Julian, she'll have to stay stateside as I spend most my time here. I would love to tour Europe in her at some point, as a vacation thing, but I'm not the man to bring her over the pond just yet.
Today I got some good news. I've tried to insure her for almost 6 months and nobody would touch us. I tried different insurance agencies and even made the rounds myself on the phone to various underwriters. No dice. They didn't like me (they especially didn't like me), they didn't like her age, they didn't like Aero Commanders, period. They wanted 500hrs multi time, IR and god knows what else. So I braced myself for flying her many hours without insurance until I met the criteria's.
Now before anyone gets excited, in the US you don't have to have insurance - there is no law prohibiting you from flying uninsured. However, if you live in congested areas (as I do) and something goes t**s up, then you're bound to hit something expensive. If I'd lived in Montana or Kansas, I wouldn't have been the least nervous about it, but right in the middle of the LA basin? I'd shifted my intended base from Santa Monica airport to El Monte, which is in slightly less congested surroundings, just to address the unlikely possibility.
But I digress.
Finally I contacted AOPA's Insurance Agency and asked them for help and I don't know why I didn't do so earlier. They came back with one insurer who at least didn't outright reject it. Thank God, things were looking a little bit up. The underwriter nervously fielded questions about the "wing spar AD compliance" and thankfully this was something I'd researched thoroughly. As I mentioned in my OP they Aero Commanders from the 560A model and upwards have three fairly serious recurring inspection AD's on the wing. Thankfully, only a few apply to the 520 and the first 560 model as they share a different design. The most severe one, the spar cap replacement, I'm exempted from. After they'd satisfied themselves with those facts, they offered full liability insurance for me and the aircraft for $2289, which I thought was rather reasonable. No hull. They wanted me to have 15hrs instruction in type and a recurring 1hr instruction each year.
I can do that, no problem. Thanks AOPA - I knew becoming a member was a good thing!
It's a huge learning curve with aircraft. And many obstacles. I wish there weren't so many barriers set up for new owners. Not only does one have to contend with the steep learnings of maintenance and paperwork, but also insurance. Granted, this is a high performance machine in their eyes paired with a low time, inexperienced pilot in type and that freaks them out. But really, is it that much of a difference? All her systems are the same as you can find on any 182, just doubled up. She doesn't go much faster and she'll only fit one more person. Any Bonanza will fly eights around me and leave me in the dust. Sure I can get myself into a mess with asymmetrical thrust, but surely not in any more mess than a single that quits, right? At least I have fairly good chance of making it to the airport... Just curious about the logics involved from an underwriters perspective, not really complaining.
As I come up on my first year, I thought I'd give you guys an update from the trenches of antique dinosaur twin ownership. And man has it been a war - especially on my wallet! I'm beginning to see that the saying pay now, or pay later is very true for older aircraft.
Still, no regrets at all.
I won't bore you with too many tangents, but early September I finally got her back from the annual and immediately decided to go on a 1600nm cross country trip to Chicago. It was literally the first trip after it got out of the shop. Purpose was two-fold: first I had a job there and also (just by sheer coincidence), the yearly American Aero Commander Club's fly-in in Detroit (which is around the corner from Chicago) was happening on the Sat I had off from work. So, off we went. I gave myself two days to get there.
This is what happens if you don't pay your mechanic.
Crossing the Sierras and the Rockies was uneventful, except for getting buzzed by F18's in the Utah desert. As I passed Salt Lake City the weather started deteriorating and thunderstorms were forming all around me. I managed to find a passage through, but eventually my good luck ran out. I was surrounded by bad weather in the Wyoming Rockies and had to commit to a short gravel/dirt strip at high elevation called Medicine Bow. It flew a low pass to see what it looked like (not great) but decided to give it a go as I didn't have much choice. Strip was a bit rough, but my fillings stayed in place. A farmer gave me a lift down into the only hotel in town. He said he hadn't seen anyone land there in at least 6 months. I wolfed down a cheeseburger as I mulled over my options.
Surrounded by thunderstorms in the Rockies, I admitted defeat and landed Medicine Bow. Field elevation 6646ft and only 3200ft long.
Staying the night. Notice the newly built terminal in the background.
Damn it - had it cleared towards the east? It sure looked that way. I decided to have another go at it. Wind was howling, so I got off easily even though the field was rather short. Pissed around and wasted another hour of fuel until I finally had to admit defeat for a second time and land back at the same field and stay the night. Early next morning the weather was far worse and the wind had gone. I was really nervous about the T/O - high elevation and on a short strip with no wind to help me - it could spell disaster. Thankfully, the old girl was off in a little more than half, which is quite impressive.
The rest of the day it just got worse and worse and I had to fly 3hrs in pissing rain and hazy fog following roads, dodging radio towers and aerials. At least I was out of the Rockies. I almost gave up numerous times, but pressed on. Finally got rewarded with a higher ceiling as I got closer to Iowa and could climb from my aerial-clipping altitude.
Then all of a sudden the left engine started running rough. I tried the usual - booster pumps, magnetos, etc - nothing. It went away as quickly as it came. Flew on for about another 20 mins and then the roughness came back again, this time for much longer and I had some more time to troubleshoot. I contemplated declaring an emergency to the controller that had me on radar service, but ultimately decided against it as I had quite a few options - there were airfields all around me and I had plenty of altitude. Still, not only was it the critical engine, it was also the only one with the hydraulic pump on it, so if it decided to give up its ghost it would mean finding a landing spot very soon (as the gear would have come out when the hyd press went to zero). Finally after fiddling about, I must have missed the detent in the magneto on my previous try, because when I switched to the right she all of a sudden ran fine again (which I would subsequently find out was false, but more about that later).
I landed at Chicago Executive and taxied to one of the only two options for handling, Atlantic, fully aware of the fact that they now had me by the b***s. To my surprise the two day parking only came to about $30, which is very reasonable. Good ole US of A. As I taxied in a G5 captain spooling up his engines waved cheerfully at me from his cockpit. Who knows, maybe he got his start flying mail at night in one of these?
Chicago Executive is very close to O'Hare so one has to watch out so as to not bust their Bravo airspace.
Frolicking with the the big boys. Swing a cat here and you're bound to hit a G5.
At the weekend it was time to go to the fly-in in Detroit. As I started my take off roll, the plane veered to the left and it was obvious there was something more serious going on. Finally found a mechanic on the weekend who could have a look. Compression was zero on two cylinders...I was starting to realise that not only was I not going to Detroit today, but the old girl was going to stay in Chicago for awhile. Here's the aborted takeoff:
Turned out that one of the cylinders had chewed up a compression ring, hacked it to a million pieces and spat it out through the exhaust valve. But as it got hacked to pieces, it had impacted not only the top of the piston (see photos), but also shorted one of the spark plugs by deforming the electrode. This is what made the engine run rough and also respond to the magneto change. The other cylinder had a shot intake valve and was pressurising the case (or maybe it was the other way around). Anyway, they were both junk.
One can clearly see the pitting at the top of the piston and the jack it made on the side as it departed.
The ring damaged the electrodes on the spark plug as it got pulverised.
Mechanics were very nice chaps, but not used to old planes and had "Cirrus-itis", so when they pulled the cylinders they started getting worked up about the look of the cam. Now, changing a cam means splitting the case, which, in effect, means an overhaul. An overhaul on one of these old geared engines is not as cheap as a direct drive engine. The few that do them normally insist on overhauling the gearbox as well (even though there might not be anything wrong with it), which adds to the cost. We were talking $40K here - money I just didn't have. So as I was desperately trying to source another spare engine so I could get back to California, my regular mechanic there was also looking at pictures of the cam they sent etc and not agreeing that it needed any overhaul at all.
One can clearly see the metallic sheen in the oil from the pulverised ring. The Chicago boys were not happy with this.
Finally the pics were sent to Lycoming and they also said the cam looked fine, so the Chicago boys relented and proceeed with the cylinder change. Dodged a bullet there, for sure.
New cylinder coming on.
Is she getting some perverse pleasure of having men attend to her jugs?
Here's a clip of my cross country trip to Chicago:
Three weeks later it was time to pick the old gal up. I'd asked them to look at the misbehaving beacon and they'd found it littered with car parts and dodgy wirings, so I replaced it with a brand new STC'd Whelen unit. This, plus the cylinders and work relieved me of $4700. Phew.
Nobody puts baby in the corner!
I did a couple of high speed taxis and prepped for an early morning start back to California.
I tracked south through New Mexico as I didn't want to hit the grunt of the Rockies at their highest point with two new jugs. The last 2 hrs into LA were quite nerve wracking as I had to pass the last bits of the Sierra Nevadas in darkness. It messes with your head knowing you have mountains below you you can't see. I felt very uncomfortable. Night flying over mountains is just not something I want to do much of. When I finally saw the lights of Palm Springs spread out in front of me, I felt like I had been born again! Night landing at home base, El Monte airport.
Crazy Austrian chick refuelling in Arizona. But the price was the lowest on the whole trip - $4.65/gal!
The trip back was pretty uneventful and can best be viewed in these clips, for those who like to endure the torture of hearing my bad R/T. First day:
But we're not finished yet! Oh no - the wallet has yet still to be tapped some more!
My gear down safe light had started to play up and as I flew up to my mechanic to have it looked at, they found a cracked stiffener in the front wheel well. Three weeks and $3200 later I picked her up in Stockton and flew back. A week later on a night flight around LA with a friend, the green light - once again - didn't come on as I extended. Thankfully, you can see the mains lock through the side windows on the Commander, and during daylight hours you can also see the reflection of the front wheel in the spinners. But this was at night, so no way to know if the front was fully extended for sure, but I was pretty confident it was. As we landed I held the nose off as long as I could - thankfully it held. So next day I flew a short trip to a local mechanic who has some Commander experience. He tested the switch and it comes on immediately - it was just out of alignment. Or that's what we thought. As he wheels the old girl into the hangar, the front wheel collapses on the tug and she drops like a rock, crushing the front doors! Obviously something else is wrong. I leave for work abroad the day after, but get the word that there was another bigger crack behind the bearing for the drag brace that keeps the front gear locked. It had gone unnoticed as it was hidden behind a panel. Still, better here than on the runway...
Just after the drop. The guys are sitting on the elevator to lift the nose up so we can extend the front wheel back into position.
Doors bent and crushed and can't be saved. Had to source new ones.
Today, she's been in the shop for almost a month and hopefully I can pick her up later this week. I haven't dared ask what the bill is, but I don't think it will be a penny under $5K…
This incident has prompted me to modify my landing technique. I used to keep the front wheel off as long as possible and when the elevator stopped flying, she would drop the front back onto the runway. I don't think that was the right thing to do, but it was how I was taught. From now on, I will keep the wheel off, but gently fly her back down just before I run out of elevator. That will hopefully stop the cracking of stiffeners. Who knows, they could have been there for years before, so not entirely sure it was my technique that caused it. Still, better safe than sorry.
Lessons learned? Have lots of money with old airplanes that have had journeyman maintenance. They'll eat you alive if you're not on top of things and can give them a loving home. Hopefully, I'll have taken care of most things that can possibly go wrong by now and she'll give me a trouble free 2012, but somehow I doubt it....
Last edited by AdamFrisch; 29th Dec 2011 at 10:55.
Really nice after Christmas reading......pity about all the $$$ she cost you, but running an old Gulfstream would make your expenditure look like small change. Write a book..... I for one would buy it.
Adam, reading this thread had me bouncing between "we need to give this poor guy an intervention" & utter amazement when seeing the pictures of this fantastic aircraft & reading about your adventures across the North American continent.
Now, that's what I call living!!!
(only suggestion would be to get an instrument rating ASAP - VFR-only is a highly limiting factor, especially in coastal CA)
Hi Adam, wonderful stories and great videos. Keep them coming! I love the old Aero Commanders but will never have the financial wherewithall to do anything more than lust after them
I'm not at all qualified to comment or give advice and you're maybe exaggerating for "artistic" reasons, but I can't help feeling that lots of crash reports start of with scenarios like you describe - scud running's got to be unhealthy...
I'm not at all qualified to comment or give advice and you're maybe exaggerating for "artistic" reasons
Well, I am in the film business after all.... It was pretty bad, but fully legal as I was checking the AWOS's along the way. And when I look at what the guys and girls in Flying Wild Alaska fly around in, then all of a sudden it wasn't so bad in comparison... But scud running is bad practice, for sure.
I wasn't under extreme time pressure to get there and I also kept going just beyond the next airport, fully ready to turn back if it deteriorated further. But it stayed pretty consistent - hazy and rainy and moist, but not trending downwards as I went along. So I kept going. Even though it was at the very limit of what I felt comfortable with. The main interstate road helped enormously for gaging visibility, plus it added the safety if an emergency had to be attempted. And - no towers or aerials get built in the middle of the road...
But it's def put my instrument rating on the fast track and I've just started the ground school now. Will do it in the Commander, even though it's a pain with just one VOR/GS, no DME, no second VOR, no ADF. Thankfully the old GNC 300XL gps can serve as a DME and kind of "virtual VOR".
So, I thought I'd give a six month update from the trenches of dinosaur twin ownership. Maybe it will be interesting for potential aircraft owners to see some real figures and costs. I know I could have used them when I was looking. Last year was rather taxing on the old wallet and I'd hoped all the maintenance I'd done would have gotten her over the "hump" and up to speed for this year. I'm pleased to say it, well, kind of has.
However, the year did not start well.
A generator (I have two) had been bad for awhile and I'd ignored it, half hoping it would go away. It was extra annoying as this was the same gen I'd fixed less than a year ago. Pesky little things. Finally had to bite the bullet and send it off for overhaul. $1300 later it was back on. Then less than a month later my men-with-wrenches dislike the way the right engine's compressions look, so they want to do a top overhaul. I dreaded this, but in the back of my mind I knew it was coming - when you turned the prop you could tell there was only resistance on about half the cylinders. You'd never think it from flying her, though - engine ran strong. Said and done, cylinders sent off for O/H and $3700 later I got the keys back. Just when that sinks in, they find the wrong bulkhead spinner on, unrepairable spinners and cracked exhausts...
I was suffering now - this all coincided with a downturn in work and rubbish finances (I thought the recession was over?) and I wondered if I could keep her at all if things continued like this... But after these initial setbacks, I can say that it looks like we've turned a slight corner. After these repairs we've been on 3 long x-countries - New Orleans, Idaho and Phoenix, AZ, plus numerous local trips. Literally not a single squawk in about 70hrs of flying (except for a tumbling AI). That's a great improvement compared to last year.
Then the wrench-men said I needed a tire on the left hand side. Not too bad - about $300 for the tire and tube and then some labour. As I come back for an oil change a couple of weeks later, they think it's time for the right as well - another $500 all in, now close to $1000 in total. As we dismantle, the brake pads are really thin. Damn - these are the pain-in-the-a** Goodyear pads that are expensive to get hold of. If it had been Cleveland I could have bought the pads at Target with my groceries. The wrench-men think they're too worn, but my Commander-guru swears I've got at least 40 more landings on them, so we put it back together. That was 10 landings ago....
I've ordered the pads, but they won't arrive anytime soon as it's some old geezer down in Florida who moves at his own pace... In the meantime I do no-brake landings and roll out forever to the annoyance of the tower controllers. I curse the designers for not installing thrust reversers .
Price for pads the size of a small box of mints? $700. I'm in the wrong business....
Two new tires. And a series of unfortunate events leading to the discovery of worn brake pads - and a cauldron of dollar bills lost and deathly angst.
Literally the next landing I do, when I finally have to brake, the pedals go to the floor. I glance over to the hydraulic pressure gauge - it reads zero. Thanfully I can hand pump my way back to my tie down spot (hydraulics run everything on a Commander - breaks, flaps, steering, gear). As I step out this is what I find in the left nacelle:
Pools of hydraulic liquid at the bottom of nacelle. The line in the foreground had burst. Glad it happened on the ground.
Toyed with the idea of ferrying her down to my mechanics with the gear out, but sensibly decided against it with no brakes... Measured the hydraulic lines and had them make up new ones. They'd have to come to me this time.
Picked wizard Ken up and we drove to airport to have them replaced. Thankfully, the lines were in the open back part of nacelle, so access was really good. Done in an hour, but messy work.
Cost? Don't know, haven't gotten the bill yet. But the lines are about $50 to have made up plus labour. Doubt it will be less than $300.
Laying in the back forever, behind the rear seat, were two new middle row windows that I'd picked up from my old mechanic. Some guy had ordered the wrong part and I got them for $400, which is kind of cheap when it comes to windows, believe it or not. I had procrastinated and avoided the task, but finally pulled myself together and changed them. Was surprisingly straightforward. Couple of screws, some silicone goo and wollop - done. Best of all - I didn't even have to pay myself minimum wage.
What a difference! Madness to wait so long before changing....
Also, safely stuffed in my basement is a whole set of flaps and cowlings I managed to squirrel away from an old 520 they were breaking up. RIP N2600B. Flew to Arizona to pick them up and fitted them all in the plane. Pretty good price. Mine are not too bad, but the cowlings especially are starting to get some surface corrosion, so it's good to have an extra pair.
Yes, the flaps all fitted in the Jag!
So, so far this year, this is what we've spent in about 100hrs of flying:
My batting average is getting better. But this is the kind of ballpark stuff you'll encounter as an owner of old airplanes. Obviously, if you own a simpler single engine aircraft, your costs are probably lower. But notice how nothing of the above really is related to the fact that it's a twin - it could just as easily have been applied to an old single.
As of now I'm waiting for an overhauled AI at $595 and hopefully after that all squawks should be addressed. It won't last, of course, but hope springs eternal...
Things that don't cost money:
Had I known what a royal PITA it is to polish spinners, I would have left them dirty!
Sunday wash. After I'd slaved away at it for 6 hours, an airplane detailing guy comes up to me and says "you know, I can do all that plus wax it for $125". Done deal! No brainer, as they say here. Never doing this again.
Lying under the wing scratching your a**e for an entire day is thankfully also free.
Scrubs up nicely, at least from afar .
I'll let you know how badly the budget's been crushed next year!
Happy flying, people. Have yourself a great 2012!
Last edited by AdamFrisch; 15th Jul 2012 at 15:31.
Great read again Adam. On the plus side you are flying, 100 hours, bringing that cost down relatively. At 80 pounds an hour, for upgrade and maintenance that's not too bad. When is the annual due? And what do you pay for the annual check, roughly?
Liked your new windows, reminds me I must get some of mine changed.
Annual is in Sept. No squawks, it's probably around $4000 (£2600). Last year it was $7000 (£4500), but then they found some things. This year there's already talk of changing some of the fuel lines as they look a bit ragged, so it's probably going to be closer to the higher number...
But there literally is no ceiling when we're talking airplanes. The paint job is in a terrible state, really needs to be addressed. Cheapest quote I got was for $18K!!! No way I can do that. I'll have to strip her ($6K) and polish her myself with a toothbrush. Or fly her down to Mexico and have it done there.
New interior? Minimum of $5K. New panel? The sky's the limit. In fact, I had great plans to swap my old giant WWII-era AI for something sleek and new when it started tumbling and giving me troubles. Until I checked the prices, that is. Then suddenly an O/H price at $595 look like the best deal ever had. Besides, those old military spec AI's work well. They were made at a time "when America was great" as he put it. He has a point. No need to chase the newest all the time.
The above costs are often what you have great hopes and plans to do when you're a new owner, but the reality is that most of your money gets funnelled in to maintenance and unless you have deep pockets, the cosmetic stuff will suffer. One day, right?
Last edited by AdamFrisch; 15th Jul 2012 at 16:03.
A scene from Gran Torino springs to mind, looking at those last few pictures: Clint Eastwood slumped in his deck chair, under the porch, gazing over the driveway at his shining vintage Ford: "Ain't she lovely", he says quietly to himself.