Question That New Airplane Smell


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.