I was first bitten by the flying bug at an airshow in Dayton, Ohio when I was five years old. The noise from the jets was incredible. My dad took me, and we were able to walk right up to a B-52 (which in those days was still guarded by Air Force personnel). We checked it out from nose to tail. My dad said we needed to kick the tires if we were interested in buying it. I remember the tire was taller than I was, but I gave it such a kick I landed on my butt, which had my dad and the guard laughing out loud.
I knew even then I wanted to fly. My nearsightedness was just bad enough; I couldn’t fly for the Air Force. And I couldn’t afford to take lessons, so I put my dreams on hold. When I turned 21, I bought a great book called “Learning How to Fly an Airplane” by Jerry McGuire and Emily Howell Warner, and I read it again and again. It was 11 years before time, money and a nearby airport all aligned to afford me my dream of getting my pilot’s license.
Within a year of receiving my ticket, I purchased a well-cared-for 1982 Piper Cherokee Warrior II I had been renting—and flew the wings off it for the next six years.
I finally paid it off, and with the equity and monthly payment burning a hole in my pocket, I decided I needed something bigger and faster. The obvious upgrade choice was a Piper Cherokee Six, basically a Warrior station wagon on steroids. So I started searching. The trick was finding one that wasn’t either too rough, or too new, or too decked out with fancy toys. I stopped to check out every Six I came across throughout my travels, but the ones for sale were usually in excess of $100,000—well outside my price range. In 1998, I had taken a job in Freeport, Grand Bahamas, helping build a resort. I was standing on the ramp one day chewing the fat with Steve Mitchell, the manager of the FBO. I was staring longingly at a gorgeous Six parked out front and voicing my wishes to own one like it, and I’ll always remember what he said next. He pointed out to the edge of ramp at its rather forlorn-looking sister and said, “That one’s for sale.” Just for giggles I asked how much, and I couldn’t keep my poker face in place when he told me, “50 grand… but the owner’s negotiable.” I looked it over, and it didn’t seem to be in too bad of a condition. Steve vouched for it, saying he and several others were currently renting it for trips to and from the States and around the islands. I immediately called my banker and had him run the numbers. The Bluebook on a 1974 Six with her hours was in the high 60s. Vref put it in the mid-70s. Long portion of the story shortened, three weeks later—on my 40th birthday—I signed the check for the down payment and she was all mine.
A Fixer Upper
I knew she needed some mechanical work, and one of the brave lads who rented it flew it over to South Florida Jet Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A month (and several paychecks) later, it was declared safe and sound, and I was good to go. After my construction project wrapped up, I came back to Sanford, Fla. Since I had worked out of the country over a year, I got a really nice tax return, and I took that summer off to work on making N41208 a thing of beauty.
I’d purchased the aircraft from a Baptist minister, so the first things to go were the ecumenical gold, lavender and violet stripes. I decided to honor her island heritage instead, and sanded down the stripes, repainting them with Bahamian colors of teal and yellow. I spent a large chunk of my tax return upgrading the original King avionics panel with a new six-place PS Engineering audio panel with an input jack for my Walkman AM/FM cassette player (remember, this was 1999) and a new state-of-the-art GNC-250XL GPS/Com with moving map (to replace one of the KX-170 Nav/Coms). I had the shop remove the ADF, DME and the VOR head without the glideslope. I also had the technician install the most important flight instrument in the plane: the JPI EDM700 Engine Monitor. Besides CHT/EGT temps, it also monitors oil temp, outside air temp and voltage. The voltage feature tells me when my alternator is going bad before it fails entirely, and in the last 12 years this device has alerted me three times that it’s time to overhaul. (The engine monitor also told me I needed a new vernatherm when my oil temperature stayed consistently high.)
All this technology was great and really improved my knowledge in the operations of my plane.
Interior Upgrades—and Surprises
Next was the interior. It still had the original reddish-orange vinyl and Herculon seats and side panels, a faded red dash and orange carpet. Yuck! What were they thinking in 1974? I decided to save money and do much of the labor myself. Everything came out down to the bare walls and floors.
It was then that I discovered that every side window was leaking. In addition, the pilot’s window was cracked at the storm window and needed replacing (duct tape would only hold so long). I found out I could legally replace my own side windows, and with the right tinted material I could actually make my own.
I purchased a whole sheet of gray tinted acrylic plastic, and using the original windows as templates, traced out and cut each window. Since there is very little bow to the windows and it was 101 degrees in the shade that summer, the new ones slipped right in. I set them in a bed of high-quality caulk and then using black ProLine caulk, masked off and sealed the outside edge. The results were terrific. No more leaks, it was quieter and cooler inside—and it definitely stood out on the ramp.
New Carpet and Seat Covers
The carpet was next on my list. Once again, I was able to do the labor myself. I used all the existing pieces as my patterns. An upholstery shop on the field was quite helpful in providing me with FAA-approved flame retardant carpet by the yard—and even sold me the right high-density flame retardant foam backing, which made the interior quieter still.
Instead of spending a small fortune to have someone sew finishing tape on all the edges, the shop recommended taking a propane torch and melting the edges to keep them from unraveling. It was a cheap solution, and after practicing on a few scraps to learn how to keep from torching it completely, I soon figured out just how much heat to apply. And since 90 percent of the edges are either buried against each other or hidden by seats or side panels, this technique worked great. Only the carpeted portion of the side panels did I have to finish in the usual manner.
After the carpet came the seats and side panels. The original panel backing material had pretty much rotted due to the constant water leakage, so I replaced it with aluminum. I picked out material that went with the new teal/blue color scheme for the interior, and had the upholstery shop sew up new pieces for the side panels that I glued in place and reinstalled. The seats I stripped down—and discovered I needed to learn how to redo the backing material that holds the foam in place.
It was amazing the things I learned to do that summer. None of it was that hard to figure out, especially with the help of my new friend Kirk at the aircraft interior shop, who realized how miserly I was. It was a win-win situation: I was willing to give him any work I absolutely couldn’t figure out myself, and I also promised to buy all my material from him so as to meet all the FAA requirements.
I sanded down and repainted all the frames after fixing a few spots that had been abused over the years. After replacing the foam in the two front seats with new upgraded pieces, I took the new covers Kirk had made and slipped them all on. The interior was starting to come together and it was looking quite snazzy.
Now it was time to turn my attention to the plastic. I don’t believe this plane had ever seen the interior of a hangar, preferring instead to bake in the hot Caribbean sun. Several of the window trim pieces were cracked or broken, and they all needed painting.
Once again, Kirk showed me the tricks of the trade. Using PVC cement and fiberglass mat, he showed me how to build up the back of them to make them look good again. With a few cans of plastic spray paint in a nice dove gray, I was able to bring them back up to par. Given the hundreds of dollars I saved by not having to replace several large pieces, it looked just fine.
Other Interior Details
The last thing to do was the headliner. I pulled the old one, ripped the stitching out of the old fabric, and used it as a pattern for the new one. I attached new Velcro to it, sewed it back together and glued and Velcro-ed it back into place.
I took a scrub brush and chrome polish to the seat belts and oiled the mechanisms, replaced all the old finish hardware with new, bought a page of new interior stickers, and pulled the visors off and polished them to within an inch of their lives.
Finally it was time to put everything back together and see if it would fit. As humble as I tried to be, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how it turned out. I can easily gloss over the occasional evidence of the learning curves I experienced as I tricked out my baby. I saved literally thousands of dollars (assuming I calculate my own time at 12 cents an hour), and I definitely have a much greater knowledge of my plane inside and out.
It had quickly become November. Floridians turned off the air-conditioning, hurricane season was officially over and one of the leaves fell off the tree outside, signaling the start of winter down here. My pride and joy was all back together, and it was time to go flying.
Over the next several years I wandered the Eastern Seaboard as well as my own backyard in Florida. Cedar Key, on Florida’s west coast, offers up a plethora of great seafood—assuming the daunting airport with water at both ends doesn’t scare you off. (George T. Lewis Airport (KCDK) is at an elevation of 11 feet, and includes Runway 5/23, which is 2,355 feet long by 100 feet wide. —Ed.)
As the home of dozens of ex-military bases turn municipal, it’s almost impossible to fly out of sight of an airport in Florida. The only exception is to wander across the Everglades, which is breathtaking in its beauty from the air. And with all the unique water features in Florida, it’s almost impossible to get lost.
World’s Best Paint Job
My final journey to owning the perfect Cherokee came to fruition three years ago, when I found out about Flying Colors in Leesburg, Fla. I learned about this shop through a pilot I met on a ramp one morning after enjoying a hundred-dollar breakfast. When I’d complimented the pilot on his obviously new paint job, and he told me it was actually a few years old. I couldn’t believe it and had to know who did it. He told me about Flying Colors, and I tracked down John and made an appointment for 208.
John looked my plane over and after checking my existing paint job (and subsequent touch-up), determined it could get by with a sand and paint rather than a full strip off. I wanted something different other than “white with two stripes,” and John helped me come up with my current design. He showed me where it needed fiberglass repair on the 26-year-old cowling and then quoted me a price that had me scrambling for my checkbook. If I hadn’t seen the results of his work sitting all over the ramp at Leesburg, I would have been unconvinced he could do the work.
John did the exterior work in two phases due to scheduling with another mechanic. He did the glass repair and painted the fuselage and stabilator, and then I had landing lights installed in the wings, and then he did the rest. It took him one week each time and the result was one of the best paint jobs I’ve ever seen. And even better, three years later, I still get compliments about my Cherokee’s “new” paint job everywhere I go. Apparently John mixes some secret diamond-like additive in his paint so that is able to resist the harsh Florida sun.
Another DIY You Can Do, Too
I did do one thing to help preserve a portion of this everlasting paint job and save my interior. Several years I purchased one of the plane covers made out of some Space Age material, only to have it slowly dissolve on me within two years. It came with those cumbersome straps that you throw under to clip on the other side. (You know, the ones that you throw under… only to have the wind fling them back in your face? The only solution is to duck walk under the plane with the end or bribe the line guy to help you out.) Well, having learned from my experience with the headliner, I separated all the pieces of the cover, traced out a pattern on a piece of Sunbrella material (one of the few materials that won’t scratch your plastic windows), sewed it up with a high-quality thread and presto, I had a new cover.
Originally I was going to attach the existing straps to my new cover, but then I hit on a better idea. I’d previously owned a boat, and its cover snapped on, and I trailered it up and down the road at highway speeds without it blowing off, so I thought, why not?
I bought a snap kit at West Marine and I screwed four snaps down each side, and three in front of the windshield, and installed the matching buttons on the cover. It snaps down in as long as it takes me to walk once around the plane. And whichever way the wind is blowing from, I start at that corner and let it blow itself into place.
I no longer have to worry about greasy straps or needing a village to help me cover my plane. And in six years it’s never blown off, weighs less than its predecessor, and cost about 15 percent of the most popular one currently for sale out there.
But back to my story… My baby was now pimped out, inside and out. And like all plane owners, I wanted the money shot, that perfect photograph to be used for bragging purposes. Something that can hang on the wall at home, tuck onto a shelf at work and oh, what’s that on my cell phone screen? Because she was completed in Caribbean colors, I wanted to have some water in the background.
I flew 208 into Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas, which sports a runway that actually runs alongside the crystal blue water. The local customs official came out to notify me and my flying companion that not only the airport, but the whole island was closed, except as a port of entry for boats… and by the way, why was I hauling an extension ladder out of my plane?
A picnic basket full of ham sandwiches and homemade cookies bought us enough time to grab the shot I had waited almost a decade for, and we were on our way again. The colors of the plane against the background of blue sky and teal water help to explain to everyone why I chose the colors I did.
Shortly after that photo was taken, I met Donna, the woman I had waited my whole life for. She had never been in a small plane before, but after prying her fingers loose from the glareshield after our first flight, she declared that she liked it and asked when we could go again.
What Price Memories?
In the last two and half years, we’ve finally been able to empirically prove the benefits of owning your own plane. For Valentine’s Day last year we flew down to Stella Maris in the southern Bahamas, getting to gaze down upon almost the entire chain of islands en route. There we surprised ourselves by cliff diving 25 feet down into Dean’s Blue Hole.
This spring we went to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Mass., stopping along the way in Myrtle Beach, S.C. and Ocean City, Md. for salt water taffy and caramel corn. I flew my mom and her oxygen concentrator and pony tanks from Jacksonville, Fla. to Cleveland for her 50-year high school reunion.
We’ve visited Donna’s daughter’s family in Spring Hill, Tenn., while watching the leaves turn over the Smoky Mountains. We took Donna’s 75-year-old mother and her 93-year-old friend to Cedar Key, Fla. for a weekend and drove them around in a golf cart to see the sights. We flew Donna’s kids and grandkids to Freeport, Bahamas for a relaxing weekend.
I say none of this to boast, but to point out one simple fact: without our own plane, we never would have been able to do any of this, not without considerable expense and complicated itineraries. The memories we’ve created both for ourselves and our friends and family have been well worth the price of owning and maintaining 208.
We keep improving 208’s looks and capabilities. We now have a Garmin GPSMAP 496 mounted in the dash with satellite weather and music, as well as traffic info from a Zaon Portable Collision Avoidance System (PCAS). The King transponder was replaced with a direct slide-in Narco, and the tach went digital with a Horizon digital tachometer which doesn’t require periodic replacement of that problematic cable.
After 12 years (although it seems like just yesterday), I noticed the carpet was sporting several stains of unknown origins. This time I decided to try something even cooler and learned how to seam carpet. After a quick trip to Harbor Freight for a seaming iron and some practice on scraps, our new carpet includes all three of our exterior colors—and we even made carpeted floor mats with a splash of yellow seamed into the center. We repainted all the faded plastic again—this time a royal blue—and it was like a trip back in time for our 208.
Pride of Ownership
As an owner, you can do most anything inside the aircraft that doesn’t involve structural parts or removing control apparatus. It just takes a little bravery to tackle your fear of the unknown (and, just in case, I’d buy a little extra material for do-overs). Professional shops will almost certainly do a better job, but the pride and satisfaction of doing it yourself—not to mention the cost savings for those of us who can’t write blank checks—is a huge feeling.
Second, owning your own plane, although it comes with a certain financial responsibility, is a gateway to wondrous adventures, lifetime memories, and special moments that can never be duplicated while sitting in seats 47A and B in some giant flying machine miles above the earth.
If you’re thinking about buying, imagine all the places you’ll be able to go where scheduled flights never reach. And more importantly, all the memories you’ll create that might never be created sitting on the ground wishing you were in the sky. After all is said and done, memories are the only things we can really hold onto. Make some good ones. Go flying.
“Learning How to Fly an Airplane” by Jerry McGuire and Emily Howell Warner. TAB Books, Blue Ridge Summit, Penn., 1979.
South Florida Jet Center
5545 NW 15th Ave
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33309
Flying Colors, Inc.
8864 Airport Blvd, Ste 102,
Leesburg, FL 34788
Zaon Flight Systems
Horizon Instruments, Inc.
Sunbrella / Glen Raven Inc.
Harbor Freight Tools