Monday, March 23, 2015

Misadventures in Aircraft Ownership

After discussing some of the headaches involved in aircraft ownership on Facebook, I half-jokingly said I should resurrect this blog and title it "Misadventures in Aircraft Ownership."  Surprisingly, a few people indicated they'd like to see such a thing, so here we are.  I'm not overhauling the blog entirely and making it all about my ownership oopses, but I will tag any related posts "Misadventures in Aircraft Ownership" and will title any posts starting with "MIAO."

To kick things off, things to consider when you are first struck with the genius thought "Hey!  I should totally buy an airplane!"

1.) Define your mission.  The best description I heard of this came from a fellow named Bill Rusk who is working on building his second experimental Super Cub.  "Build for 90% of your flying" is his motto, and it holds true for those of us that decided we'd much rather fly something that someone else built.  Sure, a go-fast airplane would be pretty cool, as would be something that goes upside-down, but that is a very small part of my mission.  I am, at my core, a "puddlejumper" as a wise old man once told me.  You need to be very honest with yourself during this process.  If you over- or under-buy to meet your mission, you won't be happy.  Compromise is a necessity, but you need to be aware of what you're compromising on.  Otherwise, you'll be unhappy down the road and may end up blaming the whole concept of aircraft ownership for your discontent, when the root cause may just be that you bought the wrong airplane. 

2.) Research heavily.  Think about airplanes that would meet your mission (keeping in mind your mission may change in the future).  Once you've narrowed your options down, become involved in the community.  Go fly an RV, or take a BFR in a Citabria.  There's no sense falling in love with the idea of an airplane and then finding out it's terribly uncomfortable for you (or your significant other).  You might want to consider renting for several hours if it's possible, or becoming involved in a type group or type club to get experience with the airplane you're considering.

3.) Get your financing (if needed) in order.  Now that you've selected an airplane, you can research the approximate prices for what you're looking for.  This might be a good time for a reality check . . . but better now than later.  Things to consider include investigating multiple lenders and comparing their offerings.  Credit unions are a great option with some preferable interest rates, but they may require a higher down payment.  Do your research ahead of time, and you'll be able to plan for the appropriate down payment in advance.  

4.) Start with a soft inquiry.  The best deals in aviation tend to happen outside of Barnstormers and Trade-a-Plane and are complete before the airplane in question could even be listed.  It bears noting that you should not be in a hurry to choose an aircraft model or to choose a candidate for purchase.  I told a few friends in  November of 2013 I was going to start looking for an airplane in the next six months or so, with a goal of owning an airplane by the end of summer.  Disclaimer:  That was an entirely arbitrary timeline.  I figured I could talk myself out of buying an airplane, so I set a deadline of my 25th birthday back when I was still in college.  You may or may not want to give yourself a timeline, but, if you do, be sure it's conservative.  Things happen. 

Inquire with friends, on type forums, and at local airports.  If you don't hear of anything after a while (and "a while" may vary depending upon your goals), start looking on websites like Barnstormers, Trade-a-Plane, Controller, ASO, etc., as well as the classifieds on type forums.  I started looking at Barnstormers and Trade-a-Plane about the same time I started telling a few folks to keep their eyes open for any good deals.  This allowed me to have a basic understanding of asking prices in advance (note: asking price is not necessarily equal to selling price.  It's common sense but easy to forget once you start to get attached to an airplane). 

Another key thing to consider is that your previous involvement in a community and their awareness of your search for an airplane will help you find an appropriate person to do your prebuy.  

5.) Research some more.

6.) When you find a good candidate, you have a few options.  First, go see the airplane, decide if you're interested, and then schedule a prebuy.  This is what I did, but it requires multiple trips and you run the risk of falling in love with the airplane before you can get an objective opinion of it from a neutral third party.  I felt fairly confident I could figure out if the airplane was a total pile or likely ok, and I wanted to get the prebuy scheduled relatively quickly if it turned out ok.  This was because the Kid was a pretty good deal for what I got, but you have to temper hastiness with steady resolve. 

The second option is to schedule the prebuy and do the prebuy as soon as you see the airplane.  If you go this route, it means you've been in contact with the seller in advance.  Ideally, your mechanic should have gotten an electronic copy of the logbooks to review for any showstoppers prior to inspecting the airplane.  The seller may request some earnest money in exchange for you coming to poke at their airplane, since they will want to be able to tell other prospective buyers that you're making a trip to inspect the aircraft. 

A prebuy may also (and arguably should also) include a chance to fly the airplane.  This is subject to the seller's comfort level, insurance, and annual status.  You might very well go along for a ride and never touch the controls if the seller isn't comfortable with a stranger flying their airplane.  When I bought the Kid, I rode in the back seat and the seller did the takeoff and landing.  I made some turns and Dutch rolls, checked oil temperature and pressure, airspeed, and general rigging. 

Most people will say that a prebuy should basically entail an annual (the higher priced the airplane, the more intensive the inspection).  In fact, many people will advise you to have the prebuy done as an annual.  If everything looks good, you have a fresh annual and a solid understanding of the airplane's potential issues.  If it doesn't, you can start figuring out what it will cost you to get the airplane where you want it or need it to be, from both a pilot preference and airworthiness perspective.  It should go without saying that the prebuy should not be done by the seller's mechanic (in most cases).  They're probably perfectly capable mechanics, but they are likely not the ones that will be maintaining the airplane going forward.  Exceptions include well-regarded mechanics in the community that others besides the seller vouch for.  Otherwise, find someone you trust and get their professional opinion.  It might be expensive to do a thorough prebuy, but it's more expensive to do a cursory one and find all of the issues later.  Also, don't be afraid to wave off the airplane over a prebuy.  You are under no obligation to buy the airplane, unless you signed a contract in advance.  Be sure to consider what are "no-go" issues for you, including a total dollar value of discrepancies. 

7.) After you've evaluated the results of your prebuy, make an offer or run away.  You might already have an offer existing that's contingent on the results of the prebuy.  At this point, you should be well-versed in what you're looking for in an airplane, what you're willing to spend, and what the market looks like--or you should have someone there to guide you along. 

8.) Go get your airplane!

This feels like a very brief overview, but I'm sure you'll hear more about my misadventures in future posts.  Additionally, if this sounds intimidating or confusing, don't underestimate the value of knowledgeable folks in the field.  These can be experienced maintainers, pilots, builders, etc.  You can also engage a skilled aircraft sales specialist to find you an airplane and handle all of the paperwork.  You'll pay more for this, but aircraft sales representatives can find airplanes that aren't listed and likely have extensive experience with your aircraft type (or can find you someone who does).  Most smaller aircraft don't have a high enough margin to warrant a sales representative, but you can always seek one out.  More complex aircraft are much more likely to be represented by a sales department. 

That's all for now . . .


Sunday, March 22, 2015

It Takes a Village

I've decided that the notion that I own an airplane is a foolish belief for a few reasons:

1.) A bank still owns more of the Oklahoma Kid than I do.
2.) The airplane will hopefully outlive me, making me a temporary custodian.
3.) It's really impossible to own an airplane without a veritable village of people helping you out.

As for #1, well, that will eventually change.  Regarding #2, if I don't screw up too badly, that will come true in time as well.  #3 is one of those eternal truths that's just not going anywhere.

In fact, I wouldn't own the Oklahoma Kid without a laundry list of good (and bad?) influences prodding me along.  The Kid was found by a friend I had spoken with a few months earlier, asking him to keep an ear to the ground for any Cubs coming up for sale.  A significant amount of research was done in advance with several folks reminding me to ask certain questions, look for specific things in the logbooks, and to poke at certain areas during the prebuy inspection. 

The technical assistance was one matter.  Whether foolish or not, I felt pretty solid in evaluating the airplane (with the requisite surprises) on the technical front.  The mental side of purchasing an airplane is a WHOLE different matter.  You see, there is really no good time in life to buy an airplane.  That would be akin to saying that there is a good time to light a stack of cash on fire just for grins and giggles.  I suppose there are less bad times to do that, but, the fact of the matter is, you can talk yourself out of buying an airplane forever and ever until you're looking back on life wondering what the hell just happened to the last umpteen years. 

The mental gymnastics are far more complex than the technical issues.  Technical issues have a way out, a starting and stopping point.  The decision to buy an airplane can be far more taxing.  I consider myself a relatively responsible person in regards to my finances.  I started a retirement account in college and increase my contributions to my 401(k) when possible.  I overpay on my student loans and am set to pay another of my loans off in full in the next month or so.  The notion of adding a few hundred dollars a month to own an airplane was difficult to swallow.  That money could mean a nicer car, or bigger student loan payments, or a bigger retirement contribution, or some seriously nice pairs of shoes. 

This is where friends come in--the kind that can look at you and call "Bullshit" when you start offering up reasons that could be considered excuses.  In fact, I called a trusted friend and started off with small talk about the airplane, kind of beating around the bush.  Then I piped up and said, "I'm running out of reasons to talk myself out of buying this thing, but I still don't know . . . it's a lot of money."  His response?  "You put more planning into things than anyone I know.  You can talk yourself out of anything. There's never anything practical about buying an airplane, and you're just making up excuses now. Go buy the damn thing!"

So I bought an airplane. 

The follow-on to this, of course, is that the village is just as necessary AFTER you bring your new family member home.  There's a lot of "What was that?" and "Is that normal?" in the first weeks and months of owning a new airplane.  It's what I refer to as the "dating stage" of aircraft ownership, where you're both still getting to know each other.  Just like a new relationship, the euphoria of your airplane purchase soon fades into the reality of caring for a mechanical creature.  While you're find out all of your airplane's quirks and creaks, you call a fair amount of people to make sure it's normal.  When it's not, you need that village even more.

The Kid hasn't been awful in any regard, but she's tossed me a few curve balls--even in areas I knew we had to address.  It's part of the game.  Fundamentally, you can pay now or pay later.  I chose to pay later and buy an airplane that will require both a certain and uncertain amount of work in the coming years.  For me, this allowed me to afford an airplane I otherwise couldn't have.  There were no PA-11s in my price range, let alone ones that came with floats, skis, and a spare prop.  

Now, as I approach the first annual under my ownership, I called upon my village of friends and aviation family members to find a trusted person to take care of the Kid.  With almost a year of ownership, it's a neat time to reflect on all of the people that made it possible.  

You know who you are--and thank you.