Project Update: Buying the perfect airplane

January 17, 2008

By Ian J. Twombly

Project Update: January 17, 2008

Every buyer has his or her own definition of the “perfect” airplane. In AOPA’s case, the perfect sweepstakes airplane is dirty, well-worn, run-out, but overall mechanically sound. On top of that, our “perfect” airplane has to be cheap to get the best value for the membership. And so, as has become tradition around the AOPA Pilot offices in fall, we set out to find the perfect airplane.

One of the first things we usually do with a new sweepstakes is decide on the type of aircraft. This year, the process was slightly backward. Instead of an airplane, we decided on the panel. At least that we would focus on it, that is. From there, we went about picking the airplane. The PA-28-181, or Piper Archer II, was an obvious choice. Its stable flying characteristics; easy, familiar maintenance; and four-seat, fixed gear appeal made it a shoe-in. Add to that the abundance of these models on the used aircraft market, GA mass-appeal, and low-cost and we had ourselves a winning combo.

Because so many Archers have been produced (more than 3,500 thus far, according to Vref), finding quality used airplanes is not a problem. In fact, almost the opposite is true. There are so many it seems that slimming down the candidates was the more difficult task. After many Web searches and phone calls, I came upon Winterset Aviation in Winterset, Iowa. Greg Harrison, the airport manager, local mechanic, pilot, aircraft broker, and lineman, was selling N22ZT, a 1978 Archer.

The airplane was owned by Adco Air, a local flying club made up of less than half a dozen pilots. In a story that’s all too common, the airplane became too expensive and interest waned. The club had to sell. After a few conversations on the phone with Harrison, we decided to go ahead with the process and order a title search. Depending on the situation, a seller may or may not request a deposit at this point to take the airplane off the market. In our case, Harrison was happy to wait a few days while we got the results of the search and completed a prepurchase inspection (more on that later).

We turned to AOPA Aircraft Title Services for all our title needs. The title search takes as little as 24 hours and includes current ownership information, any liens on the aircraft, accident/incident history, and the complete database of Form 337s, otherwise known as major repairs or alterations. The folks at AIC, AOPA’s title partner, did a great job and were responsive to all my very clearly naive questions.

With the title search completed, we made the decision to go forward with a prepurchase inspection. This is an absolute must when buying a used aircraft. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying from a friend, a colleague, your flight school, or anyone else you trust. Buying an airplane without a prepurchase inspection would be akin to buying a house without a home inspection. It’s quite possibly the most expensive way to save money.

In our case, the prepurchase inspection was a challenge because AOPA is in Maryland and the airplane was in Iowa. This isn’t a rare situation. Often the best airplane is the one that is farthest away. Luckily, another writer had friends in the area and called upon one of them, Dennis Gordon, for help.

Gordon was a lifesaver. He went to Winterset to fully inspect the aircraft. This doesn’t mean doing a quick preflight inspection. It’s pulling off inspection panels for obvious signs of corrosion (thankfully, none), evaluating the paint, interior, avionics, and of course, looking for obvious signs of damage. Perhaps most important is the logbooks. Gordon went over them carefully and reported back anomalies he felt we needed to discuss. With that, we felt comfortable going forward. Thanks again to Denny Gordon for a job well done and for saving all of us a lot of time and resources.

After the inspection comes price. We settled on a figure that all parties felt was fair. It was less than the club was asking for the airplane, but a large scrape on the underside of the left wing indicated some missteps in the past, and thus warranted a lower figure. Again, when you are purchasing an aircraft, your seller may ask for a deposit at this point until you can finalize the deal. There’s no set rate, but many agree that anywhere from $1,000 to 10 percent is sufficient at this point to hold the airplane.

Because Adco Air had a loan on the aircraft, we decided to complete the transaction through escrow. Again we called on AOPA Aircraft Title Services to help us through the process. The crew at AIC made everything completely painless. We sent her a registration application and the payment. The seller sent a bill of sale. The bank sent a lien release. That’s it. When I arrived to pick up the airplane, we signed the purchase agreement (also something not to be overlooked), called AIC to complete the transaction, and sat back and waited. Less than 30 minutes later the deal was done and N22ZT was on its way to becoming the newest glass airplane in the sky. Painless.

Next week: Oxford Aviation and initial project issues

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Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.