The New Owner: The Power of Networking

The classifieds are not the only place to find your next airplane. Just like in the business world, it could be about who you know.

If a guy can engineer parts that are, at this very moment, still functioning 14 billion miles away from Earth in interstellar space, I figured he probably knew how to properly care for a 145hp Continental aircraft engine.

This was my rationale behind much of my decision making as I waded through the unfamiliar waters of my first aircraft purchase last spring. The seller spent decades working as an actual rocket engineer, and his work was used on both Voyager space probes.

Accordingly, I gave him the benefit of the doubt while evaluating the airplane.

I still had a local, independent mechanic perform a thorough pre-purchase inspection, but I felt confident the airplane had been well-maintained.

Fortunately, it all worked out in the end.

Another day, another session of scouring the classifieds for the perfect airplane.
Another day, another session of scouring the classifieds for the perfect airplane. Jason McDowell

Starting the Search

Like most prospective buyers, I began my airplane search bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, intoxicated by visions of a hangar door slowly opening to reveal my dream plane. In my mind’s eye, a pristine Cessna 170B would emerge, bathed in glorious shafts of sunlight as unseen angels sang from the heavens above.

After more than a year of nonstop searching and shopping, however, I became a shell of my former self. Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, I spent my days in solitude, crouched over my dimly lit laptop in the darkness. Rocking back and forth and muttering to myself, I constantly refreshed various classified sites in the hopes that previously unseen treasure might be revealed. I was searching for that which did not exist—a reasonably priced Cessna 170.

It didn’t help that so many happy aircraft owners were creating such wonderful photo and video content and slathering it across social media. And it didn’t help that my friend Jim—just on the other side of town—happened to own a beautiful 180hp 170 of his own, fully outfitted with all the coolest upgrades.

Sure, I was happy for them and glad to see them out enjoying their own dream machines, but it made it that much more difficult to be stuck in the bloody trenches of an aircraft market that most assuredly belonged to the sellers.

The Ugly Truth

As anyone who has seriously shopped for an airplane over the past couple of years knows, it’s been ugly out there for quite some time. Airplanes are difficult to come by. Good airplanes even more so. And anymore, examples that are both mechanically sound and attractively priced are virtually unheard of.

For the better part of a year, my airplane search became the singular focus of my life. “How are you doing?” my friends and family would ask. I’d reply with something along the lines of, “Well, there was a ‘48 in Nebraska I should have jumped on, but it sold right away. The cool-looking black B-model in Florida isn’t actually a B at all and has had some sketchy mods done that apparently lack the proper STC paperwork.”

The silence that would follow reminded me that I was the only person living in my mania, and that they were simply curious to know whether I was still a healthy, functioning member of society—a question I had inadvertently and unknowingly just answered.

It was a good thing that I kept the topic alive in those conversations, though, because one of them would ultimately pay off. While exchanging some messages with my friend Chelsea in the Pacific Northwest, who owns a sweet Cessna taildragger of her own, I lamented the state of the industry and wondered aloud whether I’d ever find my dream 170. Almost in passing, she replied: “There’s a reaaaaally nice 170 for sale out here you could probably get.”

Networking pays off—a simple Instagram chat reveals a huge opportunity.
Networking pays off—a simple Instagram chat reveals a huge opportunity. Contributed by Jason McDowell

That chat was the very first step in a series of events that would ultimately lead to my first aircraft purchase.

Meeting a Friend of a Friend

As it turned out, Chelsea’s neighbor kept his airplane in a hangar at Arlington, Washington. The hangar next to his was owned by an older gentleman named Dick. And inside of Dick’s hangar was a 1953 Cessna 170 he had owned for 41 years.

Dick hadn’t listed his 170 for sale anywhere, neither in print nor online. He was in his upper 80s, and with some health issues beginning to surface, he recognized it was time to pass his pride and joy on to the next caretaker. But understandably, he didn’t relish the idea, and he wasn’t terribly motivated to speed the process along.

Fortunately, he was happy to talk about his own background as well as the airplane’s history. On our first call, we spent more than an hour chatting about flying in general and the 170 in particular. I learned he bought it from a friend in 1980 who had owned it for 10 years prior to that. I asked all the usual questions such as:

  • How many hours were on the airframe (about 4,000)
  • How many hours it had flown since the last engine overhaul (1,100)
  • What issues it had (ugly paint and interior).

Dick was an engineer who had worked with a large airline’s fleet of DC-6s and later, with rocket motors. As he described the condition of the 170, it became clear that he treated it with love and with meticulousness from a mechanical standpoint. Whenever he anticipated not being able to fly for a substantial length of time, he would prepare the engine accordingly to prevent internal corrosion from forming.

He performed owner-assisted annual inspections, staying closely in-tune with the state of the airplane and its various systems. And, he never hesitated to proactively address issues when they began to surface.

I asked Dick what components he expected to require replacement next. He thought for a minute, and then said that in 40 years, he never saw a need to replace the brake discs since they still hadn’t worn down to minimum thickness. He suspected they might be getting close.

To me, this was fantastic insight into his flying and how he treated the airplane. Sure enough, he went on to explain how he almost never used the brakes when landing, and generally only ever used them to gently stop the airplane from a slow taxiing speed.

As we spoke, I had my laptop in front of me with my aircraft savings spreadsheet opened up. That spreadsheet combined various savings accounts and projected income to populate one large, bolded cell titled “Available Funds.” It was a modest number by Cessna 170 standards, and when our conversation eventually found its way to the big question of Dick’s asking price, I cringed and fully expected his airplane to be out of my reach.

Stunningly, the number he gave me happened to match my available funds exactly. It was literally the same number. The sound of my jaw dropping onto the floor was accompanied by the singing angels of my airplane shopping dreams, and I immediately committed to buying the 170 pending a successful pre-purchase inspection.

The ensuing purchasing process would prove to be complex and lengthy, requiring the careful orchestration of multiple projects across a distance of 1,600 miles. But I had finally agreed to buy an airplane.

My immediate concern was securing the airplane to ensure that nobody else would swoop in and buy it out from under me. I offered to send Dick a deposit to hold it. Ever the gentleman, he assured me a deposit was not required, and he agreed to hold it for me without one. I thanked him and after the call, immediately mailed him a thank-you card to express my appreciation.

My thank-you note to the seller. Beneath my barely legible chicken scratch was heartfelt appreciation, thanking him for agreeing to hold the airplane for me.
My thank-you note to the seller. Beneath my barely legible chicken scratch was heartfelt appreciation, thanking him for agreeing to hold the airplane for me. Jason McDowell

Lessons Learned

Having just committed to spending the entirety of my airplane fund, I sat back and reflected on things that had been revealed throughout the process.

The current used aircraft market is such a frenzy, one must think outside the box. Rather than monitoring all the usual aircraft classified sites—in the hopes that you’ll be the first to respond to a brand-new listing—it might be worth spending some time networking instead. A phone call to a friendly airport manager or a pilot friend across the country just might reveal an opportunity that’s worth pursuing.

Similarly, it might pay off to spend a bit more time at the airport, in the hopes of learning about owners who might potentially sell. For every unflown airplane that’s gathering dust in a hangar, there’s an owner who just might be interested in selling it. Some shoppers go so far as to query the FAA’s aircraft database and mail letters to existing owners, asking if they’d be willing to sell. All of these efforts can be tedious and time consuming, but they can also be fruitful.

The hidden benefit to my own situation was the opportunity to get to know Dick. Learning about his background and the history of the airplane added an entirely new element to the purchase, and the knowledge I was able to soak up about the idiosyncrasies of the airplane was priceless. Because the entire process was methodical and unrushed, I was able to obtain a mini education to accompany the airplane. And that’s something that no classified site can offer.

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