The Malone Column
Parting with an old friend (aircraft) is a bittersweet experience
So for reasons many and various, arrived at after long deliberation, I put the Robin up for sale. They say divorce and selling your home are the two most emotionally-challenging events in our everyday lives; to these I would add parting with a much-loved aircraft. When I flew her to Kemble to meet a prospective buyer, I felt like I was taking my dog to be shot.
Sentimental tosh, eh? It’s only a machine… and a frustrating, obstinate, wilful, profligate and highly-strung machine at that. EASA thinks it’s an A320, the CAA thinks it’s a hole in the wall. But when I’ve relied on her for my life, she’s never let me down.
And oh, the joy I’ve had of her. We’ve been to places most people can never dream of, Tango Delta and I, and thanks to her I have memories vivid as video on which I will be calling for sustenance when I’m toothless in my dotage. Trying and failing to outclimb the ice of an English winter; trying and failing to remain VMC far too close to a stormy Mediterranean Sea; flogging up to 12,000 feet across the Carpathians, three up and full fuel, with a hole ripped in the clag below showing jagged crags too close for comfort.
Rolling almost inverted in turbulence in the mountains of eastern Turkey, flying for hours across a desert in Niger that looked like Hell after the fires went out and knowing that the chances of rescue were zero. Getting home non-radio from the old East Germany when the alternator failed. Flying down the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, climbing the Hoggar Massif in the middle of the Sahara – only with a general aviation aircraft can you do these things. And you bond with an aeroplane in a very special way. I remember getting back to Bodmin after an epic day-long drag home from Ibiza, putting ’TD in the hangar with the engine warm and ticking and realising that, unconsciously, I’d just patted her on the nose.
When you mention you’re selling you’ll get plenty of advice in the bar, some of it good. ’TD has a pair of Garmin 430s, cutting-edge at the turn of the century, less so now. Would I have to upgrade the avionics? Should I re-chip the radios for 8.33 khz, which becomes mandatory next year? Some said it would be a hard sell without 8.33. Then there’s the engine – more than twelve years old but with only 700 hours on the clock, it’s ‘on-condition’ and would have to be replaced if the aircraft were bought by anyone other than a private owner. Would replacing the engine justify its cost by broadening the market?
There were a few items I’d been happy to live with that definitely needed to be sorted. For one, the canopy handle didn’t lock. The DR400 closes with what is actually a door handle from a Citroen 2CV, of which Robin bought a job lot decades ago. I blagged one from a scrap dealer for £10, but the fixings are subtly different so I had to buy one from Robin for £360, not counting the labour. See ‘profligate’, above.
I spoke to my old friend Steven Bailey, oracle on all things Robin. He and his wife Jenny now run Mistral Aviation, through whom the plane was originally bought, and his advice was straightforward: forget about the engine, and don’t upgrade the avionics, you won’t get your money back. A new owner might want to do his or her own thing with the clocks, maybe even put in a glass panel, as is the modern fashion. What price your re-chipped 430s then? The more people I spoke to, the more it was impressed upon me that the seller of an aircraft is a prime target for chancers, scammers, dreamers, tyrekickers and plain old thieves, so I decided to get Steve to sell it for me, partly to relieve me of any emotional complications. A hard-headed business approach was called for.
It was the right thing to do. Steve has a directory of potential DR400 buyers on his books and within days he had eight interested parties. ’TD presents well, as they say: 16-years-old but low-time, always hangared, usually with the covers on. I must say the price Steve proposed seemed a little ambitious to me, but he pointed out that some of his buyers were in continental Europe, the pound had taken a bath post-brexit and anyone buying in Euros would be getting an especially good deal. But the first serious prospect was English.
I flew to meet him, and ’TD behaved impeccably as ever, a personal reproach to me, engrossed as I was in the process of flogging her off like a piece of meat. The would-be buyer and I discussed her in the most impersonal terms, which jarred with my anthropomorphic sensibilities. I decided I didn’t want to be so closely involved, put Mistral’s pilot on the insurance and left everything to Steve, who conjured up something of a bidding war and sold at the asking price. I wish the new owner all the joy I have known with ’TD – but when Mistral’s man came to collect her, I didn’t go up to the airfield.
So what now? The upside is that, with winter looming, I don’t have to worry about the aircraft sitting idle in the hangar. Last winter was particularly bad: the rain was incessant, Bodmin is prone to waterlogging, and fate usually dictates that the weather only picks up when I’m too busy to fly. In fact, between the 50-hour overhaul in October and the 100-hour in March I flew for just over three hours – one of my ‘reasons many and various’ for selling. So in some ways, it’s a load off my mind.
The downside is that when the weather does clear, and the piste is useable, and I’m not busy with work or sidetracked into family engagements, and I look up on hearing a light aircraft flying overhead, I get a little ache in my heart where Tango Delta used to be.
You have to be mad to own a light aircraft in Britain, but I have to say, insanity has its compensations.
When I’ve relied on her for my life, she’s never let me down... You have to be mad to own a light aircraft in Britain...
Regulars Pat Malone PAT MALONE Pat has worked as a journalist on three continents and is a fixed-wing pilot and former helicopter instructor with 1,500 hours TT