The day of our flight, however, he called me, downcast. His Cherokee had a collapsed nose strut and needed a new gasket. The shop didn't have one there. It was a $5 part, and he could fly the Cherokee without fixing it … but neglecting a $5 gasket fix and ending up with a thousand-dollar strut repair seemed like a stupid risk to take, just for lunch.
Two weeks later, we met to depart for our rain-check lunch, and I set about preflighting the Cheetah. One of the things about having owned an airplane a while is that you know more than you even realize you know about what's "normal." It had also been a bit since I'd flown my plane, so I was looking more closely for anomalies.
In any event, I opened the left side of the engine compartment and went to check that the primer lines were tight. The front one was fine, but the back one was, well, there was no back one. J.R., who takes care of my airplane maintenance for me now and who also owns a spam can, assured me via cell phone that having three primer lines could be perfectly normal for an O-320 engine (turns out he was right — primer line configurations differ widely). But still, I could have sworn there used to be a fourth one. Something just didn't look right. So I had Marty put a hand inside the engine compartment while I primed the airplane, just to check.
"Whoa!" he said with alarm, jumping back as I squirted primer into the engine. "There's fuel spraying in here!"
Loose fuel spraying in the engine compartment is a definite "no go" item on the checklist. Once again, old airplane aches and pains had nixed our flying plans. (Turns out my fourth primer line had been removed when my JPI engine analyzer was installed nine years ago, and the line had been only crimped closed. For some reason, it had come undone, causing the fuel leak. Most likely, it wouldn't have been a problem in the air, since I fly with the primer locked. But, still. You don't mess with fuel leaks. I got it fixed.)
Where that sixth sense of something being amiss came from is a subject for another day. The point is that old spam cans have their frustrations. And yet … J.R., Marty and I all proudly own old, unremarkable, uncool and, if some people are to be believed, unmarketable spam cans. What's the appeal?
"Where else are you going to get an airplane that can carry a thousand-pound load, go five hours on less than 50 gallons of fuel and fly 120 knots for $35,000?" Marty asked. (J.R. bought his 1964 Cherokee 180 for $12,000, as a basket case, and has transformed it into a beautiful flying machine. One of the benefits of being handy with airplanes.)
It's true, though. The Cheetah doesn't quite have the useful load of a Cherokee 180, but all our planes can carry at least three people over a practical distance for a reasonable cost.
"You can't really say 'economical' and 'airplane' in the same sentence," Marty said with a laugh, "but the 180 is one of the most economical airplanes to own. The insurance is less than $1,000 a year. It burns nine gallons an hour. Annuals are reasonable, and the California property tax on it is next to nothing."
Marty sighed. "I sometimes think about the allure of buying a new 182 and flying it away," he admitted, "but when you run the numbers, it just doesn't make sense."
None of us have any glass in our airplanes, aside from the portable GPS units we carry. But if it weren't for these $30,000 to $50,000 spam cans, we wouldn't be in the air at all. And while I wouldn't turn down a Cirrus if I were given one, I've got to believe that Marty, J.R. and I are not the only pilots out there for whom all those new airplanes are simply out of financial reach.
Our little spam cans may not be the coolest status symbols on the block. But they're affordable, practical, functional, and they give us the sky. I'm not sure there's a whole lot more that really matters, in the end.
These old spam cans also have one other distinctive advantage, which was emphasized at the EAA AirVenture show in Wisconsin this year. Torrential rains had flooded the field in Oshkosh, leaving very little airplane parking room. So the field was closed to all but show and vintage airplanes. Another spam can-owning friend of mine, a controller from Chicago named Kent, called me cheerily after landing at Oshkosh with his teenage daughter Jenna.
"How'd you get in?" I asked incredulously. "The field was closed!"
"Turns out the [Cessna] 182 is now old enough to be a classic," Kent replied with a laugh. "I'm parked down on the show plane line."
Now that, my friends, is definitely cool.