By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the June 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
By now you have probably figured out that I enjoy the fun factor that comes with aviation. My goal has always been to do what it takes to keep that fun factor alive for family, customers, and myself. Since I am heavily involved in sport aviation, a segment of aviation that is supposed to be purely for fun, it pains me to see someone having a bad day. Except for accidents and unexpected maintenance problems, which can really dampen one’s day, the loss of a sale can be really frustrating for quite a few people, and I get to see it more than I would like. I really hate it when the fun factor gets some cold water thrown on it.
Yes, in spite of the so-called “down” economy, airplane sales are booming in the amateur-built aircraft market. Truth be told, sales seem to be booming across all aspects of the recreational market. Hence, I am involved in many prebuy examinations weekly. When the sale falls through due to some unexpected discoveries during the prebuy process, certainly the seller is disappointed, but the buyer can be even more disappointed. Yes, relief at finding the potential problems ahead of the purchase is there, but let’s face it, aircraft purchases can be emotional. It’s easy to fall in love with that two-winged beauty with the gorgeous paint job and get attached during the days or weeks leading up to the prebuy examination. Hearing that the beauty is only skin-deep can be a real letdown.
During one prebuy examination, it was mentioned that I should publish some suggestions for sellers since it seems I am always giving advice to potential buyers. Hmm. That sounded like a good idea to me, even though I actually did put a chapter in my book called “Hints for Sellers.”
So, here are some thoughts for the sellers and owners that, in my experience, could make a difference during the sales process.
First, the old saying that cleanliness is next to godliness can definitely be applied here. At least take the time to clean up the airplane. While I’ve seen some that were probably buffed for weeks prior to the examination, that isn’t really necessary. A thorough cleaning that removes the bugs and any oil or grime from the belly should work. You may even be surprised at some things you find that may need fixing, such as cracked landing light lenses or missing screws or bolts. Taking the time to vacuum out the inside and do a thorough cleaning may help you discover that the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) batteries are overdue, or perhaps the airworthiness certificate isn’t displayed as it should be. It might even happen that when you look at the airworthiness certificate you discover the operating limitations are missing. (Note: Big hint!)
After you finish cleaning the airplane, the next thing you should do is a thorough preflight. Read that again — a thorough preflight. Use a flashlight to peer into every nook and cranny because that is what the inspector is going to do. As an example, use the flashlight to peer down the intake and check the condition of the air filter. I find it amazing how many air filters we find that are absolutely horrible. We have a stack of the most egregious ones in our hangar. Most of them are so dirty and hard you can stand on them! Lie on the ground and use that same flashlight to peer up into the cowling. You might be surprised at things you find, such as broken exhaust hangers, broken air boxes, and, in some cases, completely open alternate air inlets. Oops! You checked the alternate air in-flight a few hours ago and it worked, but you forgot to check that it really closed. Yep, some of them can only be closed manually on the ground after an in-flight activation. It’s easy to forget once you land. It makes you wonder how long the engine has been sucking all of that unfiltered air.
Another place to use the flashlight is to check the tires for wear. Guess what most new owners are going to do with their newly purchased airplane? They are going to do lots of takeoffs and landings and take friends and family for rides. It puts a damper on things right away when they hear the tires are worn out or don’t have much life in them.
By now, I know you are probably thinking that these aren’t really showstoppers or deal killers. Guess what? I agree. However, I had one customer put it best by saying, “It’s death by a thousand cuts.” So, bear with me while I continue.
While doing the walk-around, don’t forget to power up the aircraft and check that all of the external lights are working, especially on tailwheel aircraft with rudder lights. The filaments in the position lights seem to take a real beating there, and the lenses seem to get grimy from the belly oil and dirt thrown up from the tail wheel.
If you have electric motors, check that the trim motor runs smoothly and comes to a stop at full deflection without any binding or grinding. If the trim system is not set up correctly, the motor can be stopped by the trim tab physical limits rather than the electrical stops inside the motor. This will eventually wear the motor out and strip the gears.
Once the external preflight is completed, sit in the cockpit and look around through the eyes of the potential buyer. You might be surprised at how many unlabeled switches and knobs you find. The stick grips are the most notorious offenders, with the worst ones having a starter button on the stick that is unlabeled. Not a good idea to press that one while in cruise flight to figure out what it does. Even worse, imagine sitting in the cockpit with the aircraft powered up and pressing the button. Not only could you have an unsuspected engine start, but someone standing by the propeller could get seriously hurt!
Take the time to remove all of the junk the cockpit may have accumulated during your ownership. You’ll especially want to remove anything that is not included, such as nice noise-canceling headsets, so as to not set unrealistic expectations.
With the aircraft powered up, take a look at the battery voltage. It should be at least above 12 volts on a 12-volt system. Unfortunately, some aircraft that are for sale have sat for some time, and perhaps the battery has run down. Either get it charged or replaced. It’s no fun having the inspector or buyer show up and the engine won’t start. Then, go ahead and start the airplane and look at it again through the buyer’s eyes. You might be used to the oil pressure gauge fluctuating, but it will be unnerving for the new buyer. Make sure the switches and systems don’t interact with each other in unsuspecting ways. For example, I was accompanying an owner in his newly purchased RV on the return flight home. Due to some headwinds, we ended up flying in the dark for the last hour, after making a stop or two earlier in the day. Everything had been running fine all day, but guess what happened about 30 minutes after dark? The oil pressure and oil temp were indicating an almost off-scale high. I’m a believer in looking at my watch when presented with a problem (other than an engine failure, of course), and always asking what was the last thing we did. I finally remembered that we had turned on the nav lights. I turned them off, and immediately the oil temp and oil pressure returned to normal. Aha! Nothing but an electrical ground loop. I called the owner when we landed, and he admitted he had forgotten about that problem because he hadn’t flown at night in more than a year. Let me tell you that the fun factor had a real damper on it for a while. So, take the time to sit there and try to remember any quirks that your particular airplane has that you might want to tell the new owner.
The one thing remaining is to take the time to review the logbooks. Check that you at least know the status of the service bulletins (SB) and airworthiness directives, if applicable. I see plenty of aircraft with no entries regarding SBs and annual ELT checks. I see many others where the 24-month transponder certification has expired. With today’s congested airspace, many times the aircraft will be going to a location or flying through airspace where a transponder is required. It can be really annoying for the buyer to show up, especially on the weekend, in the hopes that the examination will go well, only to find that it can’t be flown due to the transponder being expired and repair shops being closed until Monday.
Once everything is done that you can think of, ask yourself one last question: What will the inspector find? Many times, I bet you can figure it out for yourself. If you can’t fix it, then let the owner know that you have adjusted the price accordingly.
Unlike selling a house or a car, where you never hear from the buyer again, the world of amateur-built aircraft is a close-knit and wonderful community. There’s a good chance that the seller and buyer become long-term friends. I see it happen more often than not. If you treat it that way from the beginning, I can almost guarantee the whole process will go a lot smoother and keep the fun factor alive!
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848 and chair of EAA’s Homebuilt Aircraft Council, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more 9,500 hours in 72 different types. Vic also founded Base Leg Aviation and volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot and an Angel Flight pilot.