Airplane Buying Tips

How a former airline pilot bought airplanes.

Piper Cherokee Six
Used airplanes in the category of the Piper Cherokee Six can haul a lot, but maintenance costs can bite.Courtesy Piper Aircraft

Not quite 10 years ago, I took the plunge into the abyss of airplane ownership. Having a civilian background in a general aviation environment, and possessing a pilot's license for more than four decades, it seems that airplane ownership would have long ago been part of my repertoire. Finances, career focus, and other life interests had taken priority. Belonging to a South Florida flying club was the closest I had come. Sometimes, just the dream of ownership was more entertaining than reality.

Periodically throughout my marriage I would drop not-so-subtle hints that my dream was affordable. My skeptical and frugal wife fought the idea until improved finances, time and my pitiful salesmanship skills convinced her that bankruptcy would not be in our future. So, what would this airline pilot buy? The question was best answered by defining the mission.

First, we both wanted an airplane that would comfortably and economically transport us to destinations that were not easily accessible via our airline-travel privileges. The ability to carry four people, bags and full fuel was part of the criteria.

Initially, a light twin was on the top of my wish list; not so much for the obvious extra power plant, but more for redundancy, an advantage of my professional life that I took for granted. Two voltage regulators. Two alternators. Two vacuum pumps, et cetera, et cetera. Although the price tag of an Aztec, a Baron or a Seneca was attractive, the maintenance expense was discouraging.

Cirrus Floatplane
If your aim is flying fun, a floatplane can make sense.Courtesy Cirrus Aircraft

I had gone so far as to begin the prebuy inspection on a local Apache Geronimo, factoring in the cost of having to update the avionics among other upgrades. The seller, a man with whom I had maintained a friendly relationship, transformed the process into an ugly experience for many reasons, one of them being deception. To this day, I am thankful. Had the purchase transpired, my checkbook balance would have reached zero, a task I am quite capable of on my own merits.

Regrouping, I attempted a soul-searching analysis of cost versus safety, or more precisely, twin-engine versus single-engine. In the end, it became an analysis of mitigating risk through regular maintenance, a reliable engine, reliable avionics and operating practices. When a single-engine airplane became the more fiscally feasible decision, fond memories of my days operating a Piper Cherokee Six as an aspiring airline pilot reappeared. And why not?

The Cherokee Six is a mini-airliner. It is stable, cabin-comfortable and relatively simple. Owning a fixed-gear airplane took all the worry out of an Achilles heel for at least one maintenance aspect and at least one potentially embarrassing operating error. Four adults and full fuel were not a problem. The number of bags was just a matter of fitting stuff through the aft entry door or into the nose cargo compartment. To use the U.S. Post Office tag line, “If it fits, it ships.”

When the shopping spree narrowed to an airplane near the western Lake Michigan coast in Wisconsin, I dragged my mechanic buddy, Kari Sorenson, with me for the prebuy inspection.

This was a 1964 Six, one of three prototypes that Piper transformed from a 260 hp model to a 300 hp model. Interestingly enough, in its infancy the airplane had been flown from the Piper Vero Beach factory to the Edo Aire factory in New York, where it became a floatplane. For approximately 300 hours, N3214W spent its life on the water, then returned to the sales market as a land plane after an apparent mishap involving a minor collision with a boat dock.

Aside from the Six’s unique history, it was equipped with an IO-540, a Garmin 530, an S-Tec 50 autopilot, GPSS steering, JPI engine monitoring and other assorted goodies. It was the perfect airline pilot airplane, especially for a newbie owner. Despite my 20,000-plus hours, I was drinking through a fire hose. Kari was quickly becoming my mentor.

Cirrus SR22
For dependable point-to-point transportation, it's hard to beat a Cirrus SR22.Courtesy Cirrus Aircraft

Eventually, I flew the airplane home to Connecticut without incident. It was greeted by my wife with a pleasing abundance of enthusiasm … well, until our little S-Corp started to pay the bills for our newly acquired asset. An annual inspection. New burn-certified carpet. Interior insulation. New plugs. Replacement for this. Replacement for that. My wife stopped buying my sales pitch that purchases were being made in the interest of "safety." The catchphrase was backfiring with the reverse effect of creating a negative connotation. I should have known better.

We forged many great memories with our Cherokee Six, but unfortunately the maintenance of an old airplane began to eat us alive. To make a long story very short, the icing on the cake came when a borescope inspection indicated unusual cam wear. An 800-hour engine was going to require a top overhaul at the very minimum. Pine Mountain, the local overhaul shop, which was familiar with the engine from a prior owner, discovered by examining the crankshaft bearings that the engine had been run without oil sometime during its life. In addition, a crankshaft inspection revealed a crack.

After hyperventilating for a week, the decision was made to overhaul the IO-540. And having grown weary of writing checks, I elected to cut our losses and put the airplane on the market after five years of ownership. It was still a sad day when I walked away from my first airplane after delivering it to its new owner in Pennsylvania. But it was time to move on. And moving on meant a totally new mission: Find a fun airplane.

With the check from the Cherokee Six sale burning a hole in my bank account, another early aviation memory re-emerged in the form of my experience with taildraggers. In the midst of my relentless focus on an airline career as a flight instructor, a friend had forced me to take a break by throwing me in the front seat of a brand new Super Cub. I had resisted, posturing that the experience would do nothing for my resume. The sound of wheels whirring onto a turf runway with the side door open still resonates as one of the best moments in my aviation life. Other than the fact that flying the Super Cub became an addiction, I am forever grateful to my friend.

I rekindled the love for taildraggers later in life, towing gliders at my local soaring club with a Pawnee, a Husky and a Super Cub. The thought of owning a low-and-slow airplane became romantically appealing. By this time, my wife had lost her enthusiasm and was more than accepting of a low-maintenance airplane even if she didn’t accompany me as frequently.

But what airplane? I researched Aeronca Champs, thinking that this airplane would provide inexpensive fun. But over the course of shopping, discussions about the merits of two adults in a Champ on an 85-degree summer day gave me pause for concern. And then an acquaintance pointed to a Decathlon listed in Trade-A-Plane. But I was never an aerobatic enthusiast, and I’ve become a wimp in my old age.

The acquaintance’s argument was that the Decathlon was sturdy with a respectable IO-320, a 150 hp engine, and a constant-speed prop. And this particular airplane was powered by a zero-time overhauled engine. As a matter of fact, the engine shop that performed the overhaul was brokering the airplane for a friend of the owner. Even more interesting, the owner had shuttled the airplane back and forth to Israel in a container with the unsuccessful intentions of making it available to an Aero Club associated with the Israeli Air Force. What was not to like?

Mooney Aircraft
The appeal of a new or used Mooney is speed, a hallmark of the iconic brand.Courtesy Mooney

Aside from a handful of minor glitches during the prebuy inspection, the Decathlon was soon residing in my hangar. The ease of rolling it out for a quick jaunt was a simple pleasure. As compared to the fuel appetite of a Cherokee Six, lunch trips were guilt-free. Oftentimes, I would peruse the sectional chart for a magenta circle symbol that had never seen my landing gear tracks and make that grass strip the day’s destination. But alas, the Decathlon’s days were numbered.

After a crisp, winter lunch date with my uncomplaining wife crammed into the back of the Decathlon, we returned to our hangar.

A rare appearance of my next-door hangar neighbor found him scampering around his Grumman Tiger. A conversation led to a discussion of his airplane. Considering the merits of such an airplane, I nodded in admiration, having flown a Grumman Traveler back in my days as a 17-year-old private pilot. Attempting to limit the aviation-speak so as not to ruin the day for my wife, I was surprised when she chimed in with an indication that owning an airplane that the two of us could comfortably fly together again wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Cool.

Not one to waste an opportunity, I continued the “philosophical” discussion on our drive home. Yup, approval was given for a new airplane mission. The catch was that I had to sell the Decathlon. Not a bad compromise, especially if it meant that my wife would once again resume her duties as my favorite copilot. So, what would we buy that would not exceed the price point of a Cherokee Six and would not become a maintenance nightmare, albeit an airplane flown mostly with just the two of us?

I launched a research mission for a Tiger. Why? It was relatively fast for its size. It was nimble. It was economical. And it seemed to have relatively few maintenance issues. When I was satisfied with my Grumman research, the shopping began. Unfortunately, not one airplane on the market had enough of the right stuff. Frustrated, I considered an adequately equipped Tiger located in Maine. For the price, it had the potential to be upgraded without exceeding its market value. I agreed to a prebuy inspection.

With a general aviation buddy traveling along to bounce bad opinions off, we flew the Decathlon to Maine and the awaiting Tiger. The airplane’s appearance was disappointing, but I still had the mechanic continue with the inspection.

Despite a few minor issues and my increasing negative vibes, I flew the airplane with a young flight instructor. Attempting to discount the choppy air, I was not impressed with the handling characteristics, feeling as though our flight was being conducted from within a bubble with wings. I elected to pass on buying the airplane. So, now what?

Glad that I had checked off the Tiger box despite spending a few bucks, I lamented the next step. My friend suggested buying a Piper Arrow. Initially I scoffed at the idea, but after a second margarita, it made sense. Relatively fast airplane. Economical. Limited maintenance issues. And yes, the gear goes up and down. After a Google search, the game was on.

Unfortunately, a good Arrow is hard to find. Almost having given up the quest, I found an airplane with all the bells and whistles in Amarillo, Texas. Equipped with an Aspen system, a Garmin GNS 430, an S-Tec autopilot and a JPI engine monitoring system. But the airplane had damage history, nothing more serious than a couple of hard landings, which was typical, especially for an airplane aged more than four decades. Although the price was adjusted accordingly, I agonized over its purchase. Would the damage haunt me forever?

Well, the answer was that the damage would haunt me for a little while. One of the repairs was done inadequately. Fortunately, through the integrity of the seller, broker and the maintenance shop, the problem was solved via the purchase of a salvaged wing. There’s much more to the painful story, but it does have a happy ending.

After an “adjustment” period, we now own a reliable airplane with a bright, shiny paint job. I am hoping it stays in the family for a while. It has met all the expectations of our current mission requirements. But please, if you’re in the market, do better than following in my footsteps.