Top Five Reasons To Hate Top 10 Lists

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Not a big fan of Best-Of lists. They rank number eight on my Top 10 Least Favorite Things list, right below raindrops on roses. Recently, AOPA published survey results of a Top 15 list of “classic” airplanes. The Waco F-series caught my eye. These are the stoutly gorgeous open-cockpit biplanes from the 1930s and 40s, with my favorite being the Waco UPF-7, built in a time when fresh-air seating was giving way to cabin models, such as the Spartan Executive monoplane (number nine) or lighter and cheaper Piper Cubs.

I was disappointed that Waco polled at number 12, barely nudging out the achingly cute Ercoupe, which has kept pilots suffering from podofleugaphobia (fear of using one’s feet in flight) aloft since 1940.  

Surprising to some, the venerable Cessna 150—or its elder cousins, the 140/120—didn’t make the list.  A cursory perusal of FAA stats, that only I have seen, shows over a billion pilots learned to fly in the two-seat, aluminum vomit-makers since 1958. I trained in a 150 and threw up in a 150 Aerobat. Color me sentimental, but I admire Cessna’s long-ago devotion to low-cost primary training and have spent many cramped hours teaching in C-150s. Based on that experience I’ll say that 150s make great single-occupant airplanes if you don’t mind going slow, which I don’t.

So, if the 150 got the cold shoulder on AOPA’s list, why did the Piper Cherokee (GA’s equivalent of the 1961 Chevy Biscayne) make the cut, albeit barely at number 14? Yes, they’re decent airplanes, but in the same company as a Cessna 195 (number 6) or the twin-amphib Grumman Goose (number 11) that exudes adventure from every smokin’ rivet? Where’s the romance in a Cherokee 140? And don’t point to the Cherokee’s cameo in Ms. Galore’s air wing in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger. I’ve taught in Cherokees, owned one and admit they do the job. But never did a starry-eyed fledgling gaze at my Cherokee 180 and say, “Gee, Mister, that’s the swellest aeroplane!”

Designed in part by Fred Weick, the same guy who created the Ercoupe, Cherokees are useful but hardly sexy, unlike the three classic Beechcrafts—Staggerwing, Bonanza and Twin Beech—that took second, third and fourth in the survey. I realize that no one could ever afford any of those, but what price beauty? I once thought I owned a Bonanza. She was old, she was beautiful, and she drained my bank account in exchange for the sweetest flying ever. Should I win a Mega Lottery I’ll seek another Beech to rapidly deplete my millions and die a happy pilot.

Crossing the finish line at number 15 is the Cessna 182, what pilots really wanted when dealers sold them a 172, which was the nosewheel compromise to the prettier Cessna 170 (number 10). The 172, produced in greater numbers than anything else in this review, didn’t make the list.

Hardly awe-inspiring in visuals, the Cessna 182 is a flying pickup truck but, in my weathered opinion, no classic until you move the nosewheel to beneath the tail, where nature intended, making it almost a Cessna 180. Now, there’s a classic. Not convinced? Skim NTSB incident reports for C-180 versus C-182 in loss of directional control events, and you might find that the tailwheelin’ Cessna 180s far exceed the 182s in wiping out gear legs, props and runway lights. I mean, where’s thrill in holding the centerline in a crosswind with a tri-geared 182, when the swaggering 180 pilot can regale hangar crowds with ripping yarns of ground-looping splendor in the grass?  So, Cessna 180 usurps the 182 on my list. I’m unairworthy of even approaching a Cessna 185.

Slots six and seven on AOPA’s dream sheet contain the Globe Swift and the Navion, excellent candidates both, if you’re of a certain age and not into speed or easy maintenance. Both low-wing, retractable-gear airplanes came out of general aviation’s optimistically gilded age after World War II. Marketed with the mistaken notion that returning flyboys would step from Mustangs into Navions and fly into the sunlit suburban uplands with their pliant wives—who were likely WASP pilots during the war—seated at their sides without touching the controls. Didn’t happen. Still, the Navion is an easy-to-fly, great-in-turbulence, bear-to-maintain, almost-fast, complex airplane that’s built tough and handles grass or paved short runways.

Two-seat Swifts garner attention on the ramp, mostly because the cowling sports a smiling grill that makes anyone happy who’s about to walk into the prop while admiring it. Not much utility, but they compensate by not being terribly fast without any mods that make them seem faster. Loved and flown both but haven’t owned either. Which brings us to the top of the classics list, where, by divine right, exists the legend-in-its-owner’s-mind, Piper Cub. To non-flyers, all small airplanes are Cubs, as all classic cars are Model Ts. 

I love Cubs. Some of my best friends fly Cubs, particularly the ubiquitous J-3 plus its descendants, the Super Cruiser (my favorite) and Super Cubs that have been towing gliders, splashing Michigan lakes and skimming Alaskan tundra in search of remote sandbars on which to land, get stuck and be mauled by bears. But, man, what a small price for adventure in one of the best airplanes ever?

Seriously, that’s a question: What does a Cub cost? Answer: Legends come with legendary pricing.

For discount legends, think Aeronca Champ, which stumbled onto the list at number five, despite basically being a J-3 Cub with a real door ... and more room … and better visibility … and you get to fly solo from the front seat, unlike the J-3 Cub which keeps a lone pilot in the back as though the real pilot bailed out mid-flight. Admittedly, I’m prejudiced. I bought my 65-HP 7AC Champ for $5000 in 1982 after recoiling from 65-HP Cubs bringing twice that price. 

So, Top Whatever lists are dubious, but please list your top favorites that didn’t make AOPA’s roster or your Top Reasons That My Comments Were Stupid. I’m counting on you Ercoupe pilots to come through.

Comments (7)

Sorry to be a party pooper but I don't think much of the J3, other than the door it is brutally uncomfortable, seriously performance challenged with the stock C65 and has mushy and unpleasant controls.

The C 140 is a nicer airplane in every respect.

However I agree with Paul's comment on the C150. I have about 1000 hrs instructoring on it and it wa my first airplane I owned. I bought it in 1988 for $ 8500 and sold it in 1991 for $ 11000

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | January 13, 2019 7:23 PM    Report this comment

Agree--Cubs are way over rated--and over-priced. Agree with Paul's assessment on the Champ as well--a much better airplane for all of the reasons he mentions--and faster as well. "Faster" is a term rarely used when describing a Champ--EXCEPT when comparing it to a Cub.

Agree with Paul about "Top 10 lists"--they mean nothing, except perhaps as a "dream list". Airplane purchasers have already created the list by voting with their pocketbooks--the not so glamorous C-172 and the Cherokee have already staked out the top spots--all of the rest are also-rans.

Maybe AOPA should run a "Money is no object" contest--divided into classes--antiques, classics, production airplanes, rare airplanes, turboprops, jets, warbirds, LSAs, helicopters, gliders, balloons, and "one-offs." That way there is an airplane for EVERYBODY!

Posted by: jim hanson | January 14, 2019 8:19 AM    Report this comment

As with most top whatever number Best-Of lists, this is just one person's opinion or worse, one committee's opinion. Franky i don't think I could come up with a Best Airplane list without really specific criteria.

I do agree with the J-3 at number one with an asterisk that it be the clip-wing version, absolutely the most fun airplane I've ever flown. As to Paul's quibble about the pilot sitting in back, as he points out the J-3 was from the era of the hairy chested biplanes in which real pilots did sit in back

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 14, 2019 8:50 AM    Report this comment

Having flown about 70 types, across civil, military, and experimental, I honestly can say that I've not yet encountered one that I disliked.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 14, 2019 12:44 PM    Report this comment

" I once thought I owned a Bonanza. She was old, she was beautiful, and she drained my bank account in exchange for the sweetest flying ever."

I have an old one, she is beautiful, so far has not drained the bank account. It would be difficult to find a replacement at any cost for the harmony, lightness, response of the flight controls making it an all around flying experience second to none. And it is fast, is happy with mogas, and is the equivalent to the classic 57 Chevy when I pull up to the pumps wherever we go. It is that distinctive.

Thanks for a wonderfully written article with your amazing phraseology, re-fanning the flames of enthusiasm for us who own a classic. To me, just about any GA airplane is a classic. My former airplane was a straight tailed 172 which evoked a similar enthusiasm because of its unique abilities to do everything well enough. I too, believe it should be on the top 10 list.

But there are not enough top 10 lists to cover all the airplanes. I don't have the experience of YARS but I agree with him, I have not yet flown an airplane I didn't like. While I like my Bonanza over anything I have ever flown, it's the magic of flight, the freedom it evokes in the soul, and the amazement and thrill I feel at every take-off that has me addicted to flying. For me, that is what it is all about.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | January 15, 2019 10:47 AM    Report this comment

" why did the Piper Cherokee (GA's equivalent of the 1961 Chevy Biscayne) make the cut"

I'm glad someone said it. I can think of no plane which is less interesting than a Piper Cherokee. Safe and stable, yes. Inspired, adventurous, feisty, bold, or classic? No, I'm afraid not.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | January 15, 2019 11:44 AM    Report this comment

So I would have put some of the other Cessna products on the list (C140--I'm biased owning one, the C150/152 and the C172).

I don't really have a problem with the Cherokees though--I must admit I kinda like them--but then I have a different taste in airplanes than some. It's a simple, honest little airplane that is easy to fly and easy to maintain. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it's the second most produced civil airplane after the 172.

Even though I've never flown one, I've always had a soft spot for the Velie Monocoupe. Chances are I won't ever get to fly one, but might be able to see one in a museum one day.

Posted by: Colin Reed | January 16, 2019 11:27 AM    Report this comment

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