How to buy a Skywagon


You’ve decided to buy a Skywagon.

You imagine, very soon, how you will look in your outback magic carpet machine: Camping, float flying, ski fly-ins, and fishing at a lake that few can get to. You see it parked in your driveway. And then there’s the mobility: Alaska, finally… wait… maybe Maine? Geez, or Quebec… but then why not Labrador? Why limit your potential. With this beauty – you can go anywhere.

But never mind day dreaming … those big tires will make you so cool on the FBO ramp. The Gulfstream 550 captain stares at your bad ass rig with envy. That Gulfstream, incidentally, is going to the Cannes Film Festival.

Ha! “Not moi monsieur”, you think. You have free will – and you don’t fawn over the Hollywood A-list…. because you’re going to Greenville, Maine … for the fly in. You, my friend… are crushing it.

Bit by the Skywagon Bug

Confession: I have not owned that many of the breed.

Two exactly.

But I’ve purchased many more for clients who want to buy something, that is difficult to buy, especially if it is their first aircraft purchase.

The true pleasure of a Skywagon purchase is getting more material for articles like this where I get to wax on about the emotional deluge I face as the general contractor of your once in a lifetime purchase.

And, one of the benefits of teaching people how to master their wheel landings with panache, is that you meet a fair number of people on the last 1/2 of their life who see freedom and purpose in the Skywagon. You hear amazing things, such as:

I heard it can stop in 200 feet – fully loaded – oh… and did you see the tires?”

— Awestruck 185 Newbie, drooling at the airport cafe at 7B3

Yes, I too have heard it all. The 500 pounds over max gross… and it flew fine, the moose tied to a float, or the canoe lashed to the other float… the door off in the summer, etc. Freedom is so close.

So … you start the search.

You quickly realize that out of the 4448 built between birth and death of the manufacturing line (roughly 1952 – 1985), 2500 Cessna 180 / 185 Skywagons are in the US and Canada.

Of those 2500, many of them have been submerged, ground looped, bounced, jounced or simply punished enough that somewhere in the logbook history there is an accident, incident. And then there’s the “unreported event.”

Why limit to just land or sea? Land and sea – with your amphibious Skywagon. Note: Moose and canoe not included.

Recognizing “UHS” (Unicorn Hunting Syndrome)

Your therapist politely told you that your airport and airplane “time” were worth “unpacking” a bit more.

Unpacking… phhtt.. what do they know?

Do you know how much you can pack into a Skywagon? I bet that therapist hasn’t a clue.

Shortly after storming out of the therapist’s office you jump back onto Barnstormers. Another hour or three of maniacal scrolling, sorting, up-voting, flagging and bookmarking slides by. Your spouse is patient, but not that patient. She gently asks if you are still seeing the therapist.

Your brain is addled by too much screen time and other symptoms of compulsive addictive behavior.

The symptoms of the UHS (Unicorn Hunting Syndrome) have begun.

You’ll buy a Cessna 180 or 185 and you’ve decided a bunch of things about this magical bush flying beast:

  • It will be older. (1950s? Does that make sense? Who buys things built in the 50s?)
  • No wait, it should be newer (but jeez, 1978 was still a long time ago… )
  • It should be between serial number 18552182 and 18553182 for a slew of reasons around electrical systems, avionics ambitions, the “6 pack” and other specific reasons that offer you the best protection for a long term investment. (Ha ha, … “investment” … you’re so cute.)

You’ve probably also told yourself that you are going to be patient, cautious, take your time and find the one with the lowest time. “Not more than 5000 hours total time!” You declare as you thrust your finger into the air. Your FBO cohorts back away gently from you and the coffee area.

You carry on further: “Not only low time, but it will have a float kit, no damage history, and… a good ‘ole 6 pack!”

Reality and Focus

Unicorn hunting is *tough* and it gets tougher when that unicorn’s name starts with Cessna 180 or 185 Skywagon.

Once you value sobriety over UHS, you begin to realize some basic facts that will shape this hunt. Your hunt, you get told by veterans of the type, industry and operations, should be practical.

And practical means laser focus on getting “an airplane” into your possession within a time frame that is suitable for you, your banker, your spouse and patient family.

Most importantly a time frame that is within your life span. Your family loves you, but they are weary of the roller coaster you’ve been on since declaring your love for one of Cessna’s most revered types.

Good News: You Will Get One

And you are going to do it – with focus.

The focal points, you learn from mechanics of the various repair stations that know this breed well, are counter intuitive, hard to swallow, and fly in the face of everything you held sacred.

If you are alive and cognizant in 2019 or later, then you’ll want to focus on the ugly duckling. The ugly duckling is your ticket to a smart purchase, the aircraft you want, and value that you will appreciate.

Ugly Duckling Rules

#1 High time is ok.

5000 hours total time? Please … don’t tease me with your tales of “old” and “tired” – it is just getting warmed up.

If it has 10,000 hours total time or 20,000 hours total time – focus. Look at its history, its owners. And… most importantly, every page of the 2 foot stack of airframe, engine and prop logbooks. In one case we found a 20,000 hour aircraft that had two owners since new. The State of Oregon for the first 19,500 hours, then the lucky buyer who scooped it up before we showed up.

Oh, did I mention that the lovely people of the State of Oregon had paid to rebuild said aircraft from every suspicious rivet back to like new condition?

Unpressurized aircraft can effectively be zero timed. If you go a step further and do some basic non-destructive testing, you can see that some of the 10,000 hour ships out there are essentially new.

Forget about total time in your Skywagon hunt and the UHS symptoms will start to abate. Cape Air did it to 402s, you can surely do it to your one overly pampered Skywagon.

#2 Engine


Seriously. Find one that is preferably run out, nearly run out or just looks bad. But, bonus for you if it has good compression and isn’t making metal. Every hour you put on this tired IO 520 is going to be free…. free while you drool over what “next” engine you’ll put in it.

Sure you are proud of your kid getting into Haverford, but with advanced notice they can easily get a scholarship for their senior year while you wisely use those funds far a new IO 550 upgrade.

You are smart and you’re getting warmer.

#3 Avionics

Anything is fine here, so long as it isn’t amazing and new.

If you buy a Skywagon with amazing and new avionics, one person is not going to be happy, and that’s the seller. Why you ask? Because new windows and better kitchen appliances don’t make your house worth more. So why would someone’s wild ambition to do a bunch of IFR flying in a Skywagon make it suddenly worth more?

Bonus: If it is amazing and new, inform the seller that you *love* their plane but you are an avionics minimalist. If it has a logical common sense panel, tell them that your child won’t mind skipping another year of tuition so you can load it to the gills with the Garmin G9000 suite. Like them, you are a little unbalanced and you’re putting in all new stuff anyway.

As a fellow crazy person, they’ll find this relatable and potentially logical.

This is a hurtful thing to say to someone who just put $50,000 into a hole. But remember, you’re not a therapist – you are an aircraft buyer.

#4 Appearance

One Skywagon I bought had a lot of reds.

It had some reds here and reds there, all close, but different reds: Original red, rust-o-leum red, “oh let’s fix that spot” red. It was a patchwork of flaking red, exposed aluminum and worse. It had recently “expired deer” caked into the flooring.

We contracted to buy at $60K and walked away with a great airplane for $40K after a thorough annual / pre-buy. Plenty of room now to do the deer exorcism and a modest interior job. The most important dynamic? No one is going to get excited about buying this heap.

But .. you are. You came all the way to remote Utah to find this floatplane that has never been on floats. And you are present, in the flesh, with all that money – just sitting in escrow!

The seller should now be hanging off every word of your pre-purchase analysis.

#5 The Inspection

Don’t do a pre-buy.

Indicate that you’d like do an annual as your pre-buy with a casual flick of the wrist. You do annuals all the time and you’ve got no problem paying for an inspection that might all be for naught. You’re a worldly and savvy person.

Why the deep dive? Because a pre-buy is basically an annual anyway, so you might as well pay for it and get the mechanic’s skin in the game a bit too.

But wait, what if it falls through? No problem – don’t sign it off. Put everything back together, pay the mechanic and drive away. Notice how fast the seller will see that you are the real deal.

Lunch is offered, negotiations resume.

#6 Logbooks and “NDH”

While buyers have purchased aircraft with missing logbooks, I have never been party to such a transaction. A key element is to require complete logbooks and spend 50% of your pre-buy energy and money pouring over them. Lots of skin replacement here or there? Find out why. Ground loops, accidents, bent wings, submersions are *all* ok, but if they aren’t fully documented, or at least if the repair isn’t fully documented, then dig deeper. If you see “NDH” (no damage history) offered as a selling point, be wary. Probably not true given the age of the fleet, quality of the landings and sheer statistics. You are ok with damage – you just want complete documentation that made it airworthy again. (Note: It is possible to buy an airplane without logbooks, but there is a call to a DAR – some FAA criteria to understand – and more to process before considering this plan.)

The Take Away

Emotions, needs and Skywagons are tough to triangulate. But with a good sober and logical voice at your side, you can own one in less than 90 days if you are serious about it. To learn more about how I help people enable their wilderness flying dreams, contact me here.

One thought on “How to buy a Skywagon”

  1. I’ve got 2000 hours flying in the mountains of New Zealand..i own a Cessna 180, and fly to remote strips. I’m now 60 and my advice is you’d better get your skillset up in your 20’s cause if you think you’ll just get a ppl and join the hero club and land in 250 yards on a remote strip it’s very very likely you’ll come unstuck. A cessna 185 /180 is a handfull and as an average pilot i am completely amped flying this thing… It can bite you big time

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