Engine Damage Leads to a Turning Point for Airplane Owner

The time comes for a pilot to sell his beloved 1953 Piper Pacer.

Tayana Sailboat
We recently sold our house and most of our belongings, and just bought a beautiful 42-foot Tayana cutter-rigged sailboat named Windbird.Courtesy Sam Weigel

I had just landed at Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport and was on a quick break in the middle of a busy workday, with just enough time between flights to grab a salad for lunch and check my email. As soon as I turned on my phone, I saw the message from Roy, lead mechanic at Aero Maintenance in Vancouver, Washington. My heart did a little flutter. (Whose wouldn’t when his airplane is in the shop for its annual?) As I began reading, apprehension turned to disbelief. “We found a lot of metal in your oil screen.” These are the words that strike fear into every aircraft owner, and now they’d been said of my 1953 Piper Pacer.

Impossible! I had just changed the oil 15 flight hours ago in Southern California, and the screen was as clean as a whistle — I even took a magnet to it. I called Roy and he confirmed that he’d seen the metal himself: big, chunky flakes and a lot of them, damn near a teaspoon. ­Normally, the response to an engine that has just started making a little metal is to change the oil, fly it a few more hours and see what happens. But in this case, the photo Roy sent confirmed this was well beyond the limits of airworthiness. In fact, by the time I landed at LAX there was another photo in my inbox showing what appeared to be a large chunk of main bearing, this time recovered from the oil-sump screen. The engine was trashed.

My mind flashed back to where I’d been flying those last 15 hours. There Dawn and I were at 500 feet over the cold, frothing Pacific Ocean just off the foreboding Big Sur coastline. There we were, clawing for altitude over the rugged, snowbound Siskiyou Range. There I was above the heavily forested Cascades, thinking the best option in case of engine failure was to put it right between two big Douglas firs in the flattest area I could find. I thought back to my last flight before the annual, just a week ago on a Portland layover for work. I had taken my good friend Duncan Roberts and his two young boys, Bjorn and ­Calvin, up for a tour of Mount St. Helens, the Columbia River Gorge and downtown Portland. Mindful of the lack of suitable landing sites, I’d kept a sharp eye on the engine instruments; they had stayed rock steady in the normal range, all while the engine was apparently tearing itself apart. The thought made me sick.

Airplane Mount St Helens
A beautiful (and in retrospect, risky) view of Mount St. Helens.Courtesy Sam Weigel

How did this happen? The engine had less than 1,000 hours since overhaul, and I had treated it well during the 220 hours of my ownership. However, the engine was last overhauled in 1988, and there were several long periods where it sat idle. I knew this when I bought the airplane. Truthfully, I gambled — and lost.

I am blessed with a wife who likes to fly and does not begrudge the cost; she took the news of this expensive new development remarkably well. Together we looked at all the options. One was to overhaul at a local engine shop; its estimate came to $23,000 (as much as I paid for the airplane in the first place), not including installation. I could’ve shipped it to a high-volume shop where it could be overhauled for as little as $13,000, assuming the crankshaft was still usable. If I really wanted to splurge, Lycoming would sell me a factory-remanufactured ­engine for about twice the value of the airplane. With ­unlimited time and a convenient place to stash the airplane, I could’ve hired a local A&P to do a “field overhaul.” The least expensive solution would’ve been to find a used midtime O-320 and perform a transplant — and hope for better luck this time. The last option was to sell the airplane for cheap, as-is, where-is.

There were no two ways about it: All these options were expensive and carried varying degrees of risk. We were going to take a big hit regardless of what we did because Pacers have a pronounced ceiling to their resale ­value, no matter how new the engine. If we intended to keep the airplane for a long time, I would’ve opted for a quality overhaul and mentally amortized the cost over a thousand hours or more of aerial enjoyment. But in truth, we had already decided to sell the Pacer this summer due to an impending major life change.

Last year, Dawn and I embarked on a two-year plan to sell everything, buy a sailboat, move aboard, and cruise the Bahamas and Caribbean for the next three years.

Last year, Dawn and I embarked on a two-year plan to sell everything, buy a sailboat, move aboard, and cruise the Bahamas and Caribbean for the next three years. Dawn is taking a break from teaching while I plan to drop my work schedule to a minimum during the November-to-June cruising season. I initially concocted a Parrothead fantasy of also island-hopping the Pacer through the Caribbean, but eventually concluded the tropical sun and humidity would be murder on a fabric-covered airplane, and our boat would require the full attention of her neophyte crew (and our pocketbook). Once we decided to sell the Pacer, we resolved to take it on one last giant adventure around the Lower 48, down Baja California, throughout Idaho and Montana, and up to Alaska, where she’d hopefully fetch a good price. We made it about two-thirds of the way through our itinerary before the disastrous annual.

My first inclination was to overhaul the engine or swap it out for a secondhand O-320 and press on with our final adventure. After research and honest reflection, I realized the chances of getting the airplane done in time for a ­summertime sale in Alaska were nil, and we wouldn’t come remotely close to recouping the costs incurred. It was time to move on with the next phase of our lives. I reluctantly posted the Pacer for sale on barnstormers.com and sold the airplane within a week to an A&P near ­Seattle. Jon intends to get the Pacer flying again, and then take her to places like Idaho, Montana and Alaska. That made me feel a lot better about selling her.

I took a few minutes to walk around her, drumming the fabric softly and leaning into her cockpit to breathe that familiar old-airplane aroma.

The next week, I took advantage of another Portland overnight to retrieve camping equipment and personal effects from the Pacer before the new owner came to take the wings off and trailer her home. By the time I was done, the last light of day was fading, but I took a few minutes to walk around her, drumming the fabric softly and leaning into her cockpit to breathe that familiar old-airplane aroma. I only owned her for 18 months, but we had 220 wonderful hours together. She was a good, honest airplane that kept us safe, right up to that last fate-cheating lap of Mount St. Helens. I took one last look at my little yellow airplane, gave her an affectionate pat on the cowling and turned away.

And so closes one particularly enjoyable and memorable season of my life. I wish it didn't end as abruptly (or expensively) as it did, but life's too short for regrets. There will be other airplanes in our future. We recently sold our house and most of our belongings, and just bought a beautiful 42-foot Tayana cutter-rigged sailboat named Windbird. She's already been around the world, and after a refit this summer and fall, she'll be our home for the next several years as we explore distant lands. This isn't a radical change, truth be told. As much as I love flying, owning the Pacer was always more about having an adventurous way to explore our fascinating world and connect with like-minded people. Owning her was hugely successful in that regard, and those adventures helped to convince us to make the next leap.