How To ... Not Sell an Airplane
When warning bells ring
John P. Moyle, EAA 4260
“Eugene” in the cockpit with author John Moyle, removing the tie-down chains.
“Eugene”, filled with the wonderment of his new purchase and good news from home, elected to taxi the little plane for a few moments.
Much to the dismay of Pat and John, “Eugene” decided to taxi on to the wrong runway and make a downwind departure and illegal right-hand pattern for Runway 14.
Some time back I had a nice little aircraft to sell, a RANS S-4 Coyote. This nifty single-seat ultralight-type experimental looks vaguely similar to a compact version of the famed Piper Cub. Powered by the air-cooled twin-cylinder two-stroke Rotax 447 and featuring a pull start (like your lawn mower), the S-4 is the simplest of flying machines. I advertised this low-cost jewel on an Internet service and had many interested parties contact me. Eventually one earnest young fellow (who we will call Eugene) agreed to purchase my aircraft once he had completed a satisfactory inspection.
He inquired about flying it home, but I persuaded him that the 800 mile cross-country might be a little extreme considering this is a 60 mph aircraft that typically burns 4 gallons per hour, with only a 5-gallon fuel capacity. Never mind that the route home would require crossing a mountain range and many miles of inhospitable, dense forest or that the plane does not have an N number.
I should have had the alarm flags flying at this point, but I had only fielded one semi-absurd question, which I allowed to pass. He then decided that he would procure a trailer to haul it home and borrow his father-in-law’s pickup truck for this mission. Days later Eugene phoned from a freeway location 90 minutes from our airport to announce he’d had a spot of trouble with his equipment but would be along soon. I invited him to meet my hangar-mate Pat and me at my favorite restaurant for dinner since we would be losing sunlight by the time he arrived.
The story of misadventure he provided over dinner that evening was so humorous that I somehow failed to grasp the seriousness of the problem until the next day. Here’s the tale we were told as we dined:
Having lined up a truck for the trip, Eugene bought a boat trailer that he had been eyeing. Apparently, his intention was to modify the trailer at our airport as needed once he had a closer look at the airplane. Before he could depart his home he needed to change the ball on his hitch to a larger size. During the replacement procedure he was interrupted and failed to properly tighten the nut on the ball - 700 miles later, after crossing the mountains and much of the vast length of Interstate 5 in California, Eugene glanced in his mirror to discover something was missing - the trailer!
Pulling over Eugene found the naked hitch bar, sans connector ball, chains, or trailer. He advanced to the next available turnaround and headed back, finding his trailer sitting miraculously parked on the shoulder, unharmed. The ball was still clamped securely within the trailer’s latch, the lower threads badly ground down from high-speed contact with the road surface. Once the inadequately secured nut had vibrated loose and fallen off, it was just a matter of time until a bump in the road caused the ball to hop off the draw bar.
When asked if the safety chains failed too, Eugene responded that he hadn’t used them since “the trailer was empty, so I didn’t need them.” Glad that no one was harmed, and that the equipment was undamaged, I was content to laugh off my new friend’s minor misfortune and again did not realize the problem that was forming before me, even after he told us that to continue the trip without a nut for the ball, the safety chains were used to “tie” the assembly from disconnecting again.
After a great meal and a good night’s rest we met at my airport to check out the Coyote. I was taken aback when I saw Eugene’s trailer; it was an ancient-looking thing with huge truck wheels, designed to haul a river drift boat. The chassis was heavy duty, to say the least, and made from large curved tubular steel sections. During an early phone conversation Eugene had told me about buying the trailer, so I was happy that my advice about not flying had been taken, but I failed to get specific information about his boat trailer, presuming that it would be a common trailer with removable components that usually support hulls. I could not imagine how this beast could be made to carry the fuselage and wings of the Coyote, but I let these thoughts pass while I gave our young friend the guided tour of my aircraft.
During the course of our early phone conversations, Eugene told me that he was a private pilot with no tailwheel endorsement, training, or experience. He felt that since the plane is an “ultralight,” he should be able to train himself. I objected to his line of thinking and advised him to get proper experience with an instructor. He promised to do so. After a thorough look at my plane he wanted (naturally) to fire it up, so we walked it over to the fuel island for fresh gasoline since I had drained the old gas off after the last time it was run. We pumped only 2 gallons of 100LL since I had only 5 ounces of the appropriate two-stroke oil on hand. Plenty for a run-up and some gentle taxi testing - it was also, at that time, reiterated that the plane was not to be flown.
About this time Pat showed up, and the two of them spent a little time finishing up their conversation from the night before on the non-intuitive nature of tailwheel aircraft and the differences from tricycle gear ground handling. Pat was doing his best to reinforce the necessity of proper training.
During the fueling exercise a brief rainstorm blew into the area, and while waiting for the wetness to cease Eugene stepped inside the fixed base operator (FBO) to call his wife. He received excellent news regarding his employment situation and returned to the plane in an obviously jubilant state. He handed me the full purchase price of the Coyote, climbed aboard the craft, and strapped in. A tug on the recoil starter brought the engine to life, and after a bit of warm-up, Eugene idled away from the fueling area. I was only moderately concerned when he failed to execute the proper turn to taxi to the other end of the airport, where the run-up area is. Instead, to my horror and disbelief, he rolled straight across the taxiway onto the active runway.
The change in weather brought about a reversal in the well-noted wind direction, so the ensuing unauthorized takeoff was made downwind and against traffic flow! Yes, he drove it right out onto the runway, mid-field, and pushed the throttle against the forward limit. I stood there astonished, clutching his wad of cash in my hand, suddenly realizing that he had “closed the deal” in his mind and no longer required my approval of his actions.
The takeoff was hard for us to watch as we knew it would not end well, and each second of his uncontrolled roll drove that thought home. But after nearly striking each wingtip on the ground in succession, Eugene was flying safely away from the ground.
We helplessly observed as he made an illegal right-hand circuit of the field, and as we feared, he attempted to make a landing with a gusty quartering tail wind. Pat ran over to a departing aircraft and warned the pilot that an ultralight without a radio was making a right-hand circuit and would be landing downwind on Runway 14.
The downwind landing attempt resulted in barely avoided disaster, saved only by a last minute go-around following the horrible sight of him (again) nearly putting each wingtip into the runway surface before realizing he was in trouble. I could only hold my breath while he flew the pattern a second time and lined up for another try - with the same result. On the third circuit he finally noticed that other aircraft where holding at the opposite end of the runway and that the windsock had shifted. On his final attempt, this time landing into the wind at last, Eugene stuck it on, but drifted off the runway into the infield grass and ground-looped harmlessly to a stop.
Pat was so shaken by observing the multiple near-death attempts that he had to excuse himself. I met the shaken pilot with my pickup truck, and he climbed onto my tailgate with the Coyote’s tail wheel in his grip. We slowly motored back to the hangar area, he with his thoughts and I with mine. Once the aircraft was secured I sternly looked him straight in the eye and handed his money back to him.
He seemed rather stunned when I told him he wouldn’t be taking this plane home with him, though maybe he was relieved; it was hard to tell for sure. I know that he really wasn’t ready, and we only nearly avoided a disaster.
In retrospect, I feel completely responsible. When originally speaking to this young man I failed to get enough information about his previous flight experience. Had I known that he was a new private pilot with less than 50 hours logged, I’d have discouraged him from this purchase. The RANS S-4 Coyote is one of the tamest mounts available, but given his limited flight time and total lack of taildragger training, I should have steered him away - but his eagerness and charming demeanor got the best of me. When I heard the tale of the trailer coming disconnected on the freeway I should not have been laughing; I should have been concerned. When he showed up with the weird trailer, I should have realized he had little grasp of the task at hand, and I should have been alert to the fact that he was ill-prepared to say the least. When Eugene came out of the FBO with the wonderful news related by his wife, I should have taken stock of his obvious “pumped up” emotional state, but I failed there as well.
Admittedly, we never planned or even discussed a test flight. No form of a preflight inspection had ever been conducted on this plane since it was reassembled after I purchased it and trucked it home. A post-flight inspection revealed that we never got to the point of adding safety wire to anything, including the prop bolts - of which two had backed out more than an inch during Eugene’s flight. I only agreed to allow some taxi time once I had his money in my hands (lest he damage my plane) - but all the signs were there had I been conscious of them.
He was an inexperienced young fellow, far from home, somewhat out of his element, and on the verge of making a life-altering purchase. He already showed some lack of understanding on several points and later was seriously jazzed about his personal situation. Looking back at it today, when I see the photos and videos taken that day, I am shocked and dismayed by my own ignorance of what happened then, and grateful that I was able to send him away alive, if disappointed.
I know I made the correct moral choice and learned a valuable lesson in the process. There were many warning signs, even loud alarms ringing that I failed to heed. My bad. Eventually a pilot ideally suited to this aircraft was found, and the plane was sold to him.
I sleep well at night, but occasionally rethink what almost happened.