When looking to buy a used airplane, the usual route is to scan trade papers, magazines, classifieds, etc., for the initial search.
Then finally you find one that seems like a good candidate, and decide to call. For inexperienced buyers, problems can begin right there. Quite often a prospective buyer doesn’t know what to ask during the initial conversation with the seller or seller’s agent, and winds up letting the seller drive the conversation.
The result is that the prospective buyer doesn’t come away from that conversation with what he needs to know. Rather he comes away with only what the seller wants him to know.
This is why I came up with a list of my top 25 questions to ask during the first contact with the seller, broker, or dealer. They may not have all the answers right away, but I do not proceed with any further buying efforts until they can be answered.
1. Verify the airplane make, model, and serial number. Some manufacturers changed their model names many times for the same airframe over the years. Just look at the Cherokee 180, a.k.a. Challenger, a.k.a. Archer. I’ve seen many a seller incorrectly represent their airplane by name. The seller should be able to tell you he’s confirming a 1969 Cessna 177-A Cardinal, and give you the full manufacturer’s serial number.
2. Obtain the date of the original airworthiness certificate. Some makes, like Cessnas, introduced new model years in the fall of the preceding year, just like auto manufacturers. That 172 certified in September 1972 might actually be a 1973 model.
3. Verify the registration or “N” number. This is another way to confirm the airplane’s identity and help you with your title search actions. Don’t trust the “N” numbers either shown or written in the ad to be correct.
4. Find out under what name the airplane is currently registered. You can then verify title information and ownership records.
5. Verify total time on the airframe.
6. Verify total time on the engine(s), and time since major overhaul/new engine/reman, etc. Find out who did the overhaul and the date. Remember, top overhauls do not count for anything but a repair when determining TBO or aircraft value.
7. Get the total time on the prop(s) and time and date since overhaul if applicable.
8. Get the time remaining on all time-life components. This is most important with helicopters, but still applies to many airplane parts too, especially when these times are important for A.D.’s requiring inspection, like Bendix magnetos.
9. Get a complete listing of avionics by make and model number, and when they were installed. It never ceases to amaze me how many owners trying to sell their planes cannot identify what they have installed in their planes. Ask if everything is working.
10. Get a complete listing of all additional installed equipment, such as strobes, engine monitors, oxygen, special performance enhancing kits, articulating seats, deice equipment, etc.
11. Get the date of the most recent annual inspection and who did it.
12. Get the date of the most recent transponder/static system/encoder test and where it was done.
13. Determine the damage history, no matter how slight, who fixed it, and when.
14. Have any modifications or STC’s been incorporated into the airplane?
15. Find out the storage history (inside or out) of the airplane.
16. Where has this airplane been based all of its life?
17. Is there any evidence of corrosion?
18. What is the condition of the paint, interior, glass, and plastics?
19. Are all of the A.D.’s up to date, as well as the service bulletins? It would be rare to find all the service bulletins complete because they are not mandatory for Part 91 flying. But, hopefully, the major ones are that have not become A.D.’s. You should have an experienced shop or buyer’s agent helping you with this.
20. Are the maintenance records complete from the manufacture date? If not, you must be careful to verify specific and critical maintenance items or you’ll have to start from scratch in getting that plane legal again. Missing logs are a red flag. The issue can often be successfully navigated, but it opens up many additional pre-buy procedures.
21. Ask for photos of the exterior, interior, and panel.
22. What is the reason for selling? Always an interesting and revealing question. You are buying someone else’s problems, even if that problem is not enough speed, load carrying ability, etc. Just ask and see what happens.
23. Is the price firm? Don’t start dickering until you are ready to put down a deposit. Sellers hate dickering tire-kickers. But you can at least ask if it’s firm or not.
24. Ask if there are any liens on the airplane and if so, who holds them. This helps you in verifying the data from your title search.
25. If practical, would they be willing to fly the aircraft to you for your inspection if you paid the expenses?
These items can be adjusted to the particular airplane and situation. But starting with this list does two things — it gives you a good first pass at the plane you’re interested in, and lays down a good set of representations by the seller that can be either a deal maker or deal breaker when you actually look at the plane to verify its value and continue with the process.
And if the seller is either unwilling or unable to answer these basic questions, it might be best to move on to another airplane.
Guy R. Maher has been actively involved in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.