My Search For The Perfect Bonanza By Aram Basmadjian
For many years I dreamed of owning a Bonanza. I set a personal goal of having my own airplane by the time I was 50 years old. I joked with my wife that my mid-life crisis would be an aircraft, not a sports car or a mistress. However, buying an airplane involves a large investment of capital and can have dire consequences (both financially and physically) if not executed carefully. The process of locating and acquiring that perfect aircraft can be overwhelming.
During the process, however, I learned a lot about what to do - and what not to do - when searching for an aircraft.
In mid-January I came across two similar aircraft that interested me: a 1960 M35 in southern Virginia and a 1963 P35 in Southern California. Both were offered in the mid to upper $50,000 range. They both had engines within 100 hours of TBO that had flown little, if at all, in the past 12 months. The M35 had a beautiful D'Shannon panel that had been completely upgraded in 2011 with an Aspen 1000 Pro PFD, Garmin 430W, and S-Tec autopilot. From the photos the interior looked a bit dated, but the paint seemed passable. But, boy was that panel sexy. The P35, on the other hand, had a three- blade propeller, a very recent interior, and what appeared to be an excellent paint job (at least from the photos). However, the panel was dated, sporting no GPS and an inoperative Brittain autopilot that would require replacement.
I contacted the broker for the 1963 P35. We spoke at length about the airplane. He admitted the airplane had not flown in the past couple of years because the owner had passed away. The widow, unaware of how to go about selling the airplane, had procrastinated about dealing with that part of her late husband's estate until recently. To digress, this scenario plays out quite frequently. Aircraft owners should proactively draw up a plan and share it with their spouse and children for how to handle the disposition of the aircraft.
I expressed my concerns about the high-time engine and the fact that it had sat for the past couple of years to the broker, as well as the serviceability of the autopilot. I was taken aback when he responded by saying, "It's a fifty-five-year- old airplane. What do you expect?" I also asked about the logs and he indicated that they were all in order, but he did not have them scanned. A few days later I spoke with the broker again. This time, he had a completely different story about the airplane's history and how it had been maintained. His rhetoric was reminiscent of a slick used-car salesman. I called him out on some of the discrepancies between what was said then and what he had told me just days earlier, and he hung up on me. Not a good sales technique.
I then reached out to a colleague who is also an owner-pilot based at the same airport as that broker. He laughed and told me he was not surprised. He had heard similar stories about that broker over the years. Despite my concern about that broker's ethics, I still was interested in the airplane and wanted to make an offer contingent upon a thorough pre-buy inspection. The aircraft was based at an airport that is home to a very well-respected shop known to ABS that I wanted to use for the inspection. Unfortunately, the shop would not be able to get me on the schedule for a pre- buy for at least two months. This was absolutely unacceptable to the broker. Time to move on.
I started to focus my attention on the 1960 M35 in Virginia. I emailed its broker with some preliminary questions and also left a voicemail message. After two days there was still no response. I have observed that some brokers can be pretty bad about returning calls and emails. Maybe they just don't need the business, or perhaps it's that they are bombarded daily with tire-kickers. Regardless, it's frustrating when they don't want to give you the time of day, let alone help them earn a commission on an airplane sale. After multiple attempts I finally did make contact with that broker and he ended up being a nice guy. Several conversations later he emailed me scans of all the logbooks, which I reviewed carefully along with a mechanic. There were no red flags in the logs so I made an offer contingent upon a pre-buy inspection by a mechanic of my choice. After some negotiation the offer was accepted, and the reality started to set in that I may actually become an airplane owner.
Scheduling the pre-buy inspection was the next challenge. The owner did not want the aircraft flown away from his home airport. Only one mechanic is resident on the field where the aircraft was based, and he had done all of the maintenance on it for the past four or five years. I contacted every ABS Maintenance Academy-trained mechanic within 150 miles and none was able to travel to do the pre-buy except for one: Lou Pugliese of Flying Leaf Aviation in Asheboro, North Carolina. But Lou's schedule would not open up for about a month. This was not received well by the seller, and the broker tried to convince me to use a "mobile" mechanic that he knew. I was skeptical about using someone that was referred by the seller's broker, and after a brief conversation with that mechanic I was convinced using him would be a mistake. The seller suggested I just accept the annual inspection, which he was about to do, as a proxy for the pre-buy. I knew that would also be a mistake and threatened to walk away from the deal. As luck would have it, the shop could not get the airplane in for annual as soon as the seller had hoped. As a result, I was able to schedule Lou Pugliese to do the pre-buy just as the annual was being completed.
On the day of the pre-buy I traveled to Virginia to meet the broker, Lou, and the seller's mechanic. As I approached the shop I was full of excitement. I was going to get my first look at what might be my Bonanza! As I approached the airplane, however, my heart sank. The paint was peeling in many places and did not have any shine to it at all. The interior was serviceable, but dated. The propeller hub appeared to be leaking oil. And the engine compartment appeared neglected. However, the day would prove to be a fantastic educational experience for me.
Although I did not end up purchasing that airplane, I am glad I spent the time and money to go through this process. Lou Pugliese is a wealth of knowledge. He took the time to explain everything he was looking at, why he was looking at it, and the short- and long-term implications of everything he examined. It was an intensive six-hour primer on the Bonanza systems, airframe, and engine. At the end of the day Lou produced a three-page list of squawks, many of which should have been caught during the annual inspection that was just completed. This, of course, did not instill confidence in the quality of recent maintenance. One of the bigger ticket items Lou uncovered was a leaking right main fuel bladder. When this was pointed out the broker said, "Oh yeah, the seller told me about that. He just never fills the tanks past two-thirds full and it's not a problem." Um, yes...it is a problem.
I told the broker I would not buy the airplane unless the seller agreed to replace the leaking bladder. The seller initially agreed, verbally, to do this. However, once the bids started coming in at nearly $4,000 he said the most he would do is lower the price of the airplane by $1,500. To the broker's credit, he offered to lower his commission by $500 to help facilitate the deal. I was not sure whether I should just walk away, or if perhaps this was as good as it was going to get. I needed guidance but was not sure where to turn.
Aircraft Broker vs. Buyer's Agent
Aircraft brokers are a diverse group. Brokers aren't regulated, which means that just about anyone can call himself or herself an aircraft broker. Some are well- respected professionals who specialize in certain aircraft types and will only accept listings for the very best examples of the fleet currently offered for sale. Others will take any listing that comes across their desk and don't offer much value to either the seller or the buyer. Good brokers will offer to email scans of all the logbooks along with detailed photos. If the logs are incomplete, or the broker will not email them to you, that should be a warning sign. Remember that the broker ultimately represents the interests of the seller. On the other hand, a buyer's agent representsthe best interests of the buyer. Buyer's agents are not regulated either, so youneed to do your homework.
While trying to gather as much information as I could from sites such as the American Bonanza Society and BeechTalk, I became aware of Randy Africano, a buyer's agent who specializes in Bonanzas and Barons. I decided to take a chance and contact Randy via email to see if he might be able to offer some guidance regarding the 1960 M35. He quickly responded with a stern warning: "I would sit very tight on this one until we have a chance to visit. I think you are paying way too much for this airplane. I have not paid retail for an airplane like this in over two years. You should not buy this airplane...if you put a 0 SMOH engine in the airplane it will still be worth less than what you are going to pay for the plane today."
He added: "Lou is one of the best Beech guys I know. I am certain your pre-buy was done with care. But it's the wrong airplane for you financially."
After a lengthy telephone conversationI decided to walk away from the M35 despite my investment of time and money. I signed an agreement to retain Randy as my buyer's agent on February 14, 2018. He thought it would take three to six months to locate the right airplane, and it would likely not be an airplane that was listed on Trade-a-Plane, Controller or Barnstormers.He explained that airplanes listed with brokers are sometimes misrepresented and/or over-priced. Randy's philosophy is to concentrate on the "exit strategy" before buying the airplane. Before 2008 used airplanes were an appreciating asset. But after the financial crisis thatyear everything changed. Now more than ever, it is critical to purchase an airplane that can best maintain its value. He was searching for a needle in a haystack.
Ironically, just a week later I found out the owner of a 1975 V35B based at my home airport had recently passed away. From outward appearances the airplane seemed like it might just be that needle in the haystack. It had dual Aspen PFDs,a Garmin 530W, was ADS-B compliant,and had leather interior and decent paint.I immediately contacted my agent andwe agreed that if I could get the airplanefor the right price it might be great forme. Because the airplane was based at my home I sent him detailed photos and scans of the engine and airframe logs so he could review them.
Opening the engine compartment revealed what appeared to be a fairly new engine. The heir that was sellingthe airplane stated, "Yes, the engine was overhauled less than two years ago." Icouldn't believe my luck! I might just end up with a V35B with a glass panel and low-time engine. I could barely contain my excitement. I took tons of photos, scanned the logs, and sent them off to Randy.
Inspection of the logs revealed that the IO-520 had suffered a case crack at roughly 1500 hours SMOH. The engine was not overhauled, but rather was just refitted with a new case. Despite the fact the engine had been removed from the airplane and the case split open, the owner had decided against an overhaul. Clearly he was taking a cheap approach to engine maintenance. My agent was very skeptical of what other items may have been deferred over the years as well. Based on this information we made an offer that reflected a virtually run-out engine. The seller declined our offer and eventually sold the airplane several months later through a listing on Barnstormers.
I was starting to think I would never get an airplane. I would scour ads online and send the ones I thought might be viable to Randy. One by one he would reject them: "...that one has damage history... this one hasn't been flown in five years... that one has the 225hp engine... the logs are not in order on this one..."
During the third week of March my agent emailed me a link to a listing on Trade-a-Plane. The airplane was being sold by the owner and not through a broker. It appeared to be pretty good, although it had some damage history. The gear had been inadvertently retracted during a touch-and-go instead of the flaps. However, the repairs were done by a reputable shop and the airplane had flown a considerable number of hours since the accident. Nevertheless, we proceeded with caution and made a nearly full-price offer that was verbally agreed to by the seller. Randy included several contingencies in the purchase agreement to protect me in the event the airplane was not as advertised. The seller ultimately rejected our offer because of those contingencies. So close, yet so far.
In late March, Randy emailed me a photo of a P35. He said, "I think this is the one." The owner had recently lost his medical but not yet come to terms with the idea of selling his pride and joy. Randy came up with an appraisal based on everything that he was able to learn about the airplane. The seller thought his airplane was worth considerably more. Over the next few weeks Randy articulated to the seller that he had a qualified buyer that would be a good steward of the airplane he had owned and loved for the past 26 years. The airplane looked great from the photos and checked nearly all my boxes. We made an offer and it was accepted on April 13. Randy once again wrote a very detailed purchase agreement that protected me in the event that the airplane was not as represented.
Next was to arrange the pre-purchase inspection. The airplane was based near Sacramento, California. I wanted the inspection done by Honeycutt Aviation, which was not too far from where the airplane was based. But Dan just could not fit it into his busy schedule. He pointed us to Mather Aviation in Sacramento and we scheduled the inspection for Monday, April 30. I was a bit skeptical as this shop was not on ABS's list of known Bonanza specialists. But my concern could not have been more unfounded. Eric Burns, the service manager at Mather, handled the inspection with integrity. In fact, he called on Ron Sanow of Expert Aircraft Solutions (and an ABS Service Clinic inspector) to assist with the pre-buy. Eric and Ron spent two full days thoroughly checking everything on the airplane while Randy supervised. Of course they found some squawks, but it was all very minor stuff. Randy called me mid-day on Monday to tell me that the airplane was absolutely gorgeous and that the inspection was not uncovering any significant issues.
I flew in on Tuesday to see the airplane first-hand and was overwhelmed. It was so much more impressive in person. The paint, interior, panel and engine compartment were immaculate. Looking inside the inspection ports revealed shiny aluminum everywhere with no sign of any corrosion. As the mechanics finished up the inspection, they reviewed the squawks with me in detail but indicated it was obvious the airplane had been meticulously maintained. Most of the issues were resolved on Wednesday morning and we closed on the aircraft. I was finally a proud Bonanza owner!
I can't imagine it getting much better than this. Every time the hangar door goes up I get a huge smile on my face. I would not have been able to find my perfect Bonanza without the assistance of Randy Africano. I will always be grateful that he talked me out of that M35 two months earlier.
If you are sea•rch°ing for your perfect Bonanza, the best advice I can offer is to seek out a reputable buyer's agent to represent your interests.