Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Big Buy

Okay, it's been a while since I've posted and the reasons are many. I've been busy with a landscaping project in my backyard, building more raised beds for vegetables, and bicycling a whole bunch. And so blogging has suffered. And recently I've been traveling more than usual to help a pilot purchase an aircraft.

"What kind of plane do you own?"

My usual response is "I'm a professional flight instructor. I'm so broke I can barely pay attention." For those who find plane ownership is within their reach and have selected the make and model that meets their needs, the fun is just beginning. You'll need to find all the aircraft currently available on the market, narrow your selection to two, maybe three particular aircraft, and then go and see the aircraft, in person. There is a low probability that any of these aircraft will be located in the state where you live, so get ready to do some traveling.

Once a particular airplane catches your fancy, it's time to get down to brass tacks. I'm not an A&P (airframe/power plant mechanic) and owning an aircraft is well above my pay grade, but I have significant experience with a lot of aircraft types and have sifted through many an aircraft logbook. There are folks out there who specialize in shepherding buyers through the purchase process and many charge a hefty fee. A seasoned flight instructor can be helpful and may charge a whole lot less. I may be unable to afford aircraft, but I still get a kick out of helping folks through the process of getting the airplane of their dreams.

A Closer Look

It's hard to not get excited, but you'll need to do an honest assessment of the airplane in front of you. Start with a thorough pre-flight inspection and logbook review. Make sure the plane is airworthy (all inspections are current and logbook entries are accurate and legal). Airworthiness directives (ADs) are complicated and take time to scrutinize. Take your time and make sure all the required ADs have been complied with.

Look carefully for not-so-obvious indications of significant damage or other unfortunate incidents. Mechanics and owners can be quite clever at crafting a maintenance entry that may obscure an undesirable history. If it helps, think of yourself as a forensic pilot/mechanic as you look for the signs of prop strikes, gear-up landings, bent firewalls, and the like.

Long periods of little or no flying without proper engine treatment can reduce engine life. Missing logbooks are problematic because you won't have a full picture of the aircraft's history. These may not be deal breakers, but they decrease the value of the aircraft and may require the purchase price to be adjusted downward.

Regardless of what others may say, high-time engines are a hazard. Time-before-overhaul (TBO) intervals for engines are recommendations, but that doesn't mean you ignore TBO with impunity. An engine may function just fine for several hundred hours beyond  TBO, other engines will not make it to TBO, and still others will need attention at or near TBO. Many sellers, buyers, and mechanics have unrealistic ideas and theories about TBO, but there is really little mystery here: A high-time engine is a risk that may create a future hazard in flight and certainly can create a future hazard for your wallet!

If you find you're uncomfortable with any of these issues, don't be afraid to walk away. Listen to your gut because there are other fish in the sea. If this looks like the one, consider developing a purchase contract that defines each stage of the purchase process. I'm not an attorney, so you'll need to get good legal advice on that topic.

Test Flying Your Dream Machine

If the plane you're looking at passes a thorough preflight and logbook review, definitely fly the beast before ponying up hard-earned cash. Check the insurance status before you go for a flight. At the very least, the owner must have current insurance coverage and you, your instructor, or the demonstrator pilot should be covered under the policy's open pilot provision. It would be wise to let the owner or their agent be pilot-in-command. If you need to be PIC for some reason, having non-owned aircraft insurance seems prudent as does being certain that the policy covers you in the event something untoward happens during a test flight.

When I test fly a plane for a buyer, I make a laundry list of the items to check. This includes the aircraft rigging (does is fly reasonably well hands off?), trims (electric and manual), engine and fuel gauges,  and all the basic flight instruments. An instrument panel festooned with INOP stickers gives me pause and it should give a potential buyer pause, too. Next, all the communication and navigation radios, GPS, DME, ADF, marker beacon receiver, and the audio panel need to be put through their paces. Autopilots deserve particular scrutiny because once they stop working, they can be expensive to fix.

Make your own laundry list. Don't worry about being too thorough. You're about to spend a lot of cash, so take your time and be as discerning as you want.

Pre-Purchase Inspection

The pre-purchase inspection should ideally be done by a different maintenance shop than the one that has been maintaining the aircraft to date. This is critical: You want a pair of fresh, unbiased eyes looking over the aircraft. Some buyers opt to do an annual inspection, but you'll need to weigh the costs and benefits for yourself.

You should be there when the inspection is done so you can see the plane's innards with your own eyes. Not only will this help you appreciate what you're getting into, it will give you a deeper understanding of the plane that may become your own.

Don't expect a used plane to be perfect, but don't accept obvious defects. Your purchase contract should provide the flexibility to determine who will pay (buyer or seller) for needed repairs. If you find a significant problem with the aircraft, you may decide to pay the mechanics for their time and trouble and walk away from the deal.

Taking Delivery

Change of ownership of an aircraft is a complicated topic that can't be covered in this blog post, but once you have your pink slip (temporary registration) it's time to put it in the plane and take your baby home. I've helped several new owners with this process and a cross-country delivery flight (or flights) is a great way to receive instruction and learn all about your new bird. Here are just a few photos from my most recent delivery flight.

Finishing touches on the Annual Inspection.

Unexpected avionics hiccup, but an easy fix.

A delayed departure will mean an extra overnight stay.

More photos of the return trip in my next installment.