Lessons Learned the Hard Way: How Not to Buy a Used Aircraft

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AVweb reader Lee L. Schroeder is a 3500-hour pilot and experienced aircraft owner who has bought and sold a number of airplanes. Nevertheless, Schroder's recent purchase of a 1968 Beechcraft Baron turned into an absolute nightmare involving allegations of misrepresentation and fraud, lawyers, tens of thousands of dollars in nasty surprises, months of unplanned downtime, and even a threatened enforcement action against Schroeder by the FAA! Dr. Schroeder offers a play-by-play of how this mess transpired and the lessons he learned the hard way.

I had been flying Beechcraft Barons for about eight years in connection with my business in New Jersey, but when I sold the company and took a job as CEO of a larger company in Florida, the Baron no longer made sense. The places I had to go were too far away and I had too little time to get there. I sold my B-58 Baron and while searching for a Bonanza, found a like-new Sierra which I bought and used for travel around Florida and on the occasional vacation.

Three years later, I left my job and started another company. Now my travel needs again favored a Baron with shorter trip lengths and more passengers. I began looking for an "inexpensive Baron" that would fit within the limited budget of the new company. I established a target price of $100,000 and looked for a deal where I could trade the Sierra.

Soon I was looking at photographs and reviewing histories of a variety of Barons. The one that emerged as the best deal was a 1968 D model that was advertised with extensive corrosion treatment, new paint and interior, newly overhauled heater, new color radar, new GPS, older but good King radios, new fuel cells, recent prop overhauls, and one new engine.

First Impressions

I hired a mechanic for the day and we flew the Sierra to another state to look over the Baron. The airplane appeared cosmetically very attractive. My mechanic first went through the logbooks carefully and then compared the logs to what could be observed about the airplane while giving the airplane a general going over. The company that was selling the airplane was an aircraft charter and maintenance operation that also used a B-58 Baron and a King Air for charters and maintained a number of Beechcraft airplanes through its maintenance and avionics shops. This made me comfortable that the mechanics were familiar with the Baron and could be expected to perform acceptable maintenance. One of the partners was a captain for a major airline and that gave me added confidence that this was an operation concerned with quality and safety.

My mechanic advised me that the logbooks reflected a tremendous amount of recent work supporting the new features listed in the ad. He also cautioned that the airplane was not ready to leave the shop. He detailed a list of seemingly minor problems that would typically be caught on an annual and suggested that if I bought the airplane, I should do so after a fresh annual inspection had been performed. The airplane's annual had not expired, so we flight-tested the airplane and found things on the panel to be working. Fuel flows were not coordinated between the two engines but this, in my experience, is a problem that commonly occurs after installing a new engine on a twin. The idle was also set rather high on the left engine. Other engine indicators appears normal.

The Deal Is Closed

A deal was struck to trade the Sierra on the Baron. The Baron was to have a fresh annual, and a stereo intercom and an inflatable door seal were to be installed during the annual. The trade was to occur at my home base in Clearwater, Florida about two weeks later.

When the time came to make the trade, the seller announced the airplane was not ready. This interfered with a trip I had to make to Washington, D.C. and various locations in Michigan. The seller offered to fly the airplane to D.C. and make the trade there. I agreed.

About a week later, the Sierra and the Baron came together at Signature Flight Support at Washington's Dulles International Airport. The company pilot delivering the Baron conducted a walk-around inspection of the Baron, showing me the idiosyncrasies of the older airplane. We next did a quick check out in the Baron by doing a couple of touch-and-gos at Dulles. I was surprised that the fuel flow problem appeared better but not resolved. The left engine still idled high, but not as high as before. On the ramp, the Baron sat a bit nose-high, but this occurred occasionally with my previous Barons when they were landed very lightly on the nose and had a CG toward the aft end of the envelope.

Things looked acceptable from my point of view which included the perspective that no airplane I ever purchase will escape an early trip to my mechanic for the purpose of tweaking those things that I do not feel are exactly right. The deal was closed. The Sierra departed headed south, while my wife and I departed in the Baron for Michigan where we had several stops to make over the next few days.

A Few Squawks

On the first leg, I was generally pleased with the airplane but I did start a list of squawks to be dealt with later. Notable among these was that the cabin heater would not work, and this was more of an inconvenience than necessity since the flight occurred in August. The new door seal was also on the list since it would not inflate.

The next day, I called the seller's IA to discuss the heater and a couple of other problems. I asked about the door seal and he said it was just hard to pump up. (It operated manually.) I asked if the heater had been tested since the overhauled unit had been installed and he responded by saying that it worked fine but that he was uncertain about the level of alcohol in the tank. Since the heater ran on alcohol, he pointed out, I should try again after refilling the tank. I suddenly got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. Anyone who flies a Baron, and certainly any IA who signed off on an annual inspection of a Baron, would know that the heating system is fired by avgas, not alcohol. I explained to the IA what was used for fuel and he finally agreed. He next suggested I read the Pilots Operating Handbook on the operation of the heater and promptly hung up.

I returned to the airplane and removed the door panel to determine the problem with the door seal. I found a fold or kink in the pressure supply line that prevented air from entering the seal. When this was straightened, I found the seal had a large tear and not not hold air. It looked to me as if the supply line had been deliberately kinked to hide the tear in the seal. I now had good reasons to worry about the overall condition of the Baron.

Upon returning the Florida, I delivered the airplane to the IA at the shop that has maintained my aircraft for the past several years with a list of some ten or twelve problems, including the idle, fuel flow, heater, door seal and the continuing nose-high attitude of the airplane on the ramp. I directed that an annual inspection be conducted.

Annual Inspection #2

About three days later, I sat with the IA to review of list of some 99 discrepancies! Among them were:

  1. The nose-high attitude was due to the fact that the landing gear had not been inflated properly with nitrogen. This was the tip of the iceberg, however, as the landing gear system was completely out of rig. The gear doors would not close completely and there was no down-lock pressure on the nose gear at all. The IA viewed the airplane as unsafe to taxi.
  2. The left engine low-pressure injection pump was not working and an attempt had been made to get the engine to idle using only the high-pressure pump. This accounted for the idle problem and the fuel flow problem.
  3. The unfeathering accumulator for the left engine was missing.
  4. The tires were recapped and, therefore, oversized, causing them to rub against the side of the wheel well. This created the possibility that the main gears may bind in the wheel well and not lower.
  5. Many fasteners were throughout the aircraft were hardware-store quality, not aircraft quality. Except for obvious, externally observable bolts, safety wires were virtually unused. A number of safety hazards were created by these problems.
  6. The left aileron was not installed correctly on the outboard hinge. Only two of the four screws actually passed through the hinge, and the aileron was displaced upwards and aft about a quarter of an inch in both directions. So serious was this problem that my IA believed it was possible that the aileron could have become detached from the aircraft in flight.
  7. Rivets attaching the vertical stabilizer to fuselage were so corroded that the stabilizer was in danger of coming off of the airplane. This could only be observed from within the tailcone.
  8. The heater did not work because, as best we could detemine, it had never been overhauled since being installed in 1968. It was fortuitous that it would not ignite since the overflow lines were plugged. Had I been able to start the heater, it would likely have started a fire or blown up.

A call to the seller produced an expected response. Their position was that I had accepted the airplane "as is" per the contract and they had no further obligations. My position was that the logbooks show an annual inspection having been signed off the day before delivery by their shop but the aircraft was not airworthy. The contract, I argued, required an annual inspection and because of this I was entitled to expect the aircraft would be airworthy.

Enter the Lawyers ... and the FAA

After fruitless conversations, I engaged counsel in the seller's state and filed a lawsuit against the seller. My attorney advised me not to begin repairs on the airplane and a period of nine months ensued during which the disassembled Baron sat gathering dust in the corner of the maintenance hanger.

At the request of my IA, I called the Orlando FSDO and suggested they conduct a ramp check of the Baron. The FAA inspector confirmed the problems found by my IA and began certificate actions against the IA who signed the logbooks.

Shortly thereafter, I received notice that I was being sued by the seller for libel and slander alleging that I had made false and malicious statement to the FAA.

About nine months later, I agreed to accept a settlement of $13,000 from the seller. The costs of repairing the Baron ran to around $21,000 which seemed modest in view of the magnitude of problems. I lost over nine months of use of the airplane and about $8,000, plus legal fees in order to resolve the problems, but the problems are not over yet.

Adding Insult to Injury

Several months ago I received a notice of certificate action from the FAA. They contend that I flew the Baron while it was not in airworthy condition and they proposed a 30-day suspension of my license. Specifically, they cite the improperly installed aileron which they feel should have been observed during a pre-flight inspection. (Recently, I had the maintenance shop return the aileron to the condition it was in when I bought the airplane so that it could be photographed. We invited passing pilots and mechanics to determine which aileron was improperly installed and only an experienced Baron mechanic picked up the discrepancy.)

I am now spending money on legal fees to fight the FAA's intended action. Meanwhile, I stopped by the maintenance shop for some work and commented on a beautiful older Bonanza sitting in a state of partial disassembly. The IA commented that the FAA had just been there to look at that airplane too. It seems it was recently acquired by a local pilot and had received an annual inspection just prior to delivery. According to the IA, the center section was so badly cracked that the dihedral of the wings had increased. I suspect he was exaggerating, but I wonder if the new owner may not soon be notified by the FAA that his license is in jeopardy for failing to notice the new angle of the wings.

Lessons Learned (the Hard Way)

Over the years, I have purchased a number of airplanes and always with more success than I experienced with this Baron. I have routinely and confidently purchased based upon an annual inspection conducted by a previously unknown IA at a distant shop and never feared the prospect of outright fraud.

I learned an important lesson from this experience and that is to have a thorough pre-purchase inspection conducted by a shop you trust. I had intended on taking a mechanic to conduct a review of the aircraft logs and cursorily inspect the airplane as a precursor to having a pre-purchase inspection done at my shop. When we came to the conclusion to have an annual performed as a condition of the sale, particularly by a shop with what appeared to have a great deal of Beechcraft experience, it seemed that a subsequent pre-purchase inspection was unnecessary. This was an almost fatal decision in view of the safety problems that existed.

I had previously believed that a discrepancy found in a newly acquired aircraft was invariably due to an oversight by the seller or their mechanic. It hadn't dawned on me that there really are individuals who will purposely avoid making needed repairs, and blatantly attempt to conceal these defects from a buyer. I know this happened with used cars, but I naively believed that the considerable danger inherent in an improperly maintained airplane kept everyone largely honest.

I also learned to engage counsel prior to initiating any contact with the FAA. Since the actions of the seller's shop created a significant threat to safety, I believe I had an obligation to notify the FAA so as to hopefully prevent someone else's life from being endangered. I suspect legal counsel may have suggested a way to notify the FAA while precluding the possibility of a certificate action.

NOTE: In a companion article, AVweb's aviation law editor Phil Kolczynski uses Schroeder's experience as a case study, and offers further advice for prospective buyers of used aircraft from a lawyer's point of view.