Buying and maintaining a Saratoga doesn’t have to be confusing, provided you have all the facts.
As Jennifer Dellenbusch writes in her model history “Saratoga Tale: PA-32 tangents” featured in the October 2013 issue of this magazine, the Saratoga has a confusing history. It evolved from two other Piper PA-32 models—the Lance and the Cherokee Six—but the company later adopted the Saratoga name for all PA-32s.
Today, prices for a Saratoga can range anywhere from $100,000 for early 1980s models to over $350,000 for a glass panel Saratoga. When you have this kind of price spectrum, it’s probably a good idea to find someone who knows the model very well to ensure a rewarding acquisition experience.
Meet The Saratoga King
Bartelt Aviation in Sturgis, Mich. is widely known for specializing in the PA-32 line, and is the world’s leader for Piper Saratoga sales. When we spoke in late January, Bartelt himself—who’s known as “The Saratoga King”—was preparing the delivery of the company’s 428th Saratoga.
Bartelt has found that having aircraft sales associated with his maintenance business makes each segment stronger—a checks-and-balances approach, if you will. He and his staff of three IAs have surveyed a lot of Saratogas, and they often find that maintenance practices on the aircraft are not up to par. “The single biggest issue [in the inspection of a Saratoga] is the quality of the maintenance,” Bartelt said.
When an aircraft meets or exceeds the maintenance standards, and the sales price is fair to all parties involved, Bartelt said, it can be a win-win. “Our Aircraft Acquisition Consulting Program ensures our clients get a solid aircraft that’s airworthy at the correct entry point,” he explained. That strategy has worked—428 times.
Pre-purchase and annual costs
The typical Saratoga buyer is a small business owner or an executive buying for personal use. Bartelt advises not to buy this airplane on your own. He encourages the use of an acquisition specialist that is seasoned in dealing with pre-owned aircraft.
Bartelt also cautioned me that “just because a seller’s asking price is attractive, it might not be a good deal.” Any buyer needs to bear in mind that the cost to buy and repair a particular airplane may exceed the cost of a completely different aircraft with all of that work already accomplished.
And even if the logs show that a lot of work is already done, it takes time to evaluate an aircraft properly. “A pre-buy isn’t a six or eight-hour deal; it’s more like two or three days,” Bartelt explained. “On average, we find $15,000 to $25,000 wrong with a single-engine aircraft.”
Keep in mind, the average annual inspection and maintenance on a Saratoga can cost $5,000 to $8,000—and that’s if the aircraft is “already straightened out,” Bartelt said. Beware of any mechanics who want to charge too-good-to-be-true prices for an annual, he cautioned. “I can tell you, that aircraft probably won’t pass the pre-buy inspection process.”
Common service issues
If you’re considering a Saratoga, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of the common service issues so that the aircraft is as safe and sound as possible.
John Bartelt was very willing to pass along his findings about certain systems in the Saratoga and share cost information with Piper Flyer readers. Some of these areas are the subject of Service Bulletins, while some are not. Each of the issues along with general prices for repair are listed below.
Cracked oxygen support brackets
Bartelt is finding cracks in oxygen supports, prompting the need for replacement. “We find these brackets cracked on many of the 1980 to 1987 Turbo Saratoga SPs,” Bartelt informed me. If it’s not fixed, you risk cracking of the fuselage side skins.
It takes about eight hours of labor to drill out the cracked brackets and rivet new units in place. Each vertical bracket costs about $70, and there are four brackets. Additional labor is needed to remove and replace the rear bulkhead and oxygen bottle to gain access.
Bartelt and his crew often find that landing gear bushings, bolts, and bearings are out of tolerance. When this occurs it should be addressed, or you increase your chances of a gear collapse and/or retraction issues.
The cost to rebuild the main landing gear is around $2,500 per side; $1,500 for the nosegear. To avoid frequent replacement of parts, Bartelt recommends that the landing gear be serviced and lubricated every 100 hours.
A nosegear trunnion with excessive play can sometimes be adequately greased and/or shimmed in order to eliminate excessive forward and aft play, but not always, according to Bartelt. If not, a set of new inner and outer nose trunnions can cost nearly $4,000.
Service Bulletin 1006
In 1997, Piper Aircraft issued a Service Bulletin directing service professionals to inspect for corrosion of the main spar behind the fuel tanks. This recurring inspection was prompted by “reports of corrosion on the spar cap due to fuel leaks behind the fuel tanks in PA-28 and PA-32 series aircraft,” according to the bulletin.
Bartelt says he has never found significant issues with a spar when complying with this bulletin, but did say SB 1006 is worth doing because it allows the owner to replace the rubber fuel interconnects, replace fuel vent lines and protect the spar with a rust protection product like Dinotrol. It also allows the service facility to repair any leaking rivets on the back of fuel tanks that are impossible to see unless the fuel tank is removed. Cost to repair is about $500 in parts and about 25 to 30 hours of labor.
Service Bulletin 1161
Not everyone completes the work on this Service Bulletin that was issued on March 8, 2006, even though it covers the majority of the retractable Piper aircraft, Bartelt told me.
This document was prompted after the finding that “the rib assembly on the aft side of the main wing spar at wing station 49.25 may develop a crack, located vertically along the bend radius of the flange common to the main wing spar and the side brace attach fitting.”
Bartelt says he has seen evidence of these ribs cracking, and if it’s not addressed, the crack could exceed the effectiveness of the repair kit. The kit costs less than $350, but between 12 and 16 hours of labor per side are needed in order to complete the installation.
The price of not doing it? “If the crack goes too far, you’re looking at wing specialist work,” says Bartelt. “The whole rib might require replacement.”
Service Bulletin 1216B
Piper considers this inspection for aileron rib cracks mandatory. The document states, “over time, cracks may develop in the aileron nose rib common to the outboard aileron hinge fitting. Left undetected, these cracks may lead to separation of the hinge fitting from the nose rib…”. The inspection (and, if needed, replacement) is for both the left and right sides.
Bartelt explains further. “There are two rivnuts—female receptacles for bolts—these go in to the rib for the aileron attach arm mounting. The majority of the Saratoga aileron ribs we inspect are cracked,” he said. To change the rib, the cost is about $900 per side, plus two hours per aileron.
“We’ve [even] found them cracked where the Service Bulletin doesn’t cover it—and the only way to see it is to remove bolts and paint at the focus area,” Bartelt explained. The aileron rib can also be cracked at the inside location, which is not visible. “If the aileron attach arm were let loose,” he said, “the aileron would most likely leave the aircraft!”
The quality of an engine overhaul is extremely important. Bartelt advises that you make sure to get a two- or three-year warranty and stresses the use of a new camshaft, not a regrind. This practice, he says, can mean the engine has better odds of not making metal before the recommended TBO.
He finds that many engine overhaul issues are often due to the use of reworked cylinders and can be avoided by spending an extra $3,000 for the factory-new cylinder kits. Bartelt also finds issues with engine mounts, including cracks in the welds.
Bartelt Aviation sends engines out to a specialty shop for overhaul, and then installs them in-house. “Larry Russell, our director of maintenance and Vice President of Aircraft Sales, does the best engine install I’ve ever seen. The engine compartment looks brand-new after he is done!” A quality engine overhaul with a detailed installation by an experienced team can run $55,000 to $70,000.
After every overhaul, Bartelt’s staff flies the aircraft an additional seven to 10 hours. This is part of the company’s QC Program and it ensures their clients are not the test pilot after major work is performed on their aircraft. A flight test should be done as part of returning the aircraft to service, according to the FARs.
“Many maintenance facilities do not perform flight test after working on aircraft,” Bartelt said. The reasons for that can vary. Perhaps the shop doesn’t carry the necessary insurance, or maybe they don’t have a pilot that’s current on their staff. Bartelt recommends you make sure any shop you choose for services has a pilot on staff that can perform the necessary flight tests. He also recommends that you confirm with the facility that its insurance policy includes non-owned coverage.
Though the Saratoga may have had a confusing chronology, it can be sorted out with a little patience, and a lot of resourcefulness. And good airplanes are definitely out there. If you’re in the market for a six-seat workhorse with a comfortable ride, I recommend you do your research, ask questions, read all of the documentation, and find an expert to guide you.
Sources: “Saratoga Tale: PA-32 tangents,” by Jennifer Dellenbusch, Piper Flyer October 2013; “Piper Saratoga: 1980–Present,” Plane & Pilot online, pub. 2001.
Bartelt Aviation, Inc.
SB1006, “Corrosion Inspection of Main Spar Behind Fuel Tanks”
SB1161, “Rib Assembly Inspection and Modification, Aft Wing WS 49.25”
SB1216B, “Aileron Rib Inspection”