Finding Your Ideal Aircraft: Roll With the Punches

Even good airplanes can deal their owners unexpected blows occasionally.

After months of shopping my wife and I recently found a 1992 Commander 114B that appears to suit our needs well. Its current owners fly it regularly and have even made the panel upgrades we would have wished for. It looks great as well—handsome and apparently well-loved.

It is also a 30-year-old aircraft, and like anyone else navigating the vast, diverse, and complicated used-airplane market, we have to take time to thoroughly appreciate just what that means.

While this is the newest model we have considered buying—with previous candidates dating as far back as 1966—it is still old enough for some of its original parts to need replacement after breaking or wearing out. Indeed, the toll taken by all of those years has thus far denied us a demo flight, despite the sellers’ efforts to make it happen.

On a sunny Saturday we drove to Blairstown Airport (1N7) in New Jersey, where one of the Commander’s owners was picking it up from the mechanic who had replaced a broken drag brace on the nose gear. He had offered to take us for a local flight before returning to his home base at Lincoln Park (N07). He walked me through a preflight inspection that included details and tips picked up over years of ownership. All seemed well.

As soon as the starter engaged, the Lycoming IO-540 fired. There was no belabored cranking. Soon we were taxiing past a line of gliders waiting for their turns with the towplane. I had been in and out of Blairstown many times in my flying club’s 1976 Commander 114. Later models from the 1990s are said to be better performers because of a number of modifications made to the type during production. I looked forward to seeing and feeling any differences.

The plan was for the owner to handle the takeoff and give me some time at the controls once we were clear of the airport. After holding short while the busy tow plane landed, we took Runway 25 and began our takeoff roll. This Commander immediately felt livelier than the one I was used to flying. It accelerated faster, lifted off sooner and climbed with more authority—at first. But when the pilot called “gear up,” nothing happened. The gear remained down and locked. The three green lights that foster a sense of relief at the end of most flights were now causing frustration.

He flew around the pattern while I checked circuit breakers. He tried again to raise the gear, to no avail. Nothing to do but land and hope the mechanic could sort out the problem on Monday. We headed to the airport restaurant for lunch, disappointed.

The second demo flight attempt was at Lincoln Park. The gear was working fine after the mechanic addressed a sticking squat switch. But the engine would not start. It sounded like it had no spark. Could this be a magneto problem? Mine was a lucky guess, as the mechanic determined both mags were sketchy. New ones are on the way and should be installed this week.

While the sellers worried that we might abandon the deal after these back-to-back failures, my wife and I are sticking with this one. After seeking advice from several flying friends with much more experience we understand that old airplanes often need a steady supply of new parts, especially when they fly a lot. One acquaintance quipped, “Welcome to general aviation.”

The Commander might simply be telling us how things are going to be if we go through with this purchase. Of course, I was hoping that after rapid-fire problems with the nose gear, squat switch and magnetos, we might enjoy trouble-free flying for a while.

We may learn a lot more soon. Our pre-buy inspection is in two weeks.     

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