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The Orphan: Phase III

by H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission of FAA Aviation News

A lot has happened since we lasted visited the Orphan. For those who may not remember, the Orphan is my personal Albatross. It is a 1953 PA-22-135 Piper Tripacer. The Tripacer was Piper's tube and fabric answer to Cessna's metal aircraft during the 50's and 60's. The Tripacer era ended when Piper started producing the all-metal Piper PA 28 Cherokee series.

Of all the mistakes and examples of poor judgment I have made and demonstrated in my 55 years, the Orphan has assumed the number one position based upon its costs. Like the Space Shuttle taking off, the costs just seem to get higher and higher. The old saying 'the sky is the limit' is true. The sky has become the limit. Looking back, I have decided that maybe, just maybe, a spouse might be a good thing to have. Sometimes, just sometimes, it might be nice to have to consult someone about a major purchase rather than just making a three-second buying decision. Take it from someone who has been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt-one should never make any decision in only three seconds. Even if you are in a fast food restaurant, you should take a few seconds more to make your decision. Maybe a mandatory second opinion or approval has merit.

Someone once said, you should learn from the mistakes of others because you won't live long enough to make them all yourself. This article is your chance to learn from my experience. The good news is as a writer, I can make the mistake and then get paid for writing about it. So, at least some good will come out of the lessons I have learned (or paid for) to date.

The first lesson is the most basic-learning is expensive. It takes a lot of money to keep an aircraft in the air. It takes even more money to get one back in the air. I believe it was J.P. Morgan, the banker, who is credited with saying in reference to buying a yacht that if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. Such is the case with an aircraft. If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. I used to think that an aircraft could only take off when its paperwork weighed as much as the aircraft. Not true. The correct interpretation is when the weight of dollars invested equals the aircraft weight and they are in balance, then and only then will the aircraft take flight. But when in doubt about how much money you need to take flight, you should review the spousal reference in the first paragraph.

To add insult to financial injury, the Orphan is currently located (held prisoner?) at the only (to my knowledge) government closed then opened and then closed general aviation airport in the country. The Orphan is being worked on at the Washington Executive (Hyde) airfield in Clinton, Maryland. Hyde was one of the general aviation airports closed in the Washington, DC, area after September 11, 2001. Then it was one of the last three to be reopened under very strict Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security procedures. Hyde then failed to comply with those procedures and was closed again by FAA. I have stopped tracking its status since the Orphan is not ready to fly. TSA did permit those few flyable aircraft still based at Hyde to exit the airfield during specified departure windows. The windows were only for one-way trips out. I am not sure how and when the Orphan will depart Hyde. It might be on a truck. Time will tell.

But let's move on to lessons learned.

The first lesson was about money. This lesson is about clich's and their meanings in life. Now I understand why my mother use to say, "Do as I say; not as I do." It is easier to tell someone how to do something than to do it. For example, as one who has spent his adult life around aircraft and who earns his living writing about all phases of aviation, I have read and/or heard about all of the things one should consider when buying an aircraft such as a pre-purchase inspection and a title search. But like an addict looking for a fix or an alcoholic looking for the next drink, I let reason fly out the window when I bought the Orphan on a spur of the moment decision. Then, as a new aircraft owner rebuilding an old aircraft I became addicted to getting that next new part. When the UPS man knows you by sight and where to leave your stash of packages, you know you have a problem. If you doubt this is true and want a second opinion, just ask your favorite aircraft supply house order rep about a part or shipment. If they know you by your shipping address and credit card number, you have an aircraft problem. If they ship you catalogs without your having to ask, you have a serious aircraft problem. If they send you Christmas cards, you are in real trouble.

But like love at first sight, your first aircraft may not be true love. It might be infatuation. To guard against the aircraft's siren song, all potential new owners need to set realistic goals and expectations for the aircraft before they buy it or do any major work on it. Beware the temptation of other aircraft. A well-swept wing, a polished spinner, or a glistening rotor blade can tempt the unwary. One must keep focused on the goal: Time in the air. Time on the ground only counts for cars, trains, and bicycles. Aircraft are made to fly. Hangar time does count against one's lifetime. I realize some say that flight hours don't count against one's lifetime, but I think hangar hours do. Remember the goal is time in air at a cost you can afford.

So, what can be done to avoid losing all of those hangar hours? The answer is simple. Do not trust your feelings of love at first sight or flight. Aircraft can be deceiving. Take a walk, shower, vacation, find a spouse, ask a friend, or better yet, your local FAA-certificated mechanic about the aircraft. Look under the gloss and fresh annual for the wrinkles and warts. They are there if you look hard enough. Find someone you trust who owns one like you are considering and ask his or her opinion about the aircraft. Better yet, check the Internet for information since many of the various aircraft-specific type clubs post chatrooms on the Internet. Beware of some of the hype published in some aviation publications. What you want is an objective aircraft commentary, not a sales promo from the aircraft's manufacturer. Advertising dollars can distort objective reporting.

But the first step in the purchase of any aircraft is to determine if you can afford an aircraft. Pilots tend to think only of the direct operating costs of an aircraft. Since most of us start out renting aircraft, we tend to fixate how much will it cost to operate the aircraft per hour. Where we fail, if we are a single owner-not to be confused with someone unmarried-is to understand that all of the aircraft's costs are paid by one person-you the new owner. And depending upon how many hours that you fly a year determines your hourly flight rate. At the moment, the Orphan's cumulative hourly operating cost is more than $3,000 per hour. Partners are hard to find at that rate.

Cheap does not mean inexpensive. Although some might consider good as being good enough, each new aircraft owner must determine his or her acceptable risk level which will help determine your true aircraft cost. Although FAA sets aircraft maintenance standards, they are normally minimum standards. Each new owner must then determine if FAA minimums meet their own personal minimums. Remember that passing through 5,000 feet as you fall out of the sky is not the time to congratulate yourself about how much you saved by buying used wing mounting bolts.

Beware of unapproved parts and dubious maintenance logbook entries. Logbooks tell more by what they don't contain as by what they do contain. You want complete entries with detailed parts lists and complete descriptions of work performed. Although legal according to the regulations, you don't want references to work orders on file at a repair station. The work orders only have to be kept on file for two years at the repair station. Get complete maintenance records by part number of all work performed and keep those records with the aircraft. Be suspicious of unexplained repairs or work entries without a lot of detail. Some mechanics will try to hide damage history by incomplete or vague maintenance entries. Remember, a proper repair done right is a good repair. Plus if you keep a detailed record of all the parts in your aircraft and an airworthiness directive is issued for your aircraft involving a specific part, you know for sure if it applies to your aircraft or not because you have documented proof of every part in your aircraft. It also helps if you keep the purchase invoices for the parts you buy. FAA likes documentation.

Add in the cost of insurance, which is expensive and which may now have new post September 11 terrorist and war exclusions, the cost of unexpected maintenance and the ever present cloud of the next "annual" inspection, and the cost of a hangar or tie-down space if you can find one. You can begin to see the many "hidden" costs of owning an aircraft. When you add in the purchase cost of the aircraft and the many other costs of owning an aircraft, the need for a realistic budget and income flow becomes critical before you decide to buy an aircraft.

Since different types of aircraft have vastly different purchase costs as well as all of the other operating costs, what type of aircraft you decide to buy plays a major part in your aircraft's total operating costs. The age of the aircraft is also critical to the dollar equation. For example, out-of-production parts or limited production parts cost more than current production parts. In some cases, you may not be able to buy new parts for an older aircraft. You need to review the difference between a rebuilt part and an overhauled part. The same applies to engines. You need to know the difference between a rebuilt, overhauled, and zero-time engine. To learn more about these terms and their importance, you can review 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 43.

As a general rule, simpler aircraft have lower operating and maintenance costs than complex aircraft. Slower aircraft cost less than faster aircraft. The same is true of single-engine aircraft compared to multiengine aircraft. Fabric aircraft have different maintenance costs than metal aircraft. Hangar space costs more than outside tie-down space. These are some of the costs you must consider when deciding on buying an aircraft. The danger for first time buyers is that we have not had the time to learn that most aircraft are expendable and you can always find another one. As in buying a new car, you have to be able and willing to walk away from an aircraft if the price and capabilities don't meet your expectations and budget. Remember to buy what you want on your conditions rather than what the seller or sales rep wants to sell you. The first rule of ownership is that it is easier to buy an aircraft than it is to sell one.

The key to successful aircraft ownership is balancing wants and needs. In many cases, such as the Orphan, want quickly surpassed need. I didn't need all new flight and engine instruments. I just wanted them. The problem was the aircraft was not designed for what I wanted. And in the case of the Orphan, it would have been cheaper and smarter to buy a new aircraft and have all of the benefits of a new aircraft.

One of the most important benefits is the warranties on installed equipment. Not only is it important to establish a critical drop-dead budget before any aircraft purchase, but it is equally important when rebuilding an aircraft to set realistic cost projections and realistic timelines to complete the work. In the case of the Orphan's out of control costs and timelines, all of the factory warranties on all of the new instruments and avionics equipment such as the IFR GPS and VOR/ILS/Comm gear expired before they were installed. I learned that not only do many aircraft items have a specified hour-limited warranty and/or a limited number of months, but many items also have a shelf-life-limited warranty. When the first limiting number comes up, hours, months, or shelf life, there goes the warranty. Even if your warranty is expired, it is important to complete and send in equipment registration data cards. Companies must be able to contact you in case of problems with their products. For example, my new communications/navigation unit had an airworthiness directive against it before it was out of its box. The moral here is to set realistic project completion dates and buy your warranted equipment at the end of the project to maximize your protection. You paid for the warranties; you should benefit from the protection you paid for.

Not only do you need to establish and track equipment warranty periods to determine when to buy the gear, but you need to wait until the end of your project to buy some of your electronic gear. The GPS I bought for the Orphan not only has lost its warranty without ever being installed, but it is now three generations old. Even though it has not been installed yet and never powered up, for resale purposes, it is obsolete. To add insult to injury, I paid a lot of money for it when I bought it at the EAA AirVenture fly-in at Oshkosh several years ago thinking I was saving money by buying it at the end of the weeklong fly-in. Again, this was a vague, impromptu, three-second-purchase decision. The moral here...cheap does not mean inexpensive and do not make three-second decisions. Then to add another insult to my astute buying prowess, the then current data card for the GPS expired long before the item was ever taken out its box. This is another example of value lost because of poor decision making.

As noted earlier, time has value in any aircraft project. For those of us who do not hold an FAA aircraft mechanic's certificate and therefore have to pay someone for those critical services, long projects can become expensive not only because of the equipment and parts costs involved, but because you have to pay someone for his or her skills. Without well-defined deadlines and expectations, these costs can exceed the value of the project. A smart owner will establish a well thought out work project that lists both the cost of the required parts as well as the time to do the work. Or as I have told the person working on the Orphan, when his yet to be received bill equals the cost of the aircraft, I am just going to give him the aircraft keys. The good news is the keys will start the aircraft. Gone is the classic hidden Tripacer start button. And if the battery ever runs down, he will not have to remove the one-piece front seat to remove the battery. He will only have to plug in the new Piper jumper cable into the custom external power receptacle under the front seat.

Although another old cliche states time is money, in aviation time has another value. For those of us who live in less than year-round perfect flying weather areas, if a project is not finished before the good flying season starts, you have effectively lost a significant portion of your flying year. So you must consider the utilitarian value of your flight time when calculating the cost of buying an aircraft or doing major work on it. If you want to maximize your flying time, buy an aircraft that is flyable rather than a project or an aircraft that needs work.

As the person doing the work on the Orphan will attest, the Orphan's owner's availability to do grunt work with him on the aircraft varies inversely with the cost of the latest part. Or to better phrase it-so goes the money so goes my interest. Like many things in life, an aircraft being rebuilt has a continuing cost whether it moves or not. Add in all of the costs listed above and place the aircraft in someone's hangar that has to be paid for and the project's costs continue to rise. For example, I have paid for aircraft insurance and my own hangar costs for more than two years while the Orphan has been torn apart for maintenance in someone else's hangar. It is hard, if not impossible, to just put a major project on hold and not have costs continue. Since an owner can do a lot of work under the supervision of a certificated mechanic, you have to have the time and dedication to see the project through. It is easy to lose interest in a long-term project. You have to know your own limitations and skills.

Another project cost that many don't think about is the cost of what I will call the "mistake." Since I am working with an individual and not a company, I have to be prepared to assume all of the liability or "mistake costs" for the project. For example, when three instrument panel blanks were cut wrong, I paid the bill for the three plus the fourth panel. When a part was damaged, I paid the bill. When a particular job takes longer than expected because the person doing the work has to experiment and learn how to do the particular job, you have to pay for that learning experience. If you had a contract with a company, you would expect the company to complete the agreed upon work at the agreed upon cost. The company would have to pay for any damaged materials or to learn how to do something right. This is why in many cases, I think it is cheaper, faster, and you get a better job if you hire an expert who does the type of work you need done every day. The initial cost might be higher, but you get the job done on time and on budget. Plus it is easier to yell at a company when you are not happy with it than it is to yell at a friend working on your airplane. This is especially true when your airplane is in parts in his hanger located many miles from your own hangar. Fortunately in my case, the person working on the Orphan is both talented and patient. When I don't show up, the job gets done. When I whine, he ignores it. When I complain about money, he is sympathetic. But mistakes do and will happen, so you have to be prepared for them, both emotionally and financially.

The final comment about the Orphan is what I call the time factor. If you are involved in a long-term project, you have to be aware of the time factor. For example, the Orphan's spiral descent into maintenance obscurity began with a simple comment, "If we just take out the window, we can get to the rudder pedals easier." Like many things in life, a simple comment can lead to serious long-term commitments both in terms of money, time, and lifestyle.

This Phase III article has touched briefly on some of the costs many of us don't think about when buying an aircraft. But the article has not touched upon one of, if not the most important, issues of owning and being involved in a major project. Time and lifestyle changes brought about by the project. The Orphan has changed my life forever. As one who use to think nothing about flying to Hawaii for a weekend, those days are gone as well as the money to do those types of things. Anyone thinking about buying or starting any type of aircraft project, must stop and consider his or her own personality and abilities. I am a pilot who writes. I also have a very bad habit. I love to buy tools. Note: I didn't say I necessarily love to use them. I just have never met a tool I didn't like or want. I realized early in my young life as I was working on military aircraft in the cold of winter and the heat of Southeast Asia, that I would rather travel on an aircraft than work on one. I love the challenge of understanding the design and maintenance aspects of aircraft (finding and buying aircraft parts are some of the most expensive fun you can have), but I have come to the realization that I am not the dedicated restorer of aircraft like those I have seen at many airports and at such organizations as the Experimental Aircraft Association and at the National Air and Space Museum's restoration facility. As I said at the beginning of this article, it is easier for me to talk about an aircraft than it is to work on one. If it wasn't for the dedication and professionalism of the person working on my aircraft, the aircraft would still be in parts instead of being put back together. If I were he, I would have fired me long ago. I am a better buyer of parts than I am a worker. I can't remember how many times in the past two and a half years, I have lost interest in the project. But I do seem to remember a definite lack of interest every month about the time when the credit card statement was due. So I think it is critical to the success of any aircraft project that the person wanting to start such a project take a realistic look at his or her willingness to dedicate a lot of time and resources to the project. If you have other commitments or are not willing to or unable to dedicate the time and effort necessary to complete the project, you might want to reconsider starting it. Fortunately for me, the person working on the Orphan is frankly, a lot more dedicated to the project than I have been. At one point, when he called me with the good news/bad news scenario that I have come to fear and dread, his good news was the parts were available, the bad news was they were expensive. I will not repeat my comment to him. But like having a baby or bringing home a new puppy, you have to hope that at sometime in the future, they will both be old enough to play outside. Such as with a project, at some point you have to hope it will be finished enough to take it outside and fly it.

Not only do you have to assess your own commitment to the project, but you have to assess how you want to get the work done. A friend of mine is doing the work. He has a full-time job so he normally can only work on the Orphan on Saturdays. He cannot work on the airplane every Saturday so some weeks nothing gets done, some weeks a lot gets done, and some weeks a little gets done. All of which has contributed to the project's delay. Could things have been done faster? Yes. I could have done more, been available more, or have sent the aircraft to a repair shop to have the work done. So, why didn't I do all of these? First, I didn't understand the extent of the work or the cost. Second, since the person working on the aircraft owned a later model of the aircraft, he knew more about the aircraft type than many people in the area did. Plus I am cheap. I wanted to save money. This whole project started with an annual inspection that was expected to be simple and easy to do. But such was not the case. The project just grew out of control. Want overcame need. With its dynamic growth, the project led to frustration which led to indifference which led to resignation. Do some of these sound like the dangerous pilot attitudes one studies in ground school? All of which took a lot of fun and money out of my life for more than two years. Trust me-after all I am from the FAA-when I tell you that the only way to experience the highs and lows of aircraft ownership is to buy one. The good news is that the Orphan is slowing beginning to look like an airplane again. In fact, it may be flying by the time this article is published. It might get off the ground sometime this century. Now let's see, where can I fly to? How many hours is it to Florida in a newly upgraded Tripacer?

You too can start the project of a lifetime by buying an aircraft. Just remember, aircraft are like puppies, once you bring one home, you have to take care of it and take it out and play with it. Just remember to take your time and get the pick of the litter.