Fuzzy little things that I find interesting.

Political musings from someone who thinks the S-D curve is more important to politics than politicians.

Month: December, 2014

Second Thoughts

So now after a night of sleeping on it, I’m having second thoughts about the aircraft I looked at. Give that it is the first one that I physically took the time to look at I’m not sure if my second guessing is warranted–but I am having some second thoughts for the following reasons:

(1) The fuel gages are inaccurate. When containing a half-tank of fuel, the fuel readings show a quarter full. This was definitely on my list of things that I wanted to ask the seller to fix before I bought the airplane; it actually means the aircraft is not really airworthy: fuel gages is actually the first item on the GOOSE A CAT acronym. (Fuel Gages, Oil temperature, Oil Pressure, Seat Belts, Emergency Locator Transmitter, Air Speed Indicator, Compass, Altimeter, Tachometer.)

(2) The spring which helps return the flaps back to zero position is not able to move the flaps all the way back. When you set the flap control lever to the ground the flaps don’t move–until you nudge them by hand, at which point they pop back into position.

(3) The trim motor is unable to move the trim lever very well; sometimes it sticks and requires assistance to move.

Last night I didn’t really think of these things other than as squawks to be fixed prior to taking possession of the airplane; minor issues which just require adjustment or the replacement of an inexpensive part.

But today–I’m starting to think there is an underlying systemic problem.

See, an airplane operates as basically a series of pulleys and cables. Turn the yoke, and a bunch of pulleys and cables pull down the ailerons. Push the yoke forward, and pulleys and cables move the elevator surface. In an Piper Arrow, the lever that you use to put down the flaps pulls a cable that pulls down the flaps, and a spring returns them to the home position. Even in the fuel tank a float attached to a lever and a hinge which turns a potentiometer drives the fuel gauges.

And the one thing these squawks have in common is rust and contamination.

Rust on a pulley can cause the spring that returns the flaps to zero can cause the flaps to stick, and not return to zero. Rust on a pulley can make it harder for the electric trim motor to rotate a pulley. Even rust or contamination on the float lever arm hinge in the fuel tank can prevent the fuel gauges to read accurately.

And worse, because many of these cables pass through holes in the spar and other structural members inside the airplane, contamination or corrosion may be taking place inside those structural members rather than in the pulley itself.

So after seeing this I think the plan of attack has changed to me looking around at more airplanes.

Which is fine: my original schedule was sometime in the Spring.



The airplane was as represented; a bit rough around the edges and in need of a good paint job–but otherwise the engine is in excellent shape, the airplane handles extremely well (proving the control surfaces are in good shape), and the radios and GPS work just fine, as does the instrument panel.

So onto the next step: opening escrow, and setting up a time when I can get a pre-buy inspection done.

On an airplane to Boston

I’m now waiting at RDU to fly to Boston to check out the prospective airplane.

Yes, my original plan of attack was to check out the airplane, do the pre-buy inspection, then fly home in one trip. But my wife pointed out (correctly) that I may be better off making two trips, especially given how cheap flights to Boston from RDU are. So I’m going to fly up today and take a look at the airplane, and if it looks (and feels) fine, then I’ll arrange for a pre-buy, for escrow, and for a title search–and take possession sometime in the next two weeks.

Details: when you buy an airplane, you need a place to park it, and you need to pay both whatever sales or excise taxes your state requires, as well as property taxes. I’ve already contacted the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and have found out that for the purchase price we’re negotiating, my excise taxes will be around $1500, and my annual property tax for parking the airplane at RDU (which is in Wake County, North Carolina) will be approximately $360/year. (Property taxes in Wake County are relatively low.) I don’t know if there will be any additional taxes due to the city where RDU is located–some cities add onto the basic property taxes–but I cannot imagine them adding more than $1000 or so a year, and I strongly suspect (based on one conversation with the nice lady at NCDOT) that there are no additional city property tax add-ons.

If you’re in California and you just read my comments about the tax rates in disbelief–note that if I were in California these numbers would be around $4,500-$5,000 for the excise tax, and around $690-$750/year in property taxes.

As a side note, my father gave me a pointer to his broker (True Course Aviation in Camarillo, CA), and they quoted me $1,179/year, insuring the aircraft for $10k above the hull value that I negotiated with the seller. Much better than AVEMCO!

(Why $10k above hull value? Because at some point I intend to paint the airplane, and install new upgrades and the like–which means at some point the value of the airplane will go up above the purchase price we’re negotiating. That advise I got from my father.)

Also as a side note, after having a pleasant conversation with one of the FBOs here at RDU to rent a hanger–now I can’t get him to return my phone calls. There are two FBOs; I have a message in with the other one, so we’ll see who coughs up a quote first.

So after a night of walking through paperwork…

So step 1 for me was to walk through the paperwork; the detailed logs of all of the repairs done to the aircraft.

The good news: all of the logs for the airplane I’m planning to buy: a 1978 Arrow III with the larger fuel tanks (72 gallons useable, in case we decide to go for very long flights), seem complete–he even sent me the paperwork for the original airworthiness logs when the airplane rolled off the factory floor back in late 1978 and the original buyer of the airplane.

It appears during the 1980’s it was used commercially: I see a lot of “100 hours” instead of annuals. And it appears at one point in the 1980’s one of the wings was bent–probably rolling it into something on the ground. (The logs show a rib being replaced and some skin being repainted.) None of these things concern me: many older aircraft have some minor damage at some point in their history; the important point is that the plane continued to fly for years afterwards.

It also appears the current owner only flew the airplane perhaps 50 to 70 hours a year–which to me is sad: as soon as I have an airplane, a clear afternoon and can play hooky I plan to go up every chance I get. (Until I moved out to RDU and got caught up in stupid expensive rental rates and long hours on my current project, I was averaging around 120 hours/year.) Because flying is fun!

So the logs look complete. And I verified that all the ADs published on the FAA web site appeared to be handled in the logs; the current owner was pretty thorough about compliance. (Of course you cannot really know until you pop the covers off the wings and peek under the cowling of the aircraft. Not all A&P Mechanics got an A+ in school.)

Next step: going up to take a look at the airplane. JetBlue, for whatever reason, (a) flies direct to Boston, and (b) was offering me a nice deal despite the fact that I’m flying on the holidays and flying at the last minute. So a quick $330 round trip puts me in the area so I can drive down and take a look at his airplane.

And if it looks good–well, honestly, if the bones look good, since the price point is one where I don’t expect cosmetic perfection, only structural soundness–then we move onto the step where I find a mechanic to do a full pre-buy inspection.

(As a footnote I plan to own this airplane for a long time. So for me, it’s more important that I find something with good bones–and later, if I decide to paint the airplane or to upgrade the avionics or reupholster the airplane, I’ll have the budget and I can pick my own style. Otherwise I’m paying extra for someone else’s paint job and someone else’s aesthetics.)

Meanwhile I’ve contacted the same insurance broker my father uses for airplane insurance. Right now I have a rough quote from AVEMCO for around $2,400 a year, but everyone I’ve talked to suggests AVEMCO is relatively expensive. We’ll see if I can save any money by contacting the same broker my father uses. (My father claimed to have saved about $1,000/year using them, and while I don’t expect anywhere near that level of savings, since the hull value of the airplane I’m buying is about half what my father flies (a Beechcraft F33A Bonanza), even a couple of hundred dollars is worth it.)

(My father’s broker is True-Course Aviation Insurance in Camarillo, CA.)

And now, time to get someone to return my damned phone calls about actually renting a hanger at RDU. I’m so fed up with the general manager of Landmark Aviation not returning my calls that I called TAC Air. I suspect the bank of hangers they both rent are actually owned by RDU, and they basically handle the paperwork to rent them out.

Update: talking to a prospective seller

Well, just got off the phone of a prospective seller of an Arrow up in Massachusetts. Don’t want to jinx it, but the aircraft sounds perfect: low time on the engine, a 430 linked to the autopilot, and the price is spot on in my budget.

Waiting now for him to send me his logs.

Buying an aircraft.

Okay, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. But I want to take this in a different direction and talk about buying an airplane.

Some background: I got my private pilots license in February of 2013, and my IFR at the start of this year. And I’m looking at buying a mid 1970’s Piper Arrow II or III: basically after spending several months looking around and getting check out in a variety of different airplanes, I settled on the Piper Arrow II or III for the following reasons:

(1) Cost. A Piper Arrow retractable aircraft does cost more to operate than a fixed-gear airplane (such as a Cessna 172 or 182), but in terms of speed verses fuel burned, the Piper Arrow (which will do around 140kts at 8,000 with 10 gal/hour burn) winds up being a fairly cost effective aircraft to operate–when you factor in both the higher costs of flying a retractable airplane, but with the lower cost of fuel (which represents something like half the operating cost of flying an airplane) works out to be a reasonable compromise.

(2) The Mission: Basically when you buy an airplane, buy what you need rather than what you want. There are airplanes which can fly higher, faster or carry more–but each dimension you stretch causes you to make compromises on another dimension.

For example, in order to fly faster than perhaps 120kts, you are looking at either a retractable gear airplane, or you’re looking at more horsepower or a more streamlined airplane. If you get a more streamlined airplane you now have a more “slippery” airplane (such as a Cirrus) which requires more planning to bring down. If you get higher horsepower, you’re looking at higher fuel consumption rates (16 gal/hour is quite common). If you want more carrying capacity you’re looking at a bigger airplane which requires more fuel to fly.

For me, my typical mission model is me, my wife, 50 to 100 pounds of luggage on a 300 nautical mile flight to Pennsylvania or to Georgia.

That’s too short, really, for a turbo airplane; by the time you get to the altitude necessary to get the speeds a turbo promises it’s time to come back down again. A 182 becomes a bit big; like buying a Ford F-150 truck when most of the time a small hatchback will do.

But it is a little far for a Cessna 172; with 15 knot headwinds a 172 would take 3.4 hours to get to the destination, while an Arrow in the same headwinds would cut the trip down to 2.5 hours.

To me, the Piper Arrow represents a good compromise: the added expense of landing gear in order to trim an hour off the trip does add to the cost, but it’s still within my budget. But something more powerful for an extra 30 knots–which would trim the time on my trip by 30 minutes–isn’t worth the extra 50%-100% increase in prices.

So where am I in the process?

I’m going to put hard numbers on this in case anyone else is interested.

For me, I’m looking for an Arrow II or III from the mid 1970’s. The AOPA Value Estimator puts this somewhere between $45,000 and $80,000 depending on time and equipment levels–with higher prices for more equipment, naturally. And for me, this is right in my comfort zone: I’ve seen some very nice non-GPS aircraft with low engine times (on the order of 500 hours with 2000 TBO) at around $60,000, give or take–roughly what I paid for my Porsche Boxster.

Avemco said that given my current hours (approximately 11 hours dual training in a Piper Arrow II, 30+ hours in complex, and 250 hours total) that they’d insure me for around $2,400/year.

A hanger at RDU runs approximately $5,500/year. And of course I’ll want to hanger the airplane; there have been cases of aircraft improperly tied down–including some very big airplanes (I’m talking small business jets) which have been tossed around and destroyed in heavy winds.

So that leaves the cost of annuals, oil changes and maintenance costs. A quick survey of various boards suggest annuals on a Piper Arrow run between $1,200 to $3,000 depending on the stuff that is wrong–though owner-assisted annuals bring this price down quite a bit. (And I plan to do owner-assisted annuals because I’d like to get to know my airplane.)

And at some point there is an engine rebuild–but this won’t take place for many years, hopefully.

But these are all preliminary, of course. And to meet these expenses I plan to open a savings account with Wells Fargo and deposit money into that account each time I fly, so that I can cover those ongoing expenses as they arise. (Basically operate the airplane like I’m operating an FBO, but I’m paying myself to cover ongoing fixed and per-hour operating costs.)

My strategy to buy an airplane is the following:

(1) Find an aircraft on various web sites (such as Controller or Trade A Plane), and identify one which looks like a good value.

In the compromise of equipment levels and hours verses cost I would favor lower-time engines (though ones that have been regularly flown) over higher-timed engines but better equipped airplanes. Avionics don’t keep you airborne; the engine does.

(2) Determine if the airplane is available, and have the owner or dealer e-mail me a copy of the aircraft logs.

(3) If the logs look relatively complete, then negotiate a purchase price, and open escrow and start a title search through AIC Title, and find a competent A&P Mechanic who can do a pre-buy inspection where the airplane is located.

(4) Schedule a time for the pre-buy inspection, and fly out to where the airplane is located. (I’d fly commercially and rent a car, but with a refundable return ticket in case things go south.) Reserve a hotel room for the night or for two nights, surrounding the time when the inspection takes place.

(5) On the day, fly out and inspect the airplane. If it looks fine, finalize the purchase with the escrow company–or if there are problems negotiate a new price for repairs. Take possession, then fly the airplane home.

And if it goes south, fly back commercially.

We’ll see how this goes.