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Jan 14 2013

Buying an Airplane in Canada, Part 1: Choice

So you crawl out of that filthy, beaten 172 you’ve just rented for almost two hundred bucks an hour plus taxes, and look at the grid of them pretty private birds sitting on the tie-downs. Notice an ad on the FBO billboard, suggesting a used 172 “in a very good shape” for something like forty grand. And you feel like “I think I could make it… Instead of wasting thousands each year in rentals and checkouts, accommodating for weather, instructors, availability – I’d have this thing all for myself, taking care of my own schedule!”

Welcome to the club.

Purchasing of a personal airplane is a big decision, but few people realize upfront that keeping it flying is a way more significant and expensive effort. We do imagine the numbers, sort of – but these are newbie optimistic. Than we spend these hard-earned thousands on a “bargain” airplane, and just about a year down the road end up with yet another dull airplane rusting to ground.

Can that be done right, instead – so we could fly the way we dreamed about, before buying a plane?

I think it’s possible, and would like to share my own thoughts and observations, in an  attempt to help those who are still in the early stage of becoming a plane-owner.

And my very first advice would be, give yourself a freedom to dream.

Browse through the countless ads everywhere you see them – from Barnstormers to FBO wall – and get an idea of what’s being sold, and how much are the people asking for it.

Then, with a fresh bouquet of dream machines that can possibly fit your wallet, do a deeper research:

For every plane you like, carefully read pilot reports on it, check the Internet forum threads talking about it, and study the NTSB statistics – paying special attention to the type of problems this aircraft is prone to. Engine troubles? Structural failures? Fires? Ground loops? Daydream yourself getting into this plane – or even better get into one for real, if you can! How do you feel in that cockpit – ready to fly, easy and comfortable? Or not quite so?

Nothing clears the picture better than personal experience, and my very second advice is: Don’t be afraid of being a “tire-kicker”. Disregard those who disagree, your safety and comfort come first. Period.

Surely, not everyone would be happy to give you a free (or cheap) ride unless you’ve somehow promised a purchase. Discuss that, but still do your best to get as much hands-on experience with the airplane of your dream. Hangar-flying is better than walking around, walking around is better than looking at the close-up photos, and close-up photos are better than verbal descriptions. Get a feel of the plane you’re interested in.

I can guarantee that many a candidates will drop off your list seamlessly after the first good look at them as your future property. Some would look attractive, but result being inaccessible financially. Others may be cheap, but look so bad you won’t really get together with them. Some may look simply boring and dull. Check with your wife – what does she say? That’d be your toy, but she must approve, or it will stand between you and her, causing family troubles!

Now what do you know about the maintenance of that plane – would its engine last barely a thousand hours at best? Is there a history of leaky fuel tanks, rust or cracks in the structural elements to be closely monitored at all time? Would you need to remove a wheelpant to adjust the tire pressure? Think about it – you’d either have to deal with all that hassle on your own, or delegate – and pay dearly! – to your mechanic for keeping that bird in a decent shape…

And after some consideration, you may find yourself looking at those boring Cherokees and 172s once again, though with a totally different eyes – understanding the practicality and value over classic appearance or hot performance. Or maybe you may clench your teeth and say “I’d make it fly, whatever it takes!”

My third word of advice and last for this chapter is – do what you’d enjoy doing. No need to degrade your dream just for sake of practicality. That new toy is expensive and will likely stay with you for a while, so don’t make that time hopelessly boring. Even a price of significant ground time while “fixing” the airplane, instead of flying it, may be ok for you – why not?

Personally, I went through periods of complete frustration where my search and study were killing almost any hope or interest. Every decent airplane I desired was either a pain to maintain, or located far down in the States with huge importation pains involved, or was in a poor enough condition to consider it a project rather than a functioning aircraft.

I got tired oscillating between “ok I’d ferry this thing up here and go through importation hurdles” and “damn it’s impossible, so what do we still have here in Canada?” Choosing between cheap and great looking planes – difficult and expensive to bring up here – and ugly local junk for ridiculous prices was driving me mad…

Reason for all that frustration? I was looking in the wrong places, for wrong airplanes, not being brave enough to clinch with the owners negotiating a reasonable price.

Don’t repeat my errors, go straight to the meaningful search, and work hard to filter out things that you don’t love from the first, second, and any consequent sight.