My first plane


The overwhelming desire to buy a plane for the first timer can be the experience of a lifetime. The dream of owning my own plane, the search for the right one, and finally parting with my money, should have started my life in the pilots’ paradise.

Well, “should have” are the operative words here.

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to own my own plane. It was a recurring dream of mine, but I always felt that it was not a practical one. After a very long hiatus from flying, and realizing that I was not getting any younger, I took the plunge and started flying again. While renting was an easy way to the skies, securing a plane during a busy training season was a frequent disappointment.

I shook my piggy bank, and decided that I had just enough for an older, very inexpensive plane. I settled on a 1961 Piper PA-22, 108 Colt. I found one locally, which I thought was a stroke of luck. The owner was a retired aircraft mechanic. I was convinced that I got myself a rare gem — and a gem it was, more raw than rare.

I am a bit of a perfectionist, so my first thought after “inspecting” the plane was, well, this thing sure could use some TLC. OK, a mechanic owns it, so at least mechanically it will be sound, I told myself.

I wanted a plane so badly. With glazed-over eyes, I could clearly see myself in the left seat of this ugly duckling, suspended in the still air of an early morning sky, going somewhere — anywhere. I bought the plane.

I thought, well, it is a 1961 vintage plane, and with just minimal updates, so I allocated some money for sprucing it up. New paint, new upholstery, and a modest panel upgrade — that was my line of thinking. I figured, this could potentially double the purchase price, but then I would end up with a nice and clean plane. I decided that I would fly the plane for a while, get to know it, and do the work during the first annual, some four month away.

But surprises started to surface almost from day one. The radios would not work on battery alone. The cause, an old and still outstanding AD related to aluminum cabling dating back to the late 1960s. Then the transponder gave out, and this was just the beginning of my unexpected surprises. It was a very short “get to know each other” affair.

All the gremlins notwithstanding, I could see a definite shift in how I started to look at my Colt. It was no longer the ugly duckling; I started to see the potential in my winged friend.

During the annual, the very first thing my mechanic noticed was a missing engine serial number plate. Inspection by Transport Canada, a letter to Lycoming, and some money solved that one. The trim was a bit stiff. The inspection revealed a “frozen” pivot tube. We had our answer. The trim was actually twisting the trailing edge tube of the stabilator against the mounting screws, turning round holes into not so round holes. During the disassembly, we discovered enough rust on the tail components that I made the decision to install a brand new empennage.

Since I was planning to update the panel at the outset, and after having a peek at the bird’s nest of wires behind it, I made the decision to rewire the whole plane. We changed the instrument layout to a more modern “six pack” arrangement. Garmin GPS, PS Engineering audio panel, Garmin COM1, iCom COM2 (the only piece of equipment I kept from the original radio stack) and a Garmin mode C transponder, fed by a new digital altitude encoder, replaced the old electronics. The old ELT is gone and a new 406 MHz unit keeps me legal now.

Final-Panel-Instalation Cropped The engine got a new starter, an alternator, an oil filter, as well as a full complement of EI engine instruments, including an engine analyzer, and a fuel flow instrument — I sure love that fuel flow instrument. There is even a new, certified, panel-mounted CO monitor.

New leather seats with headrests, new seatbelts with retractable shoulder harnesses, and all around new finish makes the plane much more enjoyable. The old soft ceiling gave way to new vinyl-clad honeycomb ceiling panels, and a center console with lights for night flying, a speaker, and headsets jacks.

OK, I clearly did not need all of the stuff I installed, but I wanted to have a nice plane, as well as a safe plane. Safety is paramount to me, therefore, I opted for operation-related upgrades first — the paint is still to come. I am also considering left-side door.

I concluded that the kind of flying I like to do pretty much excludes paved, long, and wide runways. River sand bars, beaches, and grass fields are my kind of destinations. To enhance the speed envelope at the low end, I installed vortex generators. I can now fly at around 40 knots on final, or push it to around 70 sipping under 5 gallons per hour. With a bit of a headwind, I can watch 1960 vintage VWs passing me on the highways. So what? I am not in a hurry — let them get the speeding ticket.

What I Learned

I think I made all the wrong moves when I was buying my Colt. First, I just had to have the plane, and I had to have it right now. Second, I did not have the aircraft properly inspected, which was a big mistake. Third, I went crazy on “wants,” but that is who I am. I also did not have a clue about the regulations governing the work an owner can do on his own, therefore I paid more to my mechanic for his time than I would have if I did some of the work myself.

This all may sound like I have some regrets. Heck no! if I were to do it again I would be much more methodical in my actions. I would use an experienced professional to do a pre-purchase inspection for me, and perhaps even take a cold shower before parting with my money.

Theoren-and-GrandpaCroppedBuying an old plane is never a sure thing. By the time you really own it, expect to spend some extra over the purchase price. Depending on your needs and wants, your final investment can easily be double. I would be too embarrassed to tell you how much I sank into mine, but rest assured, it was way over the double mark.

You may ask how I can justify all this expense. In truth, I cannot. However, I love my Colt, and I can now fly any time I want, and anywhere I want. Oh yeah — here is my excuse for all of this: I wanted a plane safe enough to take my grandkids up in it. I am happy to report that my Colt now fits the bill, and my 4-year-old grandson agrees with me.


    • says

      Summary of Dave’s Issues of Ownership:

      Door lock – Tecnam design
      Coolant – Rotax manual
      Engine Oil – Rotax manual
      Tires – Tecanm manual
      Carpet – Tecnam warranty

      Dave, your article drew my attention for sure and I wanted to carefully review it as I too have been flying the Tecnam P92 Eaglet and some other P92’s, including the new P2008, Just last week I got signed off in the tail dragger, landed on grass for the first time in decades, what a great plane. It has the Lycoming engine. Brought back a lot of great memories. Going to the twin next to get my twin rating current. Then on to IFR recurrence training. I like the low cost per hour for fuel. Only 9 gph on the Twin.

      I am investigating the option of starting a new flying club for business users using Tecnams so maintenance issues are key to me as well. Our first plane will be the Tecnam P2006T twin which is beautiful. It too had some issues when it first came out. I just think some of this is to be expected when you buy NEW and are an early adopter of some great new technology.

      I agree the door latch is a pain and that needs to be fixed. Not sure why, but a lot of planes I have flown seem to have “not so great” ways to keep the doors closed in these smaller planes. The P2008 is much better. Staying under 1340 lbs means shaving weight everywhere.

      The other issues about the Rotax engine are not something I would have come into contact about. Seems odd that with so many rotax engines sold, that these were surprises to anyone and that must have been in the manual somewhere.

      The good news is that your bad experience sounds like it paved the way to a better experience for others. My first planes were Pipers, a Saratoga and a Navajo. To tell you the truth, I bought them, flew them and fixed them. Just thought it was part of the process of being an owner. Must be why so many like the concept of “managed fractional ownerships?.

      Sounds like you are past those startup issues. Hope you continue to enjoy that fun to fly airplane, what 3 gallons per hour? Nice!

      So do you love it now or what? Is there a better plane for the price?

      • Dave Hill says

        I love it. My daughter nicknamed our Eaglet, “Peanut” and it has stuck. This is the most fun airplane I’ve ever flown. As far as LSA prices go I think the Tecnam is a very good value. The whole price thing is relevant, but when you pay $125,000 for something there is a certain expectation. I look it at more like a Chevy versus a Cadillac. A new little Chevy is about $15,000 and a new Cadillac is about $60,000. A new LSA is about $125,000 and a new Cessna 172 is $500,000. They’re just a different class of airplane, and of course you can always buy a Cirrus for a $750,000.

        The whole LSA market reminds me of the automobile industry at the turn of the 19th century. There were hundreds of automobile manufacturers building awesome new “horseless carriages”. But the auto industry really didn’t take off until Ford started building Model T’s on an assembly line and the auto industry infrastructure took shape. Automobiles needed roads, gas stations, mechanics, dealerships, parts stores, and tire stores. It took almost 50 years for the U.S. to become an “automobile” society. Today, every LSA is virtually hand-made and that makes them expensive. Economics tells us that most of the LSA builders are going to be gone in the next few years. What is amazing to me is that no LSA builder is taking advantage of the Primary airworthiness category and building LSA’s on an assembly line. The next few years will be very interesting to watch. Meanwhile I look forward to flying with my student pilots everyday in “Peanut”. It is a blast!

        P.S. No 3 gph in flight training – it is closer to 5 gph.

      • Dave Hill says

        I’ve seen the Tecnam P2006T twin when I was at Tecnam North America in Virginia. It is beautiful. I love the idea of two Rotax engines. It would be very intersting to take a look at the “numbers” in using the P2006T in business. 9 gph is great. I think the P2006T would be a great multi-engine trainer.

  1. Dave Hill says

    I agree great story. My story is a bit of a twist on buying something old. My flying club bought a new Tecnam P92 Eaglet. It seemed that about every 10 hours we discovered some imperfection that needed more detail. For example the locking door latch wires broke virtually locking you in the plane. Solution – remove the locks. Altimeter was off 150′. Solution – adjust it. Spent dozens of hours trying to find the right engine coolant only to find out that plain old anti-freeze works (and is recommended). Went through the same issue with the engine oil. The really big issue is that we blew 3 main gear tires in 3 weeks. Come to find out that the Tecnam Manual recommendation of 23 lbs tire pressure is for “grass” fields (Tecnam is on a grass field in Italy). Complained to Tecnam and they apologized and said that they recommended tire pressure is 39 lbs for concrete and paved runways and they’ll put that in their next manual update. No more problems – I check the tire pressure everyday. We also discovered that Rotax requires that the oil be changed every 25 hours when using 100LL. Guess what we use – yep, 100LL.

    And then there are the little things – carpet is coming up, seat & parking brake knobs vibrate off every week and many of the screws holding on the interior plastic molding have come loose at some time or another and have to be tightend. As an owner I constantly check tire pressure, screw on loose knobs, tighten loose screws, and stay on top of the maintenance schedule. None of these issues are really addressed on the flight check list that students see. Being an owner requires a much greater commitment to making sure the airplane is ready to fly anytime we want. Being an owner has made me a better pilot.

    I hate to sound corny but “owning completes me as a pilot”. Think about it – without an aircraft that you know and trust you really can’t fully experience what it means to be a pilot. It takes two to fly – you and your aircraft. I love the phrase – “Own the dream”.

  2. says

    Great story, thanks for sharing. Flying is not about money it is about value. You valued your new aircraft and the experience more than the cash and why not. That is a wonderful thing you are doing for your grandson. He will be flying your plane before he can drive.

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