Question That New Airplane Smell

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The Marx Brothers nature of world events has reinforced my Groucho-inspired credo, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” I’m skeptical about most things except when it comes to my airplanes. Owning two is like ordering a second beer while still holding the first, leading to similar results—you’ll spend more money, do something stupid and wake up in a cheap hangar beside a strange airframe … only to repeat it in hopes of better results.

Airplane ads can be deceptively alluring: “No damage history,” “Zero since overhaul,” and my favorite, “Comes with fresh annual.” It’s left to the buyer to discern which come-on won’t pass the smell test. Purchasing a used airplane is like buying an old house. Someone has spent a fortune renovating the damn thing, only to discover there’s no bottom to the pit and now, desperately wanting out, trolls for the bigger fool.

That fool is I. Over 41 years I’ve owned 5.2 airplanes: Stitts, Cherokee, Bonanza, Aeronca Champ, Citabria and 1/5 of a TriPacer. That’s 0.1268292 … airplanes per year, the Pi of general aviation’s delusional hope of achieving an ever-receding goal. I fell in love with airplanes as a kid by climbing over airport fences that didn’t make good neighbors or keep me from dream-walking along rows of Cubs, Navions and deflated Apaches, the stuff of dreamers from another generation. That gauntlet to become an airplane owner begged to be grasped, so I did and won’t release it until pried from my cold, grease-stained fingers.

Recently, I determined, through careful fiscal analysis and chicken bone auguries, that my 1946 Aeronca Champ needed a companion, preferably something similar but with modern upgrades, such as a starter. Yes, I reach for the stars, making a Citabria the logical choice. Turns out there are plenty for sale, but I narrowed my search to exclude anything outside a 500-mile radius of my home port in Iowa (6Z6). This not being my first airplane-buying rodeo—I’ve been bucked before—I was able to winnow the bogus ads that promised a low-time engine, since Bobby-the-A&P “overhauled that sucker” in his garage, or that a “fresh annual” means that Bobby has a fresh pen and will sign off anything, provided he doesn’t have to do pesky tasks such as read ADs, manuals or actually look at anything below navel height.

I didn’t go into this blind. My friend, we’ll call Tom, is possibly the pickiest mechanic east of the Bitterroots. I’m not really sure where the Bitterroots are or what’s west of them maintenance-wise, but he’s the guy you want to pick the nits out of any prospective purchase. Which he did. Two rejects were easy. One was a 7ECA (115-HP) Citabria that looked so sweet and shiny from across the ramp. I fell in love, a passion that cooled within 100 feet and chilled to near death as we inspected the fabric—a “recent recover” as the ad promised—and noted that the recover artist didn’t know how to properly shrink fabric, so the wing resembled a fat guy squeezed into a 1970s leisure suit. The wings’ ribs and trailing edges contorted from stress, but the mechanic had cleverly masked his lack of fabric savvy with the world’s runniest paint job. If a little paint is good, a lot is gooder.

Still, love endures, and I flew the Citabria alone to see how we’d get along. The fact that the seller declined to fly with me should’ve been a hint that darker forces were in the mist … that mist being the unexplained avgas fumes that accompanied the start and lingered through taxi and runup but dissipated on climb-out.

She may have been poorly dressed and painted like an Army post hooker, but she knew how to fly and responded beautifully through the aerial dance of getting to know each other. “Tom,” I said, after landing, “If you don’t find any major squawks, I’m buying.” Tom blinked the way an oncologist might when a patient claims that cigarettes are really antioxidants. They aren’t.

The first major flaw on this Citabria that just had a “fresh annual” appeared when we removed the cowling and discovered—with little effort—that the avgas fumes were from the gascolator bowl that was loose and not safety-wired. The lower firewall was blue from leaks, but, luckily, the exhaust pipe had rusted loose and held the gascolator in place. Love flew out, and so did we minus the Citabria.

A week later, we found another Citabria with a seemingly good pedigree and arranged to do a prebuy inspection at the seller’s hangar. Before leaving on the 250-mile trip I called to verify the hangar had a compressor we could use for compression checks. The seller said yes, and I said that we planned to spend at least four hours inspecting the airplane, and if it wasn’t a bomb, I’d hand over a cashier’s check and fly it home.

The seller met us in our loaner Cherokee at the gas pumps, where I asked if we could taxi to his hangar. No need, he says, I’ll drive you. Isn’t he nice? (Answer: no). Swell, just need to load our tools into his pickup. No need, he says, leaving me to think, there must be tools, including a borescope—which we’d brought—in his hangar. But before I could inflate the seller’s niceness quotient, he said that there would be no need to do a prepurchase inspection, because the airplane had (see this coming?) just received a fresh annual, the IA’s holy water still dripping from the spinner. To underscore the seller’s faith in this fresh coat of annual goodness in the logbooks, he forbade us from removing any inspection plates, panels, cowling or spark plugs, adding that we could do a prebuy after buying it.

Now, I wasn’t born yesterday, but I was born in New Jersey and can smell a scam seven nautical blocks away. Tom twitched his head, indicating we should bolt. But I was intrigued. When someone tries to cover up something, I want to see what’s in the litter box. We drove to the hangar, where the seller relented and allowed us to remove the top cowling only. This was an attractive, low-time airplane with an amazing instrument panel for an aerobatic taildragger, but that quick peek at the engine compartment exposed hints of neglect.

Further aft, the baggage door had been left open, and we spotted the ELT’s battery due-date sticker showing it had expired over two years prior, an item missed in the previous two annuals. When I mentioned the battery to the now-annoyed-with-us seller he begrudgingly agreed to buy a new &*#^ing battery. Except, no one carried the AmeriKing batteries due to FAA legal nastiness against the company.

We bid Aloha to what had promised to be the best of all possible used Citabrias and eventually found a less exciting 7ECA in Wisconsin. The owner said it was almost out of annual, and he had no intention of doing one for us. Good sign. He also said it didn’t fly hands-off, so we’d need to re-rig it. More good news. And one cylinder was low on compression, but we were free to spend a day or two picking through his airplane any way we chose. I suspected a ploy, but he was straight with us, and the airplane was otherwise in relatively good shape.

Flying this Citabria proved that it was, indeed, a tad out of rig as stated, the tailwheel shimmied on pavement, the mains were wearing unevenly, the battery was growing weak, and the #1 cylinder was soft, but the others were fine. What sealed the deal was when the seller mentioned that the airplane had been wrecked—twice—and rebuilt, the second time at the ACA factory, giving it that new airplane smell. I bought.

My airplane-owning philosophy includes "Buy high, sell low." I bought the Citabria, flew it home and handed Tom a squawk list that 100-plus flight hours later as we begin another annual inspection, keeps growing. Sure, I paid too much, always do, and yes, things appeared that we hadn’t caught on the prebuy. They always do. But I liked dealing with an honest seller, and as Groucho reminds us, “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” And if you can keep two airplanes happy, you’ve really got it made.

Comments (8)

Peter Egan of "Road & Track* fame, has written similar articles about buying "hopelessly shot old British cars." HIs wish was to, just once, "buy a used car from someone who would maintain it like me."

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | April 18, 2018 5:31 AM    Report this comment

Ah yes, the good old "fresh annual!" I tend to be most suspicious of aircraft advertising that particular trait because I always wonder why anyone would perform a top-notch annual on a plane they're going to sell (hint: they wouldn't, and they don't - I wouldn't).

I also don't get why people think it's a good selling point to advertise little-to-no hours on a freshly-overhauled engine. Were they too worried to fly it, maybe because it was done by a questionably-cheap overhaul guy? Unless it has around 300-ish hours, the likelihood of a premature (maintenance-induced) failure is rather high.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 18, 2018 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Agree Gary, when I see an ad with "5 SMOH" it kinda makes you go Hmmm...

Posted by: A Richie | April 18, 2018 9:52 AM    Report this comment

I think that many sellers are trying to suck in first time buyers. I have done log book reviews for potential buyers and it is amazing what is not in there. If the paper is not good then how good was the maintenance all those years. There are a lot of Sherwin Williams overhauls out there. Lots of corrosion and ? parts installed. I have seen airframes with good looking paint jobs that had severe corrosion just under that Bondo and pretty paint.
The bottom line is that proper aircraft maintenance is expensive. We are spoiled by our cars and light trucks. They go forever with minimal maintenance. Also, we are not supposed to tear them apart every year to look for problems. So the novice buyer gets lulled into thinking that maintaining will be a piece of cake. In my area there are a few very good shops, however, they are expensive. There are also some others who are not as diligent. One client thought that a Baron would be the perfect airplane. His estimate of annual maintenance costs was off by an order of magnitude. After a bit of discussion, he came to realize why the light twin was selling for under $100K.

The bottom line is "it is not the cost of the airplane, it is the cost of keeping it airworthy" that should be the deciding factor.

I am still looking for a nice Citabria as well. Maybe I am too critical. Perhaps, an experimental would fill my needs.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | April 18, 2018 12:34 PM    Report this comment

Interesting story about buying used aircraft. Other pilots looking to buy an aircraft may want to read this little bit of free advise.

I work for both sides of a purchase and there's a couple things that should be standard procedures to protect both parties, buyer and seller. This also helps pay for needed upgrades and maintenance before the new owner flies the plane.

The Buyer should find a mechanic that is going to do the future Annuals before negotiations begin. Once the Buyer finds a prospective aircraft. Then the buyer's mechanic does everything required in an Annual inspection and list (ALL) the squawks (don't sign off an Annual just inspect like one).The Buyer will usually be expected to pay for this inspection even if the Annual was done recently.

Take the "Squawk List" to the seller and start negotiating who pays for what. As a standard rule the seller only needs to pay for the items that prevent an Annual from being signed off. Any squawked item that is not required for flight may or may not be used as leverage on the selling price.

Example: EGT, second radio, second instrument, wheel pants, heavy wing and high time component overhaul are not necessarily required for airworthiness. Even though they may not be required, this is the time the buyer should reach down in their wallet and get things right. There's money being exchanged on an 'old' aircraft and it's time to do the things that will make the aircraft more enjoyable to fly.

When representing the seller, I'll take the Squawk List and start checking things off that are not required. Research the manufactures equipment list and the FAR's to show in writing what's required or optional. Do price checks on possible remedies to the squawks.

Two mechanics should be involved in every aircraft sale. Any vehicle over 30 years old has mechanical issues that need addressed. If you don't deal with aging worn out items during the exchange of ownership then when? This extensive process also exposes the new owner to the operations and intricacies of the aircraft for future maintenance and safe operation.

This is just one experienced mechanic's free advise.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | April 18, 2018 3:58 PM    Report this comment

At one point I decided I wanted a Citabria. I was given a heads up on an "awesome" airplane at an airport only a hundred miles away. Before going there I figured I had better get some basic info on the airplane so I phoned the owner. The first question was "how much time on the engine ? "
The answer "how much time do you want the logs to show ? ".......

Needless to say that was the end of that conversation. Long story short, I never did find a nice Citabria anywhere near my home field, but did get convinced to buy into a Tripacer on floats with another guy........from the frying pan into the fire :(

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | April 18, 2018 9:06 PM    Report this comment

Another truly great article by one of the best aviation authors there is. Thank you, AVWeb.

Posted by: Dave Sanderson | April 18, 2018 10:07 PM    Report this comment

Early on in my aviation avocation, I determined that if I was going to own airplanes I'd have to get certificated as an A&P. So I did that the hard way ... by working my way up the food chain at a large USAF Aero Club. This was one of the smartest moves I've made ... not only for the obvious reasons of saving money on maintenance but also for knowing every subtle nuance of the condition and idiosyncrasies of my airplanes. I get better maintenance and I never have to wonder what's been done. In fact, I spend far more time working on my machines than flying them. But MY labor costs are zero so ... doesn't matter. I only pay for parts and outside maintenance ... IF required. Of course, I have to find an IA who will work with me but SO far, that's been no problem in over 40 years.

It befuddles me how pilots who own simple GA airplanes usually shy away from getting involved in maintenance. Most owners are savvy enough to know there's no such thing as a left handed screw driver set and could be coached into active involvement in their airplane's maintenance regimen. Even if they only did cosmetic cleanup ... their machines would be better off. And there is a list of items pilot/owners are allowed to accomplish legally. Every pilot ought to get familiar with that list and what's involved with the attendant record keeping. I recently attended a FAA Safety Team presentation on that very subject. SOME A&P's frown on this but if yours is like this ... find another one. Frankly, taking panels off of an airplane and some of the mundane tasks involved in prepping for an inspection are real drudgery for most mechanics. And why pay someone big $$ for something you can do yourself?

Finally, the newest 'shortage' du jour is A&P's. As time moves forward and the existing cadre retires, this is going to become a problem. One of my pet peeves -- BIG TIME -- is over how the FAA handled the FAR Part 23 rewrite. About 50 people from every alphabet soup organization around worked for over five years preparing a 326 page Aviation Rulemaking Committee report on that subject. One tenet of it was to institute a new category of airworthiness -- Primary -- where A&P's could do condition inspections on Class I airplanes ... much like E-AB and LSA airplanes do now. It never made it into the final rewrite. In effect, the FAA helped new airplane production but did nothing for the tens of thousands of older airplanes ... such as those described here.

However it is, it behooves owners to get more chummy with their machines. There should be no reason for a loose gascolator bowl without safety wire to ever be seen.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 19, 2018 4:46 AM    Report this comment

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