Monday, October 04, 2004

Mr. Andy's Wild Ride (Part 1)

The pages of these blogs have been somewhat blank, much less to the chagrin of both my readers than that of my own soul which fills up with black, yucky gook when I don’t write. I have been preoccupied with airplanes.

It all started with a 1952 Piper Pacer, a white and blue striped, high-winged, four-place taildragger. I borrowed money against my 401K to pay for her; but, alas, she had other ideas. When the airframe and powerplant mechanic I hired to do a pre-sale inspection said ?cough?, she did and spit out unhealthy low compressions, forcing the bare truth from the airplane’s owner that the compressions had been trending downward but holding steady. Not anymore. I offered to take the sweet thing off his hands and give her a better home, but he wanted to try to fix her up with cut-rate medicine and pass her off later at the same price. Fine for him. I moved on.

Next came an Experimental Mustang II. The airplane caught my eye because it was painted up like a World War II Navy fighter. The price was right because the engine was run-out. (And for those of you who don’t know, an airplane engine overhaul costs around $12,000!) We looked at her until I got uneasy about the workmanship in the plane. I mean, the throttle knob looked like it had been bought at Home Depot, i.e., a large, brass knob stuck on the end of the throttle cable. The mixture control, instead of being the red handled vernier knob most pilots know and love, was a black knob with the word ?MIX? hand drawn across it with white paint. The coup de grace was when I realized that the engine’s magneto controls and starter were located in front of the right seater instead of the left where I would be flying from. Bad news if you had to troubleshoot an engine in flight, and with this one already at its overhaul lifetime, the odds were good I would. The airplane had great lines, great color, would haul my wife and I and baggage across country at fairly good speeds, was a taildragger, and I could even do aerobatics in it (It’s that male, macho, pilot thing). But if it fell apart during my first high-g pull, what good would it do me? I felt it became time to move on.

I then fell in love with a Throp T-18 in Brownwood, Texas. Built by a certified FAA airframe and powerplant mechanic under contract to an airline pilot, it was a beautiful machine with sleek lines and fast cruise. But its tiny waist made it a tight fit and it's challenging handling meant my wife couldn’t easily learn to fly it. I was arranging a trip to inspect and fly it when my wife saw a Grumman Traveler, and that was that.

At several times in my life, I have flown Grumman Tigers, and I have always really loved them. They’re fast and agile, have great payload capability, and a sliding canopy, something that makes them look like a mini-fighter. I told my wife about one being sold in Florida and showed her a picture of it.

?I’d be tempted to go for my pilot’s license in that,? she exclaimed. ?I’d be real tempted to go for it!?

And that, of course, shifted the whole discourse of what we had been looking for. Up until that point, we had been looking at any and every thing within our price range and that had the useful load to deal with us. If only I could fly it, who cared? But, after talking more about the pro’s and con’s of the Grumman line, our pleasant experiences with them, and that my wife might really want to get her license, we decided to stop looking at the Thorp...or anything else... and center our attention on the four place Grumman line of aircraft. While we’d love to have a Tiger, folks are asking top dollar for them; we could afford a Cheetah or a Traveler. While there are some subtle design changes between the airplanes, all the four place versions are members of the AA-5 family and differ from each other primarily by the engine used in them. The Travelers and Cheetahs use 150 hp Lycoming engines while the Tigers have 180 horsepower engines of the same make. The fastest airplanes of the lower horsepower bunch are the 1975 Traveler and all the Cheetahs. At cruise altitudes and power settings, they’ll make 128 knots over the ground. That’s 140 mph for you ground pounders. It’s fast enough for me.

The first Traveler we started looking at was a beautiful little red and white bird down in Sarasota, FL. It was priced at $36,000 and had great paint and a nice instrument panel. A guy named Gary was selling it. On the phone, he admitted he had bought it just to sell it and then gave me a story about what was happening to it now. It’s having new seals put in the wings, he said, and then would go through an annual while at a paint shop in Bartow, Florida. He spouted out the name of the guy who was going to do all the work. The airplane would be ready in a couple of weeks, he said.

Parts of his story didn’t line up. Why would the aircraft be having all this work done in a paint ship? Using online FAA records, I ran checks of both the paint shop and the guy he claimed was doing the work. The paint shop was not an approved FAA repair station, and the guy he said was doing the work was not a licensed FAA mechanic. Hmm. The whole story was smelling fishy...!

Using a picture of the airplane, I ran a search of FAA records and found the airplane’s real owner. Using the Internet more, I ran down the true owner’s phone number and gave him a call.

The guy who claimed he owned and he had made a deal, but no money had changed hands nor had any title been transferred. The airplane was having wing tank seals installed...and had been for the past ten months! It wasn’t in Bartow but was down in Fort Lauderdale.

?I’m getting tired of this shop ?two-weeking? me to death,? the owner told me. ?They’ve promised me they’ll have the airplane ready in two to three weeks.?

Uh, huh. And I’ve got a bridge in Texas I’ll sell you. Time to walk away.

Another brokered airplane, also located in Florida, also held the promise of leading us to the promised land. Checking into this one showed it wasn’t registered to the broker but a gentleman in California. The broker, when I contacted him, was in the middle of fleeing to Montana where there is no sales tax on aircraft nor any fear of hurricanes. You would’ve thought he would have taken his airplanes with him, but he hadn’t. They were still sitting in the midst of Florida, even as Hurricanes Charley, and Francis, and Jeanne hit. When I looked at what could become a very confused tax situation, I felt like the hurricanes had hit me. Rather than dealing with tax fights between three states (Florida where the airplane was sold, California where the airplane was still registered, and Texas where the airplane was going to be based), I decided to walk away. I have to give the guy credit, though; his story was checking out. The owner confirmed that the broker had bought the airplane and I was able to find his mechanic’s name in the right town and in the FAA registry. In the end, though, my wife decided that the airplane ‘s price was higher than she wanted to go.

She liked, instead, a damaged Cheetah that was only 100 miles away from us. I had thrown the airplane out of the consideration pool early because the paint was incomplete and I thought we could get one without a damage history. But since she liked it and it was close, I started chatting with the owner via e-mail. I asked him to come down from his $39,800 asking price to $29-32 based on the damage, which had happened only a year ago. He would talk $33.5K, he said, and no lower. I thought that was agreeable, at least until I retrieved the title and damage records from the FAA. The airplane had been damaged more than it first appeared; the cowl had been replaced and I had been assured that the prop and engine had not been involvedbut I had no idea that the wings had been, too, when the pilot flying it—and not the current owner—had overshot the runway and flown into some trees. Adding to that, the title search disclosed a possible lien problem with the airplane. It appeared it might be simply a bureaucratic misunderstanding, but I couldn’t wager thirty thousand dollars to find out. Just days before I was to inspect it, I backed away. Too many dark clouds seemed to be hanging over the airplane. I didn’t need my instrument flight rating to see that.

The third and last brokered airplane landed in New Jersey, though the owner/ broker lived in Pennsylvania. It was a Cheetah with an almost run-out engine but a great avionics package, nice paint, and a nice interior. When the broker reduced the plane’s price to $30,000, he made it quite a deal. Even if we had to pump $12k into an engine rebuild shortly after we bought it, the plane would be worth every penny. This airplane was, at least, registered in this guy’s name. But the show stopper came when he said that, after I inspected it, I would have to give him 25% down for him to hold the airplane for two weeks. I had just enough cash to cover that, but I consider $2000 the minimum cash reserve I want in my pocket to deal with the inevitable things I’m bound to discover on a ?new? old airplane I want fixed. I told him I could only give him $5K. He refused the offer, implying he didn’t think I was serious. For me, $5000 was serious enough!

This guy said he wanted to sell it quickly and gave that as rationale for not accepting my offer. I have no doubt he wants to sell it quickly. We’ll see if he comes crawling back. (If he does, my wife and I have decided not to pursue this airplane, but it might be fun!)

Not sure if I had passed over the Texas Cheetah too quickly, I printed out pictures of the airplane, a description of it, and a description of the landing incident and flew them down to visit with my mechanic, Bill Wynn. I found him in his hangar at Galveston’s Scholes Field airport. After we talked about the airplane, how and who had repaired it, he told me that a more proper price for that airplane was akin to the low side of what I had first offered the guy, i.e., $29K. That cinched it for me. I decided to walk away from the Texas Cheetah once and for all.

Now, I just found a Traveler for sale in Indiana?