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AOPA's Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes

A Family Project

Basic to beautiful - from the inside out Although the year's just beginning, AOPA's 2007 Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes is well under way. We're taking this classy cruiser and making it new again from the inside out — this time around, quite literally.

Basic to beautiful - from the inside out

Although the year's just beginning, AOPA's 2007 Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes is well under way. We're taking this classy cruiser and making it new again from the inside out — this time around, quite literally.

The theme behind this year's sweepstakes project is "family." The central member of this clan, a 1977 Cessna 177B Cardinal with fixed gear and a 180-horsepower engine, is a great all-purpose airplane that most pilots can maneuver comfortably and afford to fly, maintain, and insure. The Cardinal comes from the venerable Cessna family of aircraft and is well suited for family flying, with a wide cabin, large doors, low entry points, a high wing (so even children can see out of the backseat), and stable yet harmonious flying characteristics.

We have enlisted an all-star family of shops and contributors that will work on the airplane and provide the parts, avionics, and supplies to make the airplane like new again — with some modern updates. We'll perform much of the refurbishment at one airport to ease the process, and make use of an on-site project manager to act as a general contractor for the airplane and liaison between the various shops on the field. Yet another family — the Cardinal Flyers Online (CFO) type club for the airplane — also is fully behind us in the project with its expertise and future support for the member who will win the airplane.

Our goal is to deliver an airplane to one lucky pilot that he or she can fly with ease, maintain with minimal funds, and enjoy for years to come.

Another theme is getting down to the basics. Although you may never completely disassemble your airplane, we're going to really get inside this one. We'll illustrate how an aircraft owner might address concerns about a 30-year-old airframe (which represents a big part of the general aviation fleet) through corrosion inspection, mitigation, and control. The news is good — there's a lot you can do to protect your investment.

On the panel side, we're not lying down either — we've picked the best of the best, and some of the most user-friendly avionics out there. We'll be putting in a Garmin GPS, nav, and com stack with a multifunction display, an S-Tec autopilot, an L-3 Stormscope lightning detector, a J.P. Instruments engine monitor, a Honeywell Bendix/King horizontal situation indicator, and a Castleberry backup attitude indicator — rock-solid, dependable, easy-to-use stuff.

Finding the bird

Cessna built the sleek and stately fixed-gear Cardinal from model years 1968 to 1978, and several model variations exist, with critical differences between them (see " Budget Buys: Cardinal Flier," May 2002 Pilot).

Did we want an early model, the straight 177, which came from the factory with a 150-horsepower engine? Since we plan to swap the engine out anyway, one of those airplanes could certainly work (the original Cardinals are often considered underpowered). But there was a series of improvements — critical ones — made to the airplane late in the 1968 model year under a program known as Operation Cardinal Rule, which should have been applied to earlier models in the field. The results could be hit or miss.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the 1978 Cardinal Classic 177B. The last year the airplane was built, 1978, saw many cosmetic refinements to the bird, but only one substantive one: a 24-volt electrical system. Nice to have, considering what we'd add to the avionics stack, but certainly not vital to the project. And, in the end, we deemed the 1978s a little too much up-front investment for us without enough payoff.

So, I focused in on late-model Cardinals with factory long-range tanks (you can't get a supplemental type certificate for these tanks in the Cardinal), simple panels, average paint and interior, and high-time engines. We wouldn't spend money on the things we were going to replace anyway.

I crawled through classifieds in early October 2006 looking for a 1975 or later 177B, and found N18729 living just outside of Fort Worth, Texas. Owners Ben and Roxanne Jones had purchased the Cardinal in 2001 as their first airplane, soon after Ben obtained his private certificate. They'd flown it all over the state of Texas (no small thing) and on camping trips to Arkansas — plus a pilgrimage to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh last summer. Although Ben was anxious to find an airplane he could take into the backcountry with a little more ease, I got the feeling that it would be hard for them to part with such a trusted member of their family.

The team pre-buy

Pilots talk a lot about resource management — and I put together a team of resources as I embarked on purchasing the Cardinal for the project. I had joined Cardinal Flyers Online as part of my homework on the airplane, and on the commercial flight out to Texas I pored over printouts from the club's Web site on what to look for on the prepurchase inspection.

CFO member Robin Maas bases his airplane at Northwest Regional Airport in Roanoke, Texas, the same airport at which my prospect airplane was based. A post from Maas on the Web site included a tip on Dallas Air Repair for any local Cardinal maintenance. With a phone call to friendly shop manager Jack Sched-cik and owner Tom Crismon, I determined that their folks had not been responsible for the current maintenance on N18729, and thus the shop was a good choice for making an independent assessment of the airplane.

I also invited our on-site project manager, Dan Gryder, owner of The AvNet, a flight-training and aviation-consulting business in Griffin, Georgia, to join me for the pre-buy. Since Gryder will be coordinating the day-to-day refurbishment work (and also providing a complete training package to the lucky winner), we figured that if he was on the scene while I selected the airplane, he could start thinking about specific strategies for that airplane from the moment I decided it was the one — and provide a valuable second opinion on any squawks we found in the pre-buy process.

As Schedcik, Gryder, and I went through the discrepancy list generated from the inspection, only one safety-of-flight item needed correcting (a cracked alternator bracket) before we flew. Other items on the list were expected for a 30-year-old airframe with a run-out engine that had seen plenty of flying and maintenance care, but little or no refurbishment. The upshot? We had a clean, straight airframe from which to build our masterpiece.

The first Cardinal cross-country

My first flight in the airplane was a brief one on the chilly, gusty afternoon of our prepurchase inspection. The next time N18729 and I got together, in early November, we had just signed the sales-agreement paperwork and I was launching east toward Griffin, which lies just south of the Atlanta metro area, a 650-nm journey.

With a cold front stretching from West Virginia to the Gulf, I tried making an end run around its thunderstorms and low layers of scud, but found on day one that leaving Texas was not in the cards. After an overnight in Mexia, Texas, (where I purchased a stepstool for the airplane at the local Wal-Mart and had a great Mexican dinner at a local joint) the next day broke clear all the way to the Atlantic. Even with a somewhat-dated panel, I could still track my progress with the twin VOR receivers and Apollo II Morrow GPS 360 — and pull weather from the Garmin GPSMap 496 in my lap. But who needs all that navigational horsepower on a clear-and-a-million day when you've got a perfectly good compass and a chart?

As it turns out, the only piece of equipment that failed on the trip was the one deemed least likely to do so. As I crossed the border into Louisiana, a wave of something that smelled an awful lot like WD-40 came over me — and then vanished. I chalked it up to my heightened sensitivity in flying the airplane cross-country for the first time. Until it washed over me again. Then the dripping began. I looked up to find its source (totally confused given the blue skies overhead), and found the compass leaking a petroleum distillate onto my knee.

I laughed. Strike one for the dead-reckoning crowd.

I landed at the Griffin-Spalding County Airport after 8.9 hours on the Hobbs over two days (all my hunting around Texas for a hole in the line the day before just gave me a little more time to get to know the airplane). I'd averaged about 124 KTAS at 24 inches manifold pressure and 2,400 rpm while at 7,500 feet msl for most of the journey. When I taxied up to the hangar waiting open for me, I was tired but excited. N18729 had proven itself to be a straight, solid flier, and now we would transform it from the longerons out into the prettiest bird on the block.

You can win

As in years past, you get one chance to win the Cardinal simply by joining AOPA or renewing your membership. But wait — you can increase your odds of winning in several ways what soon will be a truly beautiful airplane inside and out. You can sign up another pilot for AOPA membership and get another chance, or join AOPA's automatic renewal program for two more spots in the drawing.

In the meantime, we'll use this space not only to give you a front-row seat for the Catch-A-Cardinal sweepstakes project, but also to give you tools to use in your own aircraft acquisition, upgrade, and restoration projects.

Phase one of the project is already well under way: airframe refurbishment (we're down below the floorboards here, folks) led by the seasoned airframe and powerplant mechanics from Air Wrench, engine hang and firewall-forward revitalization from powerplant specialist Don's Dream Machines, and prep for the paint process at Advanced Aircraft Refinishers. We've assembled quite a team, and hope you'll join us for the ride.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Featured contributor

AOPA Aircraft Title and Escrow Services

Found an airplane? A title search is your next move. You want to ensure that the person selling you the airplane is legally able to do so, and you want to make sure that the airplane's title is clear of liens. An aircraft lien comes in two types: a security agreement (between a lender and the aircraft owner) and an artisan lien (normally filed by a mechanic against the aircraft title in consideration of services for which he or she was not compensated).

AOPA Aircraft Title and Escrow Services can perform a professional title search for you for $99 — in addition to a variety of other purchase services. It can provide escrow services during the transaction, and deliver your documents to the proper authorities once the sale is final. — JKB

Tools from the trenches

Six aircraft-search steps
Know what you want, airplanewise.

Make an honest assessment of budget, needs, and skills before you decide on a make and model.

Establish a target budget.

This helps you determine the kind of airplane, as well as the model and year.

Know the level of project you're willing to take on.

It may be some or none, but determine this ahead of time.

Survey as many aircraft listings as possible, or hire a broker, or both.

Leave no hangar door unopened in your search (in print and online) — diligence can pay off with a gem.

Make an airplane list.

And start making phone calls to ask questions — many sellers don't reply to e-mails.

Ensure a clear title and assess the aircraft's accident and incident history.

Although you can't guarantee there will be no surprises in the purchase process, you can avoid a lot of problems by completing this step. — JKB

AOPA Online

Sweeps blog — and more

If you haven't yet had a chance to visit AOPA Online, you now have even more reason to do so — it's the best way to get the latest information on the 2007 Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes. AOPA Pilot Technical Editor — and this year's sweepstakes project manager — Julie K. Boatman posts her blog on the refurbishment project every other week, so be sure to stop by often to read about our progress. Also, we have a host of multimedia features planned, including video of the aircraft in various stages of disassembly, animations stepping you through the airplane's avionics stack, and a slide show that highlights the inner workings of the Cardinal.

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