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The pre-purchase inspection

Anyone who is considering buying a used aircraft should expect to pay for a pre-purchase inspection first in order to verify that the aircraft is in serviceable condition. Privately registered aircraft are not all maintained equally and sometimes the requirements are overlooked. These registered aircraft are subject to an annual inspection which may be accomplished by an Approved Maintenance Organization (AMO), a non-approved shop or even a freelance Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME). History has shown that numerous used aircraft are purchased without this step and the first annual with the new owner revealed some costly surprises. When spending 40 or 50k or more on an aircraft, it only makes sense to get it checked out.




The fresh annual dilemma

In order to maintain the airworthiness of a small aircraft, an annual inspection must be performed to specific regulatory standards. The scope of the annual is equivalent to a manufacturer’s 100 hour inspection – that’s 100 hours of flying not labor! The Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) identify the min. requirement of work to be performed with reference to Part V – Airworthiness. The CARs also require specific out-of-phase items to be completed that are common to most aircraft. These items include the compass calibration, ELT test, altimeter test, propeller inspection and other items that all must be researched and tracked for compliance.

Many aircraft are advertised with a fresh annual which implies that all of the required items have been addressed and that an appropriate inspection was completed. This is where things get a little complicated. In theory, an aircraft with a fresh annual should be good to go, but in reality we have found aircraft with significant safety and compliance issues uncovered during the pre-purchase exercise. Many aircraft out there are very well maintained but you could still benefit from the process which may simply find nothing wrong or it may raise a few legitimate concerns.

Aircraft operation

It would be helpful to know how often the aircraft is flown and where is it normally stored. Infrequently flown aircraft often suffer from lack of attention. Aircraft ownership may actually carry a higher price tag for aircraft that are not used as opposed to those that are used regularly.

The effects of outdoor storage will be evident in the overall condition of the paint, windows, rubber and interior components. Aircraft from coastal climates will also have more corrosion concerns.

Go on a flight with the owner and determine whether the flying characteristics of the aircraft are normal for the type and that the avionics and intercom system are functioning properly.

The inspection process

The pre-purchase inspection has no basis in the regulations but is a very useful procedure in determining the general condition of an aircraft before purchase as a service to the prospective buyer. There are no specific guidelines or check sheets to follow but many shops either loosely follow the manufacturer’s check list or make up their own so that there is something on paper.

The depth and scope of the inspection can be determined by the prospective buyer and the hired AME. Never hire the same person who regularly maintains the aircraft to also do the Pre-purchase as you need a fresh objective analysis of the details.

The goal here is to get a good overview of the aircraft condition and not necessarily ensure that everything is perfect. The AME can also inspect for known problems specific to make or model.

In some cases, if the aircraft is close to annual, the seller and prospective buyer may agree to have a full annual done if it seems likely that a deal is in the works. The cost of the inspection and any findings can be decided upon at that time as well. Evaluation of the findings should take into account the condition of big ticket items like the engine, avionics and instruments, outstanding ADs and any structural work. Worn seats, tires and burned out bulbs are typical of ongoing maintenance and are cheaper to replace when factored into the big picture.

Expensive problems hide under cheap paint

Sometimes we come across a nice aircraft that looks like a good candidate because it presents well all painted up and looking like a champion. A closer look from a trained eye may reveal a tired airframe in need of mechanical attention. It may also reveal excessive internal or external corrosion, previous damage, unapproved modifications, or just plain neglect. Again, the opposite may be true with a gem that has been well maintained and has new paint and interior - That’s a Good find! The only way to determine one extreme from the other is to have your AME look into the aircraft enough to determine what you are really dealing with.

Previous damage history may not be an issue provided that the repair was equivalent to or better than the original. The same can be said for high time airframes in general. Look out for black streaks training behind rivet heads (aka smoking rivets) as an indicator of wear and fatigue.

Facts tell a story

Every pre-purchase inspection of the actual aircraft must be accompanied by a good search through the technical records. This includes the journey log as well as the individual logs for the airframe, mods and special inspections, engine and propeller. The logs tell the story of the aircraft in terms of where it has been and what type of work has been done along the way. The work described in the log must be consistent with the condition of the aircraft. Even though it’s the log that tells the story, the hard facts are found looking at the aircraft at the same time.

The technical logs will reveal when the out-of-phase items were last done, the applicable ADs that have been carried out (or missed), Service Bulletins and other Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (ICAs) implemented, and the chronological technical history of the aircraft.

The technical history of the aircraft must be able to show any STC’s incorporated, weight & Balance/ Equipment list amendments, POH supplements and so on.

If the engine is subject to an on-condition monitoring program then oil analysis results should be available for review of wear trends and recommendations.

Money well spent

Once the inspection has been completed (including the technical log review), the results of the inspection are usually compiled in the form of a report or snag list. The inspection process should also include the good points of a particular aircraft as well as the documented concerns. This all becomes part of the evaluation process just as your experience with the feel of the aircraft was during the demo flight. Now is the time to trust your gut and say either no thanks or let’s do this!

The cost of the inspection is usually a fixed price around $500 or more if travel time is involved. Any snags (aka defects) found would only be recorded and not addressed unless a deal was imminent or the work was requested by the current aircraft owner.

Suppose that you were looking at a Cessna 172P selling for $65k and you really liked everything you have heard about this aircraft and are planning to buy it pending a pre-purchase inspection. The inspection reveals some serious airframe issues and engine ADs not done at an estimate of $18k to complete the work (and that isn’t even a full inspection yet). Walking away from that deal cost you $500 but saved you over 18k in surprises! That’s money well spent.

Feel free to talk to our maintenance dept. personnel about pre-purchase inspections.

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