Buying an Airplane: Caveat Emptor

In talking with a few friends about the aircraft purchase process, I’ve started to take notes on how to make the most of the transaction, how to structure your research on what an airplane’s true market value is, and the first step in the whole process…learning what the mission the airplane is attempting to fulfill and what makes and models fit that bill. While I’ve been writing some “how-to” type articles on the process, one thing that’s been striking me lately is the phrase ‘caveat emptor’, Latin for ‘let the buyer beware.’ Not reserved for airplane purchases, the phrase holds a little more weight when said purchase is holding your weight thousands of feet above the ground in what you hope to be a sound, well-mannered machine.

The above image was taken inside the wing of an airplane my best friend was looking at purchasing one day. It was a great looking airplane, with a nice glossy finish to its exterior, a freshly-redone interior, and a set of Alaskan Bushwheels that appeared to have plenty of life left inside them. Having recently been signed off a clean bill of health during the conditional inspection, this experimental super cub-type airplane appeared to have it all. But, knowing that I know a little about these airplanes, and knowing that my buddy would be stuck inside this thing while we venture off the beaten path in the backcountry, I volunteered my observational skills to do a ‘pre-pre-buy’ inspection. There’s a lot of things I am, and a licensed mechanic is not one of them. I’ve had many opportunities to work on airplanes under the direction of some of the most skilled mechanics that I know, and while I’ve helped in the construction of a few kitplanes and the restoration of our Cub, I would not call myself an expert. What I am, though, is observant.

Sitting inside this experimental cub, something on the outside didn’t look right. A clipped-wing style super-cub clone just didn’t make much sense. Alas, there’s more to a book than it’s cover, so I decided to turn the pages. Sitting in the pilot seat, exercising the flight controls through their full range of motion, the most ear-wrenching grinding sound came through the controls when the stick was moved left and right. The hairs on the back of my neck came to attention. There is something wrong with this airplane.

When you approach an aircraft for sale, you’ll be drawn to the images the seller provides. The hours flown on the airframe, since overhaul, the STCs, mods, avionics, compressions…they’re all great data points to collect in the research process. Leveraging the asking price against comparable models also on the market help steer you into a bigger picture of what the airplane is worth, but there’s more to the plane than that. Articles, how-to guides, brokers and insurance agents may even require a pre-purchase inspection by a licensed mechanic to verify that the airplane is airworthy. And while my intent is not to water down any of these necessary steps in the purchase process, I want to illustrate the concept that nothing short of the whole story of the airplane will suffice in making the right decision in this matter.

In the case of the cub above, this airplane was ground looped by the previous owner. Supposedly the owner had a set of “cub-like” wings hanging in the hangar, which were retrofitted onto this experimental cub, and became the source for this interesting aileron rigging that was creating this grinding sound. The aileron cable that looks like a solid shaft in the image, is being bridged across a stand-off support of the wing’s rear false spar just forward of the flap fairings. When I first heard that grinding sound, I attempted to trace the aileron cables in the hopes of finding something binding in the control linkages inside the cockpit. Unfortunately, when the previous owner re-rigged this airplane with these “cub-like” wings, the ailerons were rigged not like a PA-18 or a PA-20 or whatever these wings came from. Thinking about how they managed to slap this thing together and not notice the grinding sounds from the wings was beyond me, as a slight groove was beginning to form on that piece of structure.

Not knowing how this airplane was rigged in the aileron cables alone, questions began to form in my mind. Did they modify the lift struts to fit these wings? Was there any structural analysis done when modifying this frankencub from what the designers declared to be sound to what the previous owner thought was okay? Was my best friend willing to put these questions to the test as he not only put his heart and soul into his first airplane purchase, but his first experiences flying said frankencub into the backcountry?

Compressions, hours, cute instruments and avionics, STCs…they’re nice. Paint jobs, stickers, carbon fiber…look great. But what are these embellishments attempting to hide? I’ve recently learned that an airplane at my former home airport that had a few squawks that were made clear to the owner of being of questionable at best airworthiness is listed for sale. I generally feel bad for the young kid, as he bought this airplane likely not knowing the whole story of the airplane. I’m sure the price was right, and apparently it was, as there was enough funds left over from the purchase to install a new instrument panel. As nice as that panel may be, the day I left my hangar at Skypark to fly south with a friend, I heard the most wretched backfiring from that very airplane as the owner was attempting to embark on a venture into the Idaho backcountry. While the metallized explosions and instantaneously-varying propellor RPMs caught my eyes wondering if I was going to see the airplane shed parts out of the cowling, I felt bad for the guy. Here was an airplane that needed a lot more than he can offer, and seeing the airplane listed for sale, I feel he’s also come to that conclusion himself.

But when do you intervene? We’ve reached out to him in the past about the questionable airworthiness issues we spotted on the ramp, and we’ve reached out to him about what appears to be a serious discrepancy in his ignition system. But again, the plane is listed for sale, touting the enjoyment that it brought to him. But I know for certain that’s not the whole story. 

I could also be wrong. Perhaps he’s invested the time, money, and effort from a competent mechanic to address those glaring issues. I hope at a minimum that those magnetos have been looked over. I’m trying to look at this through the eyes of the optimist I strive to be, but what can I do?

If you’re reading this, and are in the market for an airplane, might I suggest that you look beyond the images, beyond the carefully-crafted listings on your preferred airplane sale website, beyond what the owner has to say about it over the phone. Because there’s always more to the story than meets the eye, and, as always, caveat emptor.