Gear Up: Looking for a New Airplane

It’s gotten complicated.

Cheyenne
The hunt to replace the Cheyenne is on, and all the options and logistics are not making the selection easy.Alamy

Note to readers: What follows could be considered obnoxious. Or maybe it is a cautionary tale. It is a story of a man about to turn 72 who has been flying for 50 years and owned airplanes almost continuously since 1972. This is a description of this man’s thought processes as he navigates the realities of airplane ownership and simultaneously sails into old age.

The obnoxious part should be pretty obvious. I’ve been privileged to make a good living as a cancer surgeon, had the good luck to fly jets for three years for a Part 135 company in my late 60s and I’ve got a supportive wife, Cathy. I am acutely aware that this state of affairs is not common and that I am lucky.

Longtime readers will know that Cathy and I sold our Piper Cheyenne in July 2017, with the intent of buying a jet to enjoy for a few years before the actuarial tables catch up with me.

I couldn’t wait to take the money from the Cheyenne, add to it and buy a jet. I have been dreaming of owning a jet since I had a model of a Lear 24 on my desk while in medical school in 1966.

What to buy? I had assumed the Cessna CJ1 would be a good fit. I was already typed in the CE-525 by virtue of my CJ3 job at JetSuite. Not only that, but I was single-pilot certified.

I was familiar with the cockpit, its layout and the airplane’s systems. It would be like coming home.

I was surprised to learn that used CJ1s are selling for about 20 percent more than I had expected. They also mostly featured a polyglot of avionics. The Collins Pro Line 21 was pretty much standard, but the flight management systems varied. If the airplane didn’t have a second GPS, it wasn’t WAAS certified. All this gave me pause. A lot of money was involved.

What else is single-pilot certified? I thought about the Cessna Citation Mustang, with its modern avionics but slow speeds. Then, I got my head turned by the Beechcraft Premier. This airplane had a short production run and a spotty reputation among casual observers. Early editions of the airplane had multiple runway overruns. The bankruptcy of Hawker Beechcraft made the availability of parts uncertain. Not many of them were around.

But then happenstance intervened. A Premier 1 shared hangar space with our Cheyenne in New Hampshire, so I emailed the owner. Pete was only too glad to show me the airplane. On a sunny summer day, he unlocked the hangar door, hooked the airplane up to external power and welcomed me, Cathy and two grandsons in. While I sat up front, the boys worked the magical window shades with such vigor that I feared they would break them. (Pete told me later that nobody is allowed to touch the window shades in his airplane.) Meanwhile, up front, I was welcomed by the Collins Pro Line 21 and its fabulous FMS. This setup was exactly what I was used to. The layout of the cockpit made great sense. The autopilot, yaw damper and their controls were positioned just under the glareshield for competent head-up management. And then there was the legendary Beechcraft quality. Everything had heft, and nothing felt flimsy.

I was smitten. Then, things got worse. An old pilot friend from my 135 days, now at Spirit Airlines, called to tell me he had 500 hours in the Premier and it was the best flying of his life. Another friend, who used to work at Hawker Beech in Tampa, told me he thought the airplane was magnificent from a mechanic’s point of view. The Premier is relatively squawk free and the Williams engines are bulletproof, he said. Parts were not an issue. Another friend, a chief pilot for Southwest Airlines, texted me out of the blue to say he had heard I was looking at Premiers. It turns out that his weekends have included 100 hours of Premier flying, and he loves it. “It is much easier to fly than your Cheyenne,” he said.

I was smitten. Then things got worse. An old pilot friend from my 135 days, now at Spirit Airlines, called to tell me he had 500 hours in the Premier and it was the best flying of his life.

Unfortunately, they weren’t giving Premiers away. We found we could barely afford one, and not a 1A. When Mike Shafer, of Mercury Aircraft Sales, sent me the comparison figures for the two airplanes, I was surprised to find that the Premier didn’t cost that much more than the Citation to fly. The hourly engine program costs were higher, but the flight times were shorter for every route I looked at. Fuel burn wasn’t that much more. A basic Premier cost about as much as a CJ1 on the used-airplane market, and was 80 knots faster. Parts were more dear, though.

When Cathy went to our bank account she found that the past few years of living well without any income has put a dent in our cash. Astonishing! To buy a Premier or CJ1, we’d have to borrow some money. I thought I was all through with debt, but we’ll see. This is the last upgrade of my flying life.

I have decided to go for a Premier. If I can’t strike a deal, my fallback (!) is an old CitationJet. It has the same performance as a CJ1 and costs less. I remember how to look at round dials, I’m sure. There are other thoughts afoot here too. It is no secret that I had prostate cancer a few years ago. Every time I go for a prostate specific antigen check, I hold my breath. Is buying an airplane now really a good, sane, practical, responsible idea? Uh, well, maybe not.

The FAA is still bothering me about glaucoma. I got hit in the eye in college, and have had increased pressures in my left eye. The eye has been successfully treated. The pressures are normal, and my “visual fields” are stable. I fly on an annual “special issuance,” and the 8420 form is properly submitted by my fabulous aviation medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Beaman but I have been caught in the net of Oklahoma City and they just won’t let it go.

Will I buy an airplane and lose my medical? Will I buy an airplane and get a recurrent malignancy? Psychiatrists call this connection of unrelated events (buying an airplane and dying, say) “magical thinking.” The way I grew up, it was called “just deserts.” If you ask for too much, you will be punished. “Don’t fly too close to the sun,” my mother used to say. She meant it.