First Word: January 2014

New airplane owners lament to me that they were taught nothing about the process of buying, owning and maintaining an aircraft when they learned to fly. Accordingly, their aircraft ownership education came through the back alleys, as it were. The quality and thoroughness of that tuition made for some expensive mistakes—now they are constantly looking for good information to keep from making bad purchases. They want to know the rules.

So, at the start of a new year, it’s time for a big-picture list of some of the hard-learned rules for an aviation consumer. Ignore them at your peril. When the cost of flying is high, the first thing owners scrimp on is main-tenance—then they realize they can’t afford the airplane and put it on the market. Despite the fact that pilots are generally pretty nice people, there  is a painfully high level of misrepre- sentation of the condition of used airplanes.

Never, ever, ever buy an airplane  without having your mechanic do a  pre-purchase examination.  “Fresh Annual” and “Fresh Over- haul” are traps for suckers. Almost invariably, the work done on that annual or overhaul was the least the owner could convince the mechanic to sign off. If you’re going to dump an airplane, how much would you spend on an annual?

When deciding how much you can spend to buy an airplane, set aside 25 percent of the money for the stuff that will break in the first year and the upgrades you’ll discover you need to make. It will just barely be enough.
Engine overhauls are a crapshoot. The best engine shops have been known to collapse suddenly or have a period where they have problems. Use Aviation Consumer’s most recent engine shop survey, get the names of recent shop customers and talk with them. Under no conditions pay more than 50 percent of the cost up front and stay in constant touch with the shop for progress reports. If the delivery schedule slips by more than two weeks, there is likely to be something wrong enough that it warrants your full attention.

I like what I’m seeing in the rapidly growing aircraft refurb world. However, you are not going to get the cost of a refurb back when you sell the airplane. Do a refurb for yourself to make the airplane the way you want it for the way you fly it because you are planning to hold on to the airplane for a few years.

Putting down a deposit on a new airplane or component during the developmental stage is a high-risk gamble—high enough that it is foolish, in my opinion. If you do feel compelled to make such a deposit, it should go into an escrow account that has guarantees that allow you to get your money back if delivery goals aren’t met and that the manufacturer can’t get at it unless and until it delivers an acceptable product. A one-year delay on a new airplane design is not unusual, but at 18 months it’s becoming red flag warning time. For components or avionics, a one-year delay is, I feel, pushing the envelope of acceptability.

If you really want to gamble at lousy odds, put down a deposit on a new airplane design that is also using a new engine design.

Show appreciation to the ethical sellers in the tough aviation market. I’ll do it right now: As the magazine went to press last month, Larry Anglisano and I were trying to figure out whether Zaon had gone out of business. I expressed concern that retailers of its fine traffic alert product were not disclosing to buyers, about to spend $1000, that there would be no warranty or customer support. Later, it was confirmed that Zaon was out of business. I also learned that two of the biggest retailers, Sporty’s and Aircraft Spruce, had acted in what I feel are ways that reflect a high standard of ethics: Sporty’s stopped selling the product, and Aircraft Spruce put up a notice to prospective buyers that Zaon was out of business. Well done. —Rick Durden