Unusual Attitudes: Minimizing the Pain When Buying a Plane

Maybe it’s because I’ve screwed up more than most (living) pilots, but I often get calls from angry, confused or worried aviators: “Fiddling with my iPad and taxied across a hold-short line”; “Didn’t check notams and flew through a TFR”; “Assumed the other guy was PIC”; “Forgot about my flight-review (annual, physical, etc.) date”; “Blew my altitude by 500 feet”; “Lost it and groundlooped in a crosswind”; “‘Somebody’ forgot to secure my oil cap (fuel cap, dzus fastener, baggage door, etc.)”; “Thought the line guy topped it off.” ...

The best advice is usually, “Keep your lips zipped and file a NASA aviation safety reporting system report.” But complaints or pleas for advice from guys who buy an airplane that turns out to be less than the cream puff advertised? Well, those are tough. Unfortunately, unhappy or downright outraged airplane buyers are a common phenomenon, so I think it’s worth discussing. I’ve been there, and understand the desire to throttle the seller or mechanic who sold you an airplane with known maintenance issues that weren’t divulged.

Last week’s call was from the seller — a pilot and mechanic (A&P with inspection authorization) I’ve known for a long time. Nearly a year ago, he sold an airplane he’d owned and maintained to an out-of-town buyer. He read me a recent letter from a lawyer representing the buyer, alleging he was less than honest about the annual he performed and about the condition of the airplane. It seems the buyer had a nosewheel failure in this single-engine retractable and claims there are other paperwork and maintenance issues the seller didn’t repair or disclose. My mechanic friend was worried about what might happen to him if the FAA got involved.

In my experience, it probably won’t. If an IA returns an airplane to service and his logbook entry indicates he used the manufacturer’s checklist (if there is one) and checked for and complied with all applicable ADs, who’s to say what was done by somebody else after it left his shop?

Understand that while I may know the law, I know woefully little about maintenance. As for airplane innards, I have a rather vague idea of what goes on under the hood — whoops, cowling — especially on flat reciprocating engine airplanes (slightly more about big round ones, which I love). And I probably shouldn’t admit that my mantra is, “If I can’t fix it from the cockpit in flight, I don’t need to know about it.”

Maintenance savvy or not, buying a used airplane, especially one that’s older and not locally based, is pretty much a crapshoot. There are any number of articles in aviation publications and online about how to minimize the risks, but here’s the thing: If your heart’s set on a particular kind of flying machine and you find one that sounds good 600 miles away, you’re probably going to launch and fly it home or pay the seller to deliver it.

And I can tell you from experience, having “lost my heart” to a number of airplanes, that you’re very likely to get burned. Cool-headed, cautious and rich guys pay a trusted mechanic for a thorough pre-buy check of the airplane and its records after first running a title search. But add up travel expenses and a day or more of a mechanic’s time and you’re looking at a pretty good chunk of change. Plus, you have to be willing to “cut bait” if the airplane is less than advertised, and that’s hard to do. The truth is that few older flying machines — Tri-Pacers, 172s and 182s, Arrows, Cubs, Barons, Ercoupes or Cessna 310s — have been consistently and properly maintained with good records.

Too often we get suckered in by a seller’s (or broker’s) description: “Hate to sell — owned her for 30 years, but my (health, divorce, unhappy wife, age, kids’ college expenses, etc.) are forcing me into it. Less than 200 hours on an overhauled engine, and I throw in a fresh annual with the sale. No damage history, and complete records all the way back to 1995; prior to that, the logbooks and paperwork are missing. Always hangared, good paint. Old radios, but I’ll throw in my Garmin 496. Only 2,500 hours total time since it came out of the factory in 1956.”

What could be wrong with that? Well, a lot. …

First, there are annuals and “annuals.” How often have you seen some guy and his friend pulling the inspection plates and cowling on an airplane, doing 99 percent of the work and then paying a (too often) shade-tree IA to sign off? And the FAA’s annual inspection requirements, even when the annual is done by an A&P mechanic and signed off by an IA, are pretty basic. AD compliance is mandatory, but the manufacturer’s required maintenance tasks for components such as the engine, prop, carburetor, magnetos, etc. — even those labeled “compulsory” or “mandatory” — aren’t required for older Part 91 airplanes.

A biggie is comparing the manufacturer’s equipment list to items actually installed in this airplane. Are those flap gap seals, single-piece windshield, ski tube, drooped wingtips and extended-range tanks legal and supported by logbook entries and the paperwork to back them up? If the original Superhomer and Mark 12 long ago gave way to Aspen and Garmin glass panels and an autopilot, look for supporting paperwork and corrected weight-and-balance data. Same thing if it was painted or the original interior was replaced.

“Less than 200 hours on an overhauled engine.” Hmm. Who did the overhaul? Was it properly broken in? How long ago, and how much time is on the airplane since it was installed? I met a guy with a 172 this weekend at a fly-in in New York and, when he took off from the 2,500-foot smooth, dry grass strip, I nearly had heart failure. Turns out he bought it from somebody I know locally, who flew it for less than 20 hours since the engine was installed five years ago. It’s a pretty safe bet that any “unpickled” engine that sits idle for five years very likely has corrosion issues.

And the “fresh annual” thrown in with the sale had been performed and signed off by a local mechanic whom I wouldn’t let change the spark plugs on my lawn mower. The buyer’s understandably unhappy because he has an obvious engine problem; I fervently hope (and suggested) that he sticks to long, hard surface runways and not farm strips until it’s figured out.

“No damage history” and “complete records” kind of go together. You’re taking somebody’s word here because, especially at airports in the boonies, a damaged airplane is usually dragged posthaste into a hangar and repaired. How well I know. …

I bought a Cub from a broker in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; my mechanic wasn’t available to come along, and I foolishly said

I knew enough about Cubs to decide if it was OK.

I did kind of wonder why it had a new engine and prop, and why one wing was a different shade of yellow than the other, but the logbooks showed no damage history. Had I known its history when it lived in Griffin, Georgia, I would have backed off. An unsavory character was checking out the (then) owner and they “lost it” on a landing. In the ensuing groundloop, the left wing was badly damaged; the impact was hard enough that the prop ended up on the porch of an office next to the runway.

With no insurance, they stuffed it in a hangar before anybody (they thought) found out, overhauled the 85 hp engine, bought a propeller and replaced the wing with a “used” one from some salvage outfit. Friends at the airport later told me that, after it was back together, the owner bought insurance and then tried to collect on a “subsequent” accident. It didn’t work; the insurance company investigated and denied the bogus claim.

When I bought it, I should have been smart enough to smell something fishy with the “new” wing and the recently replaced engine and prop — but it was pretty and flew beautifully. I loved it and joyfully brought it home.

It was late when I (yeah, illegally) landed it blind, from the front seat, with a big guy in back, well after dark on a short, doglegged, unlit uphill grass runway and stuck that left wing in some bushes. I’m pretty sure my angel had a hand in this stupidity because my mechanic (maybe feeling guilty for trusting this twit of a girl to make the right decision) removed the wing. Two of the three hinge brackets (invisible to me because they’re rear of the aft spar) were rusted through, and the third was barely attached with corroded metal. We nearly had no aileron, and the wing was, essentially, trash.

Finally, “2,500 hours total time” on the airplane you’re looking at — one that’s over 60 years old — might sound good, but it probably isn’t. That averages out to slightly over 40 hours a year, with probably many years when it wasn’t flown at all — an invitation to corrosion and deterioration.

You’ll need to set aside a wheelbarrow full of cash to keep it flying. But hey, if your heart’s still in it, I say buy it. Just be prepared for the expense, an unhappy wife, threats of divorce and your kids having to earn their own college tuition (maybe not a bad idea).

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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