Finding Your Ideal Aircraft: Squawks Are Part of Aviation Life

Airplanes are packed with complex equipment that is bound to have problems occasionally.

Part of being a successful airplane owner is learning to take mechanical and electronic problems in stride. [Credit: Jonathan Welsh]

Expressions of welcome have poured in following my first aircraft purchase. Even the loan officer, insurance brokers, and escrow agent lowered their strictly business facades to offer warm words of encouragement while leading me by the hand into ownership.

News of a new neighbor spread quickly through the hangar rows, and other pilots have been stopping by regularly to say hello and introduce their airplanes. Dick, a few doors down, showed me his 1947 Globe Swift. "You should meet Bob. He has a Stearman next door to you," he said. Or is Bob the guy with the Stinson Voyager in the same row? In time I will sort this out.

My regular hangout group forms at the larger flying club hangar, where we all learned from the same instructor and took our check rides with the same examiner. The difference was that the rest of them bought their own aircraft years ago. I was the holdout. When I show up now they rush to offer congratulations, handshakes, pats on the back—and lots of advice. They have started sharing old, personal stories I had never heard, despite our years of acquaintance.

In the 26 days that I have owned our 1992 Commander 114B I have felt a stronger sense of belonging within my local airport community. For years I considered myself a full member of that group. Only now do I discover that I was really a mere associate, with a sort of probationary status among the other folks. Now, it appears, I have taken a step up.

It certainly feels that way. Watching as my hangar door slowly opens and the light creeps across Seven Mike Alpha’s red wings and bright polished spinner is quite an experience—something I thought would never happen. Well, apparently my mates at the airport had begun to think the same. “I’m so relieved,” one of them told me after I brought the Commander home.

Speaking of the Commander: It had its own style of welcoming me—with a few tests. In our first hour together one of its two Garmin G5s went dark. “Was that broken already?” my instructor asked. Then he pointed to the original analog oil pressure gauge, its needle pointing to zero. I am sure that, too, was working during the pre-buy test flight. According to the engine monitor, the pressure was fine, but I need the old round dial in order to be airworthy. Is this airplane falling apart now that I own it? To top it all off, the heat did not seem to be working. 

With winter knocking on the door my instructor was not keen on flying around in an unheated airplane, so if I wanted to finish my insurance-mandated hours of instruction I would have to act fast. That meant pulling the cowling and trying to diagnose the problem—one of a few things owners who are not trained mechanics are allowed to do. Maybe an air duct came loose or was blocked somehow. Did a bird build a nest there?

Well, it turned out we had failed to open a second set of vents to allow heat into the cabin. I saw no mention of these extra controls in the manual. Using a hair dryer (one of my favorite tools) to blow through the heat ducts helped confirm they were clear. Anyway, that’s fixed, and having the cowling off gave me a chance to get to know the airplane better—a good thing for owners to do. I’ll consider the procedure an ice breaker.

Next: We have to get the oil pressure gauge fixed.

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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