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Tips On Buying an Airplane

by Charlie 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 airplane.

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.

First and 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 many.

The first decision

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 available?
  • What kind of aircraft will best fit my pilot skills?

That last 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

When 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 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 alterations.

Examine the aircraft

When 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 airworthiness certificate?

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.

Satisfied that 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 excessive wear?


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 cabin.

A good mechanic will know how to check the condition of these and other parts.

Inside the 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 flight

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 ranges.


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 inspection.

Satisfied with 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!

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