By Ken Ibold
There are few things quite as intriguing as the first time you sit in the left seat of an airplane youve just bought. Even if youve flown the type before, this one is different. The radios are in different spots and are perhaps different brands. There are unfamiliar instruments scattered about. And besides, this ones yours.
Watch out. Youve just lit the fuse.
Among airplane buyers, there are few things as ripe for trouble as the flight home in a new airplane. Professional ferry pilots have developed exhaustive routines for ensuring the condition and operation of the airplane and plan the flight both meticulously and conservatively. Airplane buyers, however, seem to miss the importance of those points.
There are many dynamics that come into play as the buyers new airplane moves from sellers ramp to buyers hangar. Some are mechanical, some psychological, some just a subset of the laws of physics. Although they are relatively easy to address, the accident record remains replete with examples of buyers failing to complete their first trip in their new airplanes.
Perhaps the granddaddy of recent new-buyer accidents was the one involving John Denver. A little fuel mismanagement, a little systems unfamiliarity set the stage for tragedy. The same scenario is repeated dozens of times per year, albeit without celebrity pilots at the stick.
The biggest uncertainties regarding any strange airplane are how – and how well – the thing works. Prebuy inspections help find problems before the transaction is completed, but typical prebuys dont find every squawk.
A minority of buyers arrange for the prepurchase inspection to be a complete annual inspection, sometimes with the understanding that the seller will fix airworthiness squawks found by the inspector and the buyer picking up the tab for both the inspection and any other squawks that are not airworthiness issues. A larger number of buyers have a mechanic give the airplane a general look, measure compression and ensure AD compliance, but stop short of a full inspection.
Some buyers, however, trust their own judgment to assess the airplanes airworthiness for the trip home. That confidence may be warranted, but there is that small portion of buyers who do little more than a preflight inspection before launching for home in an airplane theyve never flown before except in a short demo flight.
There is no question that airplane maintenance is all over the map when it comes to quality. There are 30-year-old Cessnas that work as well as new ones rolling of the line in Kansas. But spend some time looking around a ramp and youll see a host of airplanes that makes you wonder if the IA who signed off on the last annual inspection was blind.
Airworthiness is to great extent in the eye of the beholder, and this can be said of mechanics as well as pilots. While many inspection items have clear-cut lines that separate black from white, most are merely gray. Mention that your airplane is for sale and that you need the annual to be cheap, and some mechanics who want to do you a favor allow their criteria to become more tolerant of faults.
And so it is that many airplanes for sale are of questionable mechanical integrity even if the annual is current. Buyers routinely complain of airplanes that looked OK in the sales material being disasters in person. But what about the buyer who accepts a sub-par bird thats priced to match? The flight home, where presumably repairs or restoration are in order, may be asking more than the airplane can deliver.
The maintenance issues that crop up in accidents involving post-purchase ferry flights generally are blamed on neglect or non-use. In a typical scenario, the airplane hasnt flown much recently and is sold. During the trip home, some component gives out because of corrosion, animal damage or fuel system deterioration. Clogged carburetors are overrepresented in this sample, as are engine failures. Some in-flight fires have been reported, possibly because of cracked and neglected fuel lines.
Less frequently represented in the accident record are binding control systems and electrical/vacuum problems. Seldom is there a report of any critical structural failure.
While not strictly the ferry flight home, the last few flights of a Grumman Tiger show how some new owners dont listen to what the airplane is saying.
The pilot bought the airplane in Florida and ferried it home to Pennsylvania. After departing the sellers airport, the Tiger flew 180 miles and landed for fuel. The pilot had difficulty restarting the engine, but did not seek maintenance. Later that day, however, he landed in South Carolina for fuel. This time, he summoned a mechanic, who serviced the plugs and magnetos.
The airplane flew again a week later for about a half hour. Three days later, a witness noticed the pilot was having difficulty starting the engine. Finally the airplane sprang to life and the pilot took off. The witness said the airplane was airborne only about 45 seconds, with the engine sputtering, before it crashed, killing all four aboard.
Familiarity With Type
One of the most common reasons for post-buy airplane crashes is lack of familiarity with the airplane. This is made all the more tragic because its a problem thats easily avoidable. These are cases in which the pilots are overwhelmed by events that cascade because they operate the airplane incorrectly or are not aware of ways to prevent small problems from turning into big ones.
Knowing emergency procedures is a big part of the drill, to be sure, but other mundane causes crop up frequently. For example, setting power incorrectly or not knowing how much fuel was on board leads to fuel exhaustion accidents.
But even such things as simple handling differences can cause trouble. The new owner of a Cessna 182 was trying a short-field landing for the first time in the airplane, although he had previously performed them in a 172. He pulled the power back, flared about 25 feet agl and thumped onto the runway.
The result: a buckled firewall. Ironically, he had a flight instructor with him at the time, so he apparently was being conscientious.
The problem with familiarity with the type is compounded with buyers of completed homebuilt airplanes. Although the airplanes have flown off a test-flight period in order to receive their airworthiness certificates, buyers should consider them far from predictable for several reasons.
Because many designs aimed at homebuilders tend to emphasize performance, their slow-speed handling can be unexpected to pilots who only fly certified airplanes. In addition, very slight variations in builder technique can lead to substantial differences in handling qualities, even from one example of a model to another.
There are several homebuilt designs, for example, that show behavior in the stall break that could startle a pilot who has only flown forgiving trainers – including sharp nose drops, sudden wing drops to one side, and a lack of aerodynamic cues that a stall is imminent.
Too much airplane
Because many airplane buyers step up from airplane to airplane, the question of the point at which the pilot rises to his or her level of incompetence sometimes arises. Insurance companies are well aware of the need to check out thoroughly in new airplanes, but that doesnt mean all pilots do it.
In many cases, new pilots who get behind the airplane can trace the cause to unfamiliarity, but other times its clear that the airplane is overwhelming the pilot.
For example, a couple of pilots teamed up to buy a Mitsubishi MU-2B, a turbine powered twin. During their initial training, they each enrolled in an initial training course at a well-known training company. One pilot completed the course successfully, the other did not.
The two pilots then began flying with an instructor aboard to meet insurance company requirements. When the commercial pilot who had successfully completed the training course passed 20 hours time in type, the private pilot who did not complete the course had an uncertain number of hours, but only 4.7 hours were reported as having been logged with the instructor. The two co-owners then apparently embarked on a trip together, with the commercial pilot flying right seat.
On the final flight, a month after enrolling in the training program, the private pilot was flying left seat as the airplane departed on a cross-country flight. The taxi to the runway included at least two delays consistent with either an instructional environment or missed checklist items. During the initial takeoff, the airplane lost power on the right engine. The pilot attempted to regain control, but soon entered a Vmc rollover. Both pilots were killed. Investigators were unable to determine a reason for the power loss.
Low time in type is a difficult animal to beat, especially as the number and complexity of systems increase and the airplanes performance increases. The margin of error is small.
Every buyer who picks up his airplane from a distant airport is eager to get it home. However, this is one time when get home-itis can take a strong hold. The buyer of one homebuilt Genesis needed to get the airplane from Wisconsin to his home in Virginia, but he had never flow a Genesis.
He considered flight instruction in Wisconsin, followed by the trip. He also talked about having an instructor accompany him for the whole trip. Eventually, however, he opted to hire a ferry pilot to deliver the airplane.
End of story? Not quite. The ferry pilot made it as far as Ohio, parked the airplane and went home. He said he was unsure of how the airplanes fuel system worked and that it had an electrical problem. The electrical problem was solved by resetting a circuit breaker, but the ferry pilot was already gone.
The owner then decided to pick up the airplane in Ohio and fly it home. He arranged to meet with an instructor who would give him instruction or accompany him back to Virginia.
The instructor familiarized himself with the airplane with a few takeoffs and landings over the course of an hour and found the brakes were poor and the radios weak to the point of being inoperative. The owner summoned a mechanic who repaired the brakes, but no avionics help was available. The owner said he couldnt wait until the next day for avionics work because he was in a hurry.
Because of the repairs, the instructor had to leave without giving the pilot instruction. The pilot said he was reviewing the airplanes operation with the POH. The pilot taxied the airplane around the airport and ran the engine for about 45 minutes, then took off without refueling.
The mechanic said of the pilot: He seemed absolutely unfamiliar with the airplane. No familiarity whatsoever. It seemed like a totally new experience for him.
The airplane ran out of fuel on approach to an airfield 80 miles short of his destination and crashed, killing the pilot.
Some accidents are noteworthy only by their bizarre circumstances. Consider the pilot of a Mooney M20E. He had purchased the airplane that day and was planning to fly it home. He added 45 gallons of fuel to the airplane.
During his preflight, he noted the two wing tanks were equipped with different kinds of fuel caps. One wing he had to sump four times to remove water.
He took off and the engine ran roughly. He landed. On the ground, the engine ran smoothly. He took off again, with a friend following behind in another airplane. The flight of two stopped once to secure a fastener that came loose on the accident airplane. Farther along, the pilot reported to his friend that the engine was running rough again and he couldnt maintain altitude.
The pilot landed on a road, hitting a power line and a horse trailer. He talked to people who came out to see what the commotion was and borrowed a cell phone to make a call. A few minutes later, he died of a heart attack.
Examination of the fuel system revealed rust-colored water and a pink paraffin-like substance. Before the accident flight, the airplane had flown three hours total in the previous six years.
While this kind of ferry flight accident is the exception, it bears witness to the hazards that lie in flying an airplane of unknown fitness. Combined with the other hazards involved with flying unfamiliar airplanes, it makes sense to approach ferry flights with caution, preparation and an instant willingness to cancel the flight.