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Buying Used – Trash or Treasure?

Buying Used – Trash or Treasure?

I find shopping for a used aircraft about as exciting as shopping for socks in a second hand market. Old aircraft generally aren’t appealing to the eye, you’re never sure exactly what you are getting and they smell just a bit funky.

Having said that, I will probably never be able to afford a new plane, I love to fly and, let’s face it, there are some fantastic used machines out there – amongst the trash there are some little gems to be had. You’ve just got to look hard enough and be armed with a fair amount of background research. Once you can decipher the acronyms in the ads, size up an aircraft and wrangle a sales person or owner, the key to successful second hand aircraft ownership is yours.

The reasons for buying a used aircraft are the same as buying a used car. They are a lot cheaper than the choices in new aircraft. While aircraft don’t lose anywhere near as much value ‘off the lot’ as cars do, they still can. This is something I would consider if buying as an investment. Older aircraft tend to keep their value, some even appreciate in value if you put a bit of that old elbow grease into them. However you weigh it up, all these things should be decided before writing the cheque.

Also consider the possible downsides to buying used aircraft. Most will have no factory support or warranty and very old aircraft might be hard to find spares and documentation for. With regards to your particular choice, what you are getting can be a bit of an unknown quantity and lack of research could have you buying someone else’s problems. On the whole this is not a problem in most cases, so while it’s always buyer-beware there is no reason why finding your next aircraft won’t be a thoroughly enjoyable experience (assuming you can handle the old sock odour).

Staring at the used ads for the first time is enough to make you cross-eyed. It’s one of my pet hates that advertisers will happily save themselves two dollars by abbreviating their ad into oblivion. After all, aren’t these people trying to do the best to sell their aircraft? My personal gripes aside, there are only a few important abbreviations you need to interpret before speaking to an owner or seller. Hours are vital and nearly always included in advertising. TT is the total airframe time, ETR is Engine To Run, or the hours left on the engine, and PTR is the hours left on the Propeller.

Not everyone has the skills at hand to properly assess an aircraft. I haven’t met many pilots that are also maintenance engineers and being an aircraft owner doesn’t have to mean you fly either. In the event of either, it is absolutely vital to have a licensed aircraft maintenance engineer perform a check on your behalf. If you feel you have the skills to do it yourself, then make sure you are very thorough in your investigation.

Start with a talk to the owner; I’m sure they will want to give you their impression of the aircraft. When that’s done why not ask for a few moments alone with you prospective new wings. Start on the outside of the aircraft and be very thorough. It’s your money and your safety at stake!

Have a close look at all the surfaces. Pay attention to rivets, where metals or fabrics overlap, and other fixings such as aerials. Try the fuel caps, locks (make sure they meet the new requirements) and inspection panels if you’re permitted. Wheels and brakes are not the prettiest bits but they cop the brunt of a lifetime’s landing, so carefully inspect tyres, discs, pads and fluid lines for wear and damage. Also look at struts for stone damage and leaking seals. Cowl latches, perspex windows and screens, fairings, I could go on all day. Think of it as the most thorough and important pre-flight inspection you’ll ever do. Put together your own checklist to take on the day, so you don’t forget anything.

Equally important is the interior. This is the business end of things where you will sit in the hot seat and hopefully not realise as you rotate that there is no AH. Check the instruments required for the type of flying you wish to undertake and check them off you list. Also check that they are serviceable! Other small details that make a used aircraft, or break it, are interior trimmings and features. Check the seats, seat rails and mechanisms along with seatbelts and headset jacks. Try the intercom and see if the aircraft comes with any extras like headsets. Also ask about extras which can put a bit more cash back in your pocket. Look for tie down kits, fuel drainers, canopy covers, chocks and pitot covers. It all ads up!

If it opens or closes, open it and close it several times. Check the door seals and fittings, latches, air vents and windows. Don’t get too picky though. If the aircraft is old it may be like my grandfather – a bit rusty but still working fine. Nothing a bit of WD40 or a glass of Bundy and coke won’t fix.

There are several areas where it’s hard to quantify your purchase and decide if you are getting a good deal or not. Engine hours are the first. It’s vital to find out the engines total time between overhauls and the time it has run already. Now here is the trick. Next, even if the engine has done only a few hours, see what time span those hours have been flown over. There have been instances of engines with plenty of life left, having run maybe 900 engine hours, but over a long 30 years. This kind of engine may be sold as low hours, but could in fact be corroded and damaged due to its lack of use over such a long time. This is not usually the case but something to be aware of.

The second sticky point is AD’s. Airworthiness Directives can be issued by manufacturers of airframes, engines and propellers individually and older aircraft may be issued with quite a few. Find out from CASA what AD’s apply to your prospective purchase and carefully reconcile against the maintenance log book. This is the time to be as thorough as an accountant after seven coffees, because you could be the one to foot the bill. There is no requirement to sell an airworthy aircraft like there is to sell a roadworthy car and AD’s will only appear in the log book when they are due at the next 100 hourly inspection. Even a fresh 100 hourly will only tell you what is due in the next 100 hours, so check well ahead else find yourself emptying your bank account to replace wing spars in a few year time. The key point here is to make sure you get and audit all the documentation.

Don’t just consider the cost of purchase. Get quotes for hangarage, insurance, 100 hourly inspections, tyres and work out an estimated hourly cost including fuel. This way you won’t end up with an expensive hangar ornament. Perhaps grab the flight manual too, or research the aircraft on the internet. Check that it will land and take off on your favourite strip and make it through a typical flight time without screaming for more fuel (Citation buyers need not consider this point, lucky bastards).

Be courteous when looking at an aircraft. This might be someone’s pride and joy you’re poking at and I personally think its good manners to ask before removing anything. Remember that the owner can be a wealth of knowledge, so buy them a coffee, sit down and talk to them about handling and their knowledge of previous owners. If, like me, you can be a bit gullible when listening to a sales spiel, always use the 48 hour rule. Walk away, give it 48 hours and if you still like the aircraft, by all means get out your cheque book and enjoy happy landings for years to come!

And now the big question – what to buy? That’s up to you my friend but consider your budget first, including all the potential operating costs and the purpose for which you will use the aircraft. The rest will fall into place. Some ‘brands’ are cheaper than others, while some hold their value due to a unique feature or limited production. Some just smell like old socks and look like a caravan but might suit your budget, armed with some air freshener and a can of paint. Others are simply stunning, they will assault your disposable income and give you many a happy hour of fast flying. Either way, you lucky lucky aircraft owner, I will be envious…


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