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Flying: Buying Your First Plane

Buying Your First Plane

OK, so now I’ve told you about learning to fly, finding the right instructor, where and how to rent a plane, and pretty much danced around the really big question for most of us, which is: How do I get my own plane? Well hang on tight kiddies, ‘cause here we go…

click for larger imageRenters know that they can never count on the condition of the plane they are about to fly. Other renters seem all too willing to damage a plane and not report it for the next poor bastard that’ll be flying it. I’ve found broken spars, damaged firewalls, broken engine mounts, flat tires, dead batteries, bird damage, slack or kinked elevator cables, and even had a door fall off in my hand one time. These were all incidents that went unreported. Thank God I always do a very thorough pre-flight EVERY TIME. Once, when I showed a broken horizontal stabilizer to an instructor at a place where I rented practically every weekend, his response was “well, it’ll probably be fine. Just don’t spin it.”. Just don’t spin it? How about I just don’t rent it anymore? Often, even after I’d made an official report on specific damage, it went unfixed for months before enough people refused to rent it that the FBO had no choice but to fix it. This happens a lot, because FBO’s operate on shoestring budgets and can’t always afford to do the right thing.

Owning your own plane eliminates so many of the hassles of renting/flying that you’ve probably been laboring over this question since day one. I know I have. First, I thought that I’d be able to purchase a new GA aircraft, or maybe a LSA. So I went to Sun-N-Fun every year full of optimism. My Dad will tell you that I’m full of something else, but that’s another article altogether. But every year, I’d come away deeply disappointed by the prices. Going online to the manufacturers’ web sites was even worse, because they have the real pricing info, rather than the BS that was constantly doled out at the shows. Those guys would prattle on for half an hour on how it was practically free to own a new plane, but they never really got to the bottom line. Eventually, I’d have to stop them in mid schpeal, and say “Hey buddy, just give me the bottom line for THIS plane. Then they’d cough into their fist and say some huge number at the same time, etc.

I was left with the impression that only the very wealthy could afford them, or I’d have to own an FBO. I’d go to their web sites and search out the pricing page, only to find out that even the exorbitant price the guy at the show quoted was too low to get me into a plane of my choosing. A decent 172 costs about $200,000 dollars, and even the LSA’s that were first promoted as “The solution for the working man” are going for $80,000 and up. Kits are about $30,000 for a decent one, and then you’re looking at over 200 hours or more to complete it! I don’t have 200 hours to spend BEFORE I can start flying, so that’s not really a viable option for me.

click for larger imageThat left me with only one option – buy a used airplane. As it turns out, this is easier said than done. Even though the initial outlay is considerable, it is far less than going the new route. But you’ve gotta do it the right way, or you’re just going to be buying someone else’s old beater that even they don’t want anymore. Here’s how it went for me:

First, I bought a book from Sporty’s called “Buying a Used Airplane”, and read it cover to cover. This book makes some good sense about what kind of plane to look for and how to decide what’ll work best for you. I also went online and took AOPA’s course on buying an aging aircraft. This is a good place to start for anyone going this route. I’ll give you the basic concepts here.

I have the bulk of my flying time in Cessna’s. From the 150/152 to the 172/172SP/172SP G1000 on up to the 182 Skylane, which is a wonderful plane. I also have time in Tomahawks, Cherokees, Warriors and the Diamond DA40 with G1000, so I’ve flown my share of low-wings as well. For me, I’ve always liked the view from the high wing planes, and the fact that there are two doors to enter vs. only one on most of the Pipers. The Diamond gets around this by having a hinged canopy, so users can enter from both sides. My wife also prefers the high wing configuration. So naturally, I assumed that I’d be buying a Cessna.

However, once I started pricing planes I realized that most Cessnas were too expensive unless they had damage, high hours or were very old planes. I love the classics, but they cost even more than new ones to keep up, so I thought I’d better keep looking. The Pipers were just too sluggish and didn’t have much “oomph”, so I got discouraged with them pretty quickly. I kept bouncing back and forth between used LSA’s (I’ve been checked out for LSA’s, but I really don’t like the Rotax motors in most of them.) and Cessnas for a couple of years, but I finally realized that I’d either have to buy a high hour 150 or a super-high hour 172, unless I wanted a plane built in the late 50’s or early 60’s.

So what other options were available to me? I kept looking at Barnstormers online, and reading AeroTrader until they stopped distributing them at the local airports (what’s with that, anyway? Don’t these people want pilots to see their ads?). Anyway, I even tried bidding on a 150 on Ebay.

I placed my bid, but the reserve wasn’t met. I could see that the bidding was pretty much over at $19,000 and unless someone else pushed it a little higher, the plane wasn’t going to sell. So I wrote an email to the seller and asked him to call me. When this guy did call me, he was some kind of con artist who was trying desperately to convince me that this plane was worth upwards of $80,000!!!! Can you imagine? I mean, a 1976 150 for $80K? Just for fun I ran the N numbers to see if there had ever been any damage. I found out that those were not the correct N numbers for the plane. I then noticed that a couple other bidders were doing the same, and saw that the guy had given incorrect N numbers at least three separate times – the last set was for a balloon in Cleveland! Big red flag there, and I ran away as fast as I could go.

But while I was on Ebay, I noticed an ad from Freedom Aero Loans, which I contacted. I wanted to know just how much plane I could afford. These people were very nice, but a little evasive. I had to badger the hell out of them to get any response at all. But I did get pre-approved to buy a plane. Now I started looking for real.

I followed the book’s advice and made a little list of the things I like to do while flying, and the type of flying I do most.

  • For me, flying is not to get from point A to point B. I don’t care too much about how fast I go, as long as I can get a short cross country in from time to time and maybe a slightly longer trip once every blue moon or so.
  • Most of my flights are from 1 to 2 hours in total duration, and are spent sight-seeing as often as not.
  • Fuel cost and maintenance are major factors for me, because I am not wealthy, so that was a consideration.
  • Most of my flights are either alone in the pattern or with just one other person, so did I really NEED a 4 seat plane? No.
  • I like to take pictures from the air, so visibility is very important.
  • I like to fly to smaller strips, so I didn’t want a plane that uses an unusually large amount of runway.
  • I live in Florida, so I want a plane that can take the harsh sun and weather here.
  • Finally, my wife has a thing about cloth covered airplanes and does not like them. This ruled out the old Pipers and other tube and rag airframes completely.
  • I used a loan calculator on a financial web site to determine that I could spend about $30K. That’s not much in the airplane world, and the payments would be $350 to $400 a month.
  • I didn’t want long range gas tanks to keep full all the time either. Partially filled tanks in Florida often mean water condensation over night.

While I was tooling around on Barnstormers, I decided to search based on price range rather than manufacturer, which turned out to be a good decision. It came back with about 14 pages of aircraft from a wide spectrum of manufacturers and vintage. I was able to look objectively at many types and models I had not considered before. Before long, I landed in the Grumman section, and had a revelation. These are the most undervalued planes in the world

click for larger pictureThese are sporty, spiffy airplanes with sliding bubble canopies and low wings. I wanted a two-seater, so I started looking at Vans RV’s and AA1’s. The Vans were rejected because most of them cost more than I could afford, and the quality was all over the place because they are experimentals.

Now, the original AA1A Yankee has a great reputation as a fun plane to fly, but a rotten reputation for safety because of the small wing area and the shape of the original foil. To make things worse, they came from the factory with 108HP engines. Not too cool on a hot Florida day and a short strip, with two people on board. Later, they came out with the AA1B and the AA1B TR2, which had a slightly larger motor and a cruise prop, but more importantly, they had a different wing foil that was much tamer in stalls than the Yankee. Eventually, Grumman came out with the AA1C Lynx, which had a higher max weight and the better wing.

The really cool thing about these planes was that people had been putting bigger motors in them and getting some pretty impressive performance out of these little fireballs. Jacking up the horsepower made all the difference in the world! The STC allowed either the 0-320 or the 0-290 to replace the original 0-235. The 0-320 gave it 150HP and the 0-290 gave it 140HP, but the 0-290 was much lighter and more fuel efficient, so the useful load was actually higher. Best of all, I could get a very nicely equipped AA1 with the big motor STC for under $30K!

I started looking seriously at these planes. I found several around the country that looked interesting, but some were just too far away. I found three that were close enough to go look at, and called the bank folks. They took all of the info (and I do mean ALL of the info) for the one I had identified as my first choice, and told me to go look at it and put a deposit on it if I wanted it.

click image for larger pictureNow, this is a good time to tell you that you should not just trust these folks unquestioningly. They are not in business for you – they work for you when it is in their best interest to do so. In my case, we drove 9 hours each way to go look at the plane, and we did put $1000 down on it. However, when I got back home and sent them the info on the plane, they jacked the interest up to almost 11% and lowered the amount that they would lend. They were inflexible and tried to pressure me into their crappy deal, thinking that I’d go for it just to avoid losing my deposit.
I told them to forget it and started looking for other banks. Although Freedom Aeroloans had assured me that they were the bank and not just middle-men, they turned out to be exactly that and had already shopped the loan around to everyone under the sun without my knowledge. This pissed me off because they had basically poisoned the well for me when it came time to contact other financiers. Jerks.

Anyway, I contacted Nafco, which is located in Lakeland and finances many experimentals and kits, as well as older aircraft. These guys were a lot better to deal with, and I ended up getting my loan through them for a better interest rate. They really are the bank (Pilot Bank).

Throughout the two weeks that all this took to get done, one of the smartest things I did was to include the seller in every e-mail conversation that I had with the bank, and I also called the old guy every night with the day’s progress/frustrations. I am positive that this move was the only thing that got me the plane. The seller could have washed his hands of me at any point and been well within his rights to do so. But because he knew every detail along the way he was able too help me clear the hurdles and get into the plane. He had owned and sold many planes, so he knew exactly what needed to be done on each phase of the process. Steve, I am forever grateful.

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So finally, I was able to sign on the dotted line and take delivery of the plane. All I had to do was insure it and get someone to bring it down. I had no time in this model at all, and wasn’t about to fly it over 500 mile on my first flight, so I needed a ferry pilot. The seller knew all about this too, and had a friend with an airline pass that would do it for a couple hundred bucks. Fantastic. But somewhere along the line, the seller decided it’d be a fun adventure with his son (who is my age and also a pilot) if they brought it down themselves. Sort of a last fling in the little bird. He’s a retired airline captain, so he could get buddy passes if he wanted them for free. I agreed to pay them $200 and they decided that they were going to get a rental car and drive back home after delivering the plane. The rental car cost them $250. Ouch! But at least they had a great adventure.

We took delivery of N1625R at Zephyrhills airport (KZPH) in March of ’09.

I booked a couple sessions with an instructor to go up and see how she handled. We did all the basics – stalls, steep turns, S-turns across a road, slow flight, etc. The little plane flies like a fighter. This one is the AA1B TR2 with an 0-290 and all the speed mods, as well. It only had about 1600 hours TTAF and 900 SMOH. It’s a great looking plane, and performs in a similar manner to an RV6, for about half the price. It’s got 24 gals max capacity, so it’s easy to keep full all the time, and it came with a very nice Lourance color moving map GPS. The visibility is great, and I can even fly with the canopy open. It covers all of my want-list items, and I really like those stubby little wings. I hated looking down the wing of the Diamond in turbulence and seeing it flex over a foot!

My only gripe about the plane so far is that they are hard to land correctly. I am used to the Cessna frame of mind that says you should set up your decent and just sort of flop onto the runway gracefully by killing off the power. This plane lands more like a heavy single, where you fly it all the way down to the ground and hold in a little power until touchdown. The wheel base is very short, so the nose wants to come down at the same time as the mains, but this is not optimal, to say the least. I devoted my entire second session to speed management and landings. It’s a lot better now, but it’ll probably be several more hours before I am truly comfortable with landings. This is hard for me because that was my strong point in the Cessnas, but I’ll get there.

As for performance, the Grumman is unmatched in small planes. Before, in the 150, I could just barely reach pattern altitude before turning base and coming back down. The 172’s weren’t a whole lot better. The Grumman, on the other hand, climbs out to pattern altitude before I turn downwind! After that, it’s a question of pulling back the power to keep from accelerating to 135 in just a few seconds. That’s pretty sweet. It’s also capable of cross country travel due to it’s high cruise speed on very little fuel. Fuel burn is about 7GPH at 70% power, and 135MPH.

I really like this plane, and will be writing more about it as I become more familiar with it. Best thing of all? The fact that 2 hours of rental costs pays my monthly payment, and nobody but me is flying it!


Update: Landings

Well, since I wrote this article, I’ve had a chance to get a few more flights in and practice my landings a little more. Once I got the visual down and mastered the descent rate, it got a lot easier to make a good landing. This plane lands kind of fast, so it’s very important to regulate your speed very closely. It’s 100 on downwind, 95-100 on base, and 80 on final (the Cessna 150 I learned in topped out at less than 90). The view from the cockpit is so different from the Cessnas that I just had to get it out of my head before the “picture” looked right to me. Grummans like to keep the nose down, rather than “pancaking” onto the runway like many other models, and since you are looking out from under the wing on a Cessna it’s a very different view when you can suddenly see EVERYTHING. But because the nose gear is so closely coupled  with the mains, you better keep that nose off once you meet Terra Firma, or you’re gonna do some pretty impressive porpoising. If you prang the nose gear, go around. You can get into trouble really fast if the porpoising gets worse.

The gear is fairly wide, so crooked touchdowns show up more than with the narrower stance of the high-wings. My favorite method with the Cessnas was to crab into the wind on final and kick it out right as I touched down. Oh, I might do a little side slip on the way down, but the flaps are so effective on the Cessnas that it is not recommended with full flaps in most models. By contrast, the flaps on the Grumman do very little because they are fairly small. As a result, you will gain speed quickly once the nose points down.

Well, the wide stance and short coupling made for some less than perfect landings in high winds, so I started working on a better technique for this plane. Now I use two notches of flaps on final, and go from a side slip to a front slip as I get ready to touch down. This is easier than it sounds. You just do a regular side slip from base through final, then set up for the front slip at the end by using your downwind foot to keep the plane straight down the runway and the ailerons to keep the plane from drifting from side to side. The result is a straight line down the center of the runway, with the upwind wing lower than the downwind side – sometimes significantly. Then you just rock it level as you touch your upwind wheel down first.

As for the descent rate: Pick a spot on the runway and watch it carefully. I like to use the numbers, because that’s about where I want to touch down at. I was taught this way because I learned to fly on a very small island and there wasn’t much extra runway to work with. Anyway, choose the spot and watch it. If it starts to go up your windshield, you are too low and will not make the numbers. If it starts to go down your windshield, you are too high/fast and will go well beyond your mark. Not a problem if you are flying into a long strip, but potentially fatal at a really short one. Then it’s just like anything else – use attitude for speed control and power for altitude.

Finally, the pattern itself is a little different. With this plane, the sink rate is fairly high, so I don’t want to be too far out in the pattern if the motor quits. A good rule of thumb for any GA plane is to put the runway just off your wingtip on downwind. Stubby wings = fast sink rate = close pattern. On the other hand, I’ll want enough time to make a good turn and get set up for a perfect approach, and since this is such a fast plane, I’ll want to go a little longer on the downwind before turning base. This gives just the right amount of time and space to do a very impressive carrier-style base and final, so that my pattern is now more rectangular than it is square – with rounded corners down at the business end.

With this approach, I can now put the plane down where I want it, and am no longer hesitant to go to other airports that may not be as long as ZPH. We even did a short field landing the other day, and it went so well that we had to taxi to the first turn-off!

What a great plane! Thanks again Steve and Kenny.


Fair winds and blue skies,



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