License to Learn

Buy plane

August 1, 2010

Without examining my logbook I know I have at least 2,000 hours of flight time in the Cessna 150, of which about 1,950 were spent climbing (at least it seems that way). My jest is only a reflection of my fondness of this wonderful little machine. How fond am I of the 150? Well, I just bought one, but not without learning a few important things about metal, logbooks, and liens.

My last two airplane purchases were done though Gary Sequeira at American Aircraft Sales at John Wayne Airport in California. Gary is one of those highly reputable fellows with whom you can trade a stack of money for airplane keys, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, there were no Cessna 150s in Gary’s sales queue, so I decided to poke around and find one on my own.

My ambition was to find a 150 with less than 5,000 hours on the airframe. At one time, 5,000 hours was considered a high-time airframe for a 150, but that time was a long time ago. Most people now speak of 10,000 hours as the unofficial high-time mark, but high time shouldn’t worry anyone as long as the airframe is in good shape.

That means it should have the same shape it had when it left the factory. My sleuthing first led me to a 150 that was very well maintained, but when viewed straight on from a distance of 20 feet it was clear that the right wing was four inches lower than the left. Unbeknown to the owner, the right landing gear strut was bent (Cessna allows a three-inch difference in wing height). Despite being preconfigured for right crosswind landings, this airplane needed its own handicapped tiedown spot.

Although bent metal is rarely a problem, corrosion is another matter.

My elderly neighbor once told me that the man she married used to look like Cary Grant, but now he looks like General Grant. That’s because everything eventually shows signs of aging, including airplanes. If you’re planning on purchasing an older airplane that’s corrosion-free, well, good luck with that. Most older airplanes have some corrosion. How much is the question.

I opened up the inspection panels of quite a few 150s, and many showed signs of corrosion in the form of white powdery spots. Those that didn’t were previously treated with anti-corrosion spray, which did a great job of stopping the spread of corrosion (spray this on your Cary Grant and you’re still getting a General Grant). Then again, you can’t see what you can’t see, which is why it’s worthwhile hiring a mechanic with a small video probe to peek deep inside the wings and stabilizers. Another airplane that struck my fancy appeared to have minimal corrosion, only to have the candid camera reveal delaminated sheet metal deep within its structure.

Here’s where a few good questions can save you a lot of time and money during an airplane search. I asked two different sellers if they’d had prospective buyers do prepurchase inspections on their airplanes. Both had. Then I asked for the names of the mechanics involved. Each seller willingly offered that information. The worst that can happen here is that the seller says no, in which case you can take your money and leave in a huff…or in a Ford or in a Toyota. This strategy saved me travel time out of state when one mechanic told me that the airplane had actually been painted with a roller brush (the seller forgot to mention this). Treating an airplane like stucco dimmed my enthusiasm for the deal, despite the seller being up against a drywall to sell his machine at a low price. I passed on that trip, saving both time and money.

At one time I thought my search was nearing an end when I stumbled upon a beautiful mid-1970s Cessna 150. It was a dream machine, but that dream ended with the wakeup call that revealed 25 years of missing airframe records. The strange thing was that the owner wasn’t aware of his missing airframe logbooks.

Then again, some owners aren’t aware that they don’t even own their own airplane. When I ran a title search on another airplane, there was an outstanding lien against the machine of which the seller was unaware. It turned out that the Bank of America actually owned part of her airplane. She assumed the salesman from whom she purchased the airplane had done a title search. Apparently, he had not.

If bent metal, corrosion, stucco paint jobs, missing logbooks, or outstanding liens don’t nix an airplane sale, then the seller might do the deed himself. This became apparent to me upon meeting two sellers who were reluctant to sell their airplanes despite having advertised them. Then again, what pilot wants to give up his or her airplane? I can certainly empathize with these folks. Nevertheless, before investing time looking at other airplanes, I found myself asking each seller, “Do you really, really, really want to sell your airplane?”

Fortunately, I found a very nice Cessna 150 that’s just way too much fun to fly. And when it’s down for maintenance, I’ll watch others fly their 150s. That’s because I like the Cessna 150 fly-by more than the Corvalis fly-by, the Bonanza fly-by, and the Cirrus fly-by. Why? Because it lasts so much longer. With a five-knot headwind, it could last all day.

Rod Machado owns and flies a Cessna 150 Land-O-Matic in Southern California. Visit the author’s blog.