hundred or even a thousand miles by small plane takes a bit more preparation than driving. And when that airplane is limited in speed and range—and the pilot is VFR-only—weather becomes a major factor. Even a stiff headwind in bright, sunny VFR can drastically alter Plan A when flying an entry-level airplane. When you drive you’ll look at it, but chances are it won’t change your travel plans much, barring ice storms, floods or blizzards. When weather enters the equation, flexibility pays. Continuing VFR into IFR conditions is a well-known killer; ditto for scud running below VFR-legal ceilings. Remember, this not a life-and-death mission—it’s a family trip.

If you’re expected to arrive at a set time, break the news before you start the trip: You reserve the right to change your plans due to weather and other operational challenges. We used to tell our family and friends we’d call from the last stop—or better still, call them when we were on the ground at our destination. It’s best to have them relaxed at home and not pacing the FBO worried you’re 30 minutes late, or worse.

Explain that your schedule must necessarily be flexible—for safety’s sake—subject even to leaving another day, or not at all, should weather bully into possible routes. In fact, staying flexible and remaining within both the airplane’s limitations and your own may mean launching a day earlier than planned. Or a day later.

When planning your flight, consider your most-realistic speed expectations and route to take an airport break every two and a half to three hours, fuel capacity notwithstanding. Most passengers will be ready to stand, stretch and unkink by that point. So will you.

So, for a 350- to 500-NM trip it’s two 100-knot legs and done. Turn the key before noon, secure the bird by supper. By car, you’d still be hours out. By airline, you might not be out of the connection airport. For a 1000-NM trip, a set of four 2.5-hour legs gets you there; you’ll need to start early, and you’ll be tired when you arrive. Figure an hour on the ground at each of the three fuel stops and the day works out to 13 hours of travel.

By picking small, out-of-the-way airports wherever possible, the stops increase your opportunities to see new places and meet other private-plane travelers while avoiding the hubbub and expense of busy turbine-oriented airports. Do remember for the benefit of travelers new to general aviation that an urgent need for a nature stop takes more time to make than when driving—and unlike the Human Mailing Tubes, piston aircraft aren’t known for their lavatories. At best, a bottle or gel-filled plastic receptacle is the most you can offer.

The Downsides

Most of us would be thrilled at the option to swap out a 12-hour drive in exchange for flying four or five hours. But, there are limitations. For example, your entry-level family flivver may not be as spacious as the family sedan. You know that from the time you’ve spent flying it locally, but the slow, entry-level bird can take you there, with luggage and, sometimes, others.

Still, many would-be owners pass on perfectly good entry-level birds they can afford to fly because they lust for more knots than their wallets can support. So they miss out on some quality flying and travel, even if it is a little slower than they’d like. It’s still faster than driving.

Meanwhile, owners of such entry-level aircraft cruise happily along at 90, 100, sometimes 110 knots, carrying owners and families on adventures, vacations, even business trips. Flying what their budgets can support even lets some of these savvy pilots beat the airlines on some trips. It’s true.

For example, in 1995 the shortest trip times between Wichita and Washington, D.C., took nearly seven hours, not counting the early arrival to clear security and check baggage and the added time waiting on the carousel to disgorge your bags. These days, presuming the same flight schedules, an extra hour would need to get tacked on to the front end. On a 500- to 600-NM trip, the 100-knot airplane beats the airlines almost any time. And when it involved both of us, the expense was break-even at worst; we often saved money over the airlines by flying the Cherokee.

Go, And Be Flexible

“You have any idea,” my friend asked me, “how long it would take to fly your Cherokee 140 between Wichita and Leesburg, Va.? Do you know how far away you’ll be?” The question came from the same pilot quoted at the top of this article. And, yes, we did, since that was the first trip Annie and I planned to take once my private certificate was in hand.

Someone close to me used to explain this to people surprised to hear we were 1500 miles from home flying a “slow” little Cherokee 140. The response was almost always, “Isn’t that a little bit far from home in such a small plane?”

My friend explained, “It’s just like flying a short day trip, except when you take off again you don’t go back. You keep going in the same direction. Put together a few 2.5-hour legs in a day and before you know it, you’re 1000 miles from home.”

Of course, you want the plane in great shape, current charts in the electronic flight bag, an up-to-date weather briefing, some spare oil, any paperwork for hotels or cars needed along the way, aircraft paperwork and a flight plan. Once packed for the trip—with one critical eye on weight-and-balance considerations and another on the weather—you’re ready to fly an adventure.

No Airplane Is Perfect

Image: Peter Somogyi-Tóth

Entry-level airplanes are a relatively painless way to get into aircraft ownership. They’re usually easy to fly, simple to maintain, don’t use much fuel. They make possible $100 hamburgers and sightseeing flights with friends, along with serving as a platform for continuing your training beyond the private certificate. They can provide excellent transportation value for not much more in operating costs than a mid-range SUV.

As with any other airplane, they do have their limitations. Balancing fuel weight against payload may mean you load up the family but only have three hours of fuel. That results in no more than two-plus-thirty legs, allowing for legal—but perhaps not adequate—reserves. Add in a 30-knot headwind and you’re down around highway velocities for groundspeed. At least you can go direct.

Well maybe, as long as there’s no high terrain along your route. Yes, you can get an entry-level airplane up to 10,000 or so feet MSL, but it takes a while to get there. Once you arrive, you won’t have much performance left to deal with downdrafts or a solid cloud deck rising up to meet you. The good news is the groundspeed you’ll enjoy coming down.

Even the airlines don’t use certain airplanes on routes where they don’t make sense. Why should you? — J.B.

Can’t Get There From Here? Go Around

Flexibility helps keep self-flown trips more relaxed and enjoyable. But despite best-laid plans, sometimes you just need to make a new decision. Now this somewhat amazes me, but some pilots of my acquaintance will sit out a trip merely because the weather precludes going direct. What? It’s as if they know only how to fly GPS direct.

Sometimes the detour is the shortest time between two points if the detour lets you proceed, even if the detour adds an extra 100 or 150 miles. Beats not moving if safely navigable.

Many a time headed between Wichita and my Ohio River hometown, going direct meant facing off against bands of intense weather. Instrument rating or no, instrument-currency notwithstanding, there’s some weather no smart pilot challenges. Most of those trips with a detour well off my route still let me reach my destination airport at a penalty of an extra 45, 60, sometimes 90 minutes in the airplane and, maybe, an extra fuel stop.

Minimum Equipment

The basic entry-level airplane you want to use for traveling may or may not be up to the task. For sure, it won’t be turbocharged or carry anti-icing equipment other than a warm pitot tube. But it should be at least minimally IFR-equipped, by which we mean a full complement of gyro-driven flight instruments in good working order.

Image: Paul Sanchez

– Hand-flying straight-and-level for hours at a time is fatiguing, no matter how much money you’re saving on fuel. Something with an autopilot both preserves your energy and allows you to perform other cockpit tasks without worrying too much about dropping a wing at the wrong time.

– You obviously need at least one good nav/comm; two are better. Some kind of panel-mounted GPS would be nice, even if it’s VFR-only. Noise-canceling headsets are a must in our airplanes even for short flights; they’re mandatory for long ones.

– An engine monitor, preferably with fuel flow, also comes in handy, especially when the engine goes auto-rough one dark night and you’re not sure everything up front is as it should be. An accurate picture of fuel availability will help you decide if you’ve got gas to go around weather or if another fuel stop will be necessary.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

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  1. I owned a Cherokee warrior for 20 years in Georgia and flew it all over the country east of the Rockies including trips into Reagan airport ( when it was DC National). For fuel stops, I typically went in to small town airports for a quick turn around, and as a result, during the 80’s I had more NDB approaches in my logbook than all others combined. The 112kt warrior was a ‘time machine’ for our family.

    Our current airplane, a Mooney 201, is a great traveling machine, but I miss the simplicity of the Cherokee.


    • Same here with a Cherokee C-180. Great first airplane for 18 years. I would recommend it for a first time pilot/owner. Later move to a Cessna Cardinal RG.


  2. Back in 1977 we bought a Cherokee 6. The plan was to use it for a trip to Argentina. we had 4 kids and we find out that the cost of the trip by airline was more that we were to spend in the Cherokee. I spent a lot of time preparing the flight departed from Compton one morning and by repeating this for a week we found ourselves in Argentina. We flew 54 hrs in 7 days. No glitches and everybody really happy with the experience. 3 weeks later we reversed course and 58 hrs in 7 days put us back in Compton. The trip of the lifetime for all of us.

  3. “ The critic was a renter and lacked the knowledge of the liberating elements of owning even a “slow” airplane.”

    One big advantage of owning vs renting is the ability to take your time. With renting there’s the added pressure of having to return the airplane for the next renter. If weather threatens the expense of returning the plane late can push the renter into making undesireable decisions, especially if a VFR pilot.

    My wife and I made a big trip in a small Cessna and got weathered out on the way home. With no need to rush we stayed overnight. The next day’s forecast showed low ceilings for the next several days, so we rented a car and drove home.

    Our plane was safe at the FBO (they didn’t even charge us for the tie-down). Two weeks later I hitched a ride with another pilot to retrieve the plane.

    That flexibility made it much easier to make the no-go decision.

  4. Excellent article, much appreciated!

    “…people surprised to hear we were 1500 miles from home flying a “slow” little Cherokee 140. The response was almost always, “Isn’t that a little bit far from home in such a small plane?”” – When the people asking are not familiar with small-plane-aviation, showing them a sectional, with all the small airports between Point A and Point B of your trip, is usually an eye-opener. Most people have no idea of the number and thus convenience of small, uncontrolled GA airports. In much of the country, anyway.

    “By picking small, out-of-the-way airports wherever possible, the stops increase your opportunities to see new places and meet other private-plane travelers while avoiding the hubbub and expense of busy turbine-oriented airports.” – This is a huge part of the fun factor. Even more fun when your entry-level airplane is EAB!

    Thanks again.

  5. This is a VERY well written article. Thank you for publishing it. As a guy who has been “everywhere” in a 172, I find a lot of truth in these writings. I’ve been to Key West, and Seattle. I’ve been to Catalina Island, and Dayton. I’ve been to Galveston, and Oshkosh.

  6. My father was always of the opinion that a “traveling” airplane needed to go at least 150 mph to be practical. Now that’s not to say he ever owned anything that fast, and in fact he and I once enjoyed a 2-week flight from VA to WA in an old 100 mph antique he’d purchased.

    While I now own a “traveling” airplane, my previous little 2-place went about 105 mph. At those speeds it covered most distances in half the time it would have taken to drive. A two-day, 14-hr drive to see family turned into one day and one fuel stop, covering the distance in about 7.5 hrs. That little airplane took me all over the western US. From our home base in Northern CA we went to places in NV, UT, ID, WA, and OR, all at a sedate speed, fighting headwinds, updrafts, downdrafts, wishing we were going faster. Remember, adventure isn’t always fun while it’s happening.

    My current airplane makes the afore mentioned 14-hr drive in about 3.7 hrs, non-stop. It has an autopilot and a nice glass panel that makes the trip easy and comfortable. And you know what? I kind of miss making that trip in my old, slow airplane.

  7. What was usually a 4 hour round trip in a 172 or a Warrior, I cut it down to 2.8 in a 182. Said trip was 5? hours 1 way to drive it. I preferred the 182. Not just due to the time factor, but also the comfort factor. Having electric trim, rudder trim, a fully adjustable seat, and interior room, etc, is something an entry level aircraft just doesn’t have.

  8. I have owned since 1982, 3 straight tail Cessna 150’s (model years ’59, ’60 and ’61) and have used them to fly cross country flights up and down the East Coast on numerous occasions. One was completely IFR equipped with Garmin avionics. Always a fun adventure- even at 87 knots!

  9. Good article. My first plane was a 1963 Beech Musketeer, later know as the Sundowner. It sported a 160 hp engine and huge fixed landing gear. The four-place cabin was comfortable, which was one reason it could only cruise at 100 kt, on a good day. But it had a 60 gallon fuel capacity, so it had range galore – longer than even my young bladder could stand. I flew it as far west as Utah and east to coastal South Carolina. I had a few unplanned weather stops, but not many. It was fun and inexpensive flying.

    These days, whenever I talk to someone who wants to buy a first airplane, I always advise them to match their plane to their planned mission. People tend to go for a fast, sexy looking complex airplane when their usual mission can be accomplished in a much more basic, and less expensive, craft. Until you have owned a plane, you can’t really appreciate how much more expensive that complex model, with all its bells and whistles, is to own and maintain. You can always upgrade later if you find that your mission dictates a more capable plane.

  10. 1800 Hrs. Double I. Flown everything from a Cub low and slow to a Malibu in the flight levels. Owned Cherokee 140s, 180, and on my 5th plane. It’s a 172 K model. GFC500, G5s, ADSB, etc. Fully capable and signed off for IFR. Know what? It’s simple, with a cruise prop can easily true out at 120Kt, and I plan 9.5 gal an hour. I range from KEWB to KEZF, and western PA. It’s just me and occasionally She Who Must Be Obeyed riding shotgun.

    Know what? It’s the journey, not the destination. Driving from SE MA to NOVA is an 8 hour odyssey (at least, with NYC, PHL, and Balt/DC traffic in between). Flying? 3, maybe 3.5 chock to chock hours. Could I do it faster in a 182 or Saratoga or Cirrus? Sure. But, my annual cost is a lot less, insurance is less (having all those certs helps), and when compared to ground transport…a lot more efficient use of time.

    No criticisms of anyone’s choice of their personal aerial conveyance. I always tell my students who’ve proffered the question about what plane they should buy that they pick what makes THEM happy. In my case, the old trusty 172, while not the sexiest nor the fastest, suits the 75% mission profile of my trips…and I don’t even have to think about whether going for that c-note burger is in the budget for this week.

    Fly what makes YOU happy. That’s my creed and I’m sticking to it (now, understand, if I won the MegaMillions, there would be something in my hangar that burned kerosene, you can be certain…that would make me Really Really Happy…lol).

  11. One thing I am seeing in many new Private Pilots is we have been so successful at beating in to them the dangers of VMC into IMC, that unless it is severe clear every cross country flight gets cancelled.

    My personal hobbs meter is set on go. If the weather doesn’t look promising to get to my destination I look at getting to somewhere I would want to stop part way there and launch. On a surprising high number of days the bad weather didn’t turn out to be so bad and I made it all the way. With a solid plan B I was happy to go have a look.

    The trick is to set personal weather minimums and don’t fly if bad weather is closing in on your departure airport unless you have a solid gold VFR alternate ahead. For personal weather minimums I tell new PPL’s to double VFR minimums. If you can’t hold 2000 ft AGL with inflight visibility of at least 6 miles it is time to turn around and get on the ground.

  12. To my non-pilot friends, I explain my 172 this way: Anywhere you can drive, I can fly there in half the time … at four times the expense.

  13. Home base plays a part to.

    We live on a peninsula and have to drive an hour north to drive south (east or west for that matter).

    A drive to the closest commercial airport is a 2 hour ordeal, and that’s before hitting the long term parking lot and the bus ride in.

    Even a C150 can get you places around here. An overnight by car is a day trip with an entry level bird.

  14. It’s all a mostly linear progression. The C-150 can certainly get you there if time (and load limitation) isn’t an issue. I did most of my GA long distance travelling in a C-182, a step-and-a-half up which was perfectly adequate for numerous lower 48 coast-to-coast runs, lots of Caribbean Island hopping, Canada/Alaska, etc. My current ride, a Bonanza, added a bit of speed & unrefueled range but little else. The next step, flight levels & known icing, is a BIG one and hardly justifiable for those of us in the non-multimillionaire – fly for pleasure crowd.

  15. Great writeup! Most of my light airplane flying is cross country and the points mentioned are spot on. Thanks! Although most of my flying is work related and solo, the light airplane is great fun on long trips. I’ve come to the conclusion that 182Kts TAS is the magic number for light aircraft, practical cross country cruise. Unfortunately, that’s expensive.

  16. One other thing from a country where gasoline is taxed. A small trainer might only do the equivalent of 10mpg fuel wise, and now most cars do much better than that. But it is up and running half the time than the car’s motor on a long car trip.

  17. My 105kt two seat microlight (ultralight in US?) takes me and my wife all over the place burning 15L per hour (4 gals) When working out how much time we’ve saved over going by car I also add in the 30min drive to the airport, the 30mins preparing the aircraft, and the 30mins arranging tie-downs and taxi at the destination. I leave out the 30mins flight planning the night before 😉