Jumpseat: Damage History, Part 2

The good, the bad and the ugly of an airplane purchase.

Piper Arrow II
The gear well and engine repaired and fuel tanks refurbished, this Piper Arrow II has returned to the skies.Les Abend

For those who didn't have the opportunity to read the April Jumpseat column, or for those who don't recall, I conveyed a tale of woe regarding my airplane-buying experience. It had turned into a horror story. The 1972 Piper Arrow II I had purchased became a small nightmare when it was discovered by my observant mechanic friend that a prior repair to the gear-well area of the right wing was coming apart.

Months later, I was hoping to write this story as a happy ending, but it became bittersweet. Apparently, my forehead has an imprint invisible to me that shouts, “Spend more!” I’ll explain in a moment. The improper repair inside the gear well could have eventually resulted in a collapse of the landing gear, a prospect that didn’t seem desirable, especially for someone who makes his living as an airline pilot. Fortunately, because I had spent the extra bucks to turn the pre-buy inspection into an annual inspection, the situation was quietly resolved, the implication being that the nonairworthiness nature of the problem should have been caught before I took delivery of the airplane.

Thanks to the morality of the seller, broker and maintenance shop, I was reimbursed for a major portion of the pain. A little compromising was required on my part, which resulted in additional extraction from my checkbook balance. Considering that the word lawyer was never mentioned, it was an acceptable loss.

Rather than involve an expensive repair that could have potentially revealed additional issues, the reimbursement was applied to the purchase, delivery and painting of a wing found in a salvage yard 3,000 miles away, in Sacramento, California. Three months later, and the summer gone, I was back flying the Arrow with a very ugly but airworthy right wing.

On bent knee, I had convinced my wife that the allowance negotiated for painting the wing could be applied to painting the entire airplane. My promise to change the N-number to something romantically significant to our relationship was not quite met with an abundance of enthusiasm. Go figure.

With restless anticipation, I set up an appointment at the paint shop, dropping off the airplane at the beginning of October. Told by the paint-shop owner that a bright and shiny Arrow would be flying before Santa flew his sleigh, I grinned. Santa was on time; the Arrow was tardy. I picked up the airplane a few days into the new year.

The only frustrating issue encountered during the painting process was the fuel tanks. It was the best time to have them refurbished. Both tanks had filler-neck corrosion and evidence of leaking. The idea of toilet-water-blue 100LL stains on fresh paint, notwithstanding the long-term safety aspect, was not appealing.

Unexpectedly, it became my responsibility late into the process to arrange the logistics of shipping the tanks back and forth. And for whatever reason, my initial interaction with the refurbishment shop was met with a less than friendly attitude. Communication from within the shop seemed to be lacking, my repair delayed because information wasn’t properly conveyed. In addition, I was tasked with the assignment to locate salvage replacements for the corroded filler necks.

As a supplement to the story, the paint-shop owner had a bad experience with this particular fuel-tank refurbishment company. And to add insult to injury (after the fact, of course) I found a repair station much closer that would have done the job for almost half the cost. (Yup, it’s on my forehead.)

Piper Arrow II
The Piper Arrow II, grounded after the discovery of a cracked engine case.Les Abend

The day I picked up my very pretty Arrow was not without its own problems. Being the paranoid airline pilot that I’ve become after 33 years, I performed a very thorough walk-around inspection. Although all the pieces were in the correct places, the thoroughness didn’t quite help with the fact I had picked the coldest day of the winter, making it problematic for the battery.

The first start attempt failed, most likely because the fuel lines were dry. The second start attempt teased me with an engine that ran for a moment and then sputtered to a stop. The third attempt rewarded me with only a ratcheting sound, an indication that the starter didn’t have enough muscle from the battery. Eventually, the application of external heat through the cowl and an external power supply solved the problem.

With the engine finally purring, I taxied away to a bare spot on the ramp and waited for signs of happiness via the needle movement of the oil temperature gauge into the green arc. Soon after, I initiated a meticulous engine run-up. Satisfied, checklists complete, I slid the throttle lever forward and got my shiny, sparkly airplane airborne.

One would have thought that remembering to test proper fuel flow from both tanks while on the ground was a completed task, but no. Yours truly tested this function while airborne. The result was an unpleasant hesitation of one IO-360 and an immediate puckering of a certain body part.

I safely brought the airplane back to a cheering crowd at our home-base airport in Connecticut. The paint received numerous oohs and aahs. A few days later, my wife and I departed on our first trip to Florida for the winter. We spent an enjoyable three weeks touring various parts of the Sunshine State in between flying my schedule while on temporary assignment at our Miami crew base.

Rewinding a bit, immediately after the wing replacement, the engine had developed an embarrassing oil leak, defiling the gear doors with brown goop. The culprit was a through-bolt stud on a cylinder. Before the first Florida trip, another oil leak developed. Deemed insignificant, this leak was fixed upon our return north, a base cylinder gasket to blame.

Before our second trip to Florida in March, we were leak free. And then oil began to reappear once again. My inspection under the cowl couldn’t determine the new source. Each fuel stop on our return home indicated the oil leak was getting worse. I was beginning to think the Lycoming had transformed into a Curtiss-Wright radial. And then came the dreaded phone call.

“I found two cracks in your case; one for certain is a prior repair.” The words were spoken with trepidation by my mechanic friend Kari Sorenson. “I’m really sorry.”

After I recovered from my stroke a couple of days later, the decision was simple. A repair involved buying a refurbished case, changing the bearings, honing the cylinders, changing the rings and rebuilding the magnetos.

An overhaul was estimated to be more than double the repair bill. I would never recover the cost if I chose to sell. It didn’t make sense for this particular midtime engine. Repair it would be. At least the repair would add some market value. Needless to say, my wife didn’t receive the news with a smile.

This time the happy ending only took three weeks, rather than an entire summer. We’re back flying as of this writing. Meanwhile, I’m in search of a doctor who can remove the “Spend more!” label from my forehead. So far, I haven’t found one. Any suggestions?