Tips On Buying A Used Plane

by Bob Worthington
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published online Midwest Flyer Magazine – February/March 2021

As you read this, spring is just around the corner. Flying weather will be milder and days longer. Hopefully Covid-19 is becoming under control. As we entered 2020, aviation forecasts went out the window. 

During 2019, GA sales increased by 16%, while in 2020, sales of small single-engine GA aircraft almost came to a halt. But predictions are that by late 2021, new airplane sales will match or rival 2019 with the biggest increases coming from the biz-jet segment, and smaller, used GA aircraft.

In 2020, aircraft operations were reduced drastically, and with the volatility of the airlines, businesses and individuals who could afford it, turned to GA for their travel needs. Additionally, increased interest is noted in the areas of remotely piloted aircraft and the use of electric engines. Overall, the future of GA looks bright. The weather is improving for flying and the time to purchase a small, used GA plane is looking particularly good.

My objective here is to share with you some tips on what to consider when purchasing a used aircraft. In a 40-year career of flying, I have owned nine (9) planes, all used but one. And that plane had a major FAA defect that came about the day after my plane’s manufacturer went bankrupt and out of business. Here are my thoughts on how I go about purchasing a used aircraft.

I always begin with the finances. How much money do I have to spend or how much can I borrow? If you have the money, fine. If you need a loan, start this process right away.

Acquiring a plane is all about compromises. Most of us have a finite budget, so that is where we begin. This number sets the start of our compromise practice. This establishes the upper limit of what plane we can consider buying. Once these financial parameters are established, we initiate the process of determining what we want. 

Now begins the most interesting part of obtaining a new/different aircraft (at least for me). Deciding on what we want and researching it. A recommended tip… The aircraft should be less expensive to secure the plane we want with all the equipment already aboard, rather than pay less and then have to install what we want. Even if the overall cost is high, in almost all instances, the seller will shoulder most of the actual cost of the equipment.

The amount of money allocated to purchase and the compromise between what we want, what we need, and what we can afford, can make the buy a good deal or unbelievably bad.

  Once I had a plane for sale and every potential buyer consistently told me what was wrong with it. To me they were not looking for something that fit their needs, but rather just wanted a plane, cheap. Finally, a certified flight instructor and a certified airframe and powerplant mechanic looked at the plane and said it matched exactly what the buyer needed. He bought the plane and actually paid me more than I asked (we are still good friends).

Here the compromises take their toll, as even if money is of no concern, we probably cannot find in one airplane everything needed or desired.

Simple or complex? Speed versus carrying capacity? VFR or IFR equipped? Engine size versus fuel burn versus speed? Fixed gear versus retractable? Who will be flying with us? Solo or with a spouse or a friend or more family members? An older plane with few hours may be less of a bargain than the same year and model with a lot more hours.

A word of caution… Buying a make and model that has a long and high production rate means that replacement parts are readily available (and cost less). Aircraft that were not in production for long or few planes were produced means various parts are not available or are expensive. I learned this with my Cessna 182 RG that had an accident (mechanical problem, not pilot error).  During its eight (8) years in production, 2,000 aircraft were manufactured, so today many parts are not available. To compound this situation, I learned that vendor changes from year to year meant that certain parts could only be replaced by parts from the same model year.

Aircraft owner organizations, such as for Mooney, Cessna and Piper, typically have tons of data on makes and models to include problems to look for and advantages of the model. Additionally, Aviation Consumer publishes books on various aircraft makes and models, providing considerable information on each plane.

Two more pieces of advice… When considering a plane, factor in the cost and ease of operation and maintenance. Also find out how much insurance will cost and requirements for keeping the plane covered.

Another consideration is your age. I was almost 40 when I became a pilot, then I received my Instrument Rating. In my progression as a cross-country traveler, I went from a Cessna 172 to a 182, and then to a turbo-charged Mooney. As I moved into my late 60s, my ability to bend and move became more difficult, so the Mooney was not easy to enter or exit. I needed a roomier cockpit, so I got a Cessna 182 RG. As I moved into my mid-70s, I seldom flew at night, avoided “hard” IFR flights, and flew shorter legs. I wanted a less complex plane, so I went to a fixed gear aircraft. Doing this reduced the pilot workload during flight and made the insurance premiums more reasonable.

Once a specific plane makes the top of my list, I begin the search by asking pilot friends if they know of a specific make, model, and years for sale. Most of my planes were purchased that way. I usually limit my search to no more than 500 to 600 miles from my home. This way distance does not become a problem to personally see a plane. Today, the Internet (and digital aviation periodicals, such as Midwest Flyer Magazine) bring dozens of potential buys right to your home or office.

Once a possible purchase is located, I want to look at it, fly it (typically I do little flying, but test out all the navigation, communication, and other equipment the plane has while the owner does the flying). If the plane remains a candidate, I take as long as necessary to read every logbook for the plane. I am looking at the maintenance records, equipment added, and any history of damage. I also do a title search to ensure the seller owns the plane free and clear. I once bought a plane where the title search showed there was a loan on it. Before I wrote a check, I checked with the loan holder. As it turned out, the loan was paid off, and the bank forgot to notify the FAA.

If the plane passes all inspections, I start negotiating the final sales price. This requires considerable research to acquire asking prices for similar planes and if possible, actual sales figures. The agreed-upon price is contingent on a satisfactory pre-buy inspection. If the plane passes, we have a buy. If problems are found, either the owner fixes them, or we negotiate a reduced price. (Sometimes the seller refuses to do anything and probably the best option then is to say thank you and goodbye).

The best thing a buyer can do is “research.” We should become extremely familiar with the make and model of our possible acquisition. We should know what it is selling for and what problems to check. The more information we possess, the more likely we are to get a decent deal. The less we know, the greater the chance of entertaining problems down the road.

This process allowed me to acquire nine planes that met my needs, my desires, my pocketbook, and each was a joy to own and fly. As time passed, my aviation needs changed – children grew and left, increased travel necessitated more speed, and as I aged, I wanted less complexity. Hopefully, what I have learned can help you find what you want this spring, so you can spend the summer enjoying your new aerial steed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the  author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer (www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor, mechanic, attorney and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures or following any advice discussed herein.

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