Monday, January 19, 2015

The Search

When Dawn and I decided to get serious about buying an airplane at the end of last summer, I sat down and made a list of my search criteria:
  • 4-place taildragger, 2+2 useful load, classic design.
  • Electrical system, Night VFR capable.
  • Less than $30k, preferably closer to $25k.
  • Less than 1000 hrs on engine since major overhaul.
  • Less than 5000 hrs on airframe since new.
  • Active type club / well-supported airframe.
The last requirement eliminated some of the rarer types like the Aeronca Sedan, Fairchild 24, or Bellanca Cruisemaster. The price requirement put the Maule M-series, Cessna 180/185, or (be still my heart!) Cessna 190/195 out of reach. This left us with essentially three serious contenders:
  • Cessna 170. I have about 75 hours in type, love the way it flies and lands, love the art deco styling, and found the cabin to be very comfortable, moreso than later 172s. It has modern aluminum construction and parts are readily available. The Continental C-145/O-300 is a very smooth, relatively quiet engine; it is, however, somewhat orphaned and more expensive to maintain. The C170 is a fairly slow airplane, with ponderous takeoff and climb performance. It is somewhat load limited. And asking prices tend to be quite high unless it's a beater ($25k up through around $45k). 
  • Stinson 108. I've never flown a Stinson but have always heard they're one of the nicest-flying light planes and best-behaved taildraggers out there. They're big and comfortable inside. I like the styling, at least on the 108-0s, -1s, and -2s (the -3 has a comically large vertical stabilizer and rudder that ruins its appearance in my opinion). The -2 and -3 (the 165 hp versions) will haul a load and are reasonably fast. The airframe is robust, has very few ADs, and is well-supported by Univair. The Franklin engines are smooth and reliable (at least the heavy-case versions are), but unfortunately it's an utterly orphaned engine. Finding serviceable crankshafts and camshafts is particularly difficult. The number of mechanics familiar with these engines is small and dwindling. 
  • Piper PA-20 Pacer (or PA-22/20 converted Tri-Pacer). First and foremost, these airplanes are known to be good deals. One can easily find a creampuff Pacer for $10-15k less than a comparable C-170. They are diminutive airplanes, belonging to the short-wing family of Pipers with a wing-span under 30 feet and length of barely 20 feet. The cabin is smaller than both Stinsons and C-170s. They are, however, quite efficient, cruising faster than either other design and using less fuel to do it. They were built in great numbers and parts availability is excellent, and there are still many mechanics familiar with the design. The higher-powered versions use the extremely common and well-supported Lycoming O-320, a 4-cylinder engine that's not quite as smooth as the O-300 or Franklin 165 but is cheaper to maintain than either. These airplanes have a reputation for landing fast and being squirrely on the ground as they are quite short-coupled. You gotta be on your game when landing a Pacer. 
One friend that helped me quite a bit during the search process was Jeff Skiles, the writer for EAA's Sport Aviation magazine (and goose-slayer of some renown!). I met Jeff at OSH this year and we've kept in touch since. Having owned several old airplanes including a C-140, Waco YOC, and now a Cessna 185, Jeff is quite familiar with the process and pitfalls of buying a classic airplane. He urged me to take my time, knowing that there would be a surge of available airplanes come springtime. He suggested I search with ease of maintenance as a first-time owner first and foremost in my mind, and to be especially careful with the paperwork - logbooks, ownership records, and 337s. He'd had a few problems in that area with the Waco.

I mostly looked at ads on, in Trade-A-Plane, and on the various type club websites. I also found a few local examples on craigslist, airport bulletin boards, and by talking to area pilots. Generally I just looked at the ads to get an idea of asking prices, but occasionally made an inquiry into an interesting-looking example within reasonable flying distance. In most cases the best-looking planes were already sold, had a potential buyer on the way, or had problems that weren't mentioned in the ad. There were a couple times that a plane I'd otherwise be interested in looking at was merely too far from a convenient commercial airport, or my work schedule didn't give me the necessary time to go take a look.

The first plane that I got serious about was a 1948 Stinson 108-2 just across the border in Wisconsin. It appeared to be in beautiful shape, and the owner had done some nice upgrades. The 165 hp Franklin had been overhauled 8 years and 400 hours ago by a well-known Franklin guru in northern Minnesota. The asking price was $21,000. In the course of my discussions with the owner, it came to light that the engine was a now-rare light-case Franklin, which is prone to cracking and subject to a 100-hour recurring Airworthiness Directive (AD). A lot of Stinson old-timers subscribe to the belief that if a 65-year-old engine hasn't cracked yet, it's not going to, but others will tell you that there are so few light cases left that there's no real data set on whether it's still a problem (most owners replaced the light case years ago). I shied away until the owner offered to lower the price to $18,000. I decided to at least go look at and fly the airplane. The night before, though, I looked up the plane in the FAA aircraft registry and discovered that its registration was expired, and thus illegal to fly. I cancelled the appointment and, after further consideration, decided not to reschedule. A cracked case would likely prompt a $20k+, year-long repower project - not what I wanted to risk for my first ownership experience, not even at an otherwise bargain price.

A few weeks later, I came across a 1953 Piper PA-22/20 on Trade-A-Plane for $25,000. It had 3200 hours total time and 700 hours on the 160 horsepower engine, and was hangared in Kalispell, Montana. That was probably what caught my attention most - though Kalispell is a good jaunt from Minneapolis, my airline (or rather, NewCo) flies a direct flight there. The plane also had some desirable "bush mods" like larger-than-standard tires, vortex generators, and a skylight a-la-Cub. The photos made it look a bit dingy, though, and I was on the fence about going to see it. I talked to the owner on the phone and he seemed like a decent guy, and indicated he was flexible on price and mostly wanted to see the plane go to someone who would use it. I had a spare day before heading to New York for work, so I headed out west for a look. The plane turned out to be in better condition than it appeared in the photos, the logbooks and paperwork appeared to be in order (except for an expired transponder check), the engine started right up, and the plane flew and performed very well (except for a bit of tailwheel shimmy). I told the owner I would be in touch.

The next day, I ordered a title and record search. The title came back clean - no liens and a clear chain of ownership. The registration records looked correct, and most importantly, the airplane's many modifications over the years were all well-documented by Form 337s filed with the FAA. It had started life as a Tri-Pacer 135, was damaged by a windstorm and a short landing in the 70s and repaired both times, was converted to a Pacer taildragger in the 80s, was repowered with 160hp in the 90s, and had the other mods added in the 00s. Jeff reviewed both the registration and airworthiness file, which was helpful as I barely knew what I was looking for.

The only major thing I discovered was that this particular engine (O-320-B2A) is subject to a recurring AD on its crankshaft; the inner bore must be inspected for corrosion every five years. As it turned out, some surface pitting had been found on the most recent annual. This doesn't mean the crankshaft needs to be replaced immediately, but it must now be inspected for cracks annually or every 100 hrs, whichever comes first, for up to twelve years. In talking to owners at the Short Wing Piper Club, it sounded like the inspection isn't a big deal, and absolutely no-one has been finding cracks in their crankshafts. The AD sounds like it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction on the FAA's part.

On reflection, I decided the plane was everything Dawn and I were looking for. It wasn't perfect but it appeared to be good enough to serve us reliably for many years while we slowly upgrade it. I offered the owner $22,000 (subject to a pre-purchase inspection), he countered at $23,000, and I accepted contingent on a fresh transponder check and re-arching the tailwheel spring to take care of the shimmy. The owner agreed to these conditions and the next week was a flurry of bank paperwork, finding insurance and a hangar, and lining up a mechanic for the pre-buy. As it turned out, I was a bit less than impressed with the guy we chose to do it, and I really wonder just how much he really looked at for his $600. He gave me a short list of nits and said his overall impression was of a solid, well-maintained airplane that was a good value for the price. We closed the deal on December 8th.

So, yeah. I actually bought the very first airplane I seriously looked at. It's been a huge education already. Did I make the right move? We'll see. I have just over 20 hours on the airplane and really like it and think it's a great fit for us. I also have a future upgrade list with 19 items on it, the total cost of which is about twice the purchase price of the airplane. The good news is that it flies just fine as-is, and there will be plenty of time to "make it my own."

Next up: Bringing the Pacer Home


alaskdrifter said...

My wife and I had a Taylorcraft but we sold it last spring (Sniff sniff), but we are also looking for a Pacer. Thanks for sharing how much you paid for yours and what condition it is in, helps a lot in assessing other Pacers.