By EDWARD DOLEJSI
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.
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.
Buying 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.