Proficient Pilot

Nostalgia online

November 1, 2004

Aviation writer and retired airline Capt. Barry Schiff has witnessed much of general aviation history firsthand.

One of my favorite pastimes when spending time at a general aviation airport is to visit the local pilot-supply shop. I'm always on the prowl for a good book and am a sucker for intriguing gadgets.

You can imagine my delight a few years ago when I discovered the largest and best-stocked pilot-supply shop in the world. The joy of this discovery was that the store is no farther away than my computer. I am referring, of course, to the online auction site eBay ( www.ebay.com).

There are not many new aviation items for sale on eBay, although you can find some near-new and mint-condition items at prices far below what you would expect to pay at a conventional sales outlet. More importantly, you can determine the availability of something you want with a few keystrokes and in the comfort of your own home. It really is a case of "letting your fingers do the walking."

The aviation items for sale on eBay that most frequently entice me are collector's items. My first purchase was a 1952 Los Angeles Sectional Chart in excellent condition (showing the four-course ranges that were being used when I took my first lessons in 1952). Total cost? Only $5.85, not bad for a rare piece of memorabilia that generated such wonderful memories.

Shortly thereafter, I found an original brass E6B computer for sale. (These were too heavy for pilots to carry around and subsequent models were made of plastic.) I suppose no one else wanted it; I was the only bidder and picked it up for only $20. (I have since been offered $200 for it.)

After that success, I continue to look for additional brass E6Bs. During such browsing, I discovered for sale a mint-condition wind-triangle computer used by Japanese pilots during World War II, a truly rare item and a work of art. Trouble is, somebody else wanted it almost as much as I did, and a bidding war ensued. Yes, I won, but please don't ask what I paid. Subsequently, though, I found and bought World War II wind-vector computers made for and used by the Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force, and the Soviet Air Force. The most expensive of these was only $52, and all provide me with great joy (especially trying to figure out how they work).

eBay also is a treasure trove of books, a wonderful place to begin or expand one's aviation library (fiction and nonfiction). This is where I bought for $13.40 an excellent copy of the Science of Pre-Flight Aeronautics, the first aviation book I ever read. Another wonderful book purchased on eBay was an autographed first-edition copy of Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan's bestseller, That's My Story (and he stuck to it until his death). I also saw an autographed first-edition copy of Charles Lindbergh's inspiring book The Spirit of St. Louis and an original letter signed by both Orville and Wilbur Wright. I coveted both of these items, but the bidding got pricey, and I yielded to those with fatter wallets.

An advantage of eBay and other auction sites is that sellers can take all the space they need to provide digital photographs and descriptions of the items they have for sale. If you want additional information about a particular item you can e-mail the seller and question him directly. This most often is done by those interested in purchasing expensive items such as avionics, engines, propellers, and airplanes. Yes, you can even buy or sell a Cessna Citation on eBay.

Those new to this auction site might want to know if they can rely on the descriptions of items offered for sale there. In almost all cases, yes, you can. After someone buys an item on eBay, he is given the opportunity to provide feedback regarding the seller, the transaction, and the item purchased. Anyone intending to buy something from that seller can then review all of his feedback to determine if he does or does not want to do business with that individual. The feedback system is extraordinarily effective. Sellers are so eager to maintain a good reputation that most go out of their way to keep their customers happy. Nothing hinders someone's ability to sell on eBay more than negative feedback. I have purchased more than 100 items on eBay and have yet to experience an unsatisfactory transaction. Everything I have bought is exactly what I expected (and occasionally better).

Someone buying an expensive item, however, can protect himself by depositing purchase funds in a form of escrow.

Most of the 20,000 aviation items currently for sale on eBay are relatively inexpensive: models, old airline posters, books, computers, plotters, aviation art, old aeronautical charts, military manuals, pins and patches, airline and military wings and patches, old aircraft instruments, hard-to-find operating handbooks for old airplanes and avionics, old aviation magazines, and so forth. Chances are if you want it, you will eventually find it on eBay. You can even find videotapes of old aviation movies.

Speaking of videos, there is good news about the Ernest Gann and John Wayne flying flicks, The High and the Mighty and Island in the Sky, that I referenced a few months ago. According to Variety (a show-biz newspaper), Paramount Pictures will release these films on DVD and VHS next May.


Visit the author's Web site ( www.barryschiff.com).