Keeper — When you find a plane that fits, make it perfect and keep it.

In addition to literally hundreds of airplane sales transactions I have been involved with over the past 28 years, my current 1974 Cardinal RG is the 17th aircraft I have personally owned. A couple of airplanes (a ’69 Cardinal and a ’75 310R) I owned less than a year. These were bought with the plan of refurbishing and then reselling, although I flew them some during the process.

Another was a Mooney partnership that didn’t work out. The partners didn’t share my philosophy toward maintenance. Then there was a ’69 Cardinal partnership I left because I went to work for Cessna and they provided me with my own new Cardinal as a “company car.” And there were three Cessna 152s I used on various flight lines over the years for training, which worked out well as self-supporting investments but didn’t get flown much by me. I actually owned other planes while owning each of the 152s.

That leaves 10 other aircraft. The longest period of ownership for any of those was three years. Several hit that three-year mark but never passed it. I don’t know why the three-year mark seemed to resurface a lot. There was no formula I used, except for my basic rule that the plane should meet my mission profile at least 80% of the time. Or another way to put it, the capabilities of the plane either in seats, range, load carrying capability, or any combination thereof needed to be utilized on at least 80% of my flights. I found, through my years of ownership, that I had been using a 310 effectively until my mission profiles changed to make a Cardinal more than adequate. I also found that I was flying a single-engine Commander when a 310R was called for. So I bought, sold, and went with the flow.

It always seemed to make sense when I sold each plane (or, in one case, the helicopter). I always came out well financially. But now that they’re gone, there isn’t one I sometimes don’t wish I had back. Even though I preach the rule about mission utility, I am no different from most other owners who wish for more climb rate, 20 more knots in cruise, 200 pounds more useful load, and more service ceiling. But sometimes enough is enough. That’s where I am now.

I have owned this RG for three years and two months; a record for me. This plane and I have been through a lot, mostly in refurbishing and turning it into a cream puff from a piece of something else. It’s an old plane, which means keeping it tip-top is a continuous, work-in-progress effort. But it’s been giving me excellent dispatch reliability, and everything in it works. My capital investment so far is pretty much what it’s worth on the market, too, so to sell would be a break-even at best. Why would I consider selling now? No good reason that I can find.

In the past three years I truly could have justified a bigger, faster, more powerful plane only a handful of times. This RG hits my mission profiles on the order of 95% of the time. And for the “way down the road look” into my crystal ball, my mission profiles are not likely to change. As I said, sometimes enough is enough. At certain times a commitment has to be made and I have decided to make it. This RG is the keeper.

What’s the big deal about making this commitment? The big deal is that to an owner, it changes much of the criteria and mindset as to how the airplane will be dealt with as an investment. My plane has been completely gone over mechanically, the engine has been overhauled, it has a new interior and new paint and the instruments and avionics have received significant attention to get them in top working order. The big deal is that, if this were not to be my keeper, I’d probably spend only what was required to keep it in sound working condition.

Even though my avionics work fine, they are far from state of the art and I’d like more capability. Another rule of thumb I have is to not spend upgrade money on a plane that won’t return any additional reliability, capability or function. I had always planned on adding an IFR GPS. I was also considering modernizing the nav/coms for more reliability. But this was hard to justify when I wasn’t sure of the keeper status. After all, the plane had already proven there wasn’t a destination I couldn’t get to with the gear (which includes VFR GPS and Loran) already installed.

That attitude has now changed. I am going to pay more attention to airframe parts where there may be improved replacements enhancing long term reliability. I am also ready to commit many new dollars for 21st century avionics. I am not so concerned, anymore, about short term resale value. And if life’s plan doesn’t turn out my way and I am forced to sell unexpectedly for some reason, well, that’s the way life goes and I’m ready to take the risk.

And so it goes. I’m trying to figure out how to get what I want in avionics function and capability for an established budget. It won’t be a quick process. Cash flow projections say that I’ll be ready by year’s end to have the work done. This gives me plenty of time to learn about and hopefully test fly the latest in IFR GPS, moving maps and multi-function displays from Garmin, UPS Aviation Technology, and Honeywell (King). I’ll be heavily exploring who gets to do the work, as well.

For all my ownership experience, this is a first for me. I’m getting ready to spend 25% of my plane’s existing value on new technology. It is a one-time deal. Once it’s done, that’s it. I don’t plan on going in for more new stuff, so I have to get it right the first time and make my decisions based on long-term use, even if it means busting the budget a little. That’s because I’ll be stuck with my decision, for better or worse, for many years — and I’d prefer it to be “for the better.” So for now it’s research, study, calculate, consider and ultimately, commit. I hope to wind up with the keeper I am glad I didn’t sell after the third year. I’ll keep you posted.

Guy R. Maher is a business owner and aircraft appraiser with more than 12,000 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters. He is an independent buyer’s agent and flight instructor for type specific initial and recurrent training. He can be contacted through the above email address or by calling 704-287-3475.

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