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False economiesFalse economies

By David Jack Kenny

There’s a saying among airframe and powerplant mechanics that owners tend to buy all the aircraft they can’t quite afford to operate. It takes considerable self-control to focus on sticking to a budget that includes a margin for misfortune above the foreseeable expenses of insurance, fuel, maintenance, and storage instead of being seduced by all the possibilities that might open once the bill of sale is signed. The unforgiving economics of aircraft ownership stimulate a great deal of creative thinking among pilots bent on finding deals better than fair market value, occasionally tempting some into dubious bargains.

At 1:14 p.m. on Sept. 10, 2014, the pilot of an Aerostar 601P contacted approach control at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to request traffic advisories. The pilot was given a weather update and vectors for Runway 17L. At 1:26 p.m., he was instructed to contact the tower, but he never did. By the time the tower controller reported a plume of smoke north of the airport, fire and rescue units were already converging on the scene. The Aerostar had crashed half a mile short of the threshold, killing the solo pilot.

Six witnesses interviewed by the Austin Police Department all told similar stories. They’d seen the airplane approaching the airport at a low altitude and low airspeed, with the left engine “knocking” and trailing black smoke. The tail kicked right and the airplane banked  left just before the crash. The last radar contact showed a groundspeed of 88 knots, four knots above its flaps-up stall speed under calm conditions, though the gusty quartering headwind (210 degrees at 9 knots gusting to 17 knots) implies its airspeed was at least six knots higher.

Examination of the wreckage showed that the airplane had hit three large trees under the final approach course. The gear and flaps were still up. The left propeller was feathered, and the left engine’s spark plugs were black with soot, indicating an excessively rich fuel mix. The reason for the rich mixture was apparent: The rubber boot between the intercooler and the fuel servo had come loose and been partly sucked into the servo, blocking the flow of intake air. The clamp that should have secured the boot was still in place but loose, with its safety wire intact.

Investigators were unable to determine when the boot might have slipped. The airplane had flown only 0.9 hours since completing an annual inspection three months earlier. Its previous annual had been signed off in June 2010, and its Hobbs meter only recorded 36 hours during that four-year interval.

The Aerostar’s history over those four years provides a sad and cautionary tale. Its previous owner recalled having the airplane maintained in “pristine condition” until 2011, when the ongoing effects of the economic downturn forced him to stop flying it. It then sat on the ramp in Patterson, Louisiana, under a “special made aircraft cover” [sic] until 2013, when the owner advertised it for sale. In the meantime, he ran the engines up occasionally but never flew the airplane. Responses to his ad were scarce due to the extremely soft market for piston twins.

One prospective buyer did arrange for a pre-purchase inspection in June 2013. The mechanic who conducted it found that the cowling fasteners were “severely rusted … many of them broken with screwdriver torque.” Removal of the lower spark plugs revealed “rusty water … on rusty spark plugs.”  The mechanic concluded that prolonged dormancy in the moist Louisiana atmosphere had left the airplane with “lots of moisture and corrosion issues” and advised his client not to make a bid. He did not.

Four months later, without benefit of a pre-purchase, the accident pilot offered $47,500, roughly the salvage value of the airplane. When the seller agreed, he said he’d bring a mechanic and a ferry permit and fly the airplane back to Texas. The seller described him as “unusual … would not listen to advice.”  The buyer refused to drain the tanks, and only grudgingly agreed to sump them. He “yanked the plane off the runway” with the engines “backfiring badly” and headed for Texas. No evidence of application for a ferry permit was ever discovered. 

In February 2014, the pilot flew the airplane to Mena, Arkansas, to have the exterior stripped, primed, and repainted. He flew it back the following month. There is no record of ferry permits for those flights, either. An IFR check was signed off in May and the annual in June, but the airplane remained parked in the back of a community hangar at the Dallas Executive Airport until the day before the accident. That was when the pilot made his first and only fuel purchase for the Aerostar, but his planned flight was scrubbed due to a dead battery.

The new owner was a private pilot with single- and multiengine ratings. His logbooks weren’t recovered, but a medical application filed six months before the accident claimed 525 hours of experience. His make-and-model experience was something less than the 36.9 hours difference between the Hobbs reading at the accident scene and the 2010 annual inspection. Almost all was flown with the airplane out of annual.

The Aerostar had more than enough power to fly a single-engine approach while lightly loaded—if the remaining engine was functioning properly and the pilot handled the airplane correctly. The circumstances of the accident leave doubt on both points. This pilot’s desire for a bargain is easy to understand. His approach to what had to be considered a restoration project is less so.