Airplane Buying – Keeping the Edge on Your Side

Do, you want to buy an airplane and join the ranks of the owner / pilot. Whether you want to really “belong” to AOPA by owning your own, or you are tired of renting, ownership is something you need to go into with your eyes open. Remember, more than anything – buying an airplane is an adventure.


To start with, you need to figure out which airplane is right for your “mission,” that is to say, what your primary plans are for the plane. The mission can be divided into several parts:

  • Seats and Load: If your plans include flying your family around on a regular basis, you need to consider how much they weigh, and then find an airplane that will carry them. If you plan to use the plane to help your sales business, you need to consider how much weight you have to carry with you on a trip.
  • Time: How much time do you have to get from here to there? If you are flying for fun, the time factor doesn’t matter as much as it would if you are a businessperson, trying to get from Florida to Nebraska every three days.
  • Budget: How much airplane can you afford? Remember, the more complex (read: fast) the airplane, the more expensive it is to operate.

Once you know what you will carry, you can start to look for a plane in your budget and speed range that can carry the load. A good place to start is with your neighborhood FBO mechanic, who has a pretty good knowledge of the various aircraft on the market. Take your outline of the perfect airplane to the mechanic, and explain to him or her that you are looking for an airplane that will fill that role. The mechanic will be able to point out the various models that will fit your bill, as well as give you an idea of the costs of operation.

Knowing which planes best fit your needs includes knowing which ones will try to spend you into the poor house, so be sure to ask your mechanic about which models you should stay away from. Some planes have a reputation for taking more maintenance than others, while some planes come with costly Airworthiness Directives to comply with. Knowing which models to steer clear of can help you to avoid wasting time during your search.

Example: You decide you need to carry four adults on a regular basis for business. Your budget is $120,000 for the airplane, with around $25,000 per year in operations, including fuel, insurance and maintenance. You also need to be able to fly several hundred miles in just a few hours for the plane to be truly “useful.”

Your mechanic will point you towards an older Beech / Raytheon A-36, a mid to late-1970 Cessna 210, or possibly one of the light twins on the market, such as the Cessna 310 or Piper Seneca line. Each of these planes will fit the mission you described, but the twins will be higher (much) on the yearly operating expenses.


Before you spend a penny of your money on a trip out to see the airplane you are interested in, you need to ask the owner some hard questions — and keep careful track of the answers. These questions will help to protect you from fraud by establishing the condition of the airplane to your satisfaction before you hit the road. This list is not all-inclusive, but will give you a good start. You need to ask the owner, at a minimum:

  • Does the aircraft have any damage history? If it does, what is the extent, who did the repairs, and have there been any chronic problems as a result?
  • How much did the last annual inspection on the plane cost? (This is *very* important, since some people will spend pennies on their airplane, leaving you with a potential huge repair bill!)
  • Do all the avionics in the airplane work?
  • Are there any liens against the aircraft?
  • What condition is the paint and interior in, in terms of Blue Book values?
  • How many hours did the airplane fly last year? If the number is low, be prepared to ask why.
  • How many hours are on the airframe? How many hours are on the engine and prop?
  • Why are you thinking about selling this plane?
  • Has this plane ever been involved in a flood or fire?
  • Are you the sole owner? If not, ask to talk to the other owners, too.
  • Are there any problems with the airplane and how it flies?
  • Is the airplane currently in license?
  • Are all the Airworthiness Directives complied with?
  • What recurrent Airworthiness Directives apply to the model and year?

Armed with the answers to these questions, you will be better able to determine whether you should be interested enough to fly or drive out for a look — or whether you should turn and run away as fast as you can. The key to success here is to listen to the voice in your head. If it says “Uh Oh,” listen to that voice, and walk away. The money you save will help you buy the right plane when you find it.


The chances of getting taken to the cleaners around one in five these days. Before you ever consider signing your name for an airplane, a smart owner-to-be will get a good pre-purchase inspection. The pre-purchase is your way of protecting yourself from other owners, dealers, and the unsuspecting people that sell airplanes. Getting a good pre-purchase can mean the difference between flying with your new purchase, or filing for bankruptcy. To give you (the new buyer) some perspective, lets take a look at a few of the cases that have turned up in my life over the years.

Case 1 – You Can Lead an Owner to the Truth, But You Can’t Make Them Think

In our first case, we have a prospective buyer who spots the plane of his dreams. It is sleek, fast, has a decent reputation, and looks pretty good. Our intrepid buyer springs for a fair pre-purchase inspection with his local FBO, who uncovers $20,000 worth of repairs that are needed to make the plane airworthy. Instead of working the price down, the person paid the full asking price, and then proceeded to spend thousands of dollars more than the book value on the plane, getting it to a point where it would be safe to fly.

The Mistake: Gotta Buy One Now-itus. This can be fatal if you buy the wrong plane, both to your wallet and — if you happen to get into the air when something cuts loose — with your life.

The Lesson: Don’t be in a hurry to buy your first airplane. Taking the time, and listening to your mechanic will help to preserve your pocketbook and your life.

Case 2: Second Sight

In our second case, a buyer saw an ad for an early model Beech Bonanza. He sent a check for the purchase of the plane, sight unseen, for the full asking price. On arrival at the airport, he unlocked the cabin, performed a preflight on the plane, slipped the key into the ignition, and flipped on the master switch. The panel failed to spring to life, and the starter wouldn’t turn over.

Our intrepid new owner went out and bought a brand new battery for the plane. After charging it and installing it, he flipped on the master switch and had power for the avionics. However, when he turned the key to start the engine, the starter refused to budge the engine. Our new owner then went out and tried to move the prop through by hand. This is when he found he was the new owner of an airplane with a seized engine – cost: $20,000 to correct — over and above his purchase price.

The Mistake: Gullibility. Not everyone out there is as nice as you are. Words can exaggerate — at their worst, they can lie.

The Lesson: Sit in it, touch it and smell it. Then, if possible, fly it. When it comes to buying, don’t let anyone tell you anything about the plane that it hasn’t told you for itself.

Case 3: An Interesting Bend

In our third case, an owner-wannabe (OW) was called by his local FBO. The FBO said he had found the plane that the OW was looking for, and invited him out to the airport for a look. Our OW kept a spiral notebook, which contained notes on every plane he had ever looked at. On arrival at the airport, the plane looked familiar, so he checked his book. The plane that was being offered for sale had previously suffered and operated with a bent propeller!

When he asked the FBO about the airplane, the FBO initially insisted that the plane had never been damaged. When confronted with the facts, the FBO insisted that the plane was fine, and that no damage had been done. This is in contrast to the engine manufacturer’s Service Bulletin, which calls for an engine teardown on a prop-strike.

The (Potential) Mistake: The failure to double check. Asking questions of the seller ultimately only helps you judge the reliability of the seller.

The Lesson: While this is an important part of the process, many kinds of damage or flaws can be hidden from view, and may escape detection without the sharp eye of a mechanic. Before you purchase, you’ll need to have a mechanic go over both the airframe AND the logs.

Bottom Line: A good pre-purchase inspection protects you as the prospective new owner, from those owners who are hiding something. A good Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic will know what to look for.


If you are looking to buy a Cessna, look for a mechanic who has a lot of experience with the Cessna line. The same is true for any other plane; mechanics that work on the model you are looking for are the most likely to know where to look to find the biggest and most costly problems on the airplane.

Important: Always choose a mechanic that has not worked on the plane you’re purchasing within recent history. A fresh set of eyes is always better than a potentially biased set. This holds true whether the owner insists that their mechanic is the best in the world or not. You have to find someone who will be your advocate, not the owner’s and not the plane’s.


There are literally dozens of key areas to check and how much you spend on a pre-purchase is directly proportional to what you want to know. Give a mechanic a few hundred dollars and they will check the engine compression, give the airframe a cursory look, and perform a retract check on retractable models.

However, many owners swear by having a full annual inspection performed on the airplane. Using this approach has some merit: you get the clock started over on the license, and you will also have a far better understanding of what the true condition of the plane is. Balanced against this is the cost and the risk: if the owner’s plane is a disaster, your mechanic needs to tell you before he gets 100 hours into the labor charges.

Tactic: To avoid any expensive misunderstandings, discuss this approach with your mechanic before he or she starts the pre-purchase.

Still, consider the fact that you are likely going to purchase an airplane that costs more than most of the people in the United States earn in a year. You should be willing to spend a few thousand dollars to make certain that the plane is in good enough shape to warrant your investment.


The engine is the first place to start. Your mechanic should check the oil for burning, pull a sample and send it out for analysis to look for excessive wear, and perform a thorough compression check. The logbooks of the airplane should be reviewed to see what the time in service is on the various engine accessories, such as the alternator or generator, prop governor, and vacuum pump.

Example: A fresh engine overhaul isn’t worth as much if the accessories are still original with 3000 hours. You would be surprised how many people take that sort of shortcut to reduce their overhaul costs. While their overhaul price was low, the alternator may not last long, which will leave you with an expensive repair or replacement.

How about the landing gear? Buyers of retractable models should always perform a retraction check. This check monitors the gear with the aircraft on jacks, and can help you find weak hydraulic units or landing gear motors. Fixed gear need to be inspected as well, since corrosion or hard landings can take their toll, leading to expensive repairs.

If at all possible, get your mechanic take a good look inside the airframe for corrosion. Whether white or the advanced blue, corrosion of an aircraft is a serious problem, and if not caught, can result in extensive and expensive damage and repairs. Your mechanic will see it if it exists, but only if you let them look for it.


This isn’t even close to an all-inclusive list, since there are thousands of things that a mechanic could and should check. Sit down before the pre-purchase and discuss what the mechanic thinks should be checked. If you aren’t certain, speak to another qualified mechanic to get a second opinion. Be prepared to pay for an hour of the mechanics time, since if they are spending it with you, they aren’t working on the planes in their shop. It is only fair — especially if you intend to have the pre-purchase performed at another shop and are just seeking a validation of your mechanic’s opinion.

Buying an airplane isn’t impossible — it just takes careful consideration on the part of the buyer. Armed with even limited knowledge, you will be better prepared to ask the right questions as a buyer, and by doing so, to protect your checkbook. One thing is certain: with the least expensive planes selling for $30,000 these days, a good pre-purchase inspection is one way to keep the power in your hands as the buyer.