Owning a vintage airplane is a unique experience. At some point or another, typically in the lulls between periods of unscheduled maintenance, every owner reflects upon the history of their airplane. We wonder what untold stories and adventures hide among the decades of logbook entries—who took delivery of the airplane from the factory, and what sorts of individuals took ownership thenceforth. We wonder where they flew our airplane and for what reasons, and we lament the absence of these details and stories today.
We receive an initial glimpse at our airplane’s history when we first peruse the logbooks. If the preceding caretakers took their responsibilities seriously, the logs will be complete and intact. Browsing through them, we can enjoy hazy glimpses into all the past lives the machine has led over the years through the eyes of mechanics. A top overhaul here, a pitot-static check there. Maybe some sheet metal replacement after a particularly bad day.
Unfortunately, these glimpses are just that—brief snapshots into the various kinds of maintenance performed on the airframe and engine. For those of us enamored with history in general and our airplane’s background in particular, it leaves us wanting for more detail and more stories.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to learn more about your airplane’s past.
Starting the Search
When it comes to research, paperwork trails are one of the most bountiful sources of information, and when it comes to paperwork, few sources generate as much as the government. The FAA is no exception, and it’s relatively simple to obtain detailed airworthiness and registration records of any U.S.-registered aircraft. Simply visit this link and you’ll find the interface from which you can place your order for a nominal fee.
I ordered the records for my own Cessna 170 before I even bought it, in an attempt to learn more about its history.
In typical FAA form, the process is a bit more cumbersome than it needs to be. Rather than simply transmitting PDFs electronically, you’re given the choice of paying $10 for a single CD-ROM that contains the files or $0.10 per page to have them printed and mailed to you. As I was placing an order for my own airplane’s records, I saw that it contained 180 pages.
I opted to have a CD-ROM shipped to me, and then spent about $30 on a CD-ROM drive so I could use my relatively modern laptop to access the media. When the disk arrived, it contained two files—one called “Airworthiness” and the other called “Registration.”
The airworthiness records are a treasure trove of useful technical information about the airplane. The records for my 170 begin with an initial Civil Aeronautics Administration aircraft inspection report dated November 11, 1953—shortly after it left the Cessna factory in Wichita. From there, every supplemental type certificate (STC) and major alteration is described, including a complete technical diagram of an aftermarket “full flow” firewall-mounted oil filter that was installed in 1972. In the event your airplane is missing log books or documentation, this sort of info can prove to be very useful—particularly if the component in question ever requires parts or maintenance.
My airplane’s other STCs and modifications are all listed, from three different generations of radios that evolved over the years to a set of “Door Stewards”—a helpful set of gas shocks that hold the doors open for you on the ground. Reviewing these records gave me a degree of familiarity with the airplane before I ever had it inspected or saw it in person.
The other file included with the FAA’s records concerns the airplane’s registration history. From the party who purchased the airplane new to the current owner, everyone who has owned the airplane over the years is listed, and scans of every bill of sale concerning the airplane are also included.
Scrolling through the decades of scanned material in the large file, I was able to piece together the history of my own airplane. It left the factory with a different tail number than it wears today, N1908C. A quick search of the NTSB aviation database confirmed there is no record of a reportable accident or incident involving that tail number.
The 1950s and ’60s were a busy time for my airplane. For the first 10 years of its life, it changed hands nine times. After leaving Cessna in Kansas, it migrated from Oklahoma to Texas to Indiana to the northeastern U.S.
Finally, in 1964, it was purchased by two gentlemen in Seattle, and it remained in the Seattle area until I purchased it earlier this summer. In 1970, a man named Alfred Lauckner had the tail number changed to N170AL to reflect his initials.
When it was obtained by the man from whom I purchased it, he changed it again to N170RK. I would later learn that this reflected the initial of his first name—Richard—as well as the initial of his late daughter’s first name, Kara. I’ve had a tail number of my own in mind, and I had been planning to change it yet again … but learning the significance and meaning behind N170RK gives me pause, and I now find myself hesitant to do so.
Researching the names of your airplane’s past owners might reveal some interesting background. Equipped with the names of all my airplane’s former owners, I scoured the web in an attempt to learn more about them. Perhaps it had been owned by a famous Hollywood star, or maybe it once belonged to an astronaut.
I ultimately discovered that as far as I can tell, my airplane has always been owned by guys like me; regular working Joes who are forgettable from a historical standpoint but hopefully doting, meticulous caretakers of the airplane. Conversely, a friend of mine discovered that his 170 was once owned by the family that founded the Coca-Cola company. One might assume (hope?) that while under such ownership, no expense was spared on regular maintenance.
Another friend was researching a different 170 that he was hoping to purchase. This one was equipped with one of the coveted 180 hp engine conversions, a modification that transforms the airplane and massively improves its performance and capability. In an attempt to help him research that airplane more thoroughly, I went ahead and ordered the CD-ROM from the FAA. Browsing the scanned registration records, I discovered that this particular 170 was once owned by the very individual who created that engine conversion STC…and the conversion was completed while under his care. It’s a safe bet the work was done properly.
It’s rare that scouring through government paperwork can be both enjoyable and illuminating. For curious aircraft owners and prospective owners alike, this little-known service offered by the FAA provides a fantastic technical and historical background of any U.S.-registered aircraft.