All in good time

April 1, 2000

Six months," I told myself as the list of squawks on my kneeboard grew and grew. "You knew going into the deal that it would be six months before you'd have the airplane into the mechanical shape you want it in," I reminded myself. "Yes, but that doesn't mean you have to like it!" the other half of my brain responded. And so it went as we plowed eastward into headwinds across the continent—yes, eastward with a headwind, for two days.

That was in late August, as my father and I returned from California where I had picked up my new-to-me Beech A36 Bonanza. During the trip to Maryland, nothing seriously untoward cropped up—but there was that persistent little thing with the starter—the fact that it wouldn't—start, that is. A thorough prepurchase inspection had been completed. A number of items were turned up, but no show-stoppers. Then the airplane wouldn't start for the test flight. The seller assured me that it was simply a run-down battery from all of the testing of the flap motor that he had just installed. It sounded like a reasonable explanation, even though the battery was only a few months old. A few minutes on the charger, and the airplane started right up.

So, the next morning my father and I pointed the pretty airplane eastward and headed home. After a grandiose tour of the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, we swooped into Page Municipal Airport in Arizona for fuel and lunch. Ready for the next leg of adventure, we climbed aboard. I turned the ignition switch and nothing happened. Just a couple of clicks. The mechanics at Sunrise Airlines hooked up a ground power cart, and the big Continental engine spun right up. Everything looked normal, although I wasn't convinced that the alternator was showing as robust a charge as it should have. With good VFR weather ahead, we pressed on.

The plan was to make it nonstop to Wichita, where I hoped that the mechanics at Raytheon Aircraft Services could take a look at it. After all, who could know the airplane better than the mechanics from the shop owned by the manufacturer in the same town as the factory? That persistent headwind, however, played havoc with our plans, and I wasn't comfortable from a fuel-reserves standpoint with flying any farther than Liberal, Kansas, less than an hour from Wichita. Liberal was a repeat of Page. A ground power cart from Lyddon Aero Center got us on our way again, and we soon set down at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. The next morning, I eventually turned up a piston mechanic to look at the airplane. He said that he would have to send some parts out for bench testing, which would take a couple of days. If the weather was good, I might want to just go on home, he suggested. The weather was good ahead and we followed his advice. This time the airplane started right up. Go figure.

Ditto at Jeffersonville, Indiana, where we stopped for fuel and to wait for some thunderstorms to move out of our destination area. By the time we took off, we had VFR conditions the rest of the way home.

During the next few days, I made several more trips and the airplane always started just fine. Nonetheless, I had the shop take a look. Eventually, it was determined that the alternator was weak and it was replaced.

By late October, I had ferreted out another minor problem or two, reducing the squawk list a bit further. It's time to go to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for AOPA Expo. Editor-at-Large Tom Horne; his wife, Sylvia; and I pile the Bonanza full of bags and equipment. I throw the ignition switch and—nothing—not a click or even the hum of a gyro. We get a tug to the maintenance facility. After testing the electrical system, the mechanic declares that the firewall-mounted solenoid that activates the entire electrical system when you turn on the master switch is toast. It'll take a couple of days to get another one.

We scramble and find another means of transportation, lugging bags from one airplane to another.

By now my confidence in the airplane is shot. If you can't depend on it, why have it? I wonder if I've made a mistake in buying the airplane.

But, after the solenoid is replaced, life gets better. I make a number of trips with no new squawks, but I do notice that the starter seems a little reluctant to kick the propeller over the first couple of blades. But once turning, the engine starts just fine.

The situation continues to deteriorate until finally I have the shop take a look. The starter has provided its last start. Naturally, an overhauled one solves the problem and again, my confidence in the airplane soars.

Between trips to the shop for starting and electrical system maladies, I add—a number of upgrades—trying to strike a cost balance between nice-to-haves and truly useful enhancements that will make the airplane into the reliable, safe aircraft I need for business flights. First is the audio panel. The older King audio panel works, but the separate intercom was set up for only the two front seats. I want a six-place system because I often travel on business with several people on board and also with my family for personal trips. Out comes the old intercom and audio panel and in goes a PM7000 audio panel/intercom from PS Engineering. The PM7000 has two stereo music inputs, automatic muting when it senses a radio transmission, and the ability to isolate the pilot or crew, or to have everyone on board conversing—among many other features. The system works great. The kids can now plug a portable CD player into the back music jack and enjoy their own music—all the while chattering away while I deal with ATC in the pilot-isolate mode. If I want my own music, I can plug another CD or tape player into the front music jack.

Next comes the JP Instruments EDM-800 engine analyzer and fuel computer. Once you've flown with an engine analyzer, you won't want to go back to the days when you push the throttle forward for takeoff and hope everything is OK. With an engine analyzer, you can see that there's combustion happening in each cylinder. On takeoff, the EDM-800 shows all six EGTs rising smartly as you roll down the runway. If something doesn't look right, you can stop on the ground and check it. The -800 model has a number of unique features, including the ability to display percent of horsepower being utilized. You can also read off the display the inches of manifold pressure and rpm being used, which is an excellent backup to the mechanical instruments. I've been most impressed with the EDM-800 so far. It's worked perfectly since day one.

Now I can easily select the percent of power I want with any combination of manifold pressure or rpm. On a recent trip, I was running 75-percent power at 23 inches and 2,400 rpm. But I also tried 25 inches and 2,200 rpm, yielding the same 75-percent power—but with an eerily quiet cabin.

The fuel flow computer is remarkably accurate, letting me know to within half of a gallon how much fuel I'll need to reach my destination and the amount of reserve I'll have.

The EDM-800 also displays oil temperature, which came in handy when the stock analog gauge went nuts. And, with the ability to display voltage on the electrical system, I can now know for sure that the alternator is properly charging the system'a nice backup to the ship's analog gauge.

I used to think moving maps were for wimps. But as with the engine analyzer, once you've flown with one for a while, you don't want to go back. A recent trip took me through the complex Baltimore-Washington airspace and then south of Baltimore to the maze of military airspace associated with the Navy's Patuxent River facilities. It was then that the decision was made; I want to know what's out there.

So now, the airplane is in the avionics shop having the stack rearranged to accommodate a Garmin GNS 430. The 430 combines a color moving map with an IFR GPS and a VHF nav/com. The 430 supplants the original King KX170B nav/com, while the KX155 gets demoted from the number-one nav/com slot to the number-two position. If there's room, I plan to leave the reliable Northstar M-1 loran in place, perhaps sacrificing the ADF, which will make a nice doorstop. I made only one brief flight in AOPA's Aero SUV, which carried a pair of Garmin 430s, so I can't comment yet on what it's like to fly with one. But everyone who has experienced the system raves about it. I'm anxious to give it a try.

Six months. I was right. It's taken this long to get the airplane to where I want it to be. Of course, the squawk list goes on. There's always something that needs a little adjustment. And I don't even worry about the garish 1970's interior. I can't see it from up front anyhow. The paint could use a little touch-up and then...well, you get the picture. Owning an airplane is like owning a house. When you've completed one task, another is beckoning. Just take it six months at a time.