Tips On Buying an Airplane
Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member
There is an itch
that almost every pilot gets during the first flight and regardless of
how many physical exams are taken to keep the medical certificates
current, the itch rarely leaves. It is the itch to buy and own an
There might not
be a cure for this malady but certain actions can be taken to make it
less painful if you succumb to the urge. No single injection of
information can inoculate a person from possible dreadful reactions
from the itch, but this article should give patients a direction
toward relief from stress and torment of buying.
foremost, don't try to make the purchase by yourself unless you are a
pilot, mechanic, accident investigator, federal regulation expert,
type certificate authority, lawyer, and a few other occupational
specialists rolled into one person. Get help, the pitfalls are too
Once you have chosen to cure
that ownership itch, you have a major decision to make: what kind of
aircraft will you buy. Setting aside the financial considerations,
deciding what to buy must be the first step. Just because you have
trained or built most of your flying hours in a particular model or
brand doesn't mean that particular aircraft will be the best for your
purchase. Some questions to ask yourself:
What do I want to do with the airplane?
Will others fly with me? If so, how many? How far?
Am I, or will I be, instrument rated?
Is maintenance convenient and are replacement parts readily
What kind of aircraft will best fit my pilot skills?
question is vital. Many accident reports have been written about
low-performance pilots getting into high-performance aircraft. It is
far better to trade up as your pilot skills and experience increase
than to become an accident statistic. The FAA has attempted to resolve
some of these problems with regulations regarding complex aircraft and
pressurized aircraft, but federal regulations will never be a
substitute for common sense.
To be certain,
try out different aircraft. Fly with friends. Talk with other pilots
at the field from which you usually fly, and bum a ride with them.
Many pilots will welcome taking you along on a flight. Go to flight
schools where they have different aircraft and take check rides with
instructors in various aircraft.
Once you have
centered on the kind of airplane you want, narrow your search to that
particular vehicle and get as much information as possible about it.
Most aircraft at one time or another were written about in aviation
publications See what some of the editorial pilots had to say.
Remember, however, their publications usually are seeking advertising
from the manufacturer, so be wary of glowing accounts with no
negatives. The Internet is a veritable mother lode of information. Log
on to individual company web sites. Check the ones for machines of
most interest to you. Go to a search engine and type in the aircraft
name. You will find dozens, or even hundreds of sites that have
information, available aircraft, parts availability, and some sites
with comments by owners. Many owner clubs have web sites that can give
much helpful guidance as to whether the particular aircraft is your
cup of tea.
Now that you have
narrowed it down, start your search for your dream machine. Again, the
web sites can be helpful. Also, publications like General Aviation
News and Trade-A-Plane, have large selections.
What to look for
you find something that looks and sounds like it is just waiting for
you to travel to see it'or have the owner deliver it for your personal
inspection'your buying chores are just beginning. The first thing you
want to do is get a copy of the FAA Type Certificate for the airplane
that interests you. On the Internet get a copy from
http://www.faa.gov/aircraft/. Here, you will find all
the specifications about the aircraft'applicable engines, propellers,
gross weight, empty weight, speeds, etc. This site also lets you know
to what FAA regulation it was built. That's important because the Type
Certificate (TC) gives vital information about service life and
possible mandatory replacements. These certification rules will
influence your maintenance costs. If you don't understand what the TC
indicates, visit your nearest FAA FISDO. An experienced FAA employee
will be glad to explain.
Now that you have
the basics out of the way you can settle in on the specifics. Be alert
to advertising phrases such as 'always hangared,' 'no damage,' 'recent
annual.' Let these claims be proven. Check the paperwork to be certain
the aircraft is airworthy; that is, it meets its type design and all
proper alterations and ADs are to specifications. The aircraft's
paperwork should contain a history of all major repairs and
you are satisfied that this is all in order, start thinking about
examining the aircraft. Look at it critically as you approach it. Is
it sitting evenly on its gear? Are antenna rising as they should? Is
the paint consistent and are the N numbers the same size and style on
both sides? If not, this could indicate repair of sections. Look
inside the door for the registration and airworthiness certificate.
Are the N numbers the same as you saw as you approached the aircraft?
Is the ownership listed the same on both the registration and
Take a look at
the flight manual to be sure the equipment matches what you learned
from the TC. Also, if new equipment has been installed, has the weight
and balance been corrected for it? New radios, for instance, might
weigh several pounds more'or less'than original equipment, which could
change the useful load and weight and balance.
this aircraft is what it is purported to be, the real inspection
begins. Here is where a good, qualified mechanic will be worth your
investment. A pre-purchase inspection has some of the characteristics
of a pre-flight inspection, but will be far, far more detailed. The
similarities are that you go around the aircraft in a methodical
manner and you won't know what you are looking for until you find it.
A thorough pre-purchase examination will take two hours or more,
checking not only those parts and places that are visible but also
using a flashlight to explore some of the less obvious places.
No way can an
article like this detail every item to be checked, or specifically
what to look for. However, here are a few typical suggestions:
Struts. Are they equally extended?
Wings. Any corrosion? Loose rivets? Fuel caps: good rings to keep
water out? Any debris at the bottom of the tank?
Flaps. Rust or corrosion on the hinges?
Ailerons? When you gently push/pull on the trailing edge is there
an abnormal play that might indicate the need for hinge
replacement? Are nuts and bolts secure and lubricated?
Doors. Windows. Good seals to keep out water and noise?
Wheels. Brakes. Tires. Hydraulic struts. Uneven wear? Signs of
Trim tabs. Elevators. Rudder. Vertical stabilizers.
Propeller. Proper track? Cracks or nicks?
Engine. Mounts solid? Fuel or oil leaks? Exhaust system okay? Any
leaks in the exhaust might mean carbon-monoxide could enter the
A good mechanic
will know how to check the condition of these and other parts.
aircraft, examine the seats for any undue wear. Check the floor mats
and what is under them. Any dampness might indicate the aircraft is
not weather proof.
Look at the
instrument panel, electrical system, and avionics. Check each
instrument on the panel. Fuzziness around the edges of the glass could
indicate leaks in the seals that have permitted dirt to enter. Make
certain that markings on the instruments are the same as in the Flight
Manual. (Arcs for flap extension speeds, etc.) When was the last
compass check? Is the correction card in place? Was anything added in
panel that might have changed the compass?
Take it for a
Satisfied with the visual
inspection, you finally get to take the aircraft into the air. If you
haven't flown this particular model, be safe and hire an instructor to
fly along. A few of the items to check:
Engine easy or hard to start. Hard could mean problems with
magnetos, fuel, or electrical system.
Be sure engine instruments are operating and in the correct
How does the aircraft move with your feet off the rudder pedals?
Is there an unusual shimmy in the nose gear?
If retractable gear, how quickly does the gear cycle and are
indicator lights working?
At altitude, how does it fly 'hands off?'
Check the turn and bank indicator. If you need control pressure to
center the needle or ball, the aircraft probably is out of rig.
Are the radios okay?
Check the airspeed indicator at various power settings.
After landing, check for any oil leaks. Tell-tail signs might have
been cleaned off by a desperate owner prior to your pre-flight
all you have seen and done, you are ready to negotiate. This summary
of making a purchase has touched only on the highlights of how to buy
an aircraft. Its purpose is merely to provide some clues as to what to
look for in a purchase and could not in a brief piece begin to
indicate how to determine if each item is proper.
A couple of
closing suggestions: Consider purchasing title insurance as well as
accident and liability coverage. Keep in mind you are going to expect
years of enjoyment from the aircraft you purchase, so a few hours and
a few dollars to select the best one are good investments.
Happy flying in
your new aircraft!