I’ve managed to see some of the seamy side of the world of aviation in my time, including some pretty lousy repairs. I was thinking about one repair I spotted while looking at an airplane for sale. The plane in question was an older Beech Bonanza, which had looked pretty good on the first inspection.
Looking over the airframe, the plane looked pretty solid. The windows were decent, there were no signs of skin corrosion, and even the cockpit looked fairly clean. After a check of the logbooks, I had all the engine, airframe and prop times, and knew about where the plane stood in terms of the rated TBO. Still, it was time to do a thorough walkaround, looking for problems before I even started to think about buying the plane.
AS I ROUNDED THE TAIL, MY EYE CAUGHT SOMETHING ON THE TRAILING EDGE OF THE ELEVATOR. The Bonanza line, whether it is the V-tail, the straight tailed 33 or 36 series, is very sensitive about how the tail is repaired. To be blunt: no repairs to the control surfaces are allowed … period. This is because of the difficulty encountered in balancing the elevator control surfaces – and if they are out of balance, dangerous flutter can be the result.
WE LEARNED ABOUT FLUTTER AND BALANCE EARLY IN THE LIFE OF THE BONANZA. A few planes experienced the departure of their tails in flight, and caused the then-young plane to pick up the nickname “Fork-tailed Doctor Killer,” for it’s penchant of turning low-time MDs into statistics. It took one person to figure out what was happening and land his plane before it landed him. Upon inspection they were able to nail down a cause, and when they did, the Airworthiness Directives and mods came streaming out.
ANYWAY, I DIGRESS. As I looked at the elevator, I noticed a patch on the elevator. It was subtle — measuring only a few inches across, and covered the trailing edge of the elevator through several rivets. When I approached the owner about the patch, he became defensive, and claimed it was completely legal. It only took a few minutes to show him the reference book I carried with me, which clearly stated that it wasn’t.
GROUNDED! When an unairworthy condition is identified, the plane is grounded. The pilot had to pay to get a serviceable control surface installed in the plane before he could leave. Needless to say, with that problem in mind, I started thinking about what other “minor repairs” there might have been, and walked away from the plane.
HOW DID I KNOW ABOUT THIS LITTLE SECRET? Easy, I read up on the Beech planes BEFORE I started looking for one. Reading books like Colvin’s Clinic from cover to cover provided me with an excellent technical basis upon which to find problems and avoid them. Had I missed this one, I would have been out at least $1500 to repair the control surface, and may have lost my life if the tail had started to flutter on descent.
STOP. READ. LOOK. UNDERSTAND. Before you set out to buy a plane — or even fly one — learn all you can about it. Get a pre-purchase inspection from a qualified mechanic. Most of all, trust that little voice in your head. If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t!