Unusual Attitudes: Buying Airplanes

The art of buying and selling flying machines.

Unusual Attitudes Cessna 180

Unusual Attitudes Cessna 180

My beloved Cessna 180 — better than any boyfriend (well, almost).

I was introduced to the art of buying and selling flying machines on a spring afternoon in 1965, standing next to an airplane salesman who'd just closed a deal on an AT-6 at Lunken Airport. The sound from that round engine as the buyer departed Runway 21R was glorious, but when it passed almost directly overhead the throaty roar abruptly changed to a sputter and then a cough. And I distinctly remember the distressed expression on the dealer's face as he muttered, "Damn, I knew I should have gotten a cashier's check."

The pilot probably got his head out of his butt and switched tanks because the engine smoothed out, the airplane arrived in Elkhart, Indiana — and the check cleared.

It's possible that experience compromised my moral compass or maybe I'm just innately bad-ass, but a few months later I found myself, with a friend named Michael ­Devanney, convincing a young ­student that the J-3 Cub he owned was a deathtrap. In a purely altruistic gesture — feeling no shame — we took the airplane off this kid's hands for $600.

Well, in truth it wasn't a cream puff, but we flew it all summer in spite of oil blowby in our faces and rust flakes in the fuel. The jig was up when the weather turned cold and Mike, flying it with the window and door closed, got sick from an exhaust leak. We pulled it apart and sent the engine out for overhaul but ran into a snag when Mike's wife raised hell about the smell and the mess in her basement. So we hauled it across town to his mom's house, and by spring N2140M was back in the air; Michael's marriage, however, imploded and was never "returned to service."

That summer on a bluebird morning I was hellbent on flying instead of helping to change oil and washing the Cub. In spite of Michael's strenuous objections I propped it, hopped in and started to roll. His temper exploded. He grabbed a strut and reached inside to pull the throttle back, and it escalated into a contest between his Irish temper and my German stubbornness. The Irish won when he attacked the magneto switch with a rather large wrench and we spent a couple of days repairing the switch, patching fabric, changing oil and washing the airplane. But I knew it was time to bail before somebody suffered bodily harm.

Mike kept '40M for over 45 years and made a final solo flight in Florida just weeks before he died. I'm told it took some creative maneuvering and manpower to get him into the back seat of the Cub so, yeah, it was probably illegal, uninsurable and imprudent, but somehow it was important, gloriously right and beautiful.

A few years after the Cub experience my dad floated a loan to help me buy a 1966 Cessna 150 from "Moose" Glos at Blue Ash Airport and start my own flying school. N50551 performed yeoman service for nearly 10 years at Miss Martha's Flying School, taking more than its share of abuse from a stream of students. But business was good enough to pay off the $6,000 (to my father's amazement), and a bunch of people learned to fly in that little red Cessna.

N50551 had its moments. … One afternoon before we removed the wheel pants (which don't belong on trainers) I was suffering through an hour of crash-and-dashes with a pre-solo student. After a particularly interesting arrival there was an equally interesting "thunk" when the left main wheel pant departed the airplane. The tower graciously allowed us to shut down on the runway and retrieve the part from out in the grass but then gleefully announced to everybody on the frequency that Runway 21R would be closed "until Martha finds her pants."

A few months later, when no amount of trim bending would cure a sudden and rather robust tendency to roll to the right, I took '551 to the shop where mechanics discovered a lord mount missing and the entire engine leaning slightly off-center. And I remember a bitter-cold winter morning when we'd climbed a couple thousand feet off the runway and pieces started flying back over the nose. I was sure the propeller was about to self-destruct, so I shoved the nose down and made a steep 180 back to the runway. The winterization baffle was missing a few screws and had worked itself forward, so the prop, like a meat slicer, was shaving off layers of black plastic. It was time to get a little more serious about preflight inspections at Miss Martha's Flying Emporium.

It was a lifetime later when my sister decided to start flying again. I owned an 85 hp Cub, N70906, but Mary had her heart set on an Ercoupe, so I found one in upstate New York and flew it home. My boss at the FSDO believed that flying airplanes to airports for safety seminars or check rides wasn't "advantageous to the government" and approved only the minimum "privately owned automobile" rate for travel. Eleven cents a mile doesn't buy much 100LL, but I'd recovered from the lean years so I flew Cub '906 during the day and used Mary's Ercoupe on night missions. Flying an Ercoupe with the canopy open on a warm summer night above a broken layer with lights winking through from below is something of a mystical experience. Talk about feeling "alone"!

Well, maybe it was mystical but it sure wasn't practical. A local corporate pilot I knew lost his medical, so I sold the Cub (painfully) and the Ercoupe (Mary wasn't flying) and mortgaged my house and almost my soul to buy his Cessna 180. This guy had pretty much "self-maintained" the airplane or finagled half-baked maintenance signed off by, well, you know how that works. The paint and interior were dreadful, but N7772B had a clear title and all applicable ADs, and the logbooks and records were amazingly complete. Since leaving the Cessna factory in 1956, it had been hangared, always lived far from salt water and had never been on skis or floats, important stuff when you buy an "elderly" airplane.

I wasn't too concerned about the cosmetics or primitive radios, but the engine had around 900 hours with long periods of inactivity. In fact, as we did the deal, an A&P friend of the owner's was changing a cylinder with parts from a shade-tree engine shop. Per this guy's instructions I ran it hard over the airport on the first flight to seat the rings, but when I landed I told him the oil temperature was running high. That was normal, he said, and told me to take it back up and run it even harder. This time the temp gauge redlined and I made a beeline for the airport with an anxious eye on the oil pressure.

The screen was full of metal, and the seller and his mechanic friend said the engine was ruined because I hadn't seated the rings. While I'll admit to being "mechanically challenged," even I knew that was hogwash, and close to tears, I called my friend T.W. Smith. The guys at Smitty's engine shop reported that somebody had installed a chromed cylinder with chromed rings — and that doesn't work.

The shop that had sold the incompatible cylinder kit said it would do the overhaul for parts and minimal labor charges, so I bought six factory cylinders. But I didn't feel warm and fuzzy because I knew this repair ­station was in trouble for FAA violations and under investigation by the FBI, U.S. Customs and the Department of the Treasury on charges of criminal activity. The airworthiness inspector in our office who had responsibility for the facility said he'd keep an eye on the work, and in fact, it proved to be a good engine. I did have an interesting phone conversation with the owner when an invoice arrived for several thousand dollars over his estimate; I think I said something close to "No ‘flipping' way, George." Eventually we agreed on a price and everybody was happy — well, except George, who shortly went to jail, and his employees, who were without jobs.

Buying an airplane can be a real crapshoot. As Jerry Swart, another friend and the ultimate airplane salesman, used to say, "Given enough time every crook shows up at the airport." So you need to do some serious homework, and you absolutely need to pay a mechanic — one you know and trust — to do a thorough pre-purchase inspection of the airplane and its records. Buying something with an owner-advertised "fresh annual" isn't always a good idea.

In spite of all this doom and gloom, I couldn't bear to finish the round without another Cub, so I'm now the proud owner of two airplanes — my Cessna 180, N7772B, and a "new" 85 hp Cub, N3513N. Double hangar rent, insurance premiums, maintenance and a hundred other expenses — ouch! But that yellow Cub makes my current diet of beanie weenies worthwhile.

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