“If you have time to spare, go by air” is one of many truisms associated with traveling by aircraft. It’s perhaps rooted most deeply in general aviation, where no matter how hard we may try, a schedule is merely a guideline — which means a lot of waiting.
Glance around a typical FBO and there’s bound to be someone waiting. Waiting for weather. Waiting for passengers. Waiting for an instructor to return from lunch. Waiting for the airplane to be fixed. Waiting.
Anytime two or more pilots find themselves sitting in the lounge, waiting, they inevitably turn to the coffee table in front of them and its collection of magazines. With luck, they may find a recent issue of General Aviation News, but the gold standard for passing time in an FBO always has been the familiar yellow pages of Trade-A-Plane, or T-A-P.
If you’re not familiar with T-A-P, it’s the neighborhood shopper of general aviation. In it you can find just about anything, from NACA air scoops to AN nuts and bolts. To build an airplane from scratch, all you need is a data plate, a live credit card and a recent T-A-P.
There was a time when the latest issue’s arrival in the FBO lounge was cause for great celebration, if for no other reason than there was something new to read.
These days, of course, everything’s online (which takes some of the fun out of it, IMHO, but does has its benefits) and there are many competitors to T-A-P. But the basic dynamic I’m about to describe can occur with any similar resource. I call it the Trade-A-Plane Game, or T-A-P Game.
It starts like this: Pick up a copy of T-A-P and turn directly to the classifieds. Find the section advertising examples of the last airplane you flew (e.g., if it was a Skyhawk, start there). Find one that’s similar in age and features. Whatever is listed is the asking price, of course, but presume that’s the value of the airplane you last flew.
Put another way, that’s what it would take for you to buy the airplane you’ve been flying. (Yes, there’s insurance, maintenance, storage and debt service, too, but work with me here.)
But that’s just the game’s opening move. After you say something about it to another pilot, it won’t be long before someone challenges you: “Yeah, but a Skyhawk is too slow and doesn’t carry enough. What about the same year-model 182?”
It’s almost as if they’re daring you to find a comparable Skylane, questioning your Trade-A-Plane kung fu. And right there on the opposite page are the 182 listings. You dutifully report what the market says about the two planes’ delta.
“But here’s one only two years older for 10 grand less,” you add, flipping the big yellow page, “and it has long-range fuel!”
“Huh,” your opponent sulks. “Lemme see that.”
And you’re off. What ensues can only be described as a hybrid game of one-upmanship and musical chairs.
The immediate challenge is to find the best bargain in a personal airplane you could reasonably expect to acquire and operate, given your resources. It’ll take most sets of pilots five minutes or so before the real-world solutions are discovered and discussed. Then he or she will pause, toss the issue back on the coffee table and get up for more coffee. That’s the end of Round One. Then the real fun begins.
You pick up the T-A-P, thumbing through the listings for aircraft you pilots haven’t looked at yet. A classic place to start Round Two is in the single-engine section under North American.
“Nuts to that,” you say. “Here’s a 1945 P-51D with a two-seat conversion. Only 1.5 million. Wait — here’s a single-seater for $250,000! Oh…it’s got a blown engine.”
By this time, your opponent is itching to get his hands back on the T-A-P. “Gimme that!” he says as he snatches it away and starts thumbing pages. You get up to refresh your own coffee and are halfway across the room before he inevitably announces, “I got that beat! A Paris Jet for 200 thou.”
“Needs too much runway,” you smile. “Besides, it’s thirsty and has systems from the 1950s. If you want a jet with no range, look at an L-29 or, better, an L-39. And don’t forget type ratings are expensive. Maybe a Grand Caravan on amphib floats?”
Your opponent thumbs earnestly while you think up another pipe dream.
“If you want an amphib,” he says, “why not a Grumman Albatross? Here’s one with low-time engines and recent leather interior for 350.”
“Fuel and maintenance would kill me, even if I could insure it. Let’s keep it simple,” you respond. “Maybe something a bit more reasonable, like a Pitts.”
And so it goes. You can run through DC-3s, PC-12s, Cubs and Champs, Citations and Hawkers. Your opponent can point out that warbirds aren’t that expensive.
From there you can get into movie-star territory with Boeings, or throw money to the wind on 20-series Learjets. By the time you get to Gulfstreams, the game is winding down.
How does this end? That’s the musical-chairs part — the winner is the last pilot to come up with an aircraft type that hasn’t been researched before the instructor returns from lunch, breaking up the game. Or the weather improves, or your opponents give up.
The game ends when whatever is responsible for the waiting in the first place is resolved. It can stretch for hours.
Right now, pilots are playing this game, in some fogbound FBO at East Nowhere Municipal, or online at a type-club website. The advent of online airplane classifieds adds both multiplayer and time-shifting capabilities. To play the game online, players must share the links to which they’re referring as evidence. Sharing the links among players resolves the “Pictures, please, or I don’t believe you” type of response.
That’s the T-A-P Game, one of general aviation’s many guilty pleasures. And — tell the truth — you can’t wait to play it again.