Thursday, September 09, 2004

A Tale of Two Airplanes

At long last, I met with the owner of N1961A and my hired gun, mechanic Bill Wynn, out at the airplane. Bill whipped out his handy air compressor, opened up the panels surrounding the Piper Pacer’s cowl, and went to work inspecting the engine. Tom, the airplane’s owner, disappeared to the airport’s terminal to use their rest room while I sat on the cement floor of the covered tiedown going through the airplane’s logs and its accompanying paperwork. I wandered over and watched Bill pull a couple of spark plugs and knew from the way he was looking at them, something was wrong. So, I asked him what he was seeing, and he explained there was an exhaust leak at the point where the exhaust manifolds attach to the engine.

?That’s what’s causing all the crappy stuff on the spark plugs,? he said. The plugs were dark with a rough skin, as of they had been sitting next to a volcano and had taken on a coat of black ash. It could be just that the gaskets around the heads were leaking and a gasket replacement would fix it. It would also mean there were worse problems, i.e., cracks in the heads or some uneven machining of the heads at the manifolds. There was no way to know until he pulled the heads off, and he didn’t plan on going that far today.

He moved around to the other side of the four cylinder engine and repeated his spark plug pulling task, shaking his head. This side of the engine was leaking, too.

The big ?kaboom? came when he hooked up his air compressor and, working with his son-in-law Robbie who is also an FAA certified Airframe and Powerplant mechanic, checked the engine’s compression. An attachment from the compressor is hooked into the holes in the heads left by the removed spark plugs. The attachment contains a pair of air pressure gauges. As Robbie rotated the propellor in discreet chunks, the pointers on the gauges jump to pressures in direct response to the engine cylinders hitting top dead center, the point of maximum compression within. The gauge readings reflect the engine’s compression which is a direct reading of its efficiency. I knew that good compression on this engine, a Lycoming 0290D, which supposed to be between 70 and 80. I had even seen paperwork that showed after the engine’s overhaul, accomplished about 500 flying hours ago, the compression had been as high as 78 (80 was the highest it could hit). Today, the engine was not doing anywhere near that good.

Bill came over to me immediately and gave me the bad news. The engine needed what was called a ?top overhaul?, a reworking of each of its four cylinders. To do it right would cost between $1000 - $1500 per cylinder. Which meant if I proceeded with buying this airplane, I would be into a possible $6000 expense right off. Just as Bill was telling me this, Tom wandered back from the bathroom.

?Tom, you might want to come over to hear this,? I said. Bill explained again what he had found.

Tom fessed up that the engine’s compression had been falling over the last three annual inspections but had dismissed the problem, in true NASA fashion, as ?known?. The compression had never been as bad as the test today had shown it. I told him I’d still take the airplane if he was willing to come down $6K on the price, but our previous conversations about price led me to believe he wouldn’t do that. I was right. He started immediately talking about trying to fix the problem in December when the airplane’s annual was due and his mechanics told him he could perform a top overhaul for $350 a cylinder. Bill emphasized that with engine work it was really true you got what you paid for. He might be able to get it done for that, but he’d be repeating the process shortly afterward. Tom mumbled something about maybe if I was still interested we could talk then. I told him my wife and I would be moving on to look at another airplane. I felt he was trying to repair the airplane on the cheap and would have no confidence in any repair he made to it. Additionally, the inspection had shown he had an over exaggerated sense of what his airplane was worth; many owners do because of their emotional attachment to the airplane.
I thanked him for letting us look at his airplane, made sure Bill had my address so we could settle up the bill, and left.

I can’t say how disappointed my wife and I are both are, despite the fact I know it was for the best. I’ve spent too much time the last few days looking for another airplane. I ws about to let the whole thing go for now when I stumbled on a Piper Tri-Pacer I like for sale in South Carolina not far from where my sister and a good buddy of mine who is not only a pilot but an ex flight instructor, NASA astronaut instructor, and airplane owner. The Tri-Pacer’s owner has not responded yet to either phone calls or an e-mail, but I am hoping to hear from him. We’ll see. To be honest, the whole experience is eating so much of my time up I am out of balance, and that’s something I need to stop. I’ll chase this airplane for a few more days. If I haven’t made any progress by next week, I’ll reevaluate what I’m going to do.