Dave Hirschman

In praise of single-seat airplanes

July 25, 2008 by Dave Hirschman, Senior Editor

I’m not anti-social and truly enjoy sharing the cockpit.

I’ve done thousands of hours of flight instructing and like the personal interaction and teamwork.

But aesthetics, economics (and maybe even selfishness) have almost invariably led me to choose single-seat aircraft for personal ownership. And that’s likely to remain the case in the future. Here’s why.

First and most obviously, single-seat airplanes just look and fly better.

A Pitts S-2B is a fine airplane–but an S-1 is more proportional and has lighter, more harmonized handling characteristics.





The same is true for the Sukhoi 26/29, or Extra 300s/300. 




Sure, those are all highly specialized aerobatic planes. I can’t comment on the flying qualities of military planes, but an F-5 looks better than a T-38, an F/A-18C is cooler than a D, and so on.




Single-seaters just look so much more right than their two-headed step-siblings.

On to economics:

A single-seat sport plane typically costs about half as much as a similar airframe with two seats. A good Pitts S-1S costs about $35,000, and a comparable S-2A (with a similar four-cylinder, Lycoming engine) sells for $70,000. An S-2B with six cylinders is even more. A Vans RV-3 with one seat can be had for the low-to-mid 30s. Double that for two-seat RV-6s, 7s, and 8s. Double it again for a four-seat RV-10.

In terms of performance and handling qualities, single-seat planes are usually better because they’re lighter. My single-seat RV-3 weighs 800 pounds, for example, and it’s powered by a 150-hp engine. It’s rate of climb, cruise speed, ceiling, range and fuel economy are as good or better than most two-seat RVs with larger engines because those planes typically weigh at least a couple hundred pounds more–and that’s before a passenger straps in.

Insurance in single-seat planes costs less, too, because there’s no risk of harming a passenger.

But what about dual instruction? How does anyone get checked out in a single-seat airplane?

Usually, similar two-seat planes are available for this task (Pitts, RV, etc.).

But aviation history is full of examples showing an instructor may not be necessary to have in the cockpit on a first flight. Every World War II-era student pilot flew solo the first time he or she got in a P-51, P-47, P-38, Wildcat, Hellcat, Bearcat, etc. There were no two-seat trainers for those airplanes. Even now, first-time F-22 pilots fly solo from day one. Sure, they get lots of simulator time.

But when was the last time an instructor had to physically intervene when checking you out in a new airplane?

Finally, the selfishness question: Isn’t owning a single-seat plane selfish? Especially for a guy like me who has a wife and two kids (one of whom really likes flying).

This is a tough one.

But I rely on the experience of my friend Eddie Ruhl for guidance. Eddie owned two planes, a single-seat Pitts (which he loved and flew as often as possible), and a four-seat Piper Clipper (which had room for his wife and two kids). He decided one plane had to go and, selfless guy that he is, Eddie said goodbye to his beloved Pitts. The result: he flew much less frequently. It turns out Eddie’s wife and kids really didn’t like flying all that much, and the Clipper sat unused for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. Eddie (and his family) agreed that he sold the wrong plane.

The downside to single-seat planes is that they can make flying a solitary activity–and we all know it’s shared experiences that make flying so special.

But I’ve found a remedy for this in formation flying.

The RV community has been particularly active in teaching this dynamic and demanding art form to civilian-trained pilots like myself. And being in a single-seat plane doesn’t seem like a drawback when you’ve got similar planes and like-minded pilots nearby . . .



5 Responses to “In praise of single-seat airplanes”

  1. Greg "Snoojy" Smith Says:

    Hey Dave! Like many you’ve known from your Memphis experience, I’m very proud you’ve joined the AOPA staff. I enjoy your work. I remember your flying and speaking for us in Manila, AR MXA at our little airshow in the 90s.
    I’ve thought about the single-seat conundrum and I agree with your conclusions.
    Best wishes as you get a new boss and wrap up ’08!

  2. Rob Payton Says:

    I’m trying to locate friends from Redding CA from about 30 years ago. Terry Ruhl was a teacher and Eddie Ruhl was a pilot. When Eddie was in Seattle for his FAA training to become a commercial pilot for Flying Tigers, I was Terry’s Lamaze coach for their first born, a girl named Elizabeth. Could this be the same Eddie Ruhl you refer to in your web article? Rob Payton

  3. BJ Carey Says:


    Just found your article “In Praise of Single Seat Airplanes” via an AOPA link. Can’t agree with you more. As a former F-4 and F-16 driver, there is no comparison to the piece and quiet of a single seat cockpit–no out of breath WSO breathing in your ear and distracting your thought process. The F-16A flew better at slower speeds than the B model–and, it had 1200 pounds more fuel.

    However, having an FO in the FedEx AirBus I now Captain is nice when I have to visit the lav. So, I guess it all depends on the time and place……..

    Read your book “Hijacked”. Outstanding.


  4. download wso Says:

    You can certainly see your enthusiasm in the paintings you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

  5. Marty Says:

    That’s really thinking at an imivrsspee level

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