Min­i­mize pains when buy­ing planes

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Martha Lunken

Maybe it’s be­cause I’ve screwed up more than most (liv­ing) pi­lots, but I of­ten get calls from an­gry, con­fused or wor­ried avi­a­tors: “Fid­dling with my iPad and tax­ied across a hold-short line”; “Didn’t check no­tams and flew through a TFR”; “As­sumed the other guy was PIC”; “For­got about my flight-re­view (an­nual, phys­i­cal, etc.) date”; “Blew my al­ti­tude by 500 feet”; “Lost it and ground-looped in a cross­wind”; “‘Some­body’ for­got to se­cure my oil cap (fuel cap, dzus fas­tener, bag­gage door, etc.)”; “Thought the line guy topped it off.” ...

The best ad­vice is usu­ally, “Keep your lips zipped and file a NASA avi­a­tion safety re­port­ing sys­tem re­port.” But com­plaints or pleas for ad­vice from guys who buy an air­plane that turns out to be less than the cream puff ad­ver­tised? Well, those are tough. Un­for­tu­nately, un­happy or down­right out­raged air­plane buy­ers are a com­mon phe­nom­e­non, so I think it’s worth dis­cussing. I’ve been there, and un­der­stand the desire to throt­tle the seller or me­chanic who sold you an air­plane with known main­te­nance is­sues that weren’t di­vulged.

Last week’s call was from the seller — a pi­lot and me­chanic (A&P with in­spec­tion au­tho­riza­tion) I’ve known for a long time. Nearly a year ago, he sold an air­plane he’d owned and main­tained to an out-of-town buyer. He read me a re­cent let­ter from a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing the buyer, al­leg­ing he was less than hon­est about the an­nual he per­formed and about the con­di­tion of the air­plane. It seems the buyer had a nose­wheel fail­ure in this sin­gle-en­gine re­tractable and claims there are other pa­per­work and main­te­nance is­sues the seller didn’t re­pair or dis­close. My me­chanic friend was wor­ried about what might hap­pen to him if the FAA got in­volved.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, it prob­a­bly won’t. If an IA re­turns an air­plane to ser­vice and his log­book en­try in­di­cates he used the man­u­fac­turer’s check­list (if there is one) and checked for and com­plied with all ap­pli­ca­ble ADs, who’s to say what was done by some­body else af­ter it left his shop?

Un­der­stand that while I may know the law, I know woe­fully lit­tle about main­te­nance. As for air­plane in­nards, I have a rather vague idea of what goes on un­der the hood — whoops, cowl­ing — es­pe­cially on flat re­cip­ro­cat­ing en­gine air­planes (slightly more about big round ones, which I love). And I prob­a­bly shouldn’t ad­mit that my mantra is, “If I can’t fix it from the cock­pit in flight, I don’t need to know about it.”

Main­te­nance savvy or not, buy­ing a used air­plane, es­pe­cially one that’s older and not lo­cally based, is pretty much a crap­shoot. There are any num­ber of ar­ti­cles in avi­a­tion pub­li­ca­tions and on­line about how to min­i­mize the risks, but here’s the thing: If your heart’s set on a par­tic­u­lar kind of fly­ing ma­chine and you find one that sounds good 600 miles away, you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to launch and fly it home or pay the seller to de­liver it.

And I can tell you from ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing “lost my heart” to a num­ber of air­planes, that you’re very likely to get burned. Cool-headed, cau­tious and rich guys pay a trusted me­chanic for a thor­ough pre-buy check of the air­plane and its records af­ter first run­ning a ti­tle search. But add up travel ex­penses and a day or more of a me­chanic’s time and you’re look­ing at a pretty good chunk of change. Plus, you have to be will­ing to “cut bait” if the air­plane is less than ad­ver­tised, and that’s hard to do. The truth is that few older fly­ing ma­chines — Tri-Pac­ers, 172s and 182s, Ar­rows, Cubs, Barons, Er­coupes or Cessna 310s — have been con­sis­tently and prop­erly main­tained with good records.

Too of­ten we get suck­ered in by a seller’s (or bro­ker’s) de­scrip­tion: “Hate to sell — owned her for 30 years, but my (health, di­vorce, un­happy wife, age, kids’ col­lege ex­penses, etc.) are forc­ing me into it. Less than 200 hours on an over­hauled en­gine, and I throw in a fresh an­nual with the

I can tell you from ex­pe­ri­ence — hav­ing “lost my heart” to a num­ber of air­planes — that you’re very likely to get burned.

sale. No dam­age his­tory, and com­plete records all the way back to 1995; prior to that, the log­books and pa­per­work are miss­ing. Al­ways hangared, good paint. Old ra­dios, but I’ll throw in my Garmin 496. Only 2,500 hours to­tal time since it came out of the fac­tory in 1956.”

What could be wrong with that? Well, a lot. …

First, there are an­nu­als and “an­nu­als.” How of­ten have you seen some guy and his friend pulling the in­spec­tion plates and cowl­ing on an air­plane, do­ing 99 per­cent of the work and then pay­ing a (too of­ten) shade-tree IA to sign off ? And the FAA’s an­nual in­spec­tion re­quire­ments, even when the an­nual is done by an A&P me­chanic and signed off by an IA, are pretty ba­sic. AD com­pli­ance is manda­tory, but the man­u­fac­turer’s re­quired main­te­nance tasks for com­po­nents such as the en­gine, prop, car­bu­re­tor, mag­ne­tos, etc. — even those la­beled “com­pul­sory” or “manda­tory” — aren’t re­quired for older Part 91 air­planes.

A big­gie is com­par­ing the man­u­fac­turer’s equip­ment list to items ac­tu­ally in­stalled in this air­plane. Are those flap gap seals, sin­gle-piece wind­shield, ski tube, drooped wingtips and ex­tended-range tanks le­gal and sup­ported by log­book en­tries and the pa­per­work to back them up? If the orig­i­nal Su­per­homer and Mark 12 long ago gave way to Aspen and Garmin glass pan­els and an au­topi­lot, look for sup­port­ing pa­per­work and cor­rected weight-and-bal­ance data. Same thing if it was painted or the orig­i­nal in­te­rior was re­placed.

“Less than 200 hours on an over­hauled en­gine.” Hmm. Who did the over­haul? Was it prop­erly bro­ken in? How long ago, and how much time is on the air­plane since it was in­stalled? I met a guy with a 172 this week­end at a fly-in in New York and, when he took off from the 2,500-foot smooth, dry grass strip, I nearly had heart fail­ure. Turns out he bought it from some­body I know lo­cally, who flew it for less than 20 hours since the en­gine was in­stalled five years ago. It’s a pretty safe bet that any “un­pick­led” en­gine that sits idle for five years very likely has cor­ro­sion is­sues.

And the “fresh an­nual” thrown in with the sale had been per­formed and signed off by a lo­cal me­chanic whom I wouldn’t let change the spark plugs on my lawn mower. The buyer’s un­der­stand­ably un­happy be­cause he has an ob­vi­ous en­gine prob­lem; I fer­vently hope (and sug­gested) that he sticks to long, hard sur­face run­ways and not farm strips un­til it’s fig­ured out.

“No dam­age his­tory” and “com­plete records” kind of go to­gether. You’re tak­ing some­body’s word here be­cause, es­pe­cially at air­ports in the boonies, a dam­aged air­plane is usu­ally dragged posthaste into a han­gar and re­paired. How well I know. …

I bought a Cub from a bro­ker in Gatlin­burg, Ten­nessee; my me­chanic wasn’t avail­able to come along, and I fool­ishly said I knew enough about Cubs to de­cide if it was OK.

I did kind of won­der why it had a new en­gine and prop, and why one wing was a dif­fer­ent shade of yel­low than the other, but the log­books showed no dam­age his­tory. Had I known its his­tory when it lived in Grif­fin, Ge­or­gia, I would have backed off. An un­sa­vory char­ac­ter was check­ing out the (then) owner and they “lost it” on a land­ing. In the en­su­ing ground-loop, the left wing was badly dam­aged; the im­pact was hard enough that the prop ended up on the porch of an of­fice next to the run­way.

With no in­sur­ance, they stuffed it in a han­gar be­fore any­body (they thought) found out, over­hauled the 85 hp en­gine, bought a pro­pel­ler and re­placed the wing with a “used” one from some sal­vage out­fit. Friends at the air­port later told me that, af­ter it was back to­gether, the owner bought in­sur­ance and then tried to col­lect on a “sub­se­quent” ac­ci­dent. It didn’t work; the in­sur­ance com­pany in­ves­ti­gated and de­nied the bo­gus claim.

When I bought it, I should have been smart enough to smell some­thing fishy with the “new” wing and the re­cently re­placed en­gine and prop — but it was pretty and flew beau­ti­fully. I loved it and joy­fully brought it home.

It was late when I (yeah, il­le­gally) landed it blind, from the front seat, with a big guy in back, well af­ter dark on a short, dog­legged, un­lit up­hill grass run­way and stuck that left wing in some bushes. I’m pretty sure my an­gel had a hand in this stu­pid­ity be­cause my me­chanic (maybe feel­ing guilty for trust­ing this twit of a girl to make the right de­ci­sion) re­moved the wing. Two of the three hinge brack­ets (in­vis­i­ble to me be­cause they’re rear of the aft spar) were rusted through, and the third was barely at­tached with cor­roded metal. We nearly had no aileron, and the wing was, essen­tially, trash.

Fi­nally, “2,500 hours to­tal time” on the air­plane you’re look­ing at — one that’s over 60 years old — might sound good, but it prob­a­bly isn’t. That av­er­ages out to slightly over 40 hours a year, with prob­a­bly many years when it wasn’t flown at all — an in­vi­ta­tion to cor­ro­sion and de­te­ri­o­ra­tion.

You’ll need to set aside a wheel­bar­row full of cash to keep it fly­ing. But hey, if your heart’s still in it, I say buy it. Just be pre­pared for the ex­pense, an un­happy wife, threats of di­vorce and your kids hav­ing to earn their own col­lege tu­ition (maybe not a bad idea).

I did kind of won­der why it had a new en­gine and prop, and why one wing was a dif­fer­ent shade of yel­low than the other. ...

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