I’ll forever remember the first few airframes I got my hands on. Many of them fit what I consider to be the best planes for beginner pilots.
The best planes for beginner pilots include the Cessna 150/152, Piper PA-28 series, Beechcraft Musketeer and many more which we’ll take a look at throughout this article. The hallmark qualities of these planes are their forgiving handling characteristics, simple systems, and availability.
Flying is the biggest joy in my life. I used to relish the Tuesdays and Thursdays after work when I’d drive down to the local municipal airport and take a Cessna out for pattern work. There was something soothing about the process of flying after a long day. While I’ve found it harder and harder to find the time to actually get into a plane, I still block off time on my calendar each week to get up in the air.
I grew up at the local municipal airport. My dad was a flight instructor there, and I’ve always loved planes. I logged thousands of hours on flight simulators so by the time I was legal to fly, it was only natural that I started on my Private Pilot’s license. I soloed at 3 hours total time and I’ve never looked back. Now forgive me if I go on here. We’re talking about planes after all.
Oldies, But Goodies - The Timeless Planes For Beginner Pilots
I’ve been in most of these planes at some point in my flying career. They’re great birds, and will reward you for good habits, but not punish you for the bad ones either. We used to hang out at the local municipal airport and it wasn’t uncommon for any of my dad’s friends to own and fly one of these airframes. What they lack in modern amenities, they make up for in being timeless, venerable pioneers and just plain fun to fly.
No list would be complete without the mention of this little bird. They’re compact, but fun.
The early 150’s had the six cylinder continentals in them and the later 152’s were equipped with the Lycoming engine. Both planes are nearly identical in how they handle, and the way they look (I always know the difference by looking at the more open cowling of the 150, or the 60’s era wheel pants), the easiest way to differentiate for most is a quick look at the instrument panel. Either way, this plane is a budget buy and if equipped for it, a great IFR trainer as well. There are stories of 150’s flying IFR sipping 5 GPH without an issue, despite being on the slower side. I couldn’t imagine flying IFR in one, but they’re fun either way.
The 152 will always have a special place in my heart as I had the pleasure of learning in one with an aerobatic instructor who had a penchant for throwing the airframe around in every way he could. He’d nose over on climb out to simulate an engine failure, or have me work an engine out glide to 100 feet above a predetermined emergency landing field. Showed me exactly what this plane is capable of, and it’s impressive considering the economics of operating one.
I will always love Cessnas. I think they’re the coolest looking birds out there, and the high wing is convenient, especially out in the rain. The 150 and 152 are straightforward. No bad habits, robust, simple and light as a feather.
The only complaint I might ever have about them is that the wing loading is JUST a little light for my taste. I like to cut through some of the chop and wind and the 150/152’s I’ve flown love bouncing in and out of it. God forbid you have a headwind, might have to stop somewhere and stay for the night. Especially with the smaller tanks on the 150.
At 100 hp, you’re not going to squeeze much performance out of the 150, but I don’t think that’s the point. These birds are affordable and a blast to take out for an afternoon of fun.
The 152 is no longer produced by Cessna, being retired when the company halted production of their General Aviation aircraft in the mid 80’s. There are numerous approved modifications that can be done to the 150 and 152. Some of these include engine upgrades and a tail dragger conversion kit.
1976 Cessna 150 Specifications:
- Length: 23 ft 11 in (7.29 m)
- Wingspan: 33 ft 2 in (10.11 m)
- Height: 8 ft 6 in (2.59 m)
- Wing area: 160 sq ft (15 m2)
- Empty weight: 1,122 lb (509 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 1,600 lb (726 kg)
- Fuel capacity: 22.5 US gal (18.7 imp gal; 85 L) usable internal fuel
- Powerplant: Continental O-200-A air-cooled, horizontally-opposed engine, 100 hp
- Maximum speed: 109 knots (125 mph) at sea level
- Cruise speed: 82 knots (94 mph) at 10,000 ft (3,050 m) (econ cruise)
- Stall speed: 42 knots (48 mph) (flaps down, power off)
- Never Exceed Speed: 140 knots (160 mph)
- Range: 420 nmi (480 mi) (econ cruise, standard fuel)
- Service ceiling: 14,000 ft
- Rate of climb: 670 ft/min
The 172 might be my favorite plane of all time and it is the world’s most produced general aviation aircraft. I feel like every pilot has flown one at some point or another. Upon takeoff it’s apparent this plane is the Cessna 152’s bigger brother in every way. While heavier, less snappy, and a better performer overall, the handling is classic Cessna. I’ve always marvelled at the difference in wing loading between the two smaller Cessna’s. While only a few pounds difference the 172 is much more stable and definitely rolls through turbulence with more authority - It feels like you can flick a 152 over with your thumb if you need to.
I’ve flown mostly early 172’s, my personal favorite is the 1967 H model. It’s old, and many pilots would be uncomfortable with the age of it, but I like it, it has character and while not a speed demon by any stretch, it’ll get you where you’re going. This was one of the last years to be shipped with the Continental O-300. I grew up in a 210 and the harley-like idle of the continental is one of the greatest feelings and sounds in the world.
The 145hp H model isn’t the best performer at altitude though and flights planned for hot summer days, high density altitude, above 4,500 feet, are probably best saved for a cooler day - Big Bear Lake here in Southern California comes to mind, and I wouldn’t even bother in one of these H models if the temperature is above 75 degrees.
The allure of this plane, is of course, the handling, but even more appealing is the cost. I can fly, with the right mixture, at around 6 or 7 gph, with a cruise speed of 130 MPH. Few aircraft can compete and still carry 4 adults if needed, which brings me to my other favorite thing about the 172.
The cabin space.
I’ll say that one of the biggest benefits here is that you can fit 4 adults if needed and everyone’s comfortable. I love having two doors too! Not only does it feel more natural, but it’s convenient for passengers as they don’t have to climb over a seat or two to get to the back.
I miss the old 172H I used to fly, decent low time airframes of this vintage can be had for $50,000 or less and they’re just about the most fun you could have in a plane. The lycomings that were sold with the late 60’s and on are awesome too. Losing two cylinders and gaining 5 horsepower make all the difference as the empty weight was decreased somewhat while increasing the useful load overall. These engines do not have the characteristic idle of the continentals, but they’re smooth as butter, and reliable with a higher TBO as well. As a disclaimer, I’ve mentioned 4 adults, but you won’t be hauling them around with full fuel as the useful load is on the low side when gassed up.
The 172 was so popular that Cessna released a retractable gear version of it in the mid 70’s incorporating the unique retract system from the Cessna 210. This plane is modestly faster than the fixed gear versions and includes a variable pitch propeller. I’ve looked into buying a 172 and the RG models have always appealed to me for their cost, efficiency, and cool (expensive) looking retract system..
The modern variants of the 172 are night and day difference to the old birds I’ve flown. Equipped with leather interiors, optional air conditioning and G1000 glass instrument panel, these feel more like commercial airliners than they do GA aircraft and they retain the sweet handling characteristics that have made the 172 famous and renowned. These modern variants also have a little more power in the form of the Lycoming IO-360-L2A rated at 180hp. Old or new, the 172 is a good looking plane that is versatile, perfect to learn on and one that will grow with you as you fly more.
2001 Cessna 172R Specifications:
- Length: 27 ft 2 in (8.28 m)
- Wingspan: 36 ft 1 in (11.00 m)
- Height: 8 ft 11 in (2.72 m)
- Wing area: 174 sq ft (16.2 m2)
- Empty weight: 1,691 lb (767 kg)
- Gross weight: 2,450 lb (1,111 kg)
- Fuel capacity: 56 US gallons (212 litres)
- Powerplant: Lycoming IO-360-L2A four cylinder, horizontally opposed aircraft engine, 160 hp
- Cruise speed: 122 knots (140 mph)
- Stall speed: 47 knots (54 mph) (power off, flaps down)
- Never Exceed Speed: 163 knots (188 mph) (Indicated Airspeed)
- Range: 696 nmi (801 mi) with 45 minute reserve, 55% power, at 12,000 ft
- Service ceiling: 13,500 ft
- Rate of climb: 721 ft/min
- Wing loading: 14.1 lb/sq ft
Piper Cherokee PA-28
The Piper Cherokee is another general aviation staple. A direct competitor of the Cessna 172, these aircraft are just as classic, just as reliable and just as gentle. I’ve flown the hershey bar variants and the transition between a 172 and these low wing airframes is surprisingly straightforward.
I like the Hershey bar wings as they feel a little snappier than the Warrior variants, although asking any grown adult to climb into the back seat of one might cut any flight short. I’ve witnessed a little less climb speed and the occasional float during flare - My wings are usually higher - but these minor points aside - they are just as forgiving. The Cherokee 140 is the baby of the bunch with the 145hp Lycoming and a 2 + 2 seating arrangement, no baggage compartment. As I mentioned with the older 172’s above, performance deteriorates rapidly above 4,500 feet on a hot day, so plan accordingly.
The PA-28 has seen multiple design changes and improvements including a wing redesign, lengthening of the cabin, the addition of a larger baggage compartment and it’s own retractable gear variants. The high wing, low wing debate is one that rages on. My dad preferred the throttles and low wings on the Piper aircraft he trained in, and I get the allure. It’s an easier transition up from here as most multi engine aircraft are low wing and have similar throttle quadrants. I could never get used to the trim wheel being on the ceiling of the cabin, but I wouldn’t mind taking the time to become acclimated.
These are great birds.
The aircraft’s handling is gentle and forgiving, I’d argue it’s even more gentle than the Cessna in every way except the most unusual of attitudes. This seems like an obvious choice to include in this list, but I like the Cherokee series for the sake that for nearly identical performance to the 172, you pay an average of 10,000 less when out on the market for one. The simplicity of the systems in this airframe make it inexpensive to maintain as well. For a little more, you can have the 160 model, which has a dedicated baggage compartment and a little more power to putt around with. For a little more still, you can buy up a Cherokee 180 and have an airframe you can grow into. The 180 has the same gentle handling characteristics, but with better cruise, climb speed and useful loads.
Beyond the Cherokees, you have the warrior variants which have been used the world over as training aircraft. Further up the line you have the Dakota which has a nice, powerful 235 hp Lycoming engine, redesigned wing and 3,000 lb gross weight. The Dakota climbs like a mountain goat and cruises at a comfortable 143 knots. I feel the biggest consideration here really is your preference for low wing or high wing.
Production of the Cherokee 140 was halted in the mid 80’s.
1964 Piper Cherokee 140 Specifications:
- Length: 23 ft 3.6 in (7.102 m)
- Wingspan: 30 ft 0 in (9.14 m)
- Height: 7 ft 3.6 in (2.225 m)
- Wing area: 160 sq ft (15 m2)
- Empty weight: 1,201 lb (545 kg)
- Gross weight: 2,150 lb (975 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 2,150 lb (975 kg)
- Powerplant: Lycoming O-320-E2A 4-cylinder, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed piston engine, 150 hp
- Maximum speed: 123 knots (142 mph)
- Cruise speed: 108 knots (124 mph)
- Stall speed: 47 knots (54 mph)
- Range: 465 nmi (535 mi)
- Service ceiling: 14,300 ft
- Rate of climb: 660 ft/min
- Wing loading: 13.4 lb/sq ft
Another airframe that makes the mark on popular GA airplanes. The Musketeer is a low wing, four place single engine plane that has similar, friendly handling to the Piper and Cessnas we’ve looked at. Introduced in the 60’s, these were first shipped with a Lycoming engine that was later replaced with a Continental one. Beechcraft went with Continentals for all their models I’ve been in one before, haven’t flown it, but I think the biggest difference on these is their landing gear. Built with a unique trailer idling link and rubber puck system, it’s not uncommon to feel a skipping sensation when landing.
A friend mentioned keeping a little back pressure on the yoke after touchdown to help with this. I haven’t had to do this yet. But, beside the landing gear, this plane is straightforward. With 165hp under the hood it performs as well as the more popular birds here, though I’ve heard the cruise speed suffers somewhat depending on the year you fly. At any rate. This plane is solid, and is affordable compared with the more mainstream options on this list.
A23A Musketeer Specifications:
- Length: 25 ft 8 in (7.82 m)
- Wingspan: 32 ft 9 in (9.98 m)
- Height: 8 ft 3 in (2.51 m)
- Wing area: 146 sq ft (13.6 m2)
- Empty weight: 1,375 lb (624 kg)
- Gross weight: 2,400 lb (1,089 kg)
- Powerplant: Continental IO-346-A four cylinder, air-cooled, horizontally opposed aircraft piston engine, 165 hp
- Maximum speed: 127 knots (146 mph)
- Cruise speed: 102 knots (117 mph) long range cruise speed
- Stall speed: 63 knots (72 mph)
- Never Exceed Speed: 152 knots (175 mph)
- Range: 676 nmi (778 mi) with reserves
- Service ceiling: 13,000 ft
- Rate of climb: 728 ft/min
Another true classic, the four-place, single engine Grumman AA-5 family might be one of the better-kept secrets, offering the simplicity of a Cessna 172 while cruising faster and staying efficient. This appealing blend can be found elsewhere, but few options remain with as strong of a network for parts and service.
These remind me of why I love Mooney’s as well.
They look and fly like little fighter planes. One of my favorite things about this airframe is how well it handles. Grumman replaced cables and tie systems with torque rods and the result is an aircraft that requires little input to change attitude. It’s responsive, and reminds of driving stick shift. You feel one with the machine.
The visibility is another aspect worth mentioning. The wraparound windows and low instrument panel provide panoramic views. The airplane can also be flown with an open canopy, which provides a unique experience. The bonded fuselage construction makes for an efficient airframe. The result is a series of overruns and accidents involving too much speed on final approach.
The fiberglass landing gear prove forgiving and easy to maintain. 180 HP Tiger owners report cruise speeds of 125 to 133 knots at 8.5 to 10 gallons per hour, while owners with 160 hp models fly about 10 knots slower with lower fuel burn. The cylinders tend to overheat so it’s advised to monitor their temperature on climb out and in cruise. Otherwise, the AA-5 series meets the list for best planes for beginner pilots.
2005 Grumman AA-5 Specifications:
- Length: 22 ft 0 in (6.7 m)
- Wingspan: 31 ft 6 in (9.6 m)
- Height: 8 ft 0 in (2.4 m)
- Wing area: 140 sq ft (13 m2)
- Empty weight: 1,500 lb (680 kg)
- Gross weight: 2,400 lb (1,090 kg)
- Max takeoff weight: 2,400 lb (1,090 kg)
- Powerplant: Lycoming O360-A4K air-cooled, 4-cylinder, horizontally-opposed piston engine, 180 hp (134 kW)
- Maximum speed: 143 knots (163 mph)
- Range: 686 nmi (789 mi)
- Service ceiling: 13,800 ft
- Rate of climb: 850 ft/min
- Wing loading: 17.1 lb/sq ft
The New Stuff - Modern Planes For Beginner Pilots
Expensive, efficient, modern. These are the planes that most beginners dream of learning in. These birds tend to be fast, efficient and use the latest design trends. The planes here continue the trend of being gentle, stable and economic in flight, while adding several modern amenities and features to help streamline the flight experience for pilots and passengers alike.
One of the more modern and expensive options on this list. The Diamond DA-40 is a four place aircraft that has all the options you can imagine. The performance of this airframe is superior as it was purpose designed and built for speed, efficiency and for modern requirements. It’s gentle enough that the aircraft may be trimmed nose up, throttle set to idle and it will descend at 800 – 1,200 feet per minute at 48 knots without control input.
Which. Is amazing.
The innovation involved with the DA-40 set a new, high bar for modern aircraft manufacturers. It seems unfair to make any comparison to others on this list, but the DA-40 checks all the boxes for the best plane for beginners. With stable flight characteristics, a great safety record, and several instrument panel options, there’s a DA-40 for everyone. The cabin is also surprisingly roomy. With cruise speeds nearing 150 miles per hour at 5 - 6 gallons per hour. You know you have a marvel of modern engineering and one you can enjoy at minimal cost per hour of operation.
That said, the cost of the DA-40 is often 10x the purchase price of any of the above-mentioned models, but this is a solid platform with tons of potential to take a beginner through instrument rating and beyond.
With regard to safety, the DA40 has accumulated a low accident record overall. The DA40 suffers significantly less from spin and stall related accidents as well. Its overall and fatal accident rates are one-eighth that of the general aviation fleet. This level of safe operation may be attributed to its modern design elements which include a high aspect wing ratio, light wing loading and gentle/user-friendly flight characteristics
2007 Diamond DA-40 Specifications:
- Length: 8.1 m (26 ft 7 in)
- Wingspan: 11.9 m (39 ft 1 in)
- Height: 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in)
- Wing area: 13.5 m2 (145 sq ft)
- Empty weight: 795 kg (1,753 lb)
- Gross weight: 1,198 kg (2,641 lb)
- Powerplant: Lycoming IO-360-M1A 4-cylinder air-cooled horizontally-opposed piston engine, 134 kW (180 hp)
- Cruise speed: 173 mph, 151 knots
- Stall speed: 57 mph, 49 knots flaps down
- Range: 833 mi, 724 nmi
- Service ceiling: 16,000 ft
- Rate of climb: 1,120 ft/min
And we had to mention another modern contender. The Cirrus SR-20 is another fantastic airplane. It’s fast, modern, expensive and has an outstanding safety record. Another airframe lauded for its innovation, the SR-20 was the first aircraft to implement a parachute to help with survivability in the event of an accident. It’s a ballistic chute that is lever operated from within the cabin and can be used in engine failure situations, uncontrolled spins, etc. In addition to this great innovation, the instrument panel is modern with standard G1000 displays.
Amenities reserved for more advanced airframes are also included. The performance of the SR series is exemplary and on par with purpose designed and built efficiency machines. It’s a truly a joy to fly and a great platform for advanced training. The one time I was able to fly a Cirrus SR-20, I felt like I was in one of those sporty Cadillacs. It had all the advanced stuff and was an absolute joy to throw around the pattern. While moving from a control yoke to a side stick was a bit of an adjustment, I enjoyed everything about this speed demon.
- Length: 26 ft 0 in (7.92 m)
- Wingspan: 38 ft 4 in (11.68 m)
- Height: 8 ft 11 in (2.72 m)
- Empty weight: 2,126 lb (964 kg)
- Gross weight: 3,050 lb (1,383 kg)
- Powerplant: Continental IO-360-ES, 200 hp
- Propeller: 3-bladed
- Cruise speed: 155 knots (178 mph) True Air Speed
- Stall speed: 56 knots (64 mph) Calibrated Air Speed
- Service ceiling: 17,500 ft
- Rate of climb: 828 ft/min
The SR22 is a high performance variant of the SR20 with a 310 hp continental engine. It also has a larger wing and more fuel capacity. The SR22 is an industry leading airframe and happens to be the most produced airframe of the 21st century. I think the coolest thing about the 22 is that it has been approved for flight into known icing conditions.
While I haven’t been in one of these, I’ve heard amazing things and the more powerful engine increases performance across cruise speed, climb rate and takeoff roll. There’s also a turbo normalizing kit that is offered through a third party. Turbo normalization allows you to maintain the engine’s intake atmosphere at near sea level as you climb higher. This permits you to maximize performance in the thinner air above 18,000 feet.
About THE AUTHOR
My father is a licensed flight instructor so I spent the majority of my childhood at the local municipal airport. My first memories are of climbing into the front seat of our Cessna 210M, so it was only natural that I complete my private pilot’s license as soon as it was legal. 924 hours later, and I look for any excuse to get out and stretch my wings.Read more about Michael Zalik