Buyer beware

Please help me! Some of you who know me are probably saying I’ve needed help for years, but this is something even more serious than helping some old guy who’s been in this industry for a long time. I’m asking all of you to do your small part in getting the word out about the importance of getting a good pre-purchase inspection before buying an airplane.

I recently learned about a situation that made me very angry and, after I provide you with a few details, I hope it will anger you too and make you want to be part of getting the word out to, hopefully, help others avoid a similar situation. It seems that an individual came into some new money and, always having had an interest in general aviation, decided it was time for him to buy his first aircraft. I’m not certain of his background or his knowledge of our industry, but he had money to spend and was about to jump in with both feet. I don’t know who he spoke with — if anyone — before making the purchase, but the end result was not good.

He bought a Piper Chieftain that had just come out of a fresh annual inspection, so all should be good…right? Wrong, and it gets worse. After he paid for the plane, the new owner contacted a very experienced FAA IA and experienced pilot to check out the aircraft. It’s a darn good thing it did.

The Chieftain was given a very thorough inspection even though it had “a fresh annual” recorded in the logbooks. The inspection revealed several serious mechanical issues, the first being a critically cracked engine mount on one engine. The inspection also revealed that almost the entire exhaust system on one engine was unserviceable. The exhaust system contained several pieces that were nearly paper thin, obviously a result of improper operation, which usually is a result of excessive leaning. One of the turbocharger transition assemblies was also cracked, again probably as a result of excessive leaning.

All of the items that were found on the “fresh annual” aircraft could have resulted in an engine fire in flight or loss of a complete engine during flight. The word frightening seems to be an understatement in this case. By the way, the new owner felt even more confident about his purchase because this aircraft had just come off of a Part 135 operation, therefore he assumed it had to be well maintained.

How do we get the word out to potential aircraft buyers that it’s a “buyer beware” environment we live in and there are those who may take advantage of the unknowing?

Here’s the challenge I put to each and everyone of you. Please go out of your way to talk to anyone who may be thinking of buying a new or different aircraft. Plead with them, if necessary, to have a good pre-purchase inspection completed by a qualified maintenance facility or a knowledgeable technician. Sure, this may cost some money, but the results of such an inspection could save lots more money later — and maybe even save a life. Always remember what I’ve preached for years in my technical seminars: You cannot put a price tag on safety!

There are many used aircraft that can be bought for, say, $20,000 and to an individual who has the desire to join us in this great industry/hobby, this amount of money may not be out of their reach financially. However, this initial purchase price is just the tip of the iceberg. The annual operating cost, which is more than the cost of fuel, should be carefully considered, including other important things such as inspections, insurance, and hangar rent, including insurance for that also.

Let’s draw a parallel to owning a house versus renting. When you buy a house, there are inspections that take place and certain requirements that must be met before the sale can be finalized. Then it’s up to you as the new owner to pay the mortgage, pay for homeowners insurance, electricity, gas, oil or whatever type of heat you have, telephone, TV cable, and refuse removal — and let’s not forget taxes and other incidentals. My point is the initial cost of the house is just the beginning. The same may be applied to buying an aircraft.

We’d like to encourage anyone who has a passion to fly to consider the big picture before making your decision.

This may appear that I’m trying to put people off from becoming an aircraft owner, but that’s not my point at all. I’m just trying to prevent people who have a passion for aviation to avoid a situation that may cost them more than they are prepared to pay and turn them against our industry forever.

I may have ruffled some feathers with this plea for help, but if I can get just one person to read and digest the information here, it’s all worth it. So, please join me in trying to educate the masses of the pitfalls that can be avoided with a little thought and the use of common sense.

In my next column, I’ll return to answering some of the questions you’ve been kind enough to submit to General Aviation News.

Paul McBride, an expert on engines, retired after almost 40 years with Lycoming. Send your questions to:


  1. Doug Rodrigues says

    Some used airplane salesmen are no better than unethical used car salesmen. Thirty seven years ago, I had an agreement with a used airplane salesman to do a pre-purchase tear-down inspection on a plane that had a prop strike. I suspected that the plane had a “Paker Pen” annual inspection done. The salesman was insistent that there was nothing wrong with the engine because the prop flange was within tolerance. The salesman gave-in to my demands that he would pay for any parts that needed to be replaced if defective parts were found. I gave the salesman a down payment and proceeded to disassemble the engine. I discovered something that I should have checked prior to giving that down payment: The engine serial number didn’t match the number in the log book? Anyway, curiosity got best of me and I continued with the tear-down. First was finding two of the piston skirts cracked. When I pulled the crankshaft out i saw what appeared to be about a one inch crack on the crank flange. I presented the defective parts to the salesman, and of course he, with his naked eye, determined that there was nothing wrong with the crankshaft. I pointed out that the rod journals were .0003″ out of round, but I would pay to have the crank re-ground to undersize, IF the flange wasn’t cracked. Sure enough, the crank was returned with the crack highlighted and the word “CRACKED” marked on the main journal with an arrow pointing to the crack. Now the salesman wanted me to reassemble the engine if I wanted my down payment back. Without a doubt, that fool of a salesman would have sold the plane with a defective engine if I had agreed to reassemble that engine! He said, “How do you expect me to sell a plane with a disassembled engine!?

    By now, I had the salesman in a legal corner that he couldn’t extract himself from. My partner gave the salesman the choice of making good on the engine, or we’d be visiting the local GADO office to file a complaint, as well as other legal action. After some yelling and cussing, the salesman pointed out a factory crate containing a freshly rebuilt engine with logbook. In the salesman’s own words, “Take that engine and get the f**** our of my hanger and don’t want to see you again!” Thinking back, I really should have turned in the AI who signed off the plane’s annual, but I didn’t. I left the disassembled engine in a heap on his hangar floor and left with the rebuilt engine and.a smile on my face.

  2. Michael Stevens says

    If a mechanic signs off on an annual, and it is later found that there were defects present there should be some accountability for that. It seems like there isn’t. If the mechanic could lose their certification and/or be financially liable, then maybe this sort of thing would happen less.

    Also, one of the reasons prepurchase inspections are commonplace when buying a home is that the mortgage lender requires it. Perhaps companies the banks or insurance companies should start requiring prepurchase inspections before they will finance or insure an aircraft.

    On the other hand, most articles I’ve read about purchasing an aircraft do stress the importance of getting it inspected by an independent party, so the information is out there. Either people don’t do research beforehand or they think that they are covered because of
    the requirements that aircraft be inspected annually and that detailed logs must be kept.

    The other thing is, it is probably hard for people to believe that someone would knowingly sell them an airplane that could likely kill them. To me that’s nearly murder and the thought that someone would do that for 20,000 or 40,000 or any amount is very unsettling too. I think we like to believe that fellow aviators share a bond and that there is some trustworthiness among pilots.

    So it does make me angry, I think people should be held accountable when this happens.

  3. Dennis Reiley says

    Perhaps the real issue is with the term “annual inspection”. What is the value of an “annual inspection” that passes an aircraft that is unsafe to fly. An “annual inspection” is supposed to be more than “I looked at the aircraft and everything appeared okay” review. It should actually require that all critical components be physically checked and certified as air worthy.

    How can a supposedly FAA certified company do an “annual inspection” and pass an aircraft that is obviously unsafe to not only fly but even unsafe to idle the engines?

    This issue is far more then “buyer beware”.

  4. Brian says

    Seems to me that if the plane just came off an annual inspection that there should be some sort of culpability against the inspector for missing some things so obvious. It’s either that or the inspector should be followed up with to see if he is even licensed.

  5. says

    Seems like getting an inspection would be a no-brainer. We do it for our houses and our cars. Maybe instead of putting a band-aid on the problem, we should go out and challenge each other to uphold a higher standard of character and integrity (the seller)! That would go a lot farther to making GA the kind of industry that people could trust and be inspired by.

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