This is a list of aircraft I’ve actually been at the controls of (or as we say in pilot parlance, having been “pilot-in-command”); riding as a passenger doesn’t count.
1. Piper PA-28-181 Archer II
You may remember Regular Car Review’s take on flying a Cherokee/Archer-platform aircraft where he described it as something appropriate for a Mad Men type of mindset. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that - he also described it as a Ford to Cessna’s Toyotas, and that’s something I can roughly get behind, but the truth is that one isn’t necessarily going to be more sporting than the other anymore than a Taurus SES FWD is more “sporting” than a Camry LE. There are aircraft that qualify as “sporting” but if you’re shopping for an Archer you’re looking for a very stable and efficient platform.
That said, what I liked about the Archer compared to other aircraft I’ve flown is that for whatever reason it was just easier for me to fly. I appreciate the docile landing and cruise characteristics. It flies like how a Camry or Taurus would, and when your primary concern is not crashing into things, you’re more than happy to accept anything that can be described in terms of “Camry” or “Taurus” as an actual compliment. The mere act of flying is fun and amazing enough in of itself that being a stable platform can be a huge advantage especially when you’re carrying other people, which is why I choose the Archer when I took a girl I had been dating at the time to go flying with me. Turns out it was a bit of a mistake - I probably should’ve just took the damn Skyhawk because the high-wing configuration means you can actually see things, but oh well, live and learn. In conclusion, learn from my example and if you’re using an airplane to go sight-seeing make sure the airplane itself isn’t configured so that very large portions of stuff that make it function as an airplane don’t block your view.
Also, the Archer tends to look more “classically” like an aircraft. Low-wing, with a fuselage shaped for cutting through the wind. The later Cherokee-platform based aircraft (including the entire Archer series) has an extended fin which, in car terms, helps compliment the aircraft’s overall “fastback” look. Whether it looks sexy or not I’ll leave up to debate, but in the words of British aeronautical engineer Sydney Camm (who designed various aircraft from an incredibly broad timeframe from the Battle of Britain-era Hawker Hurricane to the Falklands War-era BAe Harrier jump-jet) “if it looks right, it is right” and I feel the Archer qualifies.
If I could buy an aircraft now - honestly the Archer II is actually too big for the type of flying style and needs I’d be looking for, but not by much, and it’s what I’d buy if I was limited to what I have on this list.
2. Cessna 172 Skyhawk (various marks, flight clubs just kind of throw them all into a big pile anyway)
Continuing with my last train of thought, the high wing makes it idea for taking dates along so that they can actually see what’s beneath them. Other than that it’s kind of a big pile of meh, but again the mere act of flying tends to reduce that as an issue. Aircraft are like motorcycles - the “meh” factor takes a long time and a lot of experience before it actually starts sinking in. And again, like motorcycles, you might want to start valuing and readjusting expectations and desires a little bit to err on the “meh” side as opposed to encroaching upon the “deadly” side. In fact, and along those lines, the reason why I rank the Skyhawk below the Archer is because I just feel the Archer is just that more stable of a platform. That’s hardly to say that the Skyhawk is unsafe, quite the contrary. But the differences between the two aircraft are going to boil down to just what personal experience tells you - which is to say, they’re so minor that it’s up to gut feeling and intangible qualities that only you can percieve, but hey, that’s what makes them important to you.
Not to mention, a big factor is going to be the particular condition of the aircraft. I’ve never had the privilege of flying a new Skyhawk with interiors that can put an Aston-Martin to shame, but I’ve flown ones that would be comfortable hauling kids to school to downright absolute shitboxes that would be at home on Craigslist next to Civics and Sonatas. Along those lines, the type of 172 that’s most familiar certainly has a distinctive “notch-back” appearance that makes it look like what an airplane version of a Camry would be (and let’s face it that’s pretty much what it is). The first two or so years of production have a “fastback” type of rear fuselage that look more like the type of aircraft you’d associate with post-WWII “classic” aviation, but I’ve never flown them. Not to mention, the essentials of what makes flying matter are much more primitive on those early 172s anyway, unless they’ve had a deep, money-intensive upgrade by the owner.
3. Cessna 152 Sparrowhawk conversion
The 152 always struck me as something like a stock, base-model Civic or Camry from the mid-90s, both in looks (again with that “notchback” fuselage, of which the 152 always had) and in general function. It’s not the most basic aircraft you can get but it’s very much what you’d imagine a commuter-type aircraft could be for a single individual while still being relatively comfortable. I’ve never flown a 152 that wasn’t a “Sparrowhawk” conversion - something that I understand is popular in the “hot and high” conditions in Eastern Colorado - which entails completely changing out the engine (I think the stock engine is a Continental O-200 - that is, a 200-cubic inch aluminum block - for something that’s like 235 c.i.) and getting a horsepower bump up to 125 HP. Keep in mind that the stock O-200 is rated for something like 100-110 HP and those extra 15-25 ponies aren’t as impressive as they sound, heck they might be less impressive than what they would do for a car. Some days just got so hot (density altitude - the hotter the air is, the less dense it is, and airplane wings work entirely on air being dense) that they wouldn’t allow us to go up in the 152s, which meant an “upgrade” to the 172 and a stern warning not to take too much crap with us.
4. Diamond Aircraft DA-20 Katana
It’s a flying fish bowl with seats worthy of the cheapest section at Wrigley Field. As far as a more descriptive picture as an actual aircraft is concerned, it’s a fiberglass version of that 152 “Sparrowhawk” conversion listed above, with roughly the same horsepower rating, only it came that way from the factory. If for whatever reason your idea of being engaged with a piece of machinery is being absolutely uncomfortable, this is the aircraft for you. It desperately needs an air conditioner and better seat padding. My instructor was, umm...to put it one way, rotund, and it’s not really the type of aircraft I should’ve flown with him (or anything smaller than the Archer for that matter). It’s definitely quirky and I guess those quirks appeal to some people, but it’s like comparing a a flat-seat 250 cc carb’d Ducati meticulously converted into a bare-bones cafe racer with bump-start to a brand-new Chevy Malibu. Despite everything telling you otherwise, the Malibu will easily reach a higher speed, and in practically infinitely more comfort. I’m choosing the Malibu.