Buying an aircraft can definitely be a daunting task. Then again it can also be one of those life’s experiences that can be a lot of fun. Of course the main element is financially what can you afford? The other requirement to decide on before you even start is what will you use the airplane for business or pleasure or a combination (otherwise known as the mission profile). These two elements will govern the sensibility of the equation and answer the question are you ready for aircraft ownership. I can tell you from personal experience that just because you love flying and love airplanes does not mean you are ready to own one and the financial risk associated with it.
There are many factors to consider when buying an aircraft least of which is the purchase price. Just as you shop for a car in the beginning it may seem complex with all of the different choices. Though it seems complicated by doing your research and knowing what your mission profile is narrows the choices considerably. Believe it or not it may very well be more affordable than you thought.
One of the biggest mistakes when buying anything is not thinking the whole process through. Yes the purchase price is the largest out of pocket financial risk. But, you must look at the sum of the total. One of the largest “Opps” moments I have ever seen has been when the buyer thinks he has made a steal on the purchase of an aircraft only to find out LATER that they did not do a Title Search on the aircraft and there is a lean (such as a mechanics lean) which cost the buyer thousands of dollars. Folks, spending $100 bucks in the beginning for something as little as a title search could save you big bucks in the end. Never, ever buy an aircraft without having a Title Search completed. It would also be to your advantage to purchase a copy of any 337’s done on the aircraft. The 337 form is what an A&P mechanic must fill in when they have made any structural modifications to an airframe. Generally done when there has been damage or mods done to the airplane.
Speaking of Title Searches and 337’s I would also recommend that you use a Title Search company. These companies based in Oklahoma (where the FAA is) serve many tasks. Not only completing Title Searches most also serve as a holding or escrow company. An escrow company holds deposits, pre purchase maintenance fees and in general the middle man in the transaction. You don’t see a lot of the smaller transactions using an escrow but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Yes they cost money like everything else in this world but they make sure your transaction is conducted correctly and as smooth as possible (peace of mind).
So we’ve addressed a couple of the pitfalls and the easy button that takes care of them, what’s next. Flight Mission is the most over looked aspect of buying an aircraft and unless you have money to burn for over kill (in this context yes literally kill you) it should be the first thing you look at. Everyone one wants to buy the P-51 Mustang but in reality what would that accomplish. Yes the cool factor is out of this world but when you look at what will I be using this aircraft for and the cost to operate it the P-51 is also impractical. For one it is a deadly aircraft, buying a big motor fast airplane is a bad idea. When you buy an aircraft look at what you will really use it for and what you can fly safely. If you are on a limited budget, pure pleasure and the $100 hamburger then depending on your level of training you might try a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee. For the more experienced pilot you might want a little more speed and space you might try a Mooney, Saratoga or Cessna 182.
If your flying is going to be more business with a little pleasure mixed in then you will probably want to look at an aircraft that can fly cross country. The Cirrus SR22 is a nice cruiser at about 200 knots has all the next gen avionics and can carry a couple of guys with luggage 800 miles or so. Probably the Cadillac of single engine piston aircraft will be the Bonanza G36. This aircraft can carry a load so yes the wife, the kids, the dog and just about all the luggage will fit just fine. In addition it has retractable gear so performance and mileage move up the scale also. Remember though these aircraft also come with a price. New out of the factory Cirrus SR22, Bonanza G36, Cessna TTX and the Piper Matrix prices can fly upwards of 700K fast.
Then there are the special mission aircraft. Again you will still need to study what your mission is. For instance in Alaska where you live and die with short gravel runways you need to have Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities. When you are flying in bush country you generally want to also have tundra tires. Keep in mind these will effect the performance of the aircraft. The Husky A-1B, Cessna 185, Cessna T206 are good for these missions.
So now you have figured out what the mission is. Before you ever sign on the dotted line here are a couple more tidbits that you need to investigate.
- Purchase price – Simple, low time aircraft that have been hangered all their life or new overhauled engines are always going to be at a premium. Higher time, with good avionics, new paint and interior will be next in the line of pricing. High time, runout engine (or close to it), steam gauges and god help you if it has damage is at the bottom. Globalair.com has a loan calculator that you can choose your payment and loan percentage points and will calculate an entire payment schedule.
- Maintenance – One of the first things to look at is where the aircraft is based. It seems almost every aircraft in its life span has spent some time near a sandy beach. Bad for airplanes, if they have been stationed there for some time corrosion sets in. A loving caring owner will sometimes do undercoating’s or rust prevention, that’s the one you want. Start a maintenance program from the start. Calculate the cost for every hour you fly (cost per hour). Put that specific dollar amount into a maintenance program. Hopefully you will never need it until the engine is ready for overhaul.
- Upgrades – Avionics, interior and paint. Every pilot has a favorite color or radio! This boils down to what you are accustomed to and what you feel safe to fly with.
- Legal work – purchase agreement takes lawyers, partnerships agreements. As the saying goes pay me now or pay me later. Your choice.
- Fuel – generally 30-40 percent of ownership.
- New pilot – fly as much as you can and build your hours up, more time less cost.
- Old pilot – with no incidents, several endorsements of other aircraft, couple thousand hours, type ratings. All of these bring your insurance cost down.
- Hangar cost – Most pilots make this their getaway home.
What to look for in a plane.
- Always the first thing to look for is there Damage History?
- Buying an aircraft is always Buyer Beware. It is your life after all.
- It is your due diligence (responsibility) to read the airframe log books, maintenance logs, engine logs thoroughly. This is when you bring in your local A&P or an expert in that particular aircraft.
- If Damage
- What you determine is damage might not be to the seller – Define it with them from the beginning.
- Is there a copy of the 337 form in the log books. If not walk away. Just because it is a line item written in the logs does not mean there wasn’t a ton of other work not mentioned.
- Was the damage fixed by an authorized manufacture facility, local FBO or field repair.
- If field, use your common sense, if the repair was a wire tie on a bolt OK, if the landing gear collapsed then oh no, walk away.
- If the damage was repaired several years ago by a reputable maintenance facility. Then it falls under the category of your call. You will never be able to sell the aircraft for what the market is bearing for one that does not have damage, but if you plan on keeping the aircraft until you quit flying then why not. (Check with your insurance company also).
- Current condition – again now is the time you to have a good mechanic with you – pay the price for a good one.
- Paint and Interior
- Current maintenance condition, again checking all logbooks determine how the owner(s) took care of the aircraft. Changed the oil regularly?
- Have all AD’s and SD be complied with.
- Has annual or other scheduled maintenance be done on regular basis
- Radios been certified in a while
- Other instruments needing certs.
- Check the engine
- Compression, compression, compression
So we’ve gone through just about all the basic’s the final step is hit the market and find the aircraft that meets your budget and your eye. There are thousands of different aircraft to look at that fit almost any mission profile. From experimental aircraft to one from the manufacturer. This can be almost as fun as flying itself. Finding a needle in the hay stack is a rare find, but if you keep your wits and shop you can find any aircraft. For those that are a little shy on buying one themselves it is highly recommended to find an aircraft broker that specializes in what you are looking for. The reason for this is twofold. One the broker is always going to know more about the market than you will. Second if you find a brokerage firm that specializes in the type aircraft you are looking for they are also going to know more about that aircraft than you ever will which will come in handy on a pre-purchase.
Now while this article has been written for single engine piston aircraft purchases the general outline can be used for twin piston aircraft also. With jet and turbine aircraft there are a few more precession items such as turbine discs and the number of cycles on the blades that are important. For the most part the cost are higher because these aircraft are made heavier, fly higher and faster. There are also believe it or not worldwide rules that must be completed before you can complete the purchase.
Alan Carr is a thirty year veteran in the general aviation business. Bought and sold corporate aircraft and now runs a successful aviation website. To contact please email alan.carr[@]globalair.com