Before deciding to take the plunge into ownership, I had been renting and flying airplanes for twenty years and so had good reason to think I was embarking upon this adventure with eyes wide open. Probably every pilot harbors the dream of owning an airplane, but my desire had been sharpened by countless encounters with well-loved, but cosmetically challenged aircraft sporting any number of system design and operating quirks. With an uptick in charity flights for LifeLine Pilots, I was starting to average over 100 hours a year – enough to make a threadbare argument that the math favored ownership. I shored up that house of cards with the dubious financial surety offered by leasing back the aircraft to my flying club to further defray expenses. Such are the tried-and-true schemes pilots employ when entertaining ownership ambitions.
The first tenant of private airplane ownership – and I’ve found it to be a good one – is to define the minimum performance capabilities necessary to accomplish the majority of your intended missions. That requires clear advance thought and discipline, because once you are engaged in the search it is all too easy to be seduced into more aircraft than you need. My target aircraft was a Cessna 172 with a 180-hp engine, and I consider myself lucky, in the dazzle of the marketplace, to have limited my aircraft creep to a Cessna 182R. I appreciated at the time that it was more aircraft than I needed, and I have paid the price since, but other realities of the buying experience prompted the stretch.
The second tenant of buying an airplane is to insist on a pre-buy inspection and not get so emotionally attached to the aircraft in the process that you become willing to ignore the results. This too, was my intention, and I began the pleasant but time-consuming process of traveling to check out opportunities and pouring through candidate engine and airframe logbooks. Time-and-again I discovered that any prime picks seemed to be snapped up before a discussion of pre-buy inspections could even be broached. The search was becoming expensive, and as an added surprise, I discovered that few owners were inclined to allow prospective pilots to test-fly the aircraft. This struck me as ludicrous, but when I mentioned it to other pilot-owners they seemed nonplussed. These experiences served to skew my thinking and favor aircraft either known to me personally or to pilots whose judgement I trusted. It resulted in stepping up to more aircraft than I had planned, but one which proved a sound platform for what I had in mind.
If there is a third tenant when considering aircraft purchases, it probably is to look past the cosmetics and focus on the mechanical bones and history of the craft. The airplane I would eventually purchase, turned out to be one that I had flown for few years in the flying club I belonged to, so its handling qualities were well known to me. It had begun life as a State Highway Patrol aircraft, meaning that even though its airframe hours were high, I knew that it had never been a trainer and that it had received meticulous, well-documented, care. Its second, and only other owner, had done what was required to maintain it, but the aircraft was at that tipping point – where so many rentals live – of beginning the long slide to the scrapyard unless an intervention investment was made. The price fairly reflected its appearance and, looking literally further than skin deep, the frame had been factory chromated, which was especially compelling. Though the engine was only half-way to TBO, at that time I little appreciated the difference between the big-bore Continental as compared to the Lycoming engines that dominated my flying experience. That education would be costly, but more about that later.