Gear Up: So Near, Yet So Far

Last-minute hiccups while buying the airplane of your dreams.

Dick Karl
Selling the Cheyenne took seven months, and although the hunt to replace her only took two, they were two to remember.Dick Karl

She’s sitting there, right outside those double glass doors, resplendent in the Midwest afternoon sunlight. I am imprisoned with three others in a conference room just a few feet from the ramp. If I lean back I can see her, all detailed, shiny and standing remarkably tall.

No Ferrari ever looked better on the delivery floor, and this is no automobile. This is the distillation of 50 years of yearning, months of planning and a lifetime of work and saving. This is to be my first jet and very probably last airplane. It’s a Premier 1.

So near, yet so far. There is a lot to do before those doors swoosh open and I climb aboard and fly off into the sunset. The process has been long and more complicated than I had anticipated. Selling our Cheyenne took seven months, and looking for a new (to me) airplane took another two. I had thought that waving some money around would make the purchase quick, but it didn’t. Now I’m in this room.

Who are my minders in this conference room at the Textron Maintenance Center in Wichita, Kansas? I know that two of these men are helping me by being careful and complete. This is just like knowing the doctor is “helping” you when she lays a sharp knife against your skin. This is best for me, you think, but it is painful.

One is Mike Shafer, a broker at Mercury Aircraft Sales. A former NFL player and now friend of mine, he has been with me every step of the way. He’s dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s even as I have squirmed and pleaded for relief. He’s held my hand, told me to be patient and schooled me in the intricacies of engine and avionics programs and how to accept an airplane after you’ve agreed on the price.

Mike found Brad Guyton, president of BAG Aviation, who is an FAA A&P, with inspection authorization and an air safety and airworthiness representative. Brad worked as a director of maintenance at Hawker Beechcraft and Raytheon, and now has his own pre-buy consulting business. I have concluded I will never buy anything again, not even a toothbrush, without getting Brad to sign off on the purchase. Brad knows which service bulletins matter. He’s intimately familiar with the type of airplane sitting out there in the sun, and he’s also very closely aware of this particular airplane. He has spent days here in Wichita, examining every maintenance-log entry for this airplane. He knows why the leading edge was replaced on the left wing and what caused the fuel leak.

Brad, too, cautions a careful approach to this purchase. He can see in my attitude that I am like the last guy in the bar at closing time. I just want to get in and go. He appeals to my sense of parsimony. He emphasizes how expensive it would be if we missed something.

The other gentleman at his laptop is Jim Mitchell, a salesman for Elliot Jets. Jim is 59 and has sold airplanes his entire career. He has sat through countless meetings like this, though I doubt he has ever had such a skittish customer. My wife, Cathy, has already sent the money for purchase to the escrow agent. She’s home on the phone. We wait for the airplane to be released from maintenance. I should think that the airplane is already released; it is sitting right there — I can see it. But it isn’t released until the paperwork is done. Once it is, a maintenance flight must be flown because the leading edge was replaced. Some stall profiles must be flown. Nobody but Textron people are allowed on the flight. It slowly dawns on me that this process will drag out until tomorrow.

Next morning we meet again. The maintenance flight has gone well. Now for the delivery. We review the Williams engine contract. These airplanes have uncertain value if they haven’t been maintained on approved engine programs. In this case, I’m buying an airplane on TAP Elite. TAP stands for Total Assurance Program. The contract calls for a hefty hourly payment to Williams to be rendered at the end of every month. Jim tells me that I am basically buying two engines and their insurance program. The fact that the engines are attached to a fuselage with seats in it is a bonus, but not where the value lies. I am gradually given to discover how important these programs are to protecting our investment in the airplane.

Mike saw a pricing sheet yesterday indicating that all we needed to fly was 125 hours a year. That I might be able to do. But 150? Doubtful.

The contract calls for 150 flight hours a year. If you fly less than that, you still pay the hourly rate times 150 hours. The money is not refundable and doesn’t add to the resale value of the airplane. I quickly calculate that if we fly 100 hours a year, we will have to pay about $15,000 for nothing. I call Cathy. She’s outraged.

I am unsure what to do. I feel that I am being taken advantage of. Mike saw a pricing sheet yesterday indicating that we only had to fly 125 hours a year. That I might be able to do. But 150? Doubtful. This is my third trip to Wichita. I have already begun the type-rating process and have paid $15,000 for in-airplane training. I have completed two days of ground school. I have already bought a Jeppesen chart subscription. I have contracted with a professional test pilot to fly the acceptance flight.

I am flummoxed. About myself I know this: I never make a good decision with a gun to my head. I also know there is no emergency here. Better to forfeit the $25,000 I’ve got invested in this process than to purchase an airplane I can’t afford. The economics of this were right at our limits as it was. We don’t own a company that owns an airplane. There are no tax advantages for us.

I pace outside. Every time I reverse course, there she is. It is still sunny. Everybody is patient. Brad seems to sense that I am out of my depth and in unfamiliar waters. He comes to my aid. “If you aren’t comfortable …” he says. Jim, who has flown in commercially from Minneapolis for this closing, now has no idea as to when he’ll get home and whether the sale will go through. But, he’s a pro. He takes Mike, my broker, aside and says, “I’d send your client home — he’s not ready.”

Jim discusses the possibility of dry leasing the airplane. I call friends of mine asking about their engine programs (“Yeah, they got you. What can you do?”) and a trusted aviation accountant consultant about dry leasing (“Possible — we see some of it.”).

An hour later, after I’ve apologized to everybody, from the test pilot to the three gentlemen to the line guys, I give in. Let’s do this. The money is transferred. I sit right seat in the acceptance flight while Brad sits in the back, testing every cabin light and sound system.

“How do you feel?” Mike asks me. He wants me to be ecstatic, and I want to feel that way too. But all I feel is exhausted, apprehensive and embarrassed. Should I really be doing this? A moment later, it comes to me: Hell yes. This is my shot — be grateful for it.