A new phase of life

February 1, 1997

Children seem to surf from one phase of life to another almost monthly. One minute they're infants. You've almost figured them out and then they're toddlers, and then preschoolers, and then they're in college — just like that. During our adult years, however, life's phases seem to come more slowly.

As a new aircraft owner (the airplane isn't anywhere near new; I'm just new at it), I feel as if I have entered the third stage of my adulthood. The first stage was marriage; the second, parenthood; and now, aircraft ownership. You know you're in a new stage when you feel awkward telling someone about the change that has just occurred in your life.

For example, when I first was married, it seemed strange to be introducing this woman as "my wife." As in, "Good to see you again. And, by the way, this is my wife, Brenda …." I'd say the words and then think, "That sounds very strange coming from me."

Likewise, I felt similarly peculiar after our first daughter was born. In conversation, I'd mention that "my daughter" did this or that and then think to myself how foreign it sounded, as if someone else were speaking. Same thing after the second daughter was born and I'd tell of something "the kids" did.

And so it was after the airplane was purchased. I felt strange and self-conscious talking about "my airplane" after so many years of wanting one and often assuming the time would never be right to buy one. In reality, the time may not be right, but I finally decided that there probably is never a really right time and that if you want it and the bank is willing, you should go for it.

Like every pilot, I've probably thought more about owning an airplane than any other one subject since I earned my private pilot certificate 18 years ago. My desire to have an airplane of my own was countered by the typical thing that keeps us from doing exactly what we want: money. I've run more spreadsheets on the subject than I care to count. Upon occasion, I could spread the numbers in such a way that it almost made sense. I travel for business and could use the airplane for trips. My family and my wife's family live in opposite directions and at distances that make sense for light airplane travel. Still, as inconvenient as it might be, we could drive — we have to have a car, after all.

My wife's (13 years later it doesn't sound so strange anymore) learning to fly tipped the scales a bit in favor of aircraft ownership. If we bought a trainer, she could learn to fly in it and we could still use it for personal transportation and the occasional business trip, I tried to justify to myself — and to her. Her response: "I like the Tampicos at the flight school. Why do you want your own airplane when you can fly airplanes at work and when you turn the key off, it's someone else's problem?"

Maybe I hadn't sold the concept correctly. Maybe I should take a tactic from the car sales professionals: get her behind the wheel — er, yoke — and let her take it for a spin. Well, not a spin — a nice trip around the county.

Of course, I got to this line of thinking only after coming to the not-so-shocking conclusion that the folding-feet, turbocharged, flight-level-loving airplane I really wanted was completely out of the question. After some soul-searching and Trade-A-Plane searching, it soon became obvious that the right airplane for this stage of my life was the same one that is so right for so many other people at so many other stages of life. There is a reason that the Cessna 172 is the most produced airplane in the world. It's ubiquitous. It does many things pretty well and nothing really poorly. It's a trainer, it's a traveler. It's my airplane.

The one I finally latched onto was one that I had looked at every day as I have driven to work for the last couple of years. I've flown it before, and I know lots of people who fly it regularly. It was reliable, it was reasonably attractive, and it was for sale.

N734ZS is a 1977 Cessna 172N that has been leased to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation for the last two and a half years. ASF has used it for some datalink tests, and a few student pilots at AOPA have been using it for flight training. With 2,000 hours' total time, it's a young airplane, despite the 20 years since it rolled out the doors of Cessna's Pawnee plant in Wichita. In fact, it has fewer than half the hours of the average 1977 Skyhawk. Trouble is, those same hours have accrued on the engine, which happens to have a TBO of 2,000 hours. And this isn't just any old (emphasis on old) engine, it's the infamous Lycoming O-320-H2AD engine. It's been called infamous so many times that it might as well be part of the name; and it has so many airworthiness directives on it that it really does have AD as part of its name.

1977 was the first year Cessna bolted the new model of 160-horsepower engine to the Skyhawk. In years prior, on the 172M, Cessna had used the 150-hp Lycoming O-320-E2D. The H2AD was an attempt by Lycoming to take advantage of some new manufacturing machinery and to improve the maintainability of the engine. However, a series of serious ADs quickly followed the engine's introduction. It seems that the H2AD suffered from lubrication problems, resulting in spalled tappets and camshafts (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Valve Travails," p. 83). Along came a number of fixes that mostly solved the problems, but the most important one — called the T-mod — can be done only when the engine is overhauled. Two decades later, virtually every 172N has had at least one overhaul, but not 4ZS.

Knowing that the ASF lease expired at the end of 1996 and that the foundation wasn't going to renew it, I called the airplane's owner, Mark Peters of Blue Sky Aviation. Peters sold Phil and Lois Boyer their airplane — also a 1977 Skyhawk — and is someone I have called upon occasionally over the years when I needed insight into the used aircraft market for an article. Peters said that he was planning to overhaul the engine and then sell the airplane. He offered me the opportunity to buy it that way or the way it sat, with the runout engine. I decided to take it with the engine as is and hope to coax another 100 or 200 hours out of it.

The windows are milky white with crazing, some of the interior plastic is cracked, and the panel is a bit of a hodgepodge. Peters had the airplane painted in 1992 and installed some new cloth seat inserts. At about the same time, he also deep-sixed the two Cessna navcoms in favor of a pair of Narco Mark 12D slide-in replacements and upped the ante with a II Morrow Flybuddy loran that seems to work well. The propeller was overhauled in 1994, at the insistence of the foundation. As part of the deal, Peters supplied new Airtex carpets for me to install.

It needed an annual and Peters agreed to pay for the inspection at the shop of my choosing. On the advice of some other aircraft owners in the area, I shuttled the airplane to Hagerstown, Maryland, and JRA Executive Air. The staff there set about disassembling the airplane and assembling a squawk list several pages long. In the end, though, the maladies were nothing more or less than what you'd expect to find in a 20-year-old piece of equipment.

So, for less than the price of a luxury car, I have an airplane. Granted, it was built when I was in high school, Jimmy Carter was president, and disco was in — the first time — but it's mine.

Before I made the final purchase decision, I did indeed get Brenda behind the yoke. Soon after we took off on a calm, clear Saturday afternoon, I started in on my sales pitch about how much fun it would be to have our own set of wings, how she wouldn't have to fight the schedule book to reserve the Aerospatiale Tampicos at the flight school, and how we could actually leave our headsets and other gear in the airplane. As a student who's flown only Tampicos, she didn't have a broad frame of reference, but she liked the Skyhawk. "I can learn in this," she said confidently. I knew it was a done deal when I looked over at her and she was wearing the same goofy grin that I was.

On a cold January Saturday, I pounded three nails into the garage wall and hung the Skyhawk's white and two-tone blue wheel fairings up out of the way, awaiting a spring day when I may strap them on 4ZS. The fairings hang where I can see them every night when I pull the car into the garage, a pleasant reminder that I'm in a new phase of life as an airplane owner.

Some friends came over that Saturday night. They walked through the garage and pointed up toward the ceiling. "What are those for?" they asked.

"Oh, those are for my airplane," I replied as matter-of-factly as I could, but it sure sounded strange.