General Aviation

This was originally written in 2007, but we’ve republished it here as most (if not all) of the information is still relevant.

It’s a bit long, but so is the process of buying a GA aircraft and so are the odds that it’ll go smoothly right-away.

Think of this as a fly-on-the-wall account of a successful buying process. As always, comments welcome at the end ūüėČ


Understanding Why

We all know that a pilot can own or rent an aircraft. The expenses need to be properly justified or, if expense is not the issue, the requirement for the aircraft properly understood in order to decide which method (buy/rent) is best for the individual or business. Somewhere, the “need to own” has to make sense for you, the wife (or husband) and your bankers, or else perhaps it’s just better to rent.

There is an argument about safety in ownership. I can personally see that the consistent flying of your own aircraft can add to safety in terms of aircraft-specific experience. Even identical types can act differently, so your own machine along with her particular sounds and rattles, can alert an owner to a potential issue before someone new to an aircraft ever could. Counteracting this however, there is the “if it’s not flyin’ it’s dyin'” adage, meaning of course that aircraft like to be used. The quickest way to destroy your machine is not to fly it and this might add to possible safety issues for low-hour per year pilots.

So, there is certainly a case for ownership, but there could be a very large financial one for renting. In essence, every every model I have run on spreadsheets shows 50 hours per year being the break-even point for renting vs. ownership for a light GA single-engine. In other words, if you fly less than 50 hours a year, it is cheaper to rent.

The reason is actually pretty simple for the 50-hour rental rule. Much of the ownership of an aircraft is taken in fixed costs (those payments which do not really change with flying time). Hangar fees, insurance and annuals (safety inspections done every year) take-up over 50 percent of the standard GA cost per year. This simply means that to get your cost under the hourly rental fee, you need to fly more hours to dilute these costs. If you spend $1000, that is $100 per hour in ten hours and $10 per hour in one hundred hours. So if you are costing something by the hour, the more the hours, the less the item.

Think of the many pilots flying 25 hours per year (or about an hour every two weeks). If their hangar is $200 per month and their insurance is $1000 totaling $3400 per year, that alone is $136 per hour – yes – $136 per hour – about what I paid for renting a C-172 per hour in 2007 full of fuel !!! Add the fuel at 9GPH (for a basic Lycoming O-320 engine), maintenance, annuals, oil etc. at $2000 and fuel at $5 per gallon, and you double that to $250+ per hour of flying. This therefore means that if you’re flying 25 hours per year, you need to rent if you can. This assumes that you are financially motivated. Some people can afford this and want what they want, when they want it. For them, the ownership pride and fun exceeds the financials, and that’s just fine!

For mere mortals however, the financials tend to drive things a little harder, so we need to get our 50 hours per year in order to make it make sense. 50 hours is a trip or a training session once a week, to the local hamburger joint and back or around the local area. This is not big flying and 50 hours could be thought by some to be a minimum to keep one “current” (in training) anyway – perhaps this is a good reason to own – to make you fly and maintain your currency!

Also, like a good wife or husband, a rented aircraft likes to go to bed at home every night, not be out partying with friends. Taking planes somewhere else for any period of time or even overnight can be expensive as she is not earning for her owners. In order to offset this loss of revenue, aircraft owners (the rental company) may charge an overnight fee, a minimum hourly fee or some other way of making amends. This is totally understandable from a business perspective but having a curfew severely restricts what you can do with an pilots license. Try enjoying camping and fishing in half an hour between flights and you will understand why having the time to be away from the airplane as well as being in it, has definite advantages.

Mission vs. Ability vs. Cost

OK, so I want a Piper Meridian turboprop – no – I want a Cessna 310 twin for over-the-water, or a classic 337 centre-line thrust. Of course I also want an amphibious Cub for some lo & slow flying and bush work along with a decent Klingon “cloaking device” to hide it from my wife. OK – perfect!

Basically, I can not have all that I want in any one aircraft. There are few planes, if any, that provide all things to all people. Whilst a Mooney 201 is fast and beautiful, I can’t really fly it, can’t insure it, can’t afford it and perhaps can’t use it for where I want to go. Also, there are cost of ownership concerns, as a beautiful Mooney M20F at $75,000 could be a great buy – but the maintenance being a “complex” aircraft will exceed that of a C-172 for sure.

Furthermore, I am not an experienced pilot, having most of my time in simple’s – not complex’s – so can I even handle such a beast? I know insurance is interested in time-on-type and total time in order to produce an agreeable premium, so perhaps that will affect the decision. For the newbies amongst us, as a basic definition, a “simple” is a fixed-pitch propeller, single engine with fixed gear and a “complex” has retractable landing gear and an adjustable (or constant-speed) propeller requiring in-flight pilot control. A “complex” has more for the pilot to do and thus more that can go wrong. Also, these systems require mechanical gizmos, usually resulting in higher maintenance costs.

So, it comes down to the question which I wrestled with for quite some time; “what do I want this aircraft to do”. If the mission is decided “to do a certain thing”, the costs and other factors will have to get in-line!

I¬†don’t¬†have an unlimited budget and would like to keep the cost under $60,000 for the purchase. Ahhhh – that narrows the field – so I guess we’re not looking new.¬†I¬†¬†am¬† concentrating on certified¬†aircraft rather than ultra-light or homebuilt aircraft as both my mechanical experience and facilities mean having a professional for maintenance works best.

Maintenance too, as a cost “mission parameter”, is a factor. I pretty much budget 5 percent for annual maintenance (time will tell if this is enough), for this project. Obviously, this (5) percentage also depends on the type and complexity of the machine selected – or does the machine selected depend on this? There is also the resale factor for higher cost machines or ones which are bought new. What loss are we prepared to take on selling?

Speed is not much of a factor for trips in my¬†¬†mission as “time-up” is more important. Speed is unimportant for now whilst not wanting to dawdle too badly. A trip can be calculated in many ways however with speed, fuel burn and distance being a factor. We need to remember that 9GPH of fuel at 100 KTS, is the same as 18GPH at 200KTS. A fast machine like a Mooney burning 19 GPH might be as efficient as a C-172 if you look at the numbers along with your hourly rate (or the financial weight you give to your time).

While I am on this, I will be direct about a decision I have made regarding GA (general aviation). If I NEED to be there, I will let others take me there in big jets. They fly IFR (instruments) in all weather, on schedules with massive backup. They fly all the time in capable machines to strict guidelines. If I NEED to be there, they will take me. If I “want” to get there, well then I have options.

So I would like an aircraft, under $60K, any speed will do, simple to fly as a time-builder and without crippling maintenance fees. OK, there we go – but hang-on, there’s more …

Here’s a big one; load capacity. There are a couple of figures worth looking at for load. Useful load is the difference between the empty weight of the aircraft and the full “gross” weight when full of fuel and people/cargo. The “payload” is how much you can put in the aircraft (people and cargo) with full fuel. Fuel is a major weight-adder and a pilot can decide how much to put in for a particular flight (you do not have to top-off the tanks every time). So, If you need an extra 10 lbs of cargo, you can deduct 10 lbs of fuel if the trip allows it with fuel consumption, safety margin etc. etc. Therefore when looking at the mission, you need to look at useful load in relation to your requirements.

Useful load is critical if you want to take things with you. If you have a partner (wife, husband, vegas showgirl), a dog, a kid and some luggage, can your aircraft go the distance you need it to? I have seen aircraft (no kidding) with a full-fuel (payload) of 120 lbs. I weigh 195 lbs (OK 200), so I will have to chop off one leg, an arm and my head in order to fly this crate any reasonable distance – not appealing!

I read a report (can’t remember where) that suggested that most 4-place machines rarely, if ever, have more then 2 people in them. I believe this completely. I also believe that my wife’s luggage often weighs more than she does. I know that paperwork, computers and equipment quickly add-up to hundreds of pounds. Load for me, even if it is unlikely to be required, is important for the flexibility of the airplane’s use. I want to be able to load it up with fuel and “stuff” – I think that is important.

The airplane needs to be able to land on several runway surfaces. Some aircraft land well on 5000ft. x 150ft. paved runways like at CYSN (St.Catharines) and not on 1,500 ft. of grass like many smaller aerodromes. Getting-in everywhere is important to me. This might rule-out several options and is an important consideration.

Range is also something that is worth looking at. Sure, we can refuel in lots of places, but if we are flying high(ish), it is not efficient to come down often, so the range of an aircraft can be of great importance to some missions. For us, it is not as we rarely exceed 7,000 ft. above ground level and trips are based on 3 hours or 350 miles. Remember the range of your bladder may not exceed your fuel tanks. How long can you go before going? Having to relieve yourself in a boot is no fun at all, I have proof!

Finally, your destination and therefore type of flying will dictate certain requirements for equipment. IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) requires equipment consummate with that kind of flying. Altitude and weather also dictate de-icing or anti-icing equipment. On a basic level, if you plan to land on water, floats are a great asset I hear! If you plan to fly off mountain airstrips at 9,000ft., the ceiling and performance at altitude of our machine will be a factor.

The mission of the aircraft needs to be established simply but reliably. What needs to go where, how often, how far, to what surface in what time and within what cost?¬† If you can answer all these questions and slot-in a type which satisfies, you have saved yourself the two years I spent looking at planes that weren’t even close to what I needed.

The Type Research

Understanding the mission, or the reason for owning an aircraft is surely the first thing to do. Unfortunately I, like most others I wager, went straight to step 2 to research planes I could buy. The reason for this is obvious in that I would rather look at pretty aircraft than anything else. Being an aviation enthusiast, looking at shiny winged toys is something to wile away the hours and boy, does it ever! I have probably logged 500 hours researching planes online.

I have to say that if you can not own an aircraft, the process of researching them is still highly enjoyable and adds to your knowledge of the industry and GA in general. Once you start, it is difficult to stop comparing marques, types, statistics, costs and all the other fun stuff you see about aircraft.

So, I apply the mission parameters and away we go. If only it were that easy! There are so many aircraft with so many different attributes from so many areas, that it makes even the most experienced aerobatic heads spin! To add to the mix, obviously, I am not an experienced owner nor pilot, so looking at the massive amount of information can be daunting.

It has to be said, I had a particular model in-mind (I did not end up with it) and in analyzing why, I hit upon a thought. It is probably a good idea to save you time and increase your safety to buy whatever you were trained in, assuming it fits the mission you need it to do. There is one looming caveat to this however, being cost. I trained in a 1981 Cessna 172, so that make/type was a probability for me, doable in both price and availability. If I had trained in a Cirrus SR20 or SR22 however, that would not be the case as I do not have the bucks for that. This leads to the next of the hangar-busting questions, high or low wing?

We all know for a fact that there are particular advantages to both high and low wing configurations. Directional visibility for one is a weakness of the other in that high wings restrict circuit¬†¬†viz. and low wings hide earth-bound objects from your view, so they both have that to contend with that issue. Some say that float (the tendency for the aircraft to resist landing as if floating on a bubble of air when close to the runway) is worse on a low-wing, although I though it was pretty obvious in my 172 (high-wing) trainer too. There are questions of ingress and egress including “how quickly can you get out in an emergency” and even “what about ditching in water with a high-wing”? Fuel sampling (draining a little fuel under the tank to check for contamination) on a high-wing is easy, but filling requires a ladder, both not the case with a low-wing. I even heard the high-wing being useful as a tent for camping (the wing being the centre pole I guess). When it comes to wing location, there is no right and wrong – only what you decide.

Try telling a C-172 driver that you are going to buy a plane covered in “fabric” and see what they say. “Ragwings”, or aircraft whose skin is made of a fabric rather than metal, have many advantages and disadvantages depending on who you talk to. Being able to remove fabric to look at the framework for rust is, to some, a great benefit. Paying $20,000 to re-wrap an aircraft every 20 years or so, might be seen as a problem for others. Some do not think a fabric aircraft is “safe”, others would simply not own anything else. We can not look at all the pro’s and con’s in a text like this, but that is why we research, and it’s fun!

So – onwards, to the most fun of all for me, avionic equipment. I once described my enthusiasm for flying as “take every cool gadget you can think of, like GPS, radios, engines and gauges – now make it all fly – how cool is that”! That is my thought on the interior of the aircraft. Your interface with the craft is in the interior, and the things you interact directly with in-flight interest me greatly.

Most aircraft have the standard 6-pack of instruments, some of the older ones not having the modern placement of these though (important when you are used to looking for something quickly). On-top of that certainly radio(s) are important as well as navigation aids such as GPS, ADF, VOR/GS etc. etc. Finally, there are the aircraft systems such as autopilots, (de)icing equipment and the like. For the majority of us mere financial mortals, these latter items get little thought as they are for flying that we do not do.

If you are looking to get further ratings or licenses, such as IFR, night and others, you may require certain equipment, so make sure you have what you need. You may also like a particular nav-aid (I love ADF’s) so if you want it, make sure it is there. Retrofitting avionics is expensive but can be done, but like most things, why not get it there now, no point in waiting or costing more if you can find it as you want it today.

This brings me to another point I learned. The buyer is king! Really – it’s like buying your first home. We’re usually too young or dumb when we buy our first home to know how much power we possess in the transaction. Imagine if you are selling your home someone saying “I have the money, I am pre-approved, know my limits, am moving to this area and can close the deal pretty much any time” and you get the point. It’s the same with your purchase of an aircraft. There are lots to choose from – so get the right one for you. Do not be too personal with the vendor (unless you are me and end-up really liking the guy and go¬†flying with him). It’s a transaction – so treat it as such. I’ll get back to this!

Now to perhaps the part that most people fixate on, TTAF and SMOH – those familiar acronyms. TTAF of course means total time airframe, meaning the hours the aircraft has flown (the aircraft being the hull and wings, empennage etc., not the engine). SMOH means “since major overhaul” referring to the engine. The other one you will see is SNEW, meaning the engine time since new (rather than overhauled). The other important acronym is TBO or “time between overhauls” as different engines can go different times before requiring a complete overhaul. You may also see STOP, meaning the ‘top” of the engine (the pistons and valves usually) was replaced or overhauled this amount of time ago. There is a lot to consider in all this …

Firstly, lets look at TTAF – or the time on the airframe. We now own a 1957 aircraft, older than me by some 13 years. Do I bounce as well as I used to – hell no! Am I as fit as I was at 23 – nope. Am I as pretty as I was at 19 – yes, I mean no – oh whatever, you get the point. The difference between me and an aircraft is I have not been overhauled (despite constant pleas from concerned relatives).

Does this then mean perhaps that these planes can live forever? Few things in this world can make such a claim because there are few things out there whose frames and internals are regularly checked, replaced and certified to this extent. This is a good thing as one can not simply pull-over for a broken part at 5,000 ft. Рrather have to attempt a serious emergency forced landing and be buried in paperwork for the next 6 months.

The point of all this is that TTAF, whilst important, may not be the holy grail some consider it. Would you prefer a 3,000 hour neglected Piper Warrior or one with 5,000 hours which sleeps with the owner and has caused two divorces citing jealousy by the spouse? I know which one I want. Think too about the historical use of the aircraft you are looking at. Are you OK with a trainer, used for students with 5 hours doing landings 20 times in an hour? You may be!

The same may go for SMOH, SNEW and TBO. There are several “rules” about TBO, or the time an engine can go before being overhauled (which costs pretty much the same as a new engine). There is an owner maintenance category which impacts this time and other factors, all totally relevant and worth looking into.

I would not buy an airplane at 1950 SMOH with a 2,000 TBO engine unless the price reflected the need for this new power-plant. Herein lies the point. Normally, aircraft are priced taking their TBO’s into account. Just look at two identical aircraft (say a C-172, 1979 VFR 3500TT, privately owned) but with different TBO’s and you should see the difference. Remember to take an average though as some owners think there are gold bars in the baggage compartment and some simply give them away for some unknown reason.

Other Factors

I know I am not experienced in complex aircraft, but a 10 hour type or complex rating could go some way to offset that so I won’t rule anything out that way. Of course complex aircraft, as previously stated, tend to cost more then simple ones. Also, retractable landing gear seems to cause a huge hike in insurance premiums.

Believe it or not, your storage or location might also be a deciding factor. Look at your hangar. Does it have mostly low or high wings in there and can you fit a certain type in? Of course, if you are outside (which I think in Canada 12 months a year is madness) it may not matter, same as if you have a nice individual or T-hangar, but it is worth looking at. A C-337 is a big girl – seriously! Also, don’t forget tail height as you would be surprised at the requirement for some aircraft as opposed to others. The quickest way, apart from the obvious, to kill a fabric plane is to leave it in the sun as it destroys the fabric. Look at that, your location and storage and perhaps you ruled-in or out some types already.

To agent or not to agent? that is the question! Some aircraft are listed with brokers, much the same as real estate. This means some more diligence may have been done as the broker representing the aircraft may have checked it out. You would have to ask the individual broker what they know about the aircraft, its history and other factors affecting the aircraft and your buying decision. Of course, like anything else, caveat emptor applies (let the buyer beware). What you are told, by anyone, about anything needs to be verified by you. The reason for this is simple. It’s your money and your life – the only person responsible for your aircraft is you!

There’s also the business of proof to consider. Any careful person is unlikely to believe a stranger telling them the hours on an engine or an airframe. It is customary for us to have evidence of what people tell us, and in aircraft, this is done in the form of log books. Pilots already know this, but there are several logbooks that come with any plane, including the airframe, engine and journey. The technical log details work done and any mandatory fixes done (called AD’s – we’ll talk about them next). Logbooks then are extremely important but there seems to be a question as to how much.

A 1957 aircraft, having logs from 1970, guarantees the last 38 years of work has been done properly, assuming all is present and correct within the log. Is this enough for you? Does the absence of the previous 13 years mean you would not buy an aircraft? It might, and this is firmly within your rights as buyer. Personally, I figure if you have thirty years of well-kept, properly detailed and current logs, that’s OK (but that’s me). I would not choose to pass on the right machine because of missing logs for the first thirteen years, but this would depend on the documentation quality from then-on. It is something to consider, and as far as I am concerned, extremely important (read-on if you don’t believe me).

AD’s & STC’s are some more acronyms we need to be familiar with. GA aircraft can be old, even going back to the 1920’s. It stands to reason that between then and now, advancements in technology, experience by pilots and accident reports have pointed out things that could be done better. An AD – Airworthiness Directive – is a mandatory maintenance item, addition or modification from Transport Canada that must be performed on the aircraft. They are often lumped by type, so not all AD’s apply to all aircraft within the type, it all depends on the specs. equipment and history.

Suffice to say, if an AD is not done, the aircraft is not considered airworthy. If it is not airworthy, the certificate of airworthiness (C of A) is void. If this is void, so may be your insurance and you should not fly the aircraft at all. So, as an object lesson, if the AD’s are not done, you should not fly it until they are. If there are no logs, how do you know unless you pay an AME (mechanic) lots of money to check each AD individually against the actual machine. There can be many!

STC’s are supplemental type certificates. They give a mechanic or operation the ability to modify some part or operation of the aircraft. An example of this is an STC for MOGAS (MOGAS is regular car gasoline, not aviation gasoline). The STC shows the way to do it and the STC within the logs along with the correct entries means that engine can do it. STC’s should be properly documented in the logs. They might sound great, just make sure they are properly done and recorded.

Lastly, the aircraft had to be Canadian registered. Importing an aircraft is a text best written by someone who has done it. I have no idea about that. I do realize of course that many C- registered aircraft were once N- registered (US). Indeed the one we ended-up with was once an “N”, but the importing of other registered aircraft is too complex for this text, so we’re buying Canadian!

Square Peg – Square Hole!

So it was time to apply all I had written down, mulled-over and dreamed about by putting it in some sort of orderly checklist. If an type satisfied the criteria, it could be included in the search for an aircraft, if not, it should be discarded. There are so many machines I love and want, but I need them to stop clouding the way to my destination. I want to get to the right plane “VFR” (pilots know this is “Visual Flight Rules” – basically “nice” weather) – smoothly and safely and arrive as an owner happy and satisfied.

The following list is basically what I wrote down. I have to admit that this is not exact as nobody is this anal – not even me.

– Canadian Registered
– Type Approved (not kit, ultra light etc.)
– Price Range under $60,000 CDN
– Single engine
– 2-4 seats – preferably four.
– useful load of no less than 750 lbs – that’s me and another, full tanks and some baggage with a decent 300 mile range.
– Insurable for myself as pilot, all-risks in flight and on-ground
– Minimum avionics of 1 VHF radio, standard 6-pack gauges, ELT and transponder mode “C” or the budget to add them.
– Maximum of 1200 SMOH on the engine, to reduce the engine reserve fund *
– Preferably not trainer – I know what I did to the one I trained in!

* Engine reserve fund is a “virtual” fund some owners maintain. Essentially, if it costs $20,000 for a new engine and it has a TBO (life) of 2,000 hours, a $10 per hour fund is maintained so the engine overhaul cost can be spread over the life of the aircraft engine. Obviously, if there is only 1000 hours left until overhaul, this doubles to $20 per hour as the $20,000 fund needs to be collected more quickly.¬†

From this, I created the following list. It is a general list, not meant to be exact, allowing me to properly identify aircraft in the category which may suit.

CESSNA – Many Models: 150 – 182
PIPER – Many models: Warriors, Arrows, Archers, Cubs, Pacers, Colts, Vagabonds, Cherokee, J-Series, Comanche, Tomahawk etc.
MOONEY – M20C – M20E
AERONCA – several models
BELLANCA – Vikings
LUSCOMBE – 8 series
BEACH(CRAFT) – Musketeer, Bonanza, Sierra, Sundowner, Skipper
GRUMMAN – Tiger, AA’s
OTHERS: such as DeHavilland Chipmunk, Fairchild, Navion etc. also sometimes fit the bill.

From this list, it was easier for me to identify the aircraft which best fitted my mission. I shortlisted the following, taking into account all the things I had decided were important to the mission I wanted the aircraft for:

CESSNA: 170, 172, 180, 182. In reality, the 172 was the choice as 170 and 180 as tailwheels may be difficult to insure and would require a training endorsement. The 180 series are usually higher priced, with the lower cost examples being high-time and requiring possibly more maintenance. The 150.152 did not have the load capacity I wanted.
PIPER: Cherokee, PA20 Pacer, PA22 Tri-Pacer, Warrior, Vagabond. These are all capable of carrying the load and have the price, speed and factors required. The Cubs, whilst beautiful, are two place and too expensive.
MOONEY: M20C & M20E. Both capable aircraft. Fast and excellent fuel consumption too. Although retractable gear, they are available with manual systems, reducing maintenance and, some say, increasing that safety edge. Still “complex” aircraft so more training required.
STINSON 108. A beautiful tailwheel, four place, large and very capable. Older machines often in the 1940’s
GRUMMAN: AA1. A nice machine all around. Smaller and simple, reasonably priced.
BEECH(CRAFT) Sundowner, Debonair, Musketeer. All very like Piper Warrior being low-wing and capable. Older, but seem to have good reviews.

So, finally, I had a list of aircraft which I knew fitted my entire mission including use, budget, training level and all those things I had thought about (or so I hoped).

Like most others I suspect, I tend to go with what I know. I have seen and ridden in several aircraft, but not some of those on the list. I know people who have some aircraft and can ask them their thoughts, but for others I have only the information I can find from sources I do not know. Sources on the Internet are great, but like a good plumber, it’s nice to have a trusted recommendation.

So, it was onwards to find one of these that peaked my interest. Prices were compared, reviews were researched and calls were made. It all started, really, from here.

Whilst we’re on the subject of price, it’s worth a look at what people in the real estate industry call “comps”. A comp is, not surprisingly, a “comparable” or similar thing – in real estate being the same kind of house, in the same king of area with the same kind of features. This method is easily used by pilots, as comparing like-items is a natural thing for us to do, just as we might with a can of beans.

This being said, a can of beans is unlikely to drop you from a mile-high, causing your immediate demise. An airplane can do that – so the decision requires a more serious approach than just buying the cheapest one. There is a choice to go low-priced, mid-range or higher up the spectrum. Do you look for a lower-priced example of a higher value model, or a higher-priced version of a low cost model. Essentially, do you buy a cheap BMW, or a higher-priced Kia? Everyone has their own opinion on this and as this is my text, I’ll give you mine. I look for a higher-priced example of a lower-cost model, or “the nice Kia” if you like. My reasons for this are pretty simple, at least to me.

Expensive things are that way for a reason. Their parts are usually more as is the labour (often). They are usually more complex, meaning there is more to go wrong. Buying a low cost example of such a machine invites problems from a higher number of mechanical sources. If the parts or the labour are more and the chances are increased that you will need this work, I see cost issues. This must be tempered with the fact that “I want that make” and “it needs to fit my mission”, not only “how do I persuade my spouse to let me buy it”.

Different people make different decisions given the same set of circumstances. This is due to personalities, experience and circumstance as well as many other factors, so you’ll make up your own decision. I found out, as you will see, that my thoughts of the “good Kia” were well founded, when the “cheap BMW” didn’t work out!

The First One

There she is I thought, $40,000. A Cessna 172. OK, it had the 6-banger Continental powerplant in it, whose extra 2 cylinders mean higher maintenance, but it looked pretty clean. Airframe hours seemed OK at around 4,000, probably not a trainer. Engine time was in the mid 800’s so I liked the look of that. Complete logs, OK, it’s sounding great. I knew the type being that I had trained on it. The avionics more than met my requirements as well, so I thought I was on a winner. Only problem was that it was located 1500 miles away.

1,500 miles is a long way when you consider you need to go, do a pre-inspection, test-fly, purchase and register and finally fly it back. Sounds like a week at least to me, never mind the $1,500 in travel and accommodations in this other town. For the right beast however, this is all worth while. Buying an aircraft is a project, with the soft costs (not the machine, the other costs) needing to be considered.

I figure, for any sale, a pre-buy inspection is vital for a few reasons. I am not an aircraft mechanic so I will not see problems other than that of the standard pre-flight walk-around. I think (and this is just me), that any inspection should be done by someone other than the regular AME doing the annual and fixes on the airplane normally. This is because I want problems found if they are there, not covered-up or missed by the same person supposed to do them in the first place. The more anal the AME the better as this is a matter of high value and critical safety. I budgeted, on several sources’ advice, ten hours for this at $80 per hour. That’s $800 or half my insurance premium for the year or a good 8 hours in the air. Worth every penny? You better believe it !!!

If you are selling your airplane you will want to fly with those you consider interested enough to warrant your time and fuel. As a buyer, anyone who does not want me to fly their airplane is not really selling it or has something to hide, but the buyer needs to put some commitment into the deal too. Before flying, I need to have done a pre-inspection meaning I am invested in the purchase, or at least pay for the fuel. Flying someone’s aircraft for sale is not to see if you like the type, it is to see if you can find sufficient problem not to buy that particular craft. Basically, riding from plane to plane getting free air time is lecherous, please don’t do it – I didn’t.

So, I thought, let’s plan to see this baby. Worst thing is we waste $1500 in travel and time, but it’ll be an experience and at the aircraft looks like a really good buy!

Turns out, like many things it seems, not so much! As you can guess, my eyes were about to be opened very wide. Here’s how I avoided wasting much time and money on, what was clearly, a bucket of bolts!

Firstly, ou can look at the history of any aircraft in Canada by using the TC (Transport Canada) web site. I was looking for a solid ownership trail, one with a few owners for sure, but perhaps some ownership I could research and even ask about. I checked the numbers (see: and, oh boy! Lots of owners for only a few years. Looked like a partnership with perhaps four people, all falling off. On top of that, it looked like it had been in the country only a few years.

Not only can you look to see who owned a particular aircraft, but you can also research the history of that machine in respect to any incidents reported like crashes. When a person can research the owner, the aircraft and the history of the flying, it makes for a much safer purchase. If only all things could have such meticulous records eh!?

It is difficult to research US aircraft as, unless you know the serial number or the previous N-reg., there’s little you can find. I was lucky, I found the previous N-Reg number by Googling the serial number (it took a while). I then went about looking in the US accident report database, where I found three – yes three – serious accidents sustained by this airplane. Basically, this thing was a disaster on wheels, a real cabbage.

I phoned the person selling it, who pleaded complete ignorance of this and fair enough, perhaps he was not as astute as me in researching these things. Then, upon probing him some more, I find that there are actually no real logbooks for this plane – perhaps a few journey logs and some older entries, somewhere in a pile. This effectively means the machine could be anything, a complete unknown quantity.

So my beauty turned from a definite-maybe to a complete NO in the matter of 8 minutes. Thank the heavens for the Internet. Use the Internet my friends, and use it well. If you can’t use it, find someone who can. I did not know this, but an AME can do a vast amount of research for you before even seeing a plane. It’s worth it to pay him or her $200 to have a go – please – find me problems so I can avoid them, it’s cheaper in the long-run!

The price was also maybe, a little too enticing. I, in my enthusiasm, put this down to finding a good deal and the fact that the year was older then it could have been. Of course, if it is too good to be true, it probably is and this is a case in point. The object lesson was learned: don’t believe anything apart from an official document and check anything you read with people who know if it is proper and correct.

The Second One

Disheartened? Yes. A little relieved? Sort of. Making a large purchase is always a big decision. The location of the beast, the cost involved added the near-miss meant I made the decision to look locally within reason. I thought a flying (rented)¬†radius of three hours would be about right and hoped that something would come-up in that territory. I thought as well that there is no rush, so no need to worry, there’s loads of time.

Six hours later, I found what was to become my first aircraft and my second love (my wife will read this, so you’ll understand the reference and my passion for personal safety). There she was, shining out of my screen like a red and blue winged version of your favourite hot actress (or actor). C-FKTF, a PA22-150 Piper Tri-Pacer built in 1957. I looked down the list of features and thought immediately, she will be mine.

It has to be this way with airplanes I think. It has to be love at first sight. We know they are expensive, expensive¬†to maintain, require loads of our attention, nag at us to do things and yet we must have one (sound familiar in any way at all???) We know upon seeing this perfect vision that it will be a love affair, or what would be the point? Anything else is travel, this is flying your own aircraft in the open skies. This is something we dreamed of as a kid and never dared to hope for. No wonder it has to be love. The trick is to bottle this passion so you don’t rush-in, like a teenager at the dance, ending up with the “wrong one”! I hear that a third of owner-aircraft marriages end in divorce – not good!

I won’t bore you with all the details, but the point is that this type of aircraft exceeded every mission parameter I had set. Range, load, probable maintenance costs, price range, equipment, insurance, flyability for my training level, fuel consumption and more. This particular aircraft then went on to satisfy the requirement for history, logs, AD’s, STC’s, condition, additional equipment and she was local at 45 minutes from my location. She was hangared all day long. The hangar space was available to be retained for the new owner, so even the location and facility appealed to me.

So here I was with the perfect machine, in the perfect place, for the right price, so it was time to get going. There’s not much I can write about finding the right aircraft as it’s totally up to the individual, but the best probability of success is to do your homework. Match every factor, dot all the “i’s” and cross your “t’s”, and hopefully it’ll all work out fine.

It is funny that the actual buying decision takes me the least time to write about. Should the requirement be understood, the machine fit is obvious. It’s the whole square-peg thing again – when it’s an obviously good fit, do it!

The purchase

Not having sold any aircraft yet, it is hard to talk about their perspective of the process. I do suspect though that selling your aircraft means going through a series of tire-kickers and dreamers. I would lay good adds that people waste a huge amount of a sellers time and the closing ratio to inquiries is pretty small. It was my intention to never speak to someone unless I really had a mind to buy, but emails are a little less of a commitment, so it’s a good place to start.

The owner told me all about the plane over the phone and with several emails, so it was time to set- off for a visit.

I suppose this would be the right time to talk about a major factor for me in this purchase and something I will concentrate on a little more than I expected to. The owner was a guy I knew I could trust. He talked about the plane like he knows her, which he should after 400 hours and ten years in the left seat. He flew all-over Canada and down to Florida in her with a few trips to the Bahamas thrown in for good measure. He’s a guy whose word means something and that goes a long way with me. I like to deal with people personally. I can (I think) gauge a person’s integrity from meeting with them and quizzing or discussing the subject at-hand. I highly recommend you do this if you can. What I am getting at here is that the person who is selling is as important as the aircraft in some ways. A trustful, careful, knowledgeable and decent pilot will care for and maintain a machine properly. He or she will be honest and fair in the claims made and surprises will be genuine, not acted-out. The people in the deal are important!

Minus thirty degrees Celsius is something that has to be felt on a ramp to be understood. I can honestly say that a general aviation ramp in that weather is one of the most miserable places on earth, despite being surrounded by airplanes. My face, hands and body hurt after the first five minutes, and that was inside the hangar.

Outside, we had a job to do as the large sliding-panel hangar doors were welded to the floor by a four inch bead of ice. Mr. Frost is a welder of some skill it seems, as this did not want to budge despite being attacked by pry-bars and other implements of destruction. We, undeterred and chipping-away, got the hole in the building about two inches wider than the aircraft’s wingspan. From here and following a solid walk-around, we were sitting in KTF bound for the skies, very exciting.

Homework needs to be done on-type and the only way to do this, if you have none, is to speak to other pilots who fly that machine. Care has to be taken that you are talking about the same thing, as a few years apart, or a different engine configuration can make a big difference. I did this simply by asking around the airport, finding on-line articles and burying myself into the type forums.

On top of this, my instructor Don who may have more time above the earth’s surface than on it – was a good source having hundreds of hours in Tri-pacers. “A good strong airplane” was his synopsis, making me feel very comfortable about the type. Remember that flying someones plane for sale is not about trying the “type”, you need to do that with a friend or pay someone to fly in their aircraft. Remember, a flight test is to find problems with THAT aircraft, not the type in general.

So we had all the elements in-place. We had the specs on the aircraft, the type fit the mission, the flight test did not point to any problems with the aircraft, the owner was candid and forthcoming with information, the location was good and the price was right and agreed-upon. The only thing left was to have the aircraft professionally inspected, by someone who knows what they are doing!

A final note on price. I won’t talk about it much but it is a large part of the deal psyche. Everyone talks about price. People brag at a low priced acquisition, complain at a high paid price one and everything in-between. Remember what you are buying when you purchase an aircraft.

When you have looked at all the comparables and researched properly you should know the price and worth of the item. Negotiation is fine as with anything else, but if it is worth it, pay it. If something is less expensive than the rest of the comparable machines, find out why. I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for. Deals are great and good luck, but this is a machine which must operate perfectly all the time to be safe for you and your family. Please buy a good one and be prepared to pay properly and market value for what you get.

The problems

When you are employing someone by the hour, you usually try to reduce the bill by having the person go as fast as they can whilst completing the task. I suggest you resist this temptation for an AME (aircraft mechanic) to inspect your aircraft. Find out how much time they need and budget for 1.5 times that amount. Once you have that in your mind, allow them to work for you.

If you really want something like a plane or car the other temptation is to defend issues or to let things slide. Again resist, as this is your money and your life in a machine which needs to work one hundred percent of the time, not ninety-nine point nine.

I was lucky that one of my aviation friends knew an AME which he recommended. I hired him to inspect the aircraft and report to me on his findings. He took six hours but I had budgeted for ten. Now six hours looking at an aircraft might seem excessive, but quite a few were spend pouring over the logs, checking for AD’s being done, STC’s being properly documented, engine and other maintenance being current and all the other things we have talked about as important. It’s great to look at what you think you are buying and have an expert confirm you are getting what you thought!

Unsurprisingly after meeting the owner, what he said in his advertisement was correct. In the ad information he had mentioned two things that were particularly interesting to me. One was sealed lift-struts, which is a known issue on this type. How do I know that? well from all my type homework of course. The second one was that all AD’s were done (you’ll remember that these are mandatory fixes from Transport Canada and other sources which need to be done for the safety of the machine). It turns out that having the AD’s done (which they were) and the sealed lift struts (which they were) caused some issues in the sale, and I’ll explain why.

Firstly, the AD’s were done for the aircraft. From what we could see in the logs, required “fixes” were all done but we found nearly 20 type AD’s that were not signed-off in the books. Essentially, an AD may or may not be applicable to a particular aircraft. It may say that all aircraft of your type with an “XYZ” carburetor need a fix, but of course if you have an “ABC” carburetor, it does not apply to you. Thing is however, these AD’s need to be signed-off as being looked at and as not-applicable by the AME (mechanic) that looks after the plane.

My pre-buy AME found twenty of these AD’s that were not signed-off. Whilst not a problem mechanically, this causes issues for airworthiness in terms of legal requirements and could cause insurance or other factors to be in question. Was this the owner’s fault? certainly not. Was the plane safe and current? of course. However it needs to be sorted out when you are buying to ensure you know what you have, it is legal, current and all properly documented.

The other item of interest were the lift struts, or the metal pole-like attachments that secure from the fuselage to the mid-underside of the wing. They were advised as “sealed” meaning no open areas where rust could get in. Sealed struts to me were the ones available from Univair (where most parts seem to come from) and carry lifetime guarantees. It is here that aircraft parts are different than these usually available for many other machines. Remember those STC’s in the second chapter? STC’s are ways to do things on an aircraft with a supplemental type certificate, meaning if someone had an STC to seal old struts in a certain way, it would be a sealed strut. So here lies the issue, it IS a sealed strut but not a Univair lifetime sealed strut, which cost about $1,500. The STC’d struts require special tests every 5 years etc. to keep them legal whereas the lifetime struts are OK for, well, life.

This is a case of buyer-assumption and the seller being accurate, which is a mistake on the buyer’s (my) part. It is a case that demonstrates the unique points of aircraft buying, being that there are several ways to do the same thing. Parts can pass legal requirements in lots of different ways, from many different providers or suppliers and for a massive range in price. Beware what you “think” something is, better to speak to someone in the know and “confirm” what it is.

Initially, I was disappointed, not in the owner, but in myself because I should know better than to assume anything. This is however just another learning lesson, so I got over it quickly. The owner approached his AME and, at his cost, had the missing AD’s signed-off, bringing the aircraft right up-to-date. As far as I know, no actual work was required, it was really just a case of updating the books to ensure all the required markings were there. The lift struts are still on the aircraft.

This section is called “the problems” as they were problems at the time, but were identified and addressed by both parties in the most agreeable way. This, to me, is the definition of a good business deal. If you encounter problems in your purchase decide what the issue is, if it needs a fix, how it can be fixed, who should pay and how it needs to be done. If every issue is addressed this way everything will proceed well. There may come a point where either the buyer or seller decides the request is unreasonable and “walks-away”, in which case move to the next one. Most things can be negotiated but what is meant to be, or not, is fine. Deals are not personal (I sound like a gangster now), they are two unrelated people deciding on fair exchange, so don’t get mad or offended, just look at the deal and decide accordingly.

Finally, She’s Mine!

Oh I know, write the cheque and we’re done right – just like a car or a boat. Well we’re in Canada and we’re dealing with aviation so there’s paperwork to be done, lots of it. I contacted Transport Canada (TC) and spoke to a lovely lady who could, for a small fee, essentially do everything for me. A bill of sale was required, which was fine as we had one as well as some other documentation mainly to do with the business as it is a corporately registered aircraft. As it turns out, the bill of sale was not good enough for the TC paperwork and we needed to draw-up another one.

My advice is to talk to TC¬† and get samples of the paperwork you need before you write your own as, if you use theirs, issues reduce significantly. Why don’t I include the detail here? why because by the time you read this it’ll be different of course – so get yours close to deal time.

The cheque was delivered to the owner and as we had by then become fast friends, deposited in the bank without being certified. I was not moving the aircraft and was leaving for a few weeks, so the owner knew he has recourse for any missed-money, but I would recommend anyone certify a cheque or get a draft when it comes to selling. Once the paperwork and the money was done, she was mine!

Finally, I have not talked much about insurance. I have as much insurance as it is possible to buy I think. I intend, as I get more experience, to perhaps reduce this but for now and the near future she is replaced if I break her.

I haven’t read all the details obviously as I suspect few actually do but the policy is a good one. I knew the details of the costs and coverage before I bought the aircraft as this, for a low-timer like me, is a big deal. Rather we not buy a plane that we can’t fly, so my advice here is to get, in writing, what the costs are and the coverage is before you spend any money on hardware.

I have tried to include as much as I can in the process of a private buy, but have not gone into brokers and other detail. Also, this was a $30,000 purchase not a $300,000 or $3M one, so obviously you need to scale your own comfort to your particular purchase and experience.

Always expect problems, always get written evidence of that which you are told. If you don’t get it in writing, it’s not true! Never trust anyone. I was lucky. I ended up with a great aircraft, from a genuine guy in a way I was happy with. The previous owner is insured on KTF and still flies her when I can not. Like I said, I was lucky, but it stemmed from a good choice of what to buy and who to buy it from.

I hope you have the same experience and you enjoy this extraordinary treat we have been afforded by our forefathers, who reached for the skies and allowed us the experience on our own terms.

Now – go look at some birds – CLICK HERE

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