May 2008 Issue

Flying an Aging Airplane

Even though it might perform as well —or better than—a new one, you’ll need to pay extra attention as your older airplane ages.

In 1985, I purchased a then-39-year-old 1946 Cessna 120. Several times my friends asked, "Is it safe to fly a 40-year-old airplane?" Their question was based on perceptions of the typical condition of 40-year-old cars, tools and houses. My answer was always a version of this: Properly maintained, a 40-year-old airplane is as safe as one much newer. Unlike cars and houses, airplanes are inspected annually and maintained to a high standard. As long as the pilot puts the time and money into it, and takes it to a mechanic experienced in the peculiarities of the type, it is indeed safe to fly a 40-year-old airplane. Fast-forward to 2008. According to AOPA, the average piston-powered general aviation airplane is more than 35 years old. Leisure suits, my high school graduation and the end of mass production of light propeller airplanes—1978 to 1979—were that long ago. Unlike when I bought my Cessna, now it’s not unusual at all for a light airplane to be 40 years old; 50- and even 60-year-old piston airplanes are increasingly common. Are airplanes this old still safe? What does it take to safely operate aging airplanes?

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