The Pilot's Lounge #107: Penny Foolish, Pound Stupid

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The Pilot's Lounge

I was sitting in a recliner in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, minding my own business, when Old Hack came whistling into the room and pulled the Reader's Disgust magazine from in front of my slowly-moving lips.

"Hey, I was reading that."

"Boy, I got more important stuff for you to read, right here. I'll even help you with the big words," Hack declaimed as he slapped a few NTSB reports and some other documents on the table beside me. "In that last collection of drivel you wrote and AVweb had the temerity to call a column, you said that general aviation pilots were pretty smart. This stuff here is to prove that they're dumber than a bag of hammers."

"Now, Hack, I didn't say they were smart; I just said that the research Dr. Dismukes did showed that pilots who had accidents, on the average, were just as smart, or dumb, to use your word, as the universe of pilots. That means that there can be some pretty foolish ones out there turning airplanes into scrap just as there can be some very bright ones doing the same thing."

Hack managed to look defiant and frustrated at the same time, "Yeah. Well. OK. But, you have got to look at this stuff. Some one has got to do a study to find out if it's true that a lot of the dumb and dangerous stuff having to do with airplanes happens because some guy was a tightwad and trying to save a little money in the wrong area wound up killing him."

As it was the path of least resistance, I picked up the papers and read them. While they were certainly not a scientific cross-section of events affecting the aviation community, they were indeed, as Hack had said, powerful evidence that people around general aviation can do some incredibly brainless things when money enters the equation. The first three did not involve anything more than very minor injuries, but the financial loss to each owner/pilot was eye-watering. The other four were fatal accidents involving flight for hire and the use of pilots with more enthusiasm than training or experience. All of those were fatal. One in particular struck me and made me think of the very old expression regarding British money, "Penny wise, pound foolish", although while the aircraft owner involved was pound foolish, he was not even close to being penny wise.

To Save a Buck

F4U Corsair

The nonfatal accidents were notable for decisions regarding insurance and were so nearly identical in result I had to do some research to confirm they were true. Of course, before printing this, I've changed a number of the details so that those guilty of brain-fade won't be able to make a buck off of AVweb via litigation.

The three bent airplanes were antiques; one was a monoplane of utterly classic lines from the mid-1930s and two were biplanes from about 1940 or so. In each case the owner had spent on the order of $100,000 beyond the price of the airplane in some combination of restoration, upgrading avionics, tricking out the interior, hanging a larger engine and otherwise turning the airplane into a showpiece that would be competitive at Oshkosh.

A bare-bones-up restoration is often a true labor of love; the amount of money and time put into the restoration and upgrade often exceeds the market value of the finished airplane. If the owner wants to sell it, that's kind of tough. If he or she desires to keep it and fly a masterpiece and cause eyeballs to pop out upon taxiing onto the ramp, that's a different story. For many such owners, the combination of knowing that no one, anywhere, can put anything into the sky that comes close to the quality of your ship and seeing those eyeballs pop and the drool start when you taxi it onto the ramp, is well worth the price of admission. That is a huge upside to such restorations. From the point of view of one of those folks whose eyeballs pop out and who starts to drool when a perfect G-model Beech Staggerwing or F4U Corsair taxis up, I'm incredibly grateful that there are people with the wherewithal to turn those fabulous airplanes into moving works of art.

The problem is that skill in restoration and having the money to undertake it does not necessarily translate into the required skill, judgment and ability to then operate the resultant airplane.

That is where two additional costs of a high-end restoration come in: training and insurance.

Training

Beech Staggerwing

It would seem that if a pilot buys a classic airplane, for instance an aforementioned Staggerwing Beech (Model 17 series), it would behoove him or her to get some training in the airplane before touring the countryside to say, at least figuratively, "Hey! Look at me!" What surprises me is the resistance that I've seen, and that Old Hack's paperwork showed, of owners of classic airplanes to spending a few hundred dollars to have a knowledgeable instructor conduct training. The problem is that the vast, vast majority of modern pilots learned on modern airplanes -- built after World War II. Those airplanes were designed and certified under federal regulations that were in place once the concept of stability and control had become pretty well understood. That is to say, airplanes built after World War II are, by and large, pretty darned easy to fly. Few of them have serious bad habits. Even the tailwheel airplanes are a comparative piece of cake to take off and land compared to the pre-World War II airplanes. The systems are, by and large, intuitive, so even if the pilot doesn't bother to read the handbook, he or she can probably figure most of them out. (I am aware that certain teenagers at a certain airport in Iowa in the early 1970s were known to stuff a student pilot into a Piper Tripacer on a very hot summer day and not let him out until he found the master switch -- it's under the pilot's seat.)

Pre-World War II airplanes vary hugely in their handling, control harmony, stability and control and response to control inputs, particularly near stall speed. The systems are not intuitive. The instrument installation is very nearly random, either that or someone sat in the baggage compartment and fired a shotgun forward and they stuck the instruments in the holes. They are not necessarily easy to fly. Many will teach you about aileron reversal near stall speed; most are fairly blind forward when in three-point attitude on the ground; some are neutrally stable in yaw and exhibit a non-linear stick force per G -- so that if you start pulling hard in a very steep turn you may find yourself increasing the G load radically without intending to, and that it may keep increasing even when you start to push on the stick.

Nevertheless, an uncomfortably high proportion of owners who buy and restore old airplanes spend well over 100 Gs just on the restoration (after the airplane purchase) and then refuse to spend even one percent of that amount on an instructor who can teach them how to fly it.

It just seems like a foolish place to cut corners.

OK, that was an understatement.

Insurance

Stearman

There is a risk in flying old airplanes. The accident rate is higher than for other general aviation airplanes as a whole. Part of that is because many are tailwheel airplanes, which puts them into the higher accident rate crowd by definition. The other part is that old parts are not as reliable as new nor do they last as long. Power loss in flight is more likely to happen; electrical fires due to old, frayed wiring are a risk to be considered; and simply making sure the pilot knows how to get fuel from the various tanks to the engine in a successful manner may be problematic.

When there is a risk, the way to deal with it is to train the pilot and insure the airplane. We talked about training earlier. Because one cannot train for every eventuality, the fall-back is insurance to pay to repair damage to the airplane if something goes wrong. What stuns me, and was repeated in Hack's documents, was that even though most owners of expensive, old airplanes insure them for liability (the owner/pilot is insured if something goes wrong and someone is hurt or someone else's property is damaged), they may not insure the hull (insurance that pays to repair or replace the airplane itself). Those owners who buy hull insurance invariably buy a policy that covers the airplane when it is parked, but there is always a very distinct percentage who will not insure their pride and joy when it is in motion (on the ground or flying -- the precise definition is in each policy).

When is an airplane most likely to get damaged? When it is in motion. Especially if it is an old airplane. To quote a currently popular syllable that has become a phrase: "Duh."

Hull coverage for classic airplanes varies in price, but is usually not more than about three to four percent of the agreed-upon value of the airplane. The nice thing is that someone who has put a great deal of money into a restoration can use the receipts to show the value and can probably insure it for about what it would cost to replace it. In the accident documentation Hack showed me, the owners had insured their airplanes for replacement value, but they only bought insurance for when it was parked. Yes, I assume to save money. For their six-figure airplane, none of them shelled out the three or four grand it would have cost to insure it while it was in motion.

Crunch Time

Douglas XO-31

OK, so what happened? The pilot of the monoplane had recently finished a multi-year restoration. During those years he had not flown more than maybe 20 hours annually, all of which was in nosewheel airplanes. I could find no indication he had ever received dual in this rather challenging airplane. One weekend afternoon when a bunch of guys were at the airport they bugged and teased and harassed him until he agreed to go fly his airplane for only the second or third time since the restoration. There was a substantial crosswind to the sole runway. It was gusty. Once in flight, he sensibly made three or four go-arounds when he had trouble lining up to land. He did not divert to another airport with a runway more pointed into the wind. He finally put it on the sod. He lost it on the rollout and jammed the airplane into the fence. Mere mortals would consider it totaled; he says he's going to rebuild it. However, he did not have insurance for an in-motion accident.

Tightwad number two finished a gorgeous restoration of a biplane that had a number of fuel tanks. Part of the change was installing a much larger and thirstier engine. He took no dual in the airplane, or something similar, because, as he pointed out, he was a very high-time, professional pilot. On the first flight fuel consumption was much higher than he anticipated and before he could get back to the airport he ran the tank he'd intended to use for the flight dry. He proceeded to get confused as to how to select the appropriate tank to make it noisy up front once again. He knew where the fuel was, he just couldn't get it to the engine. He did serious damage to the airplane, which he had not insured for flight, in the ensuing forced landing. He says he'll rebuild it but he has already spent the family money that was dedicated to the airplane. I'm wondering about the atmosphere around the dining room table.

Our third aviator finished the restoration in a hangar at a narrow farm strip. He, too, was a very high-time, professional pilot. He allowed as how he didn't buy in motion insurance because he flew all the time and could handle anything that might go wrong. Once the restoration was done he was excited and decided to go fly despite a strong crosswind on a strip that had about eight feet on either side of the wingtips when the airplane was in the center (although there was no marked centerline). He discovered rapidly that the combination of changes to the vertical stabilizer and a new windshield that had distortion he hadn't noticed allowed him to drift right as he was sorting things out on his first takeoff. He put a wing into a tree on the side of the runway and turned much further right without any further ado. At full power he rammed trees and a fence. He, too, had spent the family budget on the potential prize-winner that he was going to sell after collecting a few trophies at airshows.

These guys just hurt their wallets because they were cheap. It gets worse.

For-Hire Operations

Continental Engine

The other accidents bothered me far more, in a progressive fashion. There were four, but they fit a pattern. In each case, someone had wanted to keep his cost of air travel to a minimum, which is a very good thing. However, the strategy in each case was suspect and in the latter two, it appears pure deception entered the picture. In the first two, the principal was the owner of a light twin, one cabin class, one over-wing entry. Each owner had decided that he would not fly the airplane himself, but would hire a pilot to fly it for him. Each hired an eager, low-time pilot who had little experience in type because the money offered wasn't enough to attract an experienced pilot. Neither took the step to send the pilot to FlightSafety or other training program to get that pilot up to speed in specifics of the airplane.

In both cases, a very, very rare event occurred: An engine failed not long after takeoff. In both cases a very common event then occurred: The pilot who had not had recent training in type demonstrated that he could not handle the engine failure, crashed the airplane and all aboard died.

What makes one of the calamities an exercise in weird poetic justice is that in the cabin-class twin, the owner had just had a top overhaul performed on the engine that subsequently decided to take the day off. His mechanic had identified two cylinders on the Continental engine that had compression below 60 over 80. The maintenance technician asserted that those cylinders needed to be overhauled. He went further and proclaimed that because two cylinders were bad, the owner might as well overhaul all six -- that is, perform a top overhaul.

As Continental Motors has said publicly for the last three years or so, there is no need to overhaul a cylinder just because of poor compression. Compression is only one indicator of cylinder health. The next step is to take actions such as using a borescope to see what is really wrong with the cylinder, if anything, before overhauling it. And, as Mike Busch says in his Savvy Aviator classes, "Just because one cylinder is bad, it's no reason to overhaul the others -- after all, you wouldn't overhaul your alternator just because one cylinder went bad."

So, the owner was penny foolish, he didn't check to see if those two cylinders really needed an overhaul. Then he was pound foolish: he had all six cylinders overhauled. And, to be consistent with his nature, he proceeded to a shop that would do the cylinders for much less than anyone else. You guessed it: A piston seized in one of those needlessly and cheaply overhauled cylinders. It started the whole accident sequence that the bottom-dollar, untrained pilot could not handle.

Illegal Charter

Cessna T303 Crusader

The last two made me furious because innocents died and it's probably not possible to identify the truly guilty versus the avaricious or merely gullible. In both cases the flight had some resemblance to a charter. Yet, in each, the pilot in command did not have even a commercial pilot certificate. I could find no indication that the pilots had received any training that was consistent with that required for charter pilots carrying members of the general public for hire. Those pilots have to go through recurrent training and take a pretty tough checkride, including engine out procedures, every six months.

I don't know how the aircraft operators were marketing the flights. I have no idea whether fraud was involved or that those involved were just trying to do things on the cheap and take advantage of the fact that some inexperienced pilots will do almost anything to fly a sophisticated airplane, including doing so for virtually no pay and without training on type. I do know that the companies that had its employees on each doomed airplane paid for the flight, although, from what I've been able to learn, it was less than the going rate per mile for legitimate charter operators by a noticeable amount.

In both cases there was an emergency after takeoff as one of the engines slipped its mortal coil. Neither pilot handled it. One airplane was a Cessna T303. A T303 is the most docile handling airplane of any of the wing-engine twins. It is a true pussycat. Yet, as with any airplane, a T303 goes just fast enough and is just demanding enough to kill those who don't respect it and undergo appropriate training.

I've seen this too often. In my opinion, putting a private pilot in a twin, without serious recurrent training, and then marketing that combination to the public, to someone who thinks he is getting a deal, borders on the criminal. Yes, sometimes the buyer of illegal charter flights is innocent; sometimes the buyer knows and is giving a wink and a nod to the provider -- and the combination of crooked provider and knowing buyer get away with it -- the flight comes off without harm. Yet, every once in a while Reality steps in and says, "Surprise," and people die.

I can't help but recall that Ritche Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper died in a Beech Bonanza they had chartered for a flight. They were not told that the pilot provided by the charter operator had a Commercial Pilot certificate but no instrument rating. They were not told the pilot had failed his checkride for the instrument rating some months earlier and had never tried again. It was snowing that night, although not right at the airport at the time of takeoff. The airplane made it only a few miles before the pilot flew into a snow shower and, predictably, lost it.

Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper died nearly 50 years ago because someone tried to cut costs on a charter flight. People died in the last year for the same reason. You'd think we'd make progress. Sadly, in this particular area I simply don't know how to fix the problem because there will always be tightwads who will cut corners and cut deals in their desire to get something for next to nothing and there will always be charlatans who will misrepresent their services to the public knowing that the FAA has a budget that is inadequate to police all operators. At a very basic level those who seek to charter an airplane and do not know about a potential charter provider should demand to see both the operator's Air Taxi Certificate and the pilot's certificates, knowing that at a minimum those must be a commercial certificate with an instrument rating or an airline transport certificate. (In my experience freight operators are regularly asked to fax a copy of their Air Taxi Certificate to prospective clients, yet passenger operators rarely get such requests.)

Old Hack looked at me after I finished reading and put down the papers he'd given me. "Boy," he said, "I don't care what they say about smart pilots dying in airplanes because of mistakes. I guess it's true. But, by Gawd, being stupid around airplanes when it comes to training or spending money in the right places just keeps killing people, too. I've been tellin' you and tellin' you, being stupid around airplanes is a capital offense and Nature is a hanging judge."

Who am I to argue with Old Hack?

See you next month.


Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.