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Ferry Flight Decision Patterns

Ferry Flight Decision Patterns

Safely traversing the U.S. and crossing the Rocky Mountains in a single-engine aircraft requires a pilot to manage an ever-changing slate of risks. This is a first-person account of a ferry pilot who crosses the Continental Divide using his wits and 150 horsepower.

Ferry flying is never a sure thing, especially in a VFR-only airplane over mountainous terrain with rapidly-changing weather.

I’d planned to ferry a Piper PA-22/20 Pacer from Wooster, Ohio to Nampa, Idaho, in mid-October. On the day of the first ferry flight attempt, the winds were at 18 knots, gusting to 30 knots, from variable directions. I did a familiarization flight with the owner, Don, and even he had a difficult time keeping the aircraft on the runway. 

Don was donating the Pacer, his perky white-and-blue baby, to Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). Don owned two airplanes—a Cessna 190 and the Pacer. He decided to trim his fleet to just one aircraft and elected to donate the Pacer. Don’s Pacer resembles a famous MAF aircraft—a Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser—destroyed in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle in 1956. It’s also the same model aircraft that Asas de Socorro (an MAF affiliate) first flew in Brazil. So, in addition to the tax benefit, there was a historical connection behind the gift.

We waited a day, but the winds remained the same. The forecast for the next several days showed no change as well. So, I decided to try again later. It did cost an extra airline fare, but that seemed cheaper than a broken airplane.

The Pacer’s panel while cruising west at 6,500 feet. 
Monday

A few weeks later, I returned to Wooster to ferry the Pacer to Nampa. This time, conditions looked better, though late October could always hold surprises.

• Good news: Light wind, clear skies from Ohio all the way to Idaho. 

• Bad news: A fast-moving system approaching the Pacific Northwest. 

• Dilemma: Go now and maybe get stuck en route, or wait?

• I’ll go now.

My job was to fly the Pacer to its new home. Don removed his stuff from the cockpit. I put mine in, claiming the territory. For the next few days, the Pacer was mine.

I closed the door, reviewed checklists, then started the engine. Don raised a palm toward me, completing the transaction. I nodded, released the brakes and taxied up the grassy slope to the end of the strip. More checklists. 

A clearing turn uncovered no unannounced traffic. I added full power and the Pacer moved immediately. Tail-up trundling turned to spritely, ever-lighter bounces. I eased the yoke back, wheels left turf and I rose above the trees. 

Although usually thought of as a slow airplane, the Pacer climbed quickly to 6,500 feet. Dark blue sky above faded to a thin, white haze line on the horizon. 

Trimmed to fly level, I steered with occasional rudder pedal taps. Then, I cycled through the pilot’s pattern: Look for traffic. Check engine gauges. Confirm heading and altitude. Verify position. Call ATC for flight following. Scout alternate landing sites. Compare previous forecasts with the view out the window. Search current forecasts for the route ahead. Repeat.

After a quick-turn at Kankakee, Illinois (KIKK), I climbed back to 6,500 feet and pointed west to Atlantic, Iowa. The Pacer cruises at 105 knots and holds four hours of gas. Subtracting a one-hour fuel margin yielded a no-wind range of 315 nautical miles—not very far when crossing a continent. 

Got a quick-turn from the great folks at Kankakee, Illinois (KIKK).

I hoped to reach North Platte, Nebraska (KLBF), by nightfall, but when I’d reached Atlantic, Iowa (KAIO), body, brain and lowering sun agreed I was done for the day.

Dawn on the North Platte ramp, ready to continue west. 
Tuesday

Pre-dawn light revealed a gray sky over a gray ramp. 

• Good news: Light wind, good visibility.

• Bad news: A line of low ceilings and rain crossed my route.

• Dilemma: Go now, or wait?

• I’ll go now.

At sunrise, I headed west and climbed to 6,500 feet. My Stratus-enhanced iPad showed the north-south line across my path. Already, drops peppered my windscreen, streaming back in long silver ribbons. The ceiling lowered, dropping gray columns like dirty sheer curtains bending in the wind.

• Good news: The worst rain lay south. The Pacer was equipped for basic IFR.

• Bad news: The Pacer’s IFR certification had expired, so I was VFR-only.

• Dilemma: Go on, or land and wait? 

• I’ll give it just a bit longer…

Rain drummed on fabric wings and fuselage with a deep, resonant note. Streams across the windscreen increased. Drops formed inside door edges and ran down side windows. 

• Good news: Reports showed good weather 20 miles ahead. Conditions remained VFR. 

• Bad news: I faced a 12-minute gauntlet that threatened to reduce visibility to zero.

• Dilemma: Continue, or land and wait?

• Almost ready to turn around…

I eased the yoke forward to stay under the ceiling and leveled at 4,500 feet. Below me, farmers’ pickups no longer raised dust. Parents called kids inside. The translucent rain veil glowed gray, not completely hiding field and town. 

A newly-wet highway shone silver, pointing a gleaming arrow westward. Sherman Reservoir near Loup City, Nebraska, hung within visibility’s edge at 8 miles. Slowly, the ground beyond the reservoir came into view. Then, the drumming grew louder and the ground ahead faded. 

Suddenly, brilliant sunshine. Tree and road sparkled from their recent bath. North Platte crowned a bluff 60 miles away in bright air. But this bright air was also frisky air and demanded my full attention. 

At North Platte, I asked the FBO for another quick-turn, then, still hopeful, went inside to check weather. I wanted to reach Rawlins, Wyoming (KRWL) before I called it a day.

• Good news: Clear skies.

• Bad news: Wind gusting to 30 knots along the entire route, forecast to continue all day. 

• Dilemma: Go, wait or try an alternate route?

• Better to be on the ground wishing I was in the air… than in the air wishing I was on the ground.

The only other path for a Pacer traversing the Rocky Mountains lay a full day’s flying south. Updated reports and forecasts offered no encouragement, so after haunting the FBO for a couple hours, I called the hotel van. 

Wednesday

Before first light, the Weather Channel on the hotel’s breakfast bar TV agreed with Flight Service.

• Good news: Wind a little better.

• Bad news: Rain, snow, low ceilings. 

• Dilemma: Go, or wait?

• Going to wait this one out…

One aviation mantra says, “Time to spare? Go by air.” What’s left unsaid is that such a pilot with time to spare must always be ready to go. The pattern continued: Check reports and forecasts. Look for options. Wait an hour. Repeat.

By 3:00 in the afternoon, the North Platte wind whistled. The western sky darkened. 

“It’s heading this way,” locals and forecasts said. “Could be snow tonight.” 

“Snow?” I asked.

“Yeah. Can happen this time of year.”

I put the Pacer to bed in a heated hangar and returned to the hotel for mine. 

Thursday

Next morning, I watched the Weather Channel over breakfast. I could reach Nampa, Idaho, that day if I started immediately. 

• Bad news: All the weather stations along my route toward Salt Lake City reported rain, snow, obscured mountains, 200-foot ceilings, visibilities 1 to 2 miles.

• Good news: Casper, Wyoming (KCPR), north of my planned route to Rawlins, reported clear skies and operable winds. Forecast was the same all day. 

• Dilemma: Go to Casper, or wait? 

• Let’s fly…

North Platte was cold, but Pacer slept warm in a hangar with the big boys. As the eastern horizon turned deep yellow, the Pacer’s 150 hp engine started, settling into a nice chuckle. After takeoff, I turned left toward Casper. It wasn’t the most direct route, but Casper was at least a move in the right direction.

Heading southwest out of Casper, Wyoming (KCPR). The last bits of the previous day’s clouds still hung around. 

Morning sun painted North Platte trees and roofs orange, their long shadows hiding streets and yards. Sharp glints flashed as new light touched windshield and window. No motion below, just me passing slowly overhead, a white bird pushed by the dawn.

At first, I stayed at 4,500 feet to avoid the worst headwind but soon climbed with rising terrain to 6,500 feet. Real mountains lay ahead. Already I could see the main chain of the Rockies jutting up, advancing from the south. Ground speed dropped to 87 knots, but trucks weren’t passing me—yet.

• Good news: Clear, smooth air.

• Bad news: Strong headwind. I could just reach Casper with a one-hour reserve.

• Dilemma: Continue or return?

• Stay low, under the winds…

Sky stayed clear. I stayed low. I passed Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, bent north around the restricted area near Guernsey, Wyoming, then farther north to follow the skirts of the rising Laramie Range. I flew over Douglas, Wyoming, then followed the North Platte River into Casper.

On the ground, I fueled and checked weather. Neat lines and numbers implied I could still reach Nampa that day, but they did nothing to move the messy air mass.

• Good news: Casper remained clear. Operable wind. 

• Bad news: Rain, snow, obscured mountains covered my route.

• Dilemma: Go? Where?

• With nowhere to go, I’ll call it a day.

I waited an hour, but a second call to FSS confirmed Casper was the limit of that day’s travel. Local forecast snow prompted another night’s hangar space for Pacer. 

A hotel van came, again. I checked into a room, again. Connected to the internet, again. Put the muted TV on the Weather Channel, again. And tried—again—to guess what might happen tomorrow.

Crossing the Mississippi River near Henry, Illinois. 
Friday

Dawn not yet showing, breakfast bar TV and iPad aviation weather reports looked workable. If I could refuel at Logan, Utah (KLGU), I could reach Nampa with just one stop. Refueling any sooner would add more landings.

• Good news: The front passed. Clear skies. Logan was forecast VFR.

• Bad news: Salt Lake reported stratus and fog. Headwind continued.

• Dilemma: Go, or wait?

• Into the wild blue…

I took off just as the sun crossed the eastern horizon, then I turned southwest. Flat ground rose steadily in broad valleys punctuated by abrupt mesas toward peaks 150 miles ahead. I climbed to 10,500 feet. 

Near Preston, Idaho, at 12,500 feet, passing well south of Oxford Peak.

Vestiges of yesterday’s clouds remained as fog clung to shaded valleys, white shards hovered in scattered layers over flat-topped mesas, and broad flowing strands followed the upward curves of draws leading to higher mounts. The air shone diamond-clear, but ragged, torn cloud edges warned of wind.

I recalculated. Logan remained within reach. But if it didn’t open by the time I arrived, I’d have to cut into my reserve to find an alternate. An hour later, Logan was still below minimums. 

• Good news: Good visibility east of Salt Lake.

• Bad news: Salt Lake remained IFR. Strong headwinds continued.

• Dilemma: Time to refuel, but where?

• Let’s stay out of the clouds.

I diverted to Kemmerer, Wyoming (KEMM), the last spot on the eastern, good-weather side of the mountains. The airport sat atop a mesa barely big enough to contain its three runways and building cluster. 

Nothing moved except the windsock dancing straight out. The radio remained silent, but the directory said they had fuel. I landed with my hour reserve still in the tanks.

• Good news: I found fuel pumps. 

• Bad news: No fuel pump controls visible. 

• Dilemma: Backtrack and add a day, or try to fuel here?

• They’re supposed to have fuel…

Inside a small but new building, warm air, fresh paint, new carpet and comfortable chairs greeted me. A guest sign-in sheet lay on the counter. No people appeared. Outside, scattered puff clouds raced across clear sky and the wind whistled like the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood western.

Back at the fuel pumps, I found neither card reader nor switches. But a small sign pointed to a shed down the ramp. Inside, controls hung near a small table. The door rattled. The wall groaned. The motivation for putting gloves-off controls indoors became clear. 

I entered the data, swiped the card, then fueled the Pacer. Still alone, only windsock and clouds moved. 

The Pacer wanted to point into the wind, but with flight controls and brakes I managed to reach the runway, complete the checklist and do a clearing turn while keeping all wheels touching pavement. I pushed the throttle in, barely moving before leaping from the earth. 

At first, 10,500 feet seemed fine. But over Bear Lake, just west of where Wyoming, Idaho and Utah meet, heading for the 9,200-foot ridge on the far side, my scan revealed dropping airspeed while holding altitude along with disappearing terrain beyond the ridge—both signs of sinking air. 

• Good news: Clear air above and scattered clouds below.

• Bad news: Air coming across the ridge sank faster than the Pacer climbed.

• Dilemma: Return to Kemmerer and wait, hunt for a better route, or shop for lift and climb?

• Up, up and away!

Over the west shore of the lake, I spotted a cluster of ragged clouds taller than the rest with bases well above the ridgetop. Perfect. I turned toward them and a moment later felt a bump. The VSI needle jumped above zero, so I turned right to stay under the cloud. 

The climb rate increased immediately, rewarding my guess. I stayed in the spiral up to 12,500 feet, then continued west.

Crossing the ridge 20 miles north of Logan, the entire Salt Lake City basin lay under the low clouds which forecasts had failed to predict. Ahead, valleys and ridges cleared, but now an overcast formed and thickened, following lowering terrain down. 

I started a cruise descent, calculating I could reach Nampa with 30 to 45 minutes of fuel left. 

• Good news: Good visibility below the overcast. 

• Bad news: Overcast sprouted scattered showers. Headwind increased.

• Dilemma: Stop for fuel again, or stretch the last leg?

• Time for one last stop…

The heavy overcast and scattered showers darkened midafternoon skies as I entered the broad valley dominating southwestern Idaho. 

On the ground at Burley (KBYI), despite cold wind and spitting rain, I received a gracious quick-turn. 

Another takeoff, followed by its landing an hour and 50 minutes later at Nampa, Idaho (KMAN), completed the Pacer’s patterned journey.

The author introducing the Pacer to its new home in Nampa, Idaho (KMAN).

Jim Manley is a former FBO owner, U.S. Forest Service air attack pilot and Amazon jungle pilot with commercial, SEL, MEL, CFI and CFII ratings. He now works as a freelance writer in Meridian, Idaho. Send questions or comments to .

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The Paradox of Choice: Airplane Edition

The Paradox of Choice: Airplane Edition

There are thousands of used airplanes on the market, and no two are exactly alike. The range of choices available to a buyer is both a blessing and a curse. Defining your mission, purchase goals and a budget can help methodically pare down the list of potential candidates. A systematic approach also offers the side effect of decreasing pre-purchase anxiety as you zero in on The Right Airplane For You.

If you comb through hundreds of classified ads, looking at as many different airplanes as possible, you’re increasing your odds of finding a great deal on The Right Airplane For You, yes?

Not so fast.

As you view more and more choices, each with their pluses and minuses, choosing between all the available options can become more challenging. They may all just seem to blend together, differentiated by a few hours here and a little damage history there.

The process of choosing becomes more difficult, and that difficulty produces anxiety. Airplane buying just went from a fun and exciting adventure to an anxiety-producing marathon.

Anxiety about choices and their respective consequences can discourage us from prompt, decisive action. We may avoid making the tough choice and instead run away (i.e., give up entirely) or opt to find a different, easier choice to make.

This behavior is the basic premise behind Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice.” It’s a fascinating read about modern consumer behavior in an era of multitudes of poorly-differentiated products. I highly recommend it.

Here’s a real-world example. When I was growing up, we received four TV channels over the air. Three were national networks, and one was public broadcasting. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to flip the dial to see what was on. A typical choice on a weekday evening would be between a sitcom, the world news, a baseball game and a documentary about rabbits. That was tough enough. I usually gave up and put on “Top Gun” (yes, on VHS tape).

Contrast that to today, when—if I subscribe to cable or a satellite service—I can have hundreds of channels at my fingertips. There’s also on-demand video from Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. YouTube alone gives me the option to choose one of 5 billion (yes, billion) videos.

Don’t ask me to choose. I give up. I’m going to go read a back issue of Piper Flyer.

The same expansion of choice has occurred in the used airplane market in the Internet Age. Though the number of airplanes changing hands hasn’t varied substantially over the years, the visibility of the choices available to buyers has changed dramatically.

Once upon a time, airplane transactions were guided by word-of-mouth and flyers on airport bulletin boards. There would be a few options available, and you might dig up a half-dozen more if you started asking around the airport. A broker might be able to do some of the legwork for you by calling his or her friends.

Though you certainly can still find a solid bird on the bulletin board, now we have Barnstormers, Trade-A-Plane, Controller, online broker inventory, Craigslist, Facebook groups and myriad type-specific forums (each with their own classified section). A quick search can pull up thousands of airplanes for sale.

The sheer number of choices is intimidating, especially for first-time buyers.

So, how do you start weeding through these thousands of candidate airplanes to find The Right Airplane For You?

It’s simple (sort of)

Just answer this single question and we’ll have you on your way to finding the best new-to-you airplane: What do you want?

Well, I personally want a Northrop F-5E Tiger II with a Soviet Air Force paint scheme. I watched that “Top Gun” VHS tape…a lot. And I speak Russian (poorly), so I’m sure I’d make a great “enemy” pilot.

But, by asking myself a few more basic questions, I can tell that acquiring and maintaining that F-5 isn’t practical.

The mission: who, what, when, where, why and how?

Who is going to be in the airplane with you? What do you want to be able to do with your airplane? When/how often/how far will you fly? Where will you go? Why do you want to be an owner? How much can you afford to spend on this endeavor?

If you can answer these questions, you’re well on your way to defining your mission. The F-5 obviously doesn’t work for me. It fails on “who”—you can’t safely fit two people and two dogs into a fighter jet. 

Additionally, as much as I’d love to scream around at 400 knots while listening to “Danger Zone” through my fancy Bluetooth headset, I can’t find a way to make the “how” work without robbing a bank or three.

For a more realistic example, let’s check out a recent post on the Piper Flyer forum. The author, Eric, explains his plans:

My story is that I’m 40, in information technology, and have decided to change careers to pursue my dream of flying professionally. I successfully got my private pilot certificate in April in a Cessna 172. Now I want to work through all of my ratings up to CFI.

Congratulations, Eric, on your new certificate!

Eric has a solid idea of what his new airplane will need to do, and he also understands that this isn’t a short-term purchase. He says he’s a “firm believer in [the philosophy of] buy your last plane first.”

That’s a good start.

He goes on to answer the who, what, when, where, why and how. In his words, he’s looking for:

1. Stable IFR platform I can complete my instrument rating and commercial certificate in.

2. Capable cross-country cruiser that can take two people (myself and a passenger) and some luggage comfortably. I am anticipating at least one cross-country trip a month of over 300 miles, with some even longer. So, decent performance would also be a plus.

3. If possible, I’d like to get something that is auto fuel STC capable. This is not a hard requirement, but a nice-to-have.

4. I am anticipating flying 200 to 300 hours a year.

5. Budget would be up to $60,000, but I would like to stay below that as much as possible.

Most readers are probably starting to come up with a few ideas for Eric. It’s easy to help spend someone else’s money! But let’s not get too far ahead. This is a good time to do a sanity check, especially for first-time buyers and those who must stick tightly to a budget.

It’ll often be tough to find a perfect airplane for all your possible missions without breaking the bank. Set a realistic goal of fitting 80 to 90 percent of your mission profile. You can always rent or borrow an airplane, drive or fly commercial for the remainder of the missions.

Rather than immediately going down the rabbit hole of online listings, talk to a trusted and experienced aviation friend, mechanic or airplane broker—or better yet, several of each.

Your guiding question is basic: “Do airplanes that can do 90 percent of what I want exist for around the price I want to pay?” In case you haven’t noticed, aviation people like to talk. You’ll get plenty of opinions. Keep this discussion simple—you just want to find out if ownership is a good option for you.

If the consensus answer is “Yup, you can find that,” continue.

The Piper PA-24 Comanche is a speedy and comfortable cross-country machine.
Many vintage panels have steam gauges and older IFR avionics. 
Purchase goals

With a mission in mind, it’s time to start thinking about what The Right Airplane For You looks like. Don’t worry about specific airplanes just yet—we’re looking to outline the makes and models that fulfill the mission criteria.

We’ll call these criteria our purchase goals. For Eric, it plays out something like this:

Goal No. 1: Budget of $60,000 for initial acquisition.

• Eric’s budget is clear: $60,000 or very near.

• Other expenses may decrease the amount available at closing. State and local taxes, pre-buy expenses and other acquisition costs can quickly add up.

• It’s also smart to have a significant amount in reserve for deferred maintenance items that may become apparent in the few months after purchase. I’ve heard recommendations of anywhere between 10 and 50 percent of the purchase price. Also, make sure you’re accounting for any upgrades that will be done soon after purchase.

• Like with real estate or cars, the asking price for an airplane isn’t always the sales price. It typically won’t hurt to make offers, but it’s a seller’s market for piston singles right now, and most sellers won’t move tens of thousands of dollars on price. It would make sense for Eric to limit his search to airplanes with asking prices of less than approximately $70,000.

Goal No. 2: Decent performance.

• Eric says he wants to do 300 nm cross-countries. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume he’ll be best served by an airplane that cruises at 120 knots or better.

• To get this sort of speed, he will want to look at high-performance (200-plus hp) and/or retractable-gear airplanes. Some fixed-gear 180 hp and 200 hp airplanes can deliver this speed as well.

• Ensure that the make and model airplane can get into and out of the airports you want to use without undue worry. A pilot who will be flying into backcountry strips in the Rockies will need a different airplane than someone whose home base has 8,000 feet of pavement at sea level. Eric states that he may be flying in New Mexico a bit and would welcome additional high-and-hot performance.

• Given the need for some speed and high-and-hot performance, a 200-plus hp airplane makes good sense for him. A sleek 180 hp airplane would also work.

More horsepower usually equals more speed and greater useful load. Of course, this comes at the cost of more fuel and additional maintenance. 

Goal No. 3: Predictable and reasonable operating and maintenance expenses.

• Since Eric plans to fly frequently and build hours in a short time, he wants an airplane that won’t always be in the shop.

• Simple, proven systems will help limit ongoing maintenance expenses. There’s a reason that most shops charge more for an annual inspection on a complex (retractable-gear), high-performance airplane than, say, a 180 hp fixed-gear single. These complex airplanes are just as they sound—more complex! Similarly, an engine with more cylinders has more cylinders that can have problems, not to mention that it will usually burn more fuel.

• Generally, the rarer a make and model, the more difficult it is to find replacement parts.

• It would be wise for Eric to choose a make and model with simple systems, and one which is widely supported, with good parts availability to limit maintenance expenses and downtime.

Goal No. 4: Must have a range of 300 nm minimum, with IFR reserves.

• Assuming a 120-knot cruise speed and legal minimum IFR reserves, Eric’s airplane will need a range of 390 nm (3.25 hours).

• Let’s look at a few Piper piston singles to get an idea of what is considered standard range. A Piper PA-28-161 Warrior II carries 48 gallons and burns around 7.5 gph at cruise for a maximum endurance of about six hours and a range of 525 nm. A Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 carries more fuel; 84 gallons. It burns about 13 gph, has an endurance of about six hours and a range of 710 nm.

• Eric needs a range just shy of 400 nm. This should be well within the range of most four-seat piston singles with full tanks.

“If it fits, it ships,” or so say many Piper PA-28-235 Cherokee 235 owners. Early models have useful loads of more than 1,400 pounds. 

Goal No. 5: Cross-country comfortable for two people, with sufficient baggage capacity.

• Few two-seaters offer enough useful load to allow for long cross-countries with two people, three-plus hours of fuel and baggage.

• A two-seat Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, for example, probably won’t be able to complete Eric’s mission. The useful load of the PA-38 is around 500 pounds. With two 200-pound adults and 40 pounds of baggage, you only have 60 pounds left over for fuel. You won’t get far on 10 gallons of Avgas. The math is, of course, better with smaller passengers.

• In addition, comfort is often lacking in many two-seaters. 

• Thus, a four-seater is going to provide the most flexibility for Eric’s intended use.

Goal No. 6: IFR-equipped.

• Though technically a single nav radio with glideslope will suffice for “IFR equipment,” if Eric plans to become a professional pilot and wants to learn how to fly real-world IFR, a WAAS GPS is practically mandatory.

• A modern, coupled autopilot would also be a nice-to-have.

• Acquiring an airplane with avionics already installed is much cheaper than retrofitting them after purchase.

• Eric’s budget will have him looking at older airplanes, where the avionics may have been replaced several times. Though choosing an airplane with appropriate avionics is important, avionics tend to be specific to an individual airplane (rather than make and model). Installed avionics are not an important criterion for filtering by make and model, but are incredibly important when looking at individual airplanes.

Goal No. 7: Auto fuel STC capable. 

• Though many Piper singles are eligible for auto fuel STCs, the complexity of the STC varies. Some airplanes can use auto fuel after a paperwork-only STC, while others require expensive modifications to the fuel system.

• If this is an important factor in keeping operating costs down, Eric will want to consider a model with paperwork-only auto fuel compatibility.

Goal No. 8: An airplane I can fly (and be insurable in).

• Eric recently earned his private pilot certificate and just under 70 hours, primarily in Cessna 172s.He does not have a multi-engine rating, so he’ll be limited to singles.

• The transition from a Cessna 172 to, say, a Cherokee 180 is not a difficult one. Conversely, the jump from a 172 to a twin-engine Piper Navajo would be quite challenging.

• Additionally, a low-time private pilot might find it difficult or impossible to obtain insurance in an airplane which requires more pilot skill. In addition to high premiums, the insurer may also require a significant amount of dual instruction for the owner prior to solo operation.

• Should you (or Eric) consider a taildragger? First, can you fly one? Next, can you be insured in one? I received a quote on a high-performance taildragger a few years back. Though the hull wasn’t expensive, my relative lack of tailwheel time combined with a high-risk model pushed the premium to over $3,300/year (and 25 hours of dual required before solo!). That’s a lot of Avgas.

• Eric received a quote on a Cherokee 235 and found that the premiums and training requirements were quite reasonable: $1,100/year and a two-hour CFI checkout.

• Eric must consider insurability and insurance premiums to limit his ongoing costs.

Goal No. 9: An airplane that I’d like to own.

• Do you prefer a specific make and model based on looks, reputation or personal experience?

• Do you have opinions on what constitutes “too old” or “too new,” either in terms of calendar age or airframe/engine times?

• How much work do you want to do on a new-to-you airplane? Some people love reclamation projects; others just want to fly.

• What degree of importance do you place on cosmetics (paint, interior, etc.)?

• What are your opinions on standard aluminum construction versus tube-and-fabric versus composite?

• Eric doesn’t say much about this, but these are an important consideration for many buyers.

Cosmetic refurbishments, like the fresh paint on this 1964 Cherokee 235, can make a vintage airplane look factory-new. 
Prioritize purchase goals

In Eric’s purchase, budget is a major factor, whereas an auto fuel STC is a nice-to-have.

You’ll want to make a list (actually, three) with your nonnegotiable items, nice-to-haves and lastly, unlikely luxuries. This outline will serve you well when you start evaluating makes and models, as well as specific candidate airplanes.

When I purchased my most recent airplane, I wasn’t initially looking for a Piper. I’d set my sights on a Cessna 177B Cardinal. I thought the Cardinals were sexy, modern-looking airplanes. I loved the big doors and spacious interior.

As I got more serious with defining my mission and assessing various makes and models, I realized that a nicely-equipped Cardinal was going to cost tens of thousands more than a comparable Piper—yet the Piper would deliver the same performance.

Passing on the Cardinals meant I wouldn’t be flying as sleek of a bird, but if I went Piper, I could get a low-time four-seater with decent avionics… and would still have a bit of money to spend on upgrades after the purchase. 

I found a nice Cherokee 180, and the rest is history. As it turns out, in addition to checking all my must-have boxes and most of my nice-to-haves, I even ended up with a few unlikely luxuries. 

Still, if cost had been less of a consideration for me, I might’ve gone ahead and bought a Cardinal (or a Comanche!). It’s hard to put a price on the toys we desire.

Shortlisting makes and models

Publications like Trade-A-Plane and Controller are great tools for coming up with a shortlist. Online versions work too, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about applying a highlighter to a paper magazine.

For a shopper like Eric, his search starts at the beginning of the single-engine piston airplane section. He might pare down the list by first looking at only common makes and models (a nod to parts availability and ease of maintenance). Next, he might note all the four-seaters, then, of those, just airplanes with 180 hp or more. From there, eliminating the aircraft outside his budget will trim down the results even further.

The first-time buyer, especially one who is new to General Aviation, will need to do some research at this stage. It’s likely that there will be models you’re not familiar with—there might be a lot of Piper PA-22/20s on the market in your price range, but do they match the goals you’ve defined?

With any luck, you’ll quickly winnow down the list to a handful of makes and models which fit most, if not all, of your purchase goals.

Expert advice

You’ll want to do some follow-up on the makes and models you’ve identified to ensure there will be no nasty surprises after your purchase. There may be a reason a specific make and model is so cheap.

What are common complaints and maintenance issues? What do owners love about their airplanes? How many ADs apply? How many of these are recurring? How expensive is insurance?

Yes, it’s again time to talk to people—and not just the pilots who gather at the airport on Saturday morning for the free doughnuts and coffee. You want to talk directly to people who have owned, operated and maintained the makes and models you’re considering. You might also get some tips on other makes/models which would fit your mission from these aviation sages. Heck, they may even know of a good airplane or two for sale.

It could be the woman who owns the flight school which operates a fleet of Piper Arrows. It could be the guy who maintains that fleet. Or perhaps it’s the experts who frequent the Piper Flyer forum.

It’s also wise to get hands-on time with each make and model you’re considering. Flying them is best, of course, but even sitting in the cockpit will give you an idea of whether the airplane is a good physical fit for you.

Zeroing in

From here, your job is to find the specific airplanes that have all (or most) of your must-have features. Don’t restrict yourself to print publications—now that you have a search image in mind, it’s time to revisit Barnstormers, Facebook groups, type-specific forums and so on. Except now, rather than digging through thousands of airplanes for sale, you can quickly home in on the few that fit your needs.

Here’s another suggestion: post a wanted ad—either at your airport or online. Some owners may be considering selling their airplanes, but don’t want to deal with the tire-kickers that come with posting an airplane for sale publicly.

I recently sold my airplane to someone who had posted a “looking for…” ad. It was quick and easy for both me and the buyer. I got a painless sale; he got a great airplane for a few bucks less than market value.

Speaking of market value, as you look through advertisements, you should keep a keen eye on pricing. For example, what is an average late 1960s Cherokee 235 listed for? How does that change with airframe and engine times? What sort of adjustments are being made for installed avionics? Is there a regional adjustment in price for that make/model? Though you won’t have access to final sales data, you can get an idea of what a fair deal is—and then be ready to pounce when you see one.

Geography becomes important at this stage, too. It’s much easier to look at candidate airplanes which are within a few hours’ drive or flight. For the most common makes and models, there’s likely to be several for sale nearby. For more rare airplanes, you may need to be willing to travel.

Though it is certainly possible to buy an airplane with dated avionics and upgrade them yourself, you’ll be money ahead if you buy an airplane with a “dream panel” already installed. 
Targets acquired

Eric identified a few prospective airplanes in his forum post: a 1958 Piper PA-24-180 Comanche 180 and a 1964 PA-28-235 Cherokee 235. Both were priced near his budget. Both airplanes had an IFR GPS installed. The 235 also had ADS-B Out and an autopilot.

Neither airplane fit all of his stated goals. Eric had questions about the cost of ownership on the Comanche; the 235 had an asking price slightly above budget. But both appeared to be very good candidates which would do 90 percent or more of the missions he’d outlined.

Since Eric had done his homework, the choice was now about which would be the best airplane—not whether these candidates would minimally suffice.

A compelling argument could be made for either airplane, though they are fundamentally different craft. Piper Flyer contributing editor Steve Ells said it well on the Piper Flyer forum: “You might consider the Comanche as a well-mannered and good-looking sedan while the Cherokee 235 is a small SUV.”

The Comanche is more economical in terms of fuel burn (8.5 gph versus 13 gph) for 130-ish knots. It has a Lycoming O-360—about as bulletproof a four-cylinder engine as there is.

On the other side, the Cherokee 235 can lift practically anything you can fit inside it, has broad parts availability, and nearly any mechanic can wrench on one. It’s not as pretty on the ramp as the Comanche (in my opinion), but it performs well and has a reputable six-cylinder engine.

A 200 hp PA-28R Piper Arrow (or Turbo Arrow) comes to mind as another good Piper option. In fact, there was a slick little PA-28R-201T on my home airport’s ramp last week with a For Sale sign in the window for around Eric’s budget.

A PA-28-236 Dakota would’ve been a nice match for the mission, but a Dakota equipped for modern IFR would be cost-prohibitive. Some of the 180 hp models like the Cherokee 180, Archer or Arrow could have worked too, though they won’t ever be confused for speed demons.

Out of the two airplanes he’d identified as candidates, Eric decided to opt for the Cherokee 235 as it had a few more “nice-to-haves,” in addition to fitting much of his mission profile.

Good airplanes which are priced right are selling fast in today’s market, so don’t be surprised if you miss out on a few. I’ve been watching for-sale postings closely over the past few months and have seen several pristine high-performance Piper singles go under contract within hours; sometimes even minutes. Still, by knowing exactly what you want and how much it should cost (and having your financial house in order), you can be that buyer who jumps on a good deal when it comes up.

“All used airplanes have fleas”

Remember, used airplanes have been in service for some years and hours and not everything will be as factory-new. To quote my mechanic, “All used airplanes have fleas—you just want to find one where the fleas won’t eat you, too.”

Your next step is to figure out if your chosen candidate has the kind of parasites that will feed heavily on your pocketbook. This is another spot where you’ll want to enlist expert help.

Piper Flyer has published several articles in the recent past about conducting effective pre-buys. (See Resources for a list of titles and where to find them. —Ed.) I’ll say this: read up on pre-buys and be sure to have a thorough one done. It’s money well spent.

On my last purchase, I walked away from a couple of airplanes after conducting (rather expensive) pre-buys. One of these airplanes experienced a left main landing gear failure about four months after the pre-buy. The accident resulted in significant injuries to a passenger and a total loss of the airframe.

My mechanic had advised me not to buy the airplane because of a problem he observed at the left main gear attach point. The seller (and seller’s mechanic) didn’t think it was an airworthiness issue. He said he’d just sell it to the next buyer in line (which he did). Sure enough, that attach point is where the failure occurred.

A pre-buy inspection from a trusted A&P with experience with the make and model is essential. Don’t hesitate to walk away if you find that the fleas keep multiplying as you dig deeper into the aircraft records or mechanicals. Paperwork issues (missing logs, 337s or STCs) may not cause safety problems, but they can be a huge headache when it comes time for resale.

The receipt of a satisfactory pre-buy inspection from your expert of choice should be exciting and confidence-inspiring. You’ve done your research. You’ve identified the right make and model. You’ve found an airplane that fits your budget and your purchase goals. After a good pre-buy, you’ve got the option to purchase a beautiful, thoroughly-inspected example of The Right Airplane For You.

Now, all you have to do is write the check and fly it home. Enjoy!

Scott Kinney is a self-described aviation geek (#avgeek), private pilot and instructor (CFI-Sport, AGI). He is associate editor for Piper Flyer. Scott and his partner Julia are based in Eugene, Oregon. They are often found buzzing around the West in vintage airplanes. Send questions or comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

ADDITIONAL PRE-BUY ARTICLES PUBLISHED BY PIPER FLYER

“Start with the Right Airplane” by Dennis Wolter, August 2018

“Deciphering Logbooks: Pre-Purchase Maintenance Record Review” by Kristin Winter, December 2017

“Hazardous Attitudes in Aircraft Purchasing” by Kristin Winter, November 2017

“Buying Power: Take Control of Your Next Plane Purchase” by Steve Ells, August 2017

“Pre-Purchase Particulars: What You Should Know” by Kristin Winter, December 2016

“The Do’s and Don’ts of Buying and Selling a Plane” by Michael Leighton, April 2015

“Pre-Buy Prop Inspection” by Tim Kern, August 2012

These articles and many others can be found on PiperFlyer.org under the Magazine tab. Select the issue you’re seeking under “Online Magazines,” click on the cover image and open or save the PDF file to your device. Note: you must be logged in to view online magazines.

PFA MEMBERS-ONLY AIRCRAFT (AND PARTS) BUYING AND SELLING

“For Sale/Wanted” section of Piper Flyer forum
ADDITIONAL AVIATION BUYING AND SELLING WEBSITES
Barnstormers
Controller
Craigslist
Facebook
Trade-A-Plane

FURTHER READING

“The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz.
Harper Perennial, 2004.

 

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Rules For Owner-Performed Maintenance

Rules For Owner-Performed Maintenance

As an aircraft owner and pilot, you can legally perform some maintenance tasks, but you must adhere to strict guidelines when doing so. STEVE ELLS walks us through packing wheel bearings, while highlighting what’s important to stay legal.

As most readers of Piper Flyer know by now, all aircraft maintenance tasks must be overseen or performed by an appropriately-rated person. For maintenance tasks, this means an A&P mechanic—or a technician, as some like to be called these days—is frequently both performing and signing off on the work. This mechanic must (by regulation) have up-to-date versions of the appropriate manuals, bulletins, tools and equipment necessary to complete the tasks. 

However, there are also a number of maintenance tasks that owners may legally perform. These are termed preventive maintenance (PM) tasks. There’s a long list of them in Appendix A of FAR 43. 

What is considered preventive maintenance?

Appendix A is titled, “Major Alterations, Major Repairs and Preventive Maintenance.” Paragraph (c) lists preventive maintenance tasks. Type “Appendix A of Part 43” into your favorite search engine (or find the link in Resources on Page 33. —Ed.).

There is a surprisingly long list of tasks allowed. For instance, owners are permitted to remove and replace batteries, replace bulbs, reflectors and lenses of position and landing lights, and replace prefabricated fuel lines. 

They can also remove and replace panel-mounted communications and navigations receivers and update databases in panel-mounted avionics such as GPS navigators. 

Great news, right? It is, especially if a pilot has the time and a place to do these tasks. The potential for saving money exists, but much more important is the satisfaction to be gleaned from learning how to take care of your own airplane. (For further reading, see the sidebar on Page 32. —Ed.)

Are you permitted to perform preventive maintenance tasks?

FAR 43.3 paragraph (g) says that “…the holder of a pilot certificate issued under Part 61 may perform PM on any aircraft owned and operated by that pilot which is not used under Part 121, 129 or 135 of this chapter.” 

So, according to this section, if the owner and pilot is not using his airplane for hire, whether on a scheduled service, an on-demand service or as a foreign carrier operating for hire in the U.S., he/she can perform PM. 

But there’s a catch. It’s in 43.13. It’s titled “Performance Rules (General).”
43.13 Performance Rules (General)

The following three points—from paragraphs (a) and (b) of the performance rules—have been abbreviated to simplify the important points the maintenance performance rules for owners. 

1. Each person performing maintenance, alteration, or preventive maintenance on an aircraft, engine, propeller, or appliance shall use the methods, techniques, and practices prescribed in the current manufacturer’s maintenance manual or Instructions for Continued Airworthiness prepared by its manufacturer, or other methods, techniques and practices acceptable to the Administrator.

2. He [or she] shall use the tools, equipment, and test apparatus necessary to assure completion of the work in accordance with accepted industry practices. 

3. Each person maintaining or altering, or performing preventive maintenance, shall do that work in such a manner and use materials of such a quality, that the condition of the aircraft, airframe, engine, propeller, or appliance worked on will be at least equal to its original or properly altered condition (with regard to aerodynamic function, structural strength, resistance to vibration and deterioration, and other qualities affecting airworthiness).

In other words, if you’re going to do PM, you must follow the procedures in the manuals. It’s as simple as that. 

It’s important at the outset to understand that airplane maintenance, while seeming to be like automobile or other gas engine maintenance in that it must be done right, is different in a very important way. In airplane maintenance, there is a published protocol for every operation, even the tightening of a nut or bolt. 

Another peculiar-to-aircraft trait is this: the strength versus weight equation must always be kept at the forefront of every operation and decision. In other words, if you believe that more is better, whether it be the size of a bolt or the amount of torque, you’re going to do more harm than good. 

Gathering the manuals and bulletins to meet the requirements of the FARs is much easier and less expensive than it used to be. The secret is the internet. Manufacturers have come to realize that making their manuals and bulletins available at no cost or consolidating a double-shelf full of manuals onto a CD is a sound idea, simply because access to manuals makes it much easier for maintenance shops (especially smaller shops) to access the precise methods and techniques the manufacturer has developed for maintaining its product. 

So, step one for owners that want to start working on their airplanes is to have or have access to manuals, and either have the tools or be able to manufacture the tools required to properly perform each maintenance task. 

Let’s look at an example of why manuals are important.

Greasing wheel bearings: a “simple” preventive maintenance task

Greasing the wheel bearings on an airplane may seem simple. At its most basic, it can be described in the following steps: First, jack up the airplane or axle enough to get the tire off the ground, then remove the axle nut and pull the wheel/tire assembly off the axle. Next, remove each bearing, clean it and the bearing race, inspect for damage or corrosion, replace if necessary, pack with grease and reinstall. Finally, reinstall the tire/wheel assembly, tighten the axle nut and lower the tire to the ground. 

Not so fast. There’s more to it. In fact, there’s quite a bit more.

To remove the tire/wheel assembly (TWA), the brake assembly must be partially disassembled. This disassembly requires the removal of two or four bolts to release what’s called the brake back plate(s). The TWA can be removed only after the back plate(s) have been removed.

Assuming the airplane has been jacked up far enough to lift the TWA, a large cotter pin must be removed prior to removing the axle nut. Then, the TWA can be pulled from the axle.

There is an inner and an outer bearing. Does a Piper parts book refer to these bearings? No. Piper parts books don’t show an exploded view of the wheels. Piper parts manuals only provide the Cleveland part number for the wheels on its single-engine airplanes.

That means you also need a Cleveland manual for dimensions, wear limits and bolt torque specs when greasing the wheel bearings on your Piper single. 

Here’s another thing to know that is hard to find in any manual: Bearings and races are matched pairs. Don’t take the bearing assembly you removed from the race on the valve stem side of the TWA and install it in the race in the non-valve stem side of the TWA.

What grease to use?

The 2009 Piper Lance service manual suggests the use of Aeroshell 22 grease and Mobil EP 2 grease (also marketed at Mobilux™ EP 2), which is a lithium-based grease. 

Cleveland, the manufacturer of brakes and wheels used on Piper singles, suggests the use of Mobil SHC™ 100 grease. 

Bearing removal, cleaning and greasing

After the TWA has been removed, the bearings are removed. This usually requires the removal of a snap ring, a washer, a felt grease seal and another washer. 

Bearings are then cleaned with Stoddard solvent, applied by either an air-powered solvent sprayer or a brush. Air can be used to blow the grease out, but never spin a bearing by directing compressed air perpendicular to the rollers. 

Directing a stream of air across—not between—the rollers in roller bearings is dangerous because the bearing cage is designed only to maintain the spacing between the rollers. It’s not strong enough to contain the rollers when they rotate at a high rate of speed; in other words, directing air across when bearings can result in fast-moving projectiles.

After the bearing is clean and dry, look for corrosion and/or pitting. If found, replace the bearing and matching race.

Bearings are repacked by putting a gob of clean grease in the palm of either hand and forcing the grease up into the bearing. Press the bearing down into the grease until the bearing comes into contact with your palm. Repeat this procedure until grease appears at the top of the bearing cage.

You can also buy a bearing packer and use it to pack the bearing. Look up “wheel bearing packing tool” on your favorite search engine. YouTube also has wheel bearing packing videos. (See Resources for an additional article that discusses wheel bearing service. —Ed.)

The last step is to look at the grease seals. For decades, Cleveland, the manufacturer of most GA wheels and brakes, has used felt pads to seal against sand and fine dirt. These seals are inexpensive and work well. 

Recently, Cleveland has replaced the felt pads with molded rubber grease seals. These may be used in place of the felt seals.

Putting it all back together

The newly-greased bearings are reinstalled in the side of the wheel which they came from. Slide the TWA onto the axle. If it doesn’t slide all the way on, you’ve got the large steel washers on each side of the felt seal in wrong. Swap the washers around until the TWA slides all the way onto the axle.

Thread the axle nut onto the axle. 

How tight should it be? I couldn’t find definitive information on how tight the axle nut should be. Field experience suggests to tighten the nut up well to seat the bearings, then loosen it until you can feel a slight movement of the wheel in and out on the axle, then snug it back down until the TWA spins without resistance and no in-out movement is felt.

Now, to reassemble the brake. Two or four bolts were removed so the back plate could be removed to free the brake disc from the inner and outer brake pads. 

Whenever I have a TWA off the axle, I clean up the brake guide pins with a Scotch-Brite pad. I also clean the guide pin holes in the torque plate. These guide pins must slide in and out to allow the brake to self-adjust as the brake pads wear. 

The devil is in the details

The last step is often missed as it’s not in the Piper manual. It’s found in the Cleveland Wheels and Brakes Component Maintenance Manual, Appendix A titled, “Wear Limits and Torque Values.” This manual, and all of the Cleveland wheel and brake manuals, are available for free on the Cleveland website. Start by downloading the Technician’s Service Guide. (See link in Resources. —Ed.)

Piper parts books don’t have all of the information needed to service a tire and wheel assembly. The Technician’s Service Guide from Cleveland Wheels & Brakes can be an essential companion for owner-performed maintenance.
Oftentimes, similar-looking parts call for different torque values. It is crucial to use the correct value for your part. 

This critical step in reassembly is applying the proper torque to the two or four back plate tie bolts. Overtorqueing the bolts can deform the brake housing. 

The proper torque on almost every Piper single engine brake is 75 to 90 inch-pounds (6.25 to 8.5 foot-pounds). That ain’t much. It doesn’t need to be much since these bolts aren’t in a compression application. They are loaded in shear, and as long as these bolts are snugged down to the proper torque, that’s sufficient. 

Sign off your work

The good news is that owners can legally do a lot of work on their airplanes. However, as mentioned, there are catches. Catch No. 1 is that you must own or have access to the manuals. Catch No. 2 is that you must enter the work you performed in the aircraft records in a manner that’s acceptable to the Administrator. That’s FAA talk for the head of the agency. 

The requirements for these entries are listed in FAR 43.9. It says if you perform PM, you shall make an entry in the maintenance records containing the following information:

1. A description of the work performed.

2. The date the work was completed.

3. The name of the person performing the work.

4. If the work was performed satisfactorily, the name, certificate number and signature of the person performing the work. The signature constitutes an approval for return to service only for the work performed. 

(This is a summary of FAR 43.9. Please refer to Resources for a link to the complete text. —Ed.)

Notice that the regulations do not require the entry to include the aircraft total time or tach time, but it’s extremely helpful to include that information. 

An example1 of an entry for the work described above would read:

Month/day/year. “Greased left and right main landing gear wheels in accordance with information in the Piper (model number) service manual and the Cleveland Wheel and Brake Component Maintenance Manual, Appendix A, paragraph A3.”

Signed: Joe Pilot Cert # 1245654

The point of this article is to make sure owners understand the freedom and the limitations that are part of owner-performed PM. Go ahead and do it, but make sure you do it right; by the book. 

1For more about complete and detailed logbook entries, see “Deciphering Logbooks: Pre-purchase Maintenance Record Review” by Kristin Winter in the December 2017 issue. 

Know your FAR/AIM and check with your mechanic before starting any work.

Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 44 years and is a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as associate editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation (EllsAviation.com) and the proud owner of a 1960 Piper Comanche. He lives in Templeton, California, with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to .

RESOURCES >>>>>

FURTHER READING

Part 43.3, Part 43.9, Part 43.13, Appendix A to Part 43

Electronic Code of Federal Regulations

Technician’s Service Guide AWBTSG0001-1

Cleveland Wheels & Brakes– PFA supporter

Component Maintenance Manual AWBCMM0001-12

Cleveland Wheels & Brakes– PFA supporter
“Wheel Bearing Service: Why and How” by Jacqueline Shipe 
Piper Flyer, July 2016 

 

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Engine Overhaul Fundamentals, Part One: Understanding the Process

Once you’ve made the big decision to overhaul your engine, you’ll still need to figure out where and how the overhaul will happen. In order to make the best choices for your engine and budget, you’ll need to understand the overhaul process. 
In the first of a four-part series, Dennis Wolter walks you through the basics of what happens in a typical overhaul.

My mentor flew Martin B-26 Marauders in World War II. He told me a story back in 1960 when I was just beginning to learn to fly that really resonated with me. When his bomber group first arrived in England, the base commander addressed the new flight crews at their first pre-mission briefing. 

The commander began that briefing with a very good piece of advice, stating, “Remember the seven Ps: proper prior planning prevents p--- poor performance.”

The key word in that statement is definitely planning! Planning starts with accessing information and choosing the best option. By now, most all of you folks can see that proper research and planning is a central theme of my articles.

Of the many stages involved in renovating an airplane, good research and planning is most important when you’re deciding how and where to have your engine overhauled.

Due to the complexity of engine overhauls, I will cover the total scope of the topic in four articles. In this first article, I will review the step-by-step procedure of overhauling an engine. 

An aircraft engine is complex; so is an engine overhaul. 

The second article will discuss overhaul options, including a local individual A&P overhaul; having a facility specializing in major field overhauls do the job; and having an overhaul or rebuild performed at the factory. 

The third article will cover support and installation details that need to be considered to ensure that your fresh engine has a good home. 

The fourth and final article will address upgrade options, such as converting to higher horsepower, turbocharging, propeller upgrades, etc.

Overhaul process: first steps 

In order to help break down all this information, let’s take a tour through a major overhaul facility. 

The first step of teardown and cleaning begins with an organized disassembly and layout of the components by type. The parts are then chemically degreased and cleaned in a hot solution of solvent. With the gross amount of oil, dirt and carbon removed, some of the parts are also detail cleaned with media blasting to get them thoroughly cleaned.

After disassembly, parts are thoroughly cleaned.

The technicians then put every component through an alignment and a precision dimensional check to ensure that no parts are bent, worn or damaged to a degree that they cannot be reconditioned and placed back in service. 

Reusable components are then either turned over to highly-skilled in-house technicians or shipped to an off-site facility where each piece is reconditioned to meet minimum service limits or new limits depending on the quality standards the customer has chosen.

Inspecting the components

Crankshaft, connecting rods, bearings 

The heart of a piston engine is the crankshaft, so let’s start there. The technician begins by placing the crankshaft in a fixture that supports the shaft at both ends. The probe of a precision dial indicator is positioned to press against various positions on the crankshaft. 

Precision measurement of the crankshaft.

As the crank is rotated in this fixture, the dial indicator will show little to no movement if the crankshaft is straight. If too much movement is seen on the dial indicator, the crankshaft must be replaced. 

If the crankshaft is not bent, it is put through a crack-finding process known as magnafluxing. It is mounted in a machine that runs a strong electric current through the full length of the steel crankshaft, causing the crank to become magnetized. A solution of solvent and iron filings is poured over the crankshaft.

The business end of a magnaflux machine that magnetizes steel parts. 

If there is a crack in the metal, the disturbed magnetism at the point of the crack will cause the magnetically-sensitive iron filings to align themselves along the crack and clearly show a visible irregularity. 

This magnaflux inspection process will be performed on all steel parts. A cracked component must not be put back in service. 

If the crank passes these inspections, it is potentially eligible to be reconditioned and reused.

Next, the technician will inspect the round surfaces that support the crank and the four or six connecting rods and bearings that are attached to the crankshaft. These journals, as they are called, must be perfectly round, smooth and machined to a very precise dimension. If any scoring or excessive wear is identified, these conditions must be corrected by re-machining and polishing. 

The connecting rods that attach the piston to the crankshaft are precisely measured for length and straightness. After passing that test, they are magnaflux tested for cracks. 

Finally, the bushing that serves as the bearing where the piston is attached to the connecting rod is inspected for condition and wear. If the bushing is out of tolerance, a new one will be required.

Camshaft, valve lifters, cam lobes, gears and bearings

Another high-wear area in the valve drive mechanism is where the camshaft and lifters open and close the valves. The camshaft and valve lifters are inspected using the same magnafluxing methods as used on the crankshaft. 

A magnetized camshaft being doused with iron particles to identify a crack. 

Both the cam lobes and lifter faces where the cam rubs the lifter are heat-treated and polished to a very smooth and hard finish when manufactured. These hard surfaces are very thin. 

Camshafts can be reconditioned. However, if a significant amount of this thin surface material is removed during the re-grinding process, the life expectancy of the reconditioned part is limited. 

I believe that re-grinding a camshaft lobe or mating surfaces of the valve lifters may not always be the best choice. Think seriously about installing new cams and lifters. 

In the back of the engine are several steel gears and bronze bearings that need to be magnafluxed and inspected for cracks, condition and wear.

Oil pump

Certainly, let’s not forget the oil pump. All three basic parts of this important component must be assessed. Personally, I would not reinstall used oil pump gears in an engine that’s being overhauled. New gears come with new bushings, so the only “old” part remaining would be the oil pump housing. The oil pump housing can be measured to confirm that it is within limits and if it is, the pump is good to go until the next overhaul.

Crankcase

The next big component to be inspected (and possibly repaired) is the crankcase. This is the big aluminum casting that holds together the lower end rotating crankshaft timing gears, camshaft, magnetos and cylinders. 

This complex and massive aluminum casting must first be checked for cracks by using a non-destructive fluorescent dye penetrant process, often known as Zyglo testing. 

With the case thoroughly cleaned and dry, the dye (a penetrating fluorescent oil solution) is applied to all the surfaces of the case and allowed to soak into any potential cracks. The surfaces of the case are then thoroughly cleaned. Existing cracks will retain some of the fluorescent material. 

When the case is inspected with a black light, the fluorescent material remaining in a crack will glow in a yellow-green color revealing cracks or porosity in the metal. If problems are found, the case can be sent to a company that specializes in welding and machining engine cases to new limits.

Using a black light to check for cracks in the crankcase.

If there is no evidence of cracks, the case is checked to ensure that all mating surfaces and areas that support rotating parts, such as crankshafts, camshafts, etc., are straight and not distorted.

Cylinders, valves, valve guides and other mechanisms

Next, it’s on to the cylinders, the most heat-stressed components in an internal combustion engine. Once thoroughly cleaned, all areas of the aluminum cylinder heads are checked with the Zyglo test I mentioned earlier. 

If no cracks are detected, the valves and valve guides are inspected and machined. Excessive wear in valves or valve guides will require replacement. The steel valve seats must meet minimum dimensional standards. If not too worn, valve seats and valves can be precisely re-ground to recreate factory specifications. 

Next, the valve drive mechanisms and their supporting components, rocker arms, bushings and supporting bosses are inspected using the previous techniques.

Within limits, steel cylinder barrels can be re-machined back to serviceable or new limits. The area where the aluminum head and the steel cylinder barrel are connected is closely checked for leakage. A leak at this juncture means the cylinder is not repairable. 

The next step is to measure the bore of the cylinder for wear and condition and, for some cylinders, choke. Choke is a difference in diameter between the hot top end of the cylinder barrel and the cooler lower base of the cylinder. Cylinders can be re-bored to a permissible oversize limit or chrome plated back to new limits by a company that specializes in cylinder work.

Reconditioned cylinders, with new pistons and piston rings, ready for installation. 
Assembling the engine

After days and days of preparing all the engine components for reinstallation, it’s finally time for the fun part of assembling the engine. 

All the new and reconditioned parts ready for assembly.

The process begins with mounting the crankshaft to an engine stand vertically by securing the propeller flange to a mating surface located at the top of the engine stand. Then, an assembly lubricant is applied to the rod bearings. The connecting rods are bolted to their crank journals with new high-tech rod bolts and nuts. 

Crankshaft and connecting rods mounted on an engine stand.

The bolts are carefully tightened to a specific tightness torque with a special calibrated torque wrench and double-checked by a second technician. This two-step verification system will be used throughout the entire buildup process for any critical mounting hardware—smart! 

Next, the engine case, with the pre-lubed camshaft, camshaft bearings, valve lifters and main bearings, is mated to the crankshaft and secured by properly-torqued case bolts. 

It’s time to install and properly index the magneto, cam timing gears and oil pump, and mount the accessory case cover at the back of the engine. The oil pickup is installed and the oil sump case is bolted on.

Next, the cylinder and pistons are installed, and all cylinder base bolts are torqued to the correct values. The pushrod tubes, pushrods and rocker arms that actuate the valves are installed. Then, it’s on to installing the intake manifolds, magnetos and fuel system, including the engine-driven fuel pump (if required). 

Cylinders, pistons and valve-actuating rocker arms.

As these components are installed, the technician is constantly rotating the engine on the stand, checking for any excessive resistance, proper running clearances and timing of critical components such as valves and magnetos. Lots of stuff, huh? 

With all this completed and double-checked, the engine is painted. Now the engine is ready to run, either in a test cell or installed in the aircraft.

Overhauled engine ready for test run before shipping to customer. 
The paperwork

A reputable overhauler will supply their customer with the following documents and services with the newly-overhauled engine:

1. A teardown report stating the condition of all components when the engine was disassembled.

2. A thorough logbook entry specifying the limits to which the engine was overhauled (such as service limits, new limits, etc.), including a description of all work performed, a complete list of all new parts installed, and supporting certification paperwork for each new part.

3. Yellow tags verifying the identity and airworthiness of all reconditioned components installed in the engine.

4. Statements related to test flight or test run.

5. Any supporting warranties for components not repaired or rebuilt by the overhauler, such as starters, alternators or fuel system components.

6. A clear warranty policy stating what is covered, when the warranty begins and expires, and a payment policy should the warranty need to be enforced.

ADs and Service Bulletins

If defects are discovered over the years a particular model of engine is in service, ADs and Service Bulletins are issued. Some require immediate attention and others must be completed at overhaul. It is important to ensure that all ADs and Service Bulletins are complied with during the overhaul process. 

I think we’ve gone over enough for now. With general overhaul procedures covered, next time I’ll explain the three choices for where this work can be done: a local A&P, an overhaul specialist and the engine manufacturer’s factory. Until then, fly safe!

Industrial designer and aviation enthusiast Dennis Wolter is well-known for giving countless seminars and contributing his expertise about all phases of aircraft renovation in various publications. Wolter founded Air Mod in 1973 in order to offer private aircraft owners the same professional, high-quality work then only offered to corporate jet operators. Send questions or comments to .

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The High and the Writey: With a Lot of Help from My Friends

The High and the Writey: With a Lot of Help from My Friends

A sincere reflection about a lifetime’s worth of aviation friends and mentors.

January is the time of year is when we all look forward, not back, but I hope you’ll indulge me for few moments here as I turn my gaze around 180 degrees and check out my “six.” Piper Flyer is heading into its 15th year, and like all anniversaries, it makes me think of the past a little more than usual.

I think I have been writing for this magazine, off and on, almost as long as it has been in existence. My time here has been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of any writing gig I have ever had. You just won’t find a nicer group of people than Jennifer, Kent, Heather and the others that make all of this possible. You have read my stuff and know that it takes a special group of people to put up with me and my kind of writing.

These people are friends.

As I continue to gaze backward into the depths of my aviation and writing career, it occurs to me that my upbringing in both businesses has been literally stuffed with friends, mentors, helpers and generally nice people. 

You won’t find many pilots these days who are as self-made as me. I used to pride myself on the fact that nobody paid a cent to help me with my flight training, college or my developing writing career.

For example, the first formal ground school I ever attended was at my airline after they hired me to be a pilot. I had taught ground schools, but had never taken one. Books were cheap when I was a kid wanting to fly. I read them, studied them, and then took FAA written exams.

I paid for my flight lessons by working at various jobs, starting when I was 14. By 16, I was working at the airport as a lineboy and with the employee discount, I could buy a half-hour of dual every couple of weeks. 

I could go on with this schmaltzy, Horatio Alger-like story of a “boy who worked hard and made it on his own,” but that, for me, simply wasn’t true. I did not, ever, do it on my own. I had friends who helped me, pushed me and loved me into the career of my dreams. There is none of my do-it-myself myth that I could have done without enormous amounts of help from others.

The reason I did not need to go to formal ground school was because of the thousands of hours I sat around the airport when I was a kid, talking flying with the patient people and friends who would put up with all my questions and incessant chatter about airplanes. I learned more from an hour with a local Twin Beech cargo pilot or a tired but patient A&P than I could have learned in a dozen hours of classroom time.

Talk about friends—I sometimes wish I could go back and spend a few hundred more hours with the guys I hung out with at the airport when I was a kid. We spent our young lives talking airplanes, cleaning airplanes, towing airplanes, fueling, re-oiling, pushing, vacuuming out, windshield-cleaning and bathroom-dumping various airplanes. I can say with pride that there is not a single disgusting job having to do with airplanes that I have not done.

You can’t appreciate flying captain on a Boeing 767 until you have cleaned out the bathroom of a Cessna 411 with its trash-bag-based lavatory system. Sitting in the cockpit of a 727 at O’Hare in winter waiting to push-back was much more luxurious to me because I had spent years with my friends outside on ramps, hot and cold, doing the scut work that makes aviation possible.

I can’t speak for my old ramp friends, but I absolutely loved it. All of it. I enjoyed complaining about being cold, or wet, or tired. A bad day on the ramp was better than any good day in any other non-aviation job I could think of. It was all great because I was surrounded by friends of mine that were almost as into aviation as I was.

My “up by my own bootstraps” story is full of examples of people helping me when they had no real reason to do so. I am thinking now of Harry Marpole, an instructor working at Lakeland Flying Service, who spent two of his days off teaching me my commercial maneuvers, all at no charge. I remember Shawnee Lander, a hippy-dippy kind of guy who saw enough in me to sign me off for my CFI when I was a sweaty 19-year-old know-it-all lineboy with no future and no money.

You want to talk friends? How about George Warren? George was a Vietnam helicopter combat vet who had no logical reason to hire me for his one-airplane flying school when I was a not-so-experienced CFI trying to get though my college education at Florida State University. George worked with me to get my instrument rating, again at no charge, just because he was a good guy and saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. 

It turned out that you needed an instrument rating to be an airline pilot. George should have been an airline pilot instead of me, but getting hired by an airline was (and still is) all about timing and luck. His help pushed me along to a career that he deserved, but I got.

Another generous soul, Warren White, deserves a lot of thanks for his friendship. Warren owned and operated Trans Air in Tallahassee and gave me my first flying job that included operating airplanes bigger than a Cessna 150. It was at Trans Air that I got to fly twins, charters, banners, turtle surveys, forestry and other General Aviation missions to build my time up to an airline-worthy level.

Warren helped train me and make me a good pilot by giving me access to all kinds of professional flying. Then, when I became a good pilot, the airline hired me, and I scooted away in a flash. By the time Delta took me on, Warren White had sanded and polished off some of the weather cowardice and low standards which I had been guilty of as I grew up. 

I was in my early twenties when I joined the airline, but I was an old man in terms of aviation experience and wisdom thanks to the opportunities Warren and George gave me.

I never would have gotten through my first few months as an airline pilot if it hadn’t been for various roommates and friends at Delta who helped me along. It still boggles my mind to think back on the patience they showed me as I foundered though my 727 flight engineer training and initial experience. Talk about friends—I flew with hundreds of my best friends at Delta.

When I retired and moved over to being a mostly General Aviation pilot and writer once again, my friends in that area welcomed me back and reminded me of why I loved flying—any kind of flying—so much. 

It turns out I had not changed much from that sweaty but sincere lineboy. Sitting around hangars and flight school pilot lounges is my comfort zone. My best friends are still those out at the airport, in the sky and reading this magazine column right now.

We are not friends in the sense that you call me every week to see how I am, and I doubt that you got a holiday card from me or a note on your birthday. We are friends because I am willing to bet that if we meet on an airport ramp somewhere, or at next year’s Gathering at Waupaca, we will have lots of things to talk about and we will enjoy each other’s company.

I will steal a line from Bogart here and say that the 15 years of writing about flying with my friends here at Piper Flyer has been the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Florida. He came up through General Aviation, retired as a 767 captain in 2006 and retired from instructing airline pilots in 2017. Garrison’s professional writing career has spanned three decades. Send questions or comments to .

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