For our mutual amusement, my pal Brian and I make a particular country airstrip a motorcycling destination to check on a parked J-model Mooney. And it’s really parked. Neglected, actually, which is a real shame. It’s been sitting so long on its rims that the landing gear doors have actually pushed through the pavement in its tiedown, the aircraft seemingly trying to bury itself from the misery. I found one of the fuel caps loose during one visit and in the process of doing a good deed by securing them for whoever owns this thing, noticed ugly rust around the tank structure. A peek inside through the crazed windows reveals spiderwebs, decaying fabric and a Garmin GNS430 GPS in the panel. Somebody spent good money on that rig, and someone might consider spending a whole lot more to get this airplane airworthy. My friend Rob-an IA, a Mooney expert and a Mooney owner a couple times over-warned that this someone shouldn’t be me. And that got me to thinking, when is an airplane such a basket case that it’s better suited for a salvage yard than a maintenance shop?
A lot of that decision depends on the extent of corrosion, while the typical wholesale value of the aircraft could serve as a backstop. The current Aircraft Bluebook puts the typical wholesale price of a 1978 M20J at around $55,000. That’s for a flying airplane, with good paint and interior, no damage, within six months of a recent annual inspection and with cylinder compressions at 85 percent of new. From what I see, this airplane doesn’t hit any of these marks. I don’t know what a compression check would reveal, but I have a sneaking suspicion none of the cylinders on the Lycoming IO-360-A3B6D would make numbers close to 85 percent. As one IA put it, for the money you’d spend getting the airplane back in the air (if you can find a shop or IA that will actually work on it and sign it off), you’re better off buying one that’s been flying and regularly inspected. “Tubular corrosion is an expensive cancer to cure, with no guarantees,” he said.
I ran this scenario by Terry White at the long-established and respected aircraft salvage firm White Industries in Bates City, Missouri. According to him, for an abandoned piston single like a Mooney or Piper, salvage dealers heavily judge the plane with respect to three major points: corrosion, engine condition and avionics. White said that most salvage dealers are more interested in parts that fit models other than the one that’s been scrapped, which is why they’ll bid top dollar for an aircraft with lots of modern avionics. As for the engine, White said since most of the competitive bidding is done sight unseen, it will ask someone to pull the prop through to see if the engine is stiff or easily turns through. Yes, cylinder corrosion is high on the list of suspected troubles, but so is avionics corrosion. You can bet the circuit boards and other components inside the Garmin GPS in the neglected Mooney haven’t been served well by sitting in the harsh and damp climate without use.
White also said that the aircraft’s location in relation to the salvage dealer plays a big role in whether it even wants to bid on it. Remember, the airplane in most cases will be disassembled and trucked (not flown) away. A distant dealer wouldn’t be competitive because the bid is based on delivery. “In the case of your Mooney example, we would probably refer you to a salvage dealer that’s more local,” he told me. Imagine that? Even among misfits this airplane is a misfit. As for its salvage value, White said there’s tremendous variation, and that’s partly based on whether the airplane is still flying. “Even if a plane has a hypothetical $10,000 book value, its salvage value might not be half of that,” he said.
So my question of when an airplane is a throwaway isn’t easy to answer. But the question of whether Brian and I should consider resurrecting this neglected bird by first making its owner an offer based on salvage value is easy. As one of the locals who’s been watching the airplane rot in the tiedown put it, “Don’t walk, but run away from it.”