Expectations, Desires and Realities of Buying an Airplane

There are a few lessons to be learned from one aircraft owner's saga.

gear up
In my fast and sexy Beech Premier, I once saw a groundspeed of 577 knots.Dick Karl

The old man was seduced. There is no other way to put it. He was intrigued at first, then tempted, then smitten, and finally, all in. Against all rational thought, he was totally taken by the sexy 18-year-old. That old man was me. “She” was a 2000 Beechcraft Premier 1.

In these days of carefulness about anything suggestive of inappropriate behavior, sensitivities about how men and women relate to each other and, God forbid, old-fashioned sex appeal, I am hesitant, no reluctant, actually, to use this metaphor. But it is the closest I can come to describing this past year of aviation adventure for me. There are a few lessons in this saga. I did not invent the term “high maintenance.”

I was looking for a CitationJet, maybe a CJ1. I had 1,000 hours or so in the CJ3, and the airplane looked like a comfortable fit. Those on the market were more expensive than I thought they should be, but my preconceptions led me comfortably to Cessna.

Then I saw some Premiers for sale. The Premier 1s were no more expensive than the CJ1s, yet the airplane was 80 knots faster, didn’t burn much more fuel and had a massive ramp presence. I was intrigued when a New Hampshire friend showed me his Premier 1A. It was gorgeous; he loved it, and thereafter, so did I. With the help of a meticulous broker, Mike Shafer, of Mercury Aircraft Sales, I bought 323CM, a beauty with everything: new paint, XM weather, charts and single-point refueling. I was in proverbial heaven. Not all marriages are made in heaven, I have learned.

The first sign of trouble came before I even took possession. At closing, I learned that Williams International demanded 150 hours’ worth of payment per year for the engine program, not 125. This was more than I had budgeted and more than I could possibly fly. It didn’t matter. There were a few other ongoing costs, such as maintenance tracking programs and insurance for the Collins Pro Line 21 avionics — also more than expected. I took a deep breath, looked out the window at this beautiful airplane on the ramp, all shined up and ready, and signed every piece of paper put before me without hesitation. I was marrying the plane of my dreams.

The type rating was the next sign of disaster. Rather than simulator training in an established training center, I opted for in-aircraft training. This ends up costing as much or more than the sim and puts time on your airplane. The instructor was all business; no sense of humor was evident. But ground school and in-airplane training seemed to go well.

The training company’s owner was the designated examiner, and when he finally showed up, he radiated an attitude I hadn’t experienced while getting four other type ratings. He flunked me on the first approach, a coupled ILS in a 40-knot crosswind, during which he “failed” an engine. I thought it was totally bogus, but he had the badge and I didn’t. I sought another training company and passed easily. Several other pilots subsequently told me that they too had been failed by this examiner — one thought this event had kept him from being hired by Southwest Airlines after a good interview. This left a bad taste; I was not accustomed to failing.

On the day I picked the Premier up in Wichita to fly it to New Hampshire, I got a “roll fail, speedbrake fail” warning light. Eight months and $20,000 later the problem was not fixed. For all her speed (I saw a groundspeed at one point of 577 knots) and looks, she had this flaw that could not be cured. I got a sinking feeling every time I climbed through Flight Level 300, wondering when that light was going to come on and force me to read the checklist one more time for the flaps-up, ref+20-knots landing.

My wife, Cathy, found this new girlfriend to be intimidating and scary. Not a comfortable flyer, she’s been ever supportive of my flying addictions throughout our marriage. I did not want this troubled vixen to come between us.

Parts pricing started to startle me. A blow-down actuator, which might have been the culprit for our woes, was going for $36,000. A friend said he couldn’t find a pitch-trim actuator until he was willing to pay $50,000. Whoa. This is different from what I had heard while researching this airplane. Talk about the price of good looks.

And then one fateful day, five friends and I set out from Tampa, Florida, for New Orleans for a night out. We hit a pelican at 5,000 feet while climbing out at 250 knots. The dent didn’t look that big, but a spar had been injured and no fix could be found. Plastic surgery wasn’t going to be the answer. I spent a lot of time at Textron Aviation. Though they had tried to fix the roll fail problem, I still owed a lot of money and had no airplane to show for it. Almost four months later, I got a check from our insurance company for the insured value of the airplane.

This isn’t to say I didn’t love her, or that I regret buying her. I met some fabulous Premier owners, saw some great groundspeeds, dealt with and learned from some great maintenance folks in Rockford, Illinois (Emery) and Sacramento, California (Mather) and was especially well treated by Tucker Dieter, of Wenk Aviation Insurance, and Mitch Kallet, of Kern Wooley PC, when it came time to make a claim.

Now I’m looking at CJ1s. They cost more than some Premiers. They are like sensible shoes, 80 knots slower and way less impressive on the ramp. For the long haul, a Cessna may just be more my speed. Properly seasoned, a good marriage evolves. If this doesn’t work, I’m going back to a Cessna 210.