Finding Your Ideal Aircraft: Don’t Rush In

Buyers should be ready to pounce, but not too quickly.

A 1985 Beechcraft F33A Bonanza turned out to be a bigger project than the author was ready to tackle. [Credit: Jonathan Welsh]

When shopping for your ideal aircraft, you should keep an open mind to avoid missing out on potential candidates. And even when you are sure you have found the best one—the airplane that “checks all of the boxes”—you should sleep on it before moving ahead with the purchase.

It is also a good idea to run the details past your mechanic. Call it a pre-pre-buy inspection.

After missing out on a couple of good airplanes that other buyers scooped up first, my wife and I have honed our approach and are always ready to pounce when the right opportunity comes along. However, we refuse to be rushed into any transaction without devoting a day or so to careful consideration.

We recently looked over a 1985 Beechcraft F33A Bonanza based about an hour from home. It needed a cosmetic makeover but seemed solid otherwise. The seller had flown it regularly and all of its equipment seemed to work properly. Still, we sensed an aura of sadness and neglect hanging over this machine. Its worn cabin contained a series of half-hearted updates like seat covers that didn’t quite fit when it really needed full interior reupholstering. Outside, we were sure the paint would look better if someone had bothered to wax it.

During the drive home, we debriefed, as usual. I know of a few aircraft interior shops that could work wonders in the cabin. The paint could wait a while, but not too long, and we could budget for it. In the meantime, we could just enjoy flying. We can live with a shabby airplane. Hope springs eternal.

Let's Be Realistic

The next day, reality came knocking in the form of an email from our mechanic.

When looking at old airplanes I think first about the engine. If it is running well, with good compression and no metal shards in the oil filter, I tend to think the whole airplane has potential. That is why checking in with your mechanic is a good idea. Months ago, I let him know we were shopping and would need a pre-buy, probably soon. I know his schedule is packed, so I keep him informed, hoping to make the process easier.

Unlike last time, when he looked over the logs to get a feel for the aircraft’s condition, he was finished after taking a peek at the advertisement for this one. He noted that although the engine had only 800-odd hours since it was overhauled, that overhaul had taken place in 1991. He pictured three decades of intermittent use with lots of time for corrosion and other maladies to develop.

“Budget for a new engine,” he said. Ouch.

The same day, my wife told me she was having second thoughts about the tatty Bonanza. She said that after looking around the house at our collection of unfinished projects, she was feeling increasingly anxious about adding an airplane to the list. She thought we should find a candidate with fewer obvious problems—one that we could fly home confidently after closing the sale. That’s the benefit of sleeping on it.

The Commander 114B looks fast sitting still. [Credit: Jonathan Welsh]

Shifting Winds

We have since found a 1992 Commander 114B for sale that seems to fit our mission profile especially well. Three pilots own it in a partnership and fly often. My wife, ever the practical thinker, reminded me that because I completed complex and high-performance training in a Commander and have lots of time in the type, our insurance burden should be lighter.

After months of having “Bonanzas on the brain,” the Commander seems like a major departure. Indeed, we hadn’t considered earlier Commanders because they are slow compared with Bonanzas. However, the later B models received numerous aerodynamic modifications that made them faster than earlier models.

The sellers say this 114B can do 160 knots, though they typically cruise at 150. That’s still slower than a Bonanza, but scorching compared with my flying club’s older Commander, which cannot seem to get past 135 knots. We will see how this one does in the demo flight. 

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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