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8 Important Questions to Ask Before Buying Your First Airplane

Buying an airplane isn't quite as simple as buying a car. From operating costs, maintenance requirements, storage and insurance, there are many elements to consider when purchasing an aircraft. If you're a first-time buyer or are considering an aircraft purchase, take the time to investigate the process, learn about the market and ask a lot of questions. To get you started, here are a few things you'll want to consider:

  1. What's your budget?
    This seems obvious, but first-time buyers should take a detailed look at their budget. There are many costs associated with owning an airplane beyond the price tag. You'll need to consider the loan payment, insurance, maintenance, operating costs, hangar or tie down fees, and other surprise costs that might occur out of your control like mandated avionics upgrades.

  2. What can you fly safely?
    Everyone wants a larger and faster airplane, but don't be tempted to buy an airplane that's out of your league. Buy an airplane that you're comfortable flying safely and within your personal skill limitations. Even a slightly more powerful engine, or just a slightly larger airplane can have much different handling characteristics, and advanced avionics can leave you behind in a hurry if you're not familiar. Buying an airplane you don't have a lot of experience in can lead to regret.

  3. What's the purpose of the airplane?
    First-time aircraft buyers need to evaluate their reasons for buying an airplane. What kind of aircraft will provide the function you need? If you really analyze your purpose, you may find that the aircraft you initially have your eye on isn't actually in line with what you need. If you intend on flying an occasional joyride on the weekends in the local area, for example, you probably don't need an overpowered multi-engine machine with top-of-the-line avionics. If you travel long distances for business, an IFR certified, speedy, retractable gear aircraft might be more in line with your needs. Try to avoid buying an airplane based on emotion. Just because it looks cool or has large, powerful engines does not make it a good fit for you.

  4. How much is insurance? What are the requirements to be insured?
    Insurance is complicated. Buying aircraft insurance is not quite as easy as buying auto insurance. Nor is it as cheap. Make sure you know what the insurance costs will be before you start looking for airplanes to purchase. It's no fun to buy your dream airplane just to find out that insurance will be double what you thought it might be - after the insurance company requires you to attend an expensive training class and obtain a certain number of instructional hours in the airplane. These are standard procedures, but can be costly if you're not prepared prior to choosing an aircraft.

  5. Where will you keep it?
    Will you buy or build your own hangar? Will you rent one from the airport? Is there hangar space available at your airport, or will you be tossed out on the ramp? Do you have a back-up plan in place in case your hangar owner decides not to renew your lease? You'll want to ensure you have a place to store your aircraft, and you'll need to budget for those storage costs.

  6. Who will maintain it?
    Choosing a maintenance facility is probably the most important decision you'll make as a new aircraft owner. But don't wait until after your purchase the aircraft to choose a maintenance facility. Finding a trusted mechanic to help you with your purchase will save you time and money in the long run. A trustworthy mechanic can help you with a pre-buy inspection and can offer advice about certain aircraft types and model numbers before you make the purchase. And after the purchase, your mechanic will need to be someone you can completely trust and rely on to provide quality maintenance in accordance with the FAA and manufacturer's standards.

  7. What technology will you need?
    Taking a detailed look at aircraft technology is necessary when you're purchasing an airplane. Make sure you know what technology is necessary for your flying purposes, know what you're willing to sacrifice, and know how much you're willing to pay for the added conveniences of certain technologies. You might be able to get away with purchasing an older aircraft with outdated avionics if your flying is accomplished in good weather and in uncontrolled airspace. But if you often fly in Class B airspace, or mostly on IFR flight plans, you'll want to invest in modern avionics. And what about other technology, like aircraft anti-ice systems, digital engine monitoring, or weather radar? Do you need these things or, if not, do you intend to fork over the money for the added convenience and safety factor?

  8. What's the resale value?
    They say nothing lasts forever, and there will likely come a time when you'll want to or need to sell your aircraft. Do some basic market research about your aircraft to make sure that you'll be able to sell it easily when you want to. Is there a known mechanical problem with this particular make and model? Will the age of the avionics prevent people from wanting to purchase it in five or ten years? Is the safety record good, or is it a type of aircraft that has particular hazards associated with it? Is the logbook history complete and accurate? Has it been well maintained?

There's a lot to think about before buying an airplane. Talking to a number of skilled aviation professionals about the topics listed above will assure that you're armed with as much knowledge as possible before making decisions before, during and after the aircraft buying process. Still in over your head? Consider an aircraft broker.

Have you successfully purchased an airplane before? Share your advice with us!

Aviation's New Challenge: Software Glitches and Hackers?


Photo: FAA

The next generation of flying has arrived: From paperless boarding passes to paperless cockpits, we are moving to a completely computerized aviation future. It's almost like something out of a futuristic cartoon like The Jetsons with our tablet computers, internet-ready modernized passenger seats and synthetic vision glass cockpits.

Today's flights are planned on computers and sent to pilot's iPads, replacing the pounds of manuals, charts and checklists that pilots used to lug around. Outdated navigation systems are being replaced with a single, incredibly accurate, satellite based system called ADS-B. Inflight Wi-Fi service for passengers has not only become popular, but it's now almost expected from frequent airline travelers. And our nation's airspace system is getting a complete overhaul with NextGen, which includes programs like ERAM, Datacomm and many other communications systems.

This is all good news… until something crashes (or gets hacked). And we were recently reminded that sometimes computers do crash, when a few dozen American Airlines crews were left without proper charts after their iPads suddenly crashed on them while flying. The software glitch left dozens of flights and many passengers delayed.

Computers are clearly the efficient way to modernize aviation, and it's a welcome and inevitable progression toward a more effective airspace system. But there are a few things that haven't fully kept up with the fast-moving aviation industry, like software management and cyber security.

Are airplane computers secure?
Experts have warned that our industry's efforts to keep iPads, ADS-B and other onboard communication devices secure aren't comprehensive enough. An April 2015 GAO report evaluated the cyber security strength of the FAA's six major NextGen programs: Surveillance and Broadcast Services Subsystem (SBSS), Data Communications (Data Comm), NAS Voice Switch, Collaborative Air Traffic Management (CATM), Common Support Service-Weather (CSSWx), and System Wide Information Management (SWIM), which will all use an IP-based network to communicate with each other, as well as with thousands of aircraft flight deck technologies.

You can imagine that an entire system based on a computer network might be susceptible to hackers. Passengers are connected through in flight Wi-Fi. Pilots are sometimes connected to Wi-Fi via their company iPads, and will also be vulnerable to the hacking of onboard equipment through an IP network. And ATC is going to be on the ground, potentially connected to the same network. While the FAA has taken some measures to secure the networks, information in the GAO report demonstrates that the system is still susceptible to hackers.

"According to FAA and experts we interviewed, modern communications technologies, including IP connectivity, are increasingly used in aircraft systems, creating the possibility that unauthorized individuals might access and compromise aircraft avionics systems, " the GAO report states. In the past, on board systems have been insolated, but IP networking included in the many new NextGen technologies could leave not just one aircraft's systems vulnerable, but any other computer on the network.

How can operators avoid software glitches?
Besides choosing a reliable third-party developer and a company with a sound history in computer application design, there's not much an airline or an operator can do to avoid an occasional software glitch except to prepare for and expect the occasional software glitch. So far, the airlines have been lucky. American Airlines had a few delays, yes, but the problem was one that was easily fixed by handing paper charts to pilots or getting them to a place where they could re-boot, upload new charts and move on. At no time were they actually in any danger.

But what happens when a seemingly trivial software glitch isn't so trivial anymore? This is a question that was relevant yesterday, remains relevant today and will be relevant still in the future. Computers are already in use at most ATC facilities and in most aircraft. A software glitch in an aircraft is a problem, but not necessarily a dangerous one. Airplanes have backup navigation systems, backup electrical systems and backup instruments that are powered by something other than a computer.) A pilot can fly safely if their onboard computer crashes. It would test their skills, for sure, but that's what pilots train for.

A computer failure or software glitch at an ATC facility can cause major delays, possibly even for days. Remember that fire at the Chicago ARTCC facility? It not only knocked out both the primary and secondary communications networks, but it knocked out the whole region's ATC capabilities. Everyone survived, albeit painfully.

If we can glean anything from recent events, it's that in order for our industry to move forward in the world, we are going to have to rely on computers, and computers are not perfect. We have to do what's necessary to mitigate and control any associated risks, like those from hackers and software issues. And as we learn to protect our computer systems we'll likely have a few problems along the way similar to American Airline's software glitch, but the overall outcome will be an impressive, capable air traffic system that allows us to fly even more efficiently and safely than ever before.

What are your thoughts?

Pilot Cell Phone Use: Don't Be That Guy


Photo: Jorge Quinteros/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Let's talk about your iPhone. It's no secret that the selfie craze has made its way into the cockpit. And why not? As pilots, we get to witness so many beautiful things from a few thousand feet in the air - the sun reflecting off of a puffy cloud layer, a gorgeous sunset against a vast horizon, the city landscape on a foggy morning. We have a great view - some of us are lucky enough to call it our office and get to see it daily - and we should feel free to snap a photo and capture a memory from time to time. And what harm is done by answering that text while we're at it?

But are pilots overdoing it with the selfies and other cell phone distractions? Are we are putting the safety of our flight at stake when we stop to snap a photo or text a friend?

David Yanofsky, a writer for Quartz, seems to think so. In a recent article detailing the "Pilots of Instagram," Yanofsky calls out a number of pilots for violating the sterile cockpit rule and FAA policy on portable electronic devices (PEDs). Yanofsky, whose article made him wildly unpopular among aviation professionals in the social media world, brings attention to yet another way that pilots might become distracted in the cockpit, but he was widely criticized for bringing negative attention to something that really isn't a problem. An airline pilot who snaps a photo of the clouds from 30,000 feet probably isn't creating any sort of hazard at all. Common sense tells you that the short attention diversion in this scenario is really no different than if a pilot glances at his watch for a moments or looks down to read a chart, or is otherwise engaged in conversation with her copilot. But common sense - and a will to survive - should also tell us that taking selfies while flying an approach just shouldn't happen.

The trouble is that often times where common sense should prevail, it doesn't. And there are at least a few cases to prove it. Selfies, or using personal electronic devices for texting has been a contributing factor during a few recent plane crashes.

In Denver last year, a pilot made a series of errors in judgment and crashed after stalling his aircraft during an approach. He and his passenger both died. Soon after, the NSTB reported that the pilots had been taking selfies while in the pattern. At night. In low IMC. Using the flash. We all shake our heads in disbelief, but I'm guessing this person thought of himself as a smart guy. And maybe he was a smart guy. Common sense can clearly escape the best of us if it means we get an awesome photo to share in Facebook. (The pilot also happened to be flying at night and in IMC without meeting the currency requirements for either… but that's another story.)

In 2011, four people died when a medical helicopter operating a commercial flight crashed in a field in Missouri. The helicopter ran out of fuel, and the NTSB listed "the pilot's distracted attention due to personal texting during safety-critical ground and flight operations" as a contributing factor.

More recently, it was reported that a student pilot is suing his flight school, claiming that his instructor was on FaceTime during a simulated engine emergency last December, causing an accident that left the student in critical condition and killed the instructor. The NTSB accident report does not mention the pilot's use of his phone during the flight, but the student's lawyer says they're suing.

In 2014, the FAA issued a Final Rule that restricts Part 121 (airline) pilots from operating any electronic devices for personal during flight operations. The rules states that pilots are only allowed to use company-issued devices for tasks that are directly related to the operation of the flight, for safety-related purposes or for company communications. But this rule does not apply to Part 135 or Part 91 operations. General aviation pilots are allowed to use cell phone and iPads during flight, for which most of us are grateful. After all, where would we be without ForeFlight? And how convenient is it to use our phone to call for a clearance instead of relying on an RCO? And, of course, it's nice to be able to capture a beautiful sunset on camera every now and then.

But we should not be taking selfies on final approach at night and in IMC, or during any other critical phase of flight. And we should really try to limit our cell phone use during flight to aircraft operations and emergencies only to ensure we don't lose focus on the task at hand and find ourselves the recipient of an FAA violation or worse, a fatal accident.

Don't be that guy. Don't be the guy taking selfies on final approach. Don't be that guy using FaceTime in the middle of a training flight. Don't be that guy messing with the GoPro at 300 feet on upwind because you forgot to turn it on during the preflight. Don't be the guy that dies in a plane crash, leaving photos or video footage of your mistakes in your wake.

Maybe we should just put down the phone, look out the window and enjoy the view.

Is Your Co-Pilot Depressed?


Photo: NIMH

In light of the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash in which one of the pilots locked the other out of the cockpit and then intentionally flew an Airbus A320 into a mountain in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board, the issue of mental health in pilots has resurfaced.

After the captain of the aircraft got up to use the restroom mid-flight, 27-year-old co-pilot Andrews Lubitz locked him out and refused to allow him back in. Then he reportedly programmed the autopilot to descend from an altitude of 38,000 feet down to 100 feet with the intention of crashing into the side of a mountain along the way.

Investigators reportedly found an anti-depressant medication in the apartment of Lubitz, along with other evidence that suggested the Germanwings first offficer was seeing a doctor for depression.

Lubitz had not informed the airline of this most recent bout with depression, but people who knew him have come forward to say that he was suicidal at one point. And, according to an ex-girlfriend, he had a temper. But how could anyone have known that this person could commit such a heinous act?

CNN reported that Lubitz passed an aviation medical exam in 2014, which a Lufthansa official said didn't test mental health. But even if the exam did covered mental health issues in depth, what pilot would admit to depression or mood disorders knowing that he'd lose his job? For many pilots, flying is a life-long dream - a career that they've worked hard for - and to know that depression, suicidal thoughts or a more severe mood disorder would essentially disable them from flying professionally and perhaps even as a hobby, would be a tough pill to swallow. Because they'd lose their jobs, careers, and for many, their livelihood, most pilots who have experienced depression or other symptoms of a mood disorder or mental health issue, will, sadly, fail to report them.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that mental illness is common in the United States. In 2012, according to the NIMH website, about 18.6 percent of adults in the United States had some form of mental illness (not including those related to substance abuse.) Luckily for the traveling public, most of them are not suicidal.

We can probably assume that this statistic carries over to the pilot career profession, although statistics pertaining to pilots with a mental illness won't reflect this same trend due to the nature of the job. We rely on self-reporting procedures, and when a pilot's career is on the line, chances are good that he or she just won't report it.

Eighteen percent of adults in the United States have some sort of diagnosed mental illness. This could be anything from minor depression or social anxiety to bipolar disorder or suicidal behavior. To be more specific, the NIMH says that a Serious Mental Illness (SMI) occurs in about four percent of all adults. A serious mental illness is defined as one that interferes with normal life activities and results in "serious functional impairment."

So, according to these numbers, somewhere between four and 18 percent of people in general have some sort of mental illness. This means that if you're a pilot, up to one out of six pilots you fly with could be suffering from some sort of mental illness. Luckily, very few of these people are also suicidal, and flights continue to operate safely every day.

Germanwings Flight 9525 was, perhaps, a case that could have been prevented. But what's the fix for depression in pilots and the failure to self-report? Better mental health screening for pilots? Better working conditions? A mandate for two pilots in the cockpit at all times? (Most or all U.S. airlines already employ a strategy of this kind, by the way.) Take the human element out of the cockpit altogether?

While we need to do all we can to prevent another tragedy like this from occurring, how far will we go, or how far should we go, to save ourselves from… ourselves? "Better" mental health screening could lead to even less reporting by pilots. Two pilots in the cockpit will help, unless the second physically overtakes the first one. And can we really take the human element out of the equation altogether? Even RPAs - remotely piloted airplanes - are flown by humans on the ground. If one of these pilots were to be suicidal, they could still fly the airplane into a mountain.

Is there a solution to making certain that a suicide mission like Germanwings 9525 doesn't happen again? Or is there a certain element of risk - a low probability/high consequence risk like an aircraft suicide mission- that we must accept as human beings functioning in a world with other human beings? Or is there a happy medium? What are your thoughts?

Checklist for Flying Your Private Aircraft Internationally

The view leaving the East Coast from inside a Mooney

One of the most appealing benefits of owning your own aircraft is having the freedom to fly whenever and wherever you want to. Although sometimes you are limited by TFR’s or weather, you still have more freedom than the typical aircraft renter. Without having to deal with availability or tedious flying club paperwork, you are free to explore the skies more thoroughly. There are thousands of airports to explore in the US (Approximately 18,911 for those curious) and thousands more internationally. There are valuable skills you must learn in order to fly internationally, and it is certainly a challenge worth pursuing.

A good friend of mine recently flew with his family in their Mooney M20C to the Bahamas. After flying 210 nautical miles over open water, they landed at North Eleuthera Airport and took a boat to the tranquil and beautiful island of Spanish Wells and spent a week fishing, snorkeling, and relaxing. When you fly out of the U.S. you can explore exotic and interesting places in the world that many others do not have access to.

As I said before, flying out of the U.S. comes with its challenges. There is a lot of paperwork, planning, and in some cases extra gear for your aircraft involved. AOPA has a great series of guides for flying to specific international destinations. They have guides for the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Canada, Central America, Alaska, and Mexico. Pilots certainly have to reference these along with multiple other sources before leaving for their journey.

I have put together a list of a few of the major items you must have when flying internationally. This is not comprehensive, and a few international destinations have specialized legal information they require, but it will give you a good idea of what is to come if you choose to begin a flight plan out of the U.S.

1. Passports and legal Information. When you go through Customs and Boarder Protection, you will be asked to show all legal documentation as though you had flown in on an airliner. This is in addition to your usual flying legal documents. It is important to locate and carry your passport, pilot license, and medical certificate. All passengers must have a passport too, and any children flying without one parent must have a notarized statement of approval from the absent parent for the dates of the trip.

2. Paperwork for the aircraft. In addition to all of the paperwork required to operate an aircraft in U.S. airspace (Airworthiness certificate, registration, weight and balance, etc.) you must also have aboard a radio station license.

3. Charts You will have to seek out and purchase charts of the route you are flying. These foreign charts are similar in typography to their U.S. counterparts, but it is important to look over them and memorize features along the route of flight well before you depart.

4. Aircraft Insurance Certain aircraft insurance policies do not cover international flight. It is important to contact your insurer and discuss appropriate coverage. Proof of insurance that covers international flight is required to be carried aboard for certain destinations.

5. Radiotelephone Operator Permit You may remember vaguely from your Private Pilot Written exam that you need a Radiotelephone Operator Permit to fly outside of the U.S. Here is all the information you need to obtain one. Thankfully they are issued for the holder's lifetime.

6. Life Vest When flying over open water, you are required to have onboard a life vest or flotation device for each passenger. It is also recommended that you bring a life raft, but it is not legally required.

7. Sunscreen This one is certainly not legally required, but if you are traveling to a tropical destination such as the Bahamas or the Caribbean it is certainly recommended. Keep your skin safe to ensure that you get the most fun out of your vacation.

I hope that this article inspires you to look into the possibility of flying your private aircraft somewhere internationally. The new experiences are unbeatable and you will have fascinating stories to tell. Do you have any advice for pilots who are new to international flight? Let me know in the comments!