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How Not to Buy an Aircraft, Sort Of
By Geoff Pritchard, Vancouver, British Columbia, EAA 348315, VAA 719951
July 2020 – The process of purchasing a first aircraft, as we all know, is a careful and cautious procedure that involves equal amounts of research, technical assistance, and at times, a certain amount of luck. This activity can evolve into somewhat of a preoccupation that inevitably involves friends and family members as the focus and search intensifies.
Meantime, this process might relegate your life partner to wondering if there might be a Berlitz course on Aviation as a Second Language, where she might be able to navigate a conversation with you when you begin to speak in tongues when the trigger word "airplane" enters the conversation. Perhaps your partner finds solace in the fact that there might actually be a cultural aspect to all this, as there seems to be a French language component to your current obsession, when words such as fuselage, aileron, and empennage find their way into an otherwise inscrutable conversation.
This is a tale of my successful first-time aircraft purchase that runs somewhat counter to the current wisdom of how this type of transaction should actually transpire. But first, a bit of background.
Having been completely signed on to the alternate reality of aviation since the age of 10, after witnessing a five-second flight of a small gas-powered free flight model airplane that my friend David and his father had laboured over during the winter, and which ended abruptly when the side of their house stood in the way of further sustained flight. The die, however, was now cast, and a trajectory was established that afternoon that would ultimately result in my own path to aircraft ownership.
Fast-forwarding several decades found me pretty much evolved into a young adult, having achieved the requisite benchmarks of career, family, and the associated trappings, and although still secretly passionate about vintage aviation, my only move towards something affirming was an irregular attendance at a local homebuilder's group, collecting publications, advice, and deciphering the multitude of associated jargon.
On the advice of a newly minted pilot friend who extolled the virtues of the Aeronca Champ, I began to scour the trade papers (pre-internet days), looking at ads, documenting prices, and deciphering overhaul and airframe times, included equipment, and anything else I could glean from the printed word. Soon I mustered up the courage to phone a number of the advertisers, and armed with my newfound armchair expertise, tried not to sound as if I were asking, "How much is that doggy in the window?"
I cleverly stick handled my way through conversations concerning fabric and engine condition, and tried to reconcile the performance figures of a Champ from my reading to what I was hearing on the phone. The pursuit of a suitable Champ was now occupying a sizable area of my available gray matter, and dinnertime discussions took on the intensity of a newfound religious fervour. Although the term "eye roll" had not yet officially entered the lexicon of popular speech, I felt somewhat of a pioneer in recognizing its almost continued use in my household around this time. Even minor details such as not yet having a pilot's licence did little to deter me from my newfound crusade to track down a Champ.
Scanning my most recent addition of the local newsprint aviation trade paper a few days later, I suddenly came across the ad I was looking for: a Champ for sale, not far away, recent rebuild, good engine times — it seemed to check all the right boxes. On contacting the owner, and prepared to rattle off my litany of technical questions to assure him of my in-depth experience in these matters, I was met on the phone by a seller who was on the cusp of changing his mind. A terminal case of seller's remorse had set in, and after wrestling with the angst of his several years of rebuilding the airplane, and only enjoying it for a few hours, decided to keep it. In the preceding hours prior to the call being made, however, I had briefly enjoyed full ownership of my new Aeronca Champ in my mind, the fantasy running the full range of endless hours of flying low and slow over the boundless Alberta prairie, fulfilling times in the hangar (what hangar?) becoming mechanically intimate with my life-fulfilling classic 1946 Champ, and taking friends and family for rides that were amazed at my being a pilot and owner of such a wonderful machine.
The disappointment was palpable, and my dream airplane disappeared like a snowman in spring. On the phone I manned up and replied that I knew how these things happened, which I didn't, and wished him all the best, which I did not feel at all, and hung up. Apparently my next outburst, rated later at a definite "I'm glad the kids weren't home" level, did little to assuage my "one that got away" feelings, and I incurred several sideways glances at the dinner table, as if maybe she could detect a nervous tick, or clenched teeth, indicating some new developing affliction.
Salvation, of sorts, came a few days later, in a phone call from the very fellow that days earlier had decimated my Champ dreams. He felt bad about his about-face on the airplane sale, but he had just recently heard of a Champ being included in a farm auction in Biggar, Saskatchewan, and I could perhaps give them a call to find out more information. "Okay, thanks," I replied, and rang off. A fitful sleep that evening was permeated with this latest Champ information, and combined thoughts of a possible auction bargain, stacked up against a 1,000-kilometre drive round trip to a small town in the next province, did battle until dawn, with no apparent resolution.
I gave little thought to the whole process until early afternoon, then thought I might phone for a few more details. Dialing the number, I was surprised to hear that I was actually talking to the auctioneer on the other end, and was told the Champ was coming up on the block in about 30 minutes. Somewhat dazed, I asked if there was someone to whom I could ask a few questions regarding the airplane, and soon, through the background din, and the crackle of an early cell phone, I was connected with a friend of the family who was selling the Champ. He had the logbook and told me it had 275 hours on the 75-hp engine and it was in pretty good shape.
Agonizing as to what to do next, I was handed back to the auctioneer, who said I could bid on the phone in about 15 minutes. I said I would call back, then hung up and stared blankly out the window. The complexities and logistics seemed overwhelmingly in favour of a definite pass, but the lure of a possible auction bargain, together with the thought of the lost Champ a week before, caused all caution to be thrown to the wind, and I phoned back the auctioneer. After the barely audible auction babble, into which I inserted rising sums of money, within a short period of minutes I apparently was the new owner of a Champ I had never seen, in a town whose location I had only a faint inkling, and now was committed to courier a cheque for $4,500 to someone I had never met. I was slowly coming to the realization that perhaps this method of aircraft purchase, however devil-may-care in nature, had some definite shortcomings, and the momentary first blush of new ownership was now becoming tinged with a certain sobering realization of all the key elements of the transaction, all of which were somewhat troublesome, to say the least.
Taking stock Monday morning, I sent off the money, arranged a flight to Saskatoon, reserved a rental car, and mumbled something to my business partner concerning my absence on the Wednesday. A kaleidoscope of issues then paraded before me for the next two days, from the absent pilot's licence, to exactly where I might be keeping this airplane, and the very real and immediate concern of how said airplane would be transported to the Calgary area from Biggar. I tried weakly to place the blame squarely on being born left-handed, and hence the slightly dyslexic backward manner in which this particular plan had rolled out, but with no relief. Being completely committed to the equally complete unknown was disconcerting, but I tried to convince myself that the unknown had a certain allure.
After touching down in Saskatoon and picking up the rental car, I headed out on the hour drive to Biggar in the clear, crisp fall weather. Pulling into town, I passed a faded billboard which proclaimed in a large weathered font, "New York is big, but this is Biggar."
I failed to find even the least bit of levity in this proclamation, and continued on to the address given to me at the end of the auction, completely absorbed in the business at hand. I was met at the door by a somewhat morose 20-something fellow, who evidently was shouldering the burden of disposing of the assets of his recently departed father. After sorting through the somewhat alien paperwork, I signed what I believe was the transfer of ownership document, collected the logbooks, then asked as off-handedly as I could where the airplane might be located. I was told it was being stored in the old Biggar Flying Club hangar (now defunct), down past the four-way stop and beside the grain elevator.
Before I could broach the subject, the family member suggested that he knew a local fellow who would ferry the Champ to the Calgary area, and I quickly obtained the name and phone number of the pilot. Not being offered any personal accompaniment, I drove slowly through town, totally absorbed in the surreal experience of locating my new airplane, of which I knew absolutely nothing. The hangar was fairly easy to locate, as it was the only one in sight, and identified by a cockeyed sign above it that indicated the "Biggar Flying" — the word "Club" having departed the phrase and now resting in the stubble nearby. I paused for a few minutes before rolling back the door, realizing the significance of the moment, and hoping I had banked sufficient good karma in life to make this a positive experience. With great effort I pushed back the door of the hangar, and stood gazing intently at the first Aeronca Champ I had ever seen, reflecting the noon light from its all white with red trim colour scheme.
First sight of that Champ.
Although somewhat faded, a quick walk around showed the fabric to be intact, the propeller to be securely fastened, the plexiglass clear and unblemished, and the tires showing only moderate wear. I debated which foot to place on the footrest, and then hauled myself up into the snug front seat, where I could scan the half-dozen instruments, gaze out of the windshield, and take in for the first time the medley of aromas that made up the universal "old airplane smell," which I would now be experiencing for decades to come.
View from the pilot's seat — complete with "old airplane smell."
The anxiety of discovering a possible barn wreck had abated, and although a cursory look under the cowling revealed an engine that displayed a bit more "experience" than the 275 hours that the logbooks indicated, I felt for the price paid, I had perhaps placed well in the unconventional aircraft purchase sweepstakes.
On arrival back home, I made the arrangements with the ferry pilot to have the Champ flown to a new friend's farm strip north of Calgary, and about four weeks later, my new airplane was under cover, admired, and mechanically scrutinized, with a short laundry list of required upgrades and maintenance requirements. I eventually learned to fly the following spring in the Champ, and certainly did view the endless Alberta prairie going low and slow, and accompanied often by friends and family.
Champ in motion.
Looking back over 30 years, I realize I did in fact win this roll of the dice, but could not, in all honesty, recommend purchasing an aircraft in what could be termed a somewhat cavalier and uninformed manner. Still, it makes for a good story, and launched me into an ongoing love affair with aircraft ownership that I still enjoy so many years later.
I'll leave the reader to decide on a caption for this shot!
Viewed from afar — planning to chase the sunset?
And finally, a happy cha(m)p! Low and slow over the prairies.