Tuesday, January 04, 2005

 

Third Time's a Charmer

During July of 2003, which a whopping three hours of dual instruction time in my logbook, I picked up a copy of the Aviation Consumer Used Aircraft Guide for some summer leisure reading. At that time, my knowledge of general aviation aircraft was limited to what I picked up as a kid from reading spare issues of the AOPA Pilot magazine during the early 1970's. Now, as a middle aged adult, I was just beginning the six month journey towards my private pilot's license, and although I had no aspirations of aircraft ownership at that time, I did want to familiarize myself with the different types of airplanes I might encounter. As I read, I occasionally dreamed of owning my own airplane, and several favorites began to emerge from the pages. A Bonanza would be nice, but I would have to dream myself an income sufficient to afford one. I had always like the looks of the Bellanca Viking, but the challenge of caring for a fabric covered, wooden winged airplane in the harsh New England climate was more than I felt I could handle. Then there was a sporty looking four seater from Cessna that I had never heard of before. The author spoke of an airplane with few flaws and many virtues. Sleek, roomy, and a joy to fly, it was a rare bird, prized by its owners, but overlooked by the general public. This was the Cessna 177 Cardinal. In my dreams I decided that I would like a 1970 or later model 177B, the most capable and refined of the breed. Then I stopped dreaming, put the book back on the shelf, and went back to learning basic airwork in Faithful Instructor George's comparatively pudgy Skyhawk.

Six months later, on January 4th, 2004, I found myself, on the edge of a dream, on the rainy ramp at Lawrence Municipal Airport, examining the third of three Cardinals that I was actually considering purchasing. The first one I had looked at a few days earlier had proved disappointing. It looked good from a distance, but up close, a number of flaws spoke together of an airplane that had suffered neglect. The second Cardinal was a healthy bird, but showing its age. Today's Cardinal was also showing the telltale signs of thirty years in the sky, but there was a subtle difference. Yesterday I had seen an airplane that had been well cared for. Today I saw one that had been loved.

He huddled on the ramp under a full canopy cover. Foam rubber plugs filled the air intakes in the nose and the fresh air vents in the wings, and a fabric boot covered the tailcone to keep any feathered aircraft from nesting within. He had a sharp looking red, white and blue paint scheme in the standard pattern for the 1973 model year. The colors were fading in several spots, but he was still a handsome airplane.

Howie at the CFO Mt.Washington flyin And he was definitely a he. He had a name engraved on a plaque affixed to his tail. He was known by that name to everyone at the airport. His name was Howie.

One of Howie's owners met me on the ramp and opened the cabin door. Inside was as close to a perfect original interior as you could hope to find in a thirty year old airplane. The seats and upholstery were still in good condition, and care had been taken to keep them that way. Automotive style floor mats protected the carpet from muddy feet, and a small tub of desiccant in the baggage compartment guarded against excess humidity. The only flaw was a small chip in the plastic cover of the center console.

Quite nice for 30 years, eh? His instrument panel had seen some upgrades, including a newer radio and transponder, and a Loran navigation unit. Unusually, the engine instruments had been rearranged from their original layout. The manifold pressure gauge had been moved to the right side of the panel while the ADF indicator had been moved to the spot normally occupied by the tachometer. The tachometer was now in the space vacated by the manifold pressure gage. This bit of musical chairs grouped the ADF indicator together with the two VOR indicators, mimicking the panel layout of Cessna Skyhawks of similar vintage, but it separated the two engine instruments.

Compared to the Cardinal I had seen the day before, Howie was one year older, and had about 400 more hours on his airframe. His engine had been overhauled about 1,300 hours ago, and had seen a top overhaul 900 hours later. He was about $9,000 less expensive.

It was a close call between Howie and the Cardinal of yesterday. Each had desirable features that were lacking in the other. One was more expensive, but the fresher engine would mean a lower hourly cost for the engine overhaul reserve fund. I hadn't had the chance to look at Howie's logs, but his excellent condition suggested a high quality of care. Six months ago, the idea of owning airplane was only a whimsical dream. Today, it was a very real possibility, with two fairly strong candidates in the running. I had yet to fly in either one, but I had enough information on each to at least begin a more detailed evaluation. And the lovely January weather would give me nearly two weeks to weigh the options.

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