Searching for the Perfect Bonanza

For many years I have considered the advantages that owning a personal aircraft might provide and about five years ago, I set a personal goal of owning an aircraft by the time I was fifty years old. I joked many times with my wife that when I had my mid-life crisis, it would be an airplane, not a sports car or a mistress, that would steal my heart. However, buying an airplane is an important investment decision and a task that should not be taken lightly. The process of actually locating and acquiring that perfect aircraft can be overwhelming.

When I finally made the decision that I was “in the market” for an airplane, I had no idea how time-consuming a process it would be. I had already set a budget and I knew what kind of airplane I wanted. So, the rest should be easy, right? I subscribed to Controller, Trade-a-Plane, Barnstormers, Aircraft Shopper Online, etc. I was being bombarded daily with v-tail Bonanzas. Some of them were dismissed immediately because they were burnt orange or mustard yellow – colors that I do not like. Others were also quickly rejected because of years of obvious neglect or a panel full of avionics that had not been updated since the 1960’s. The more time I spent searching, the more I realized that it was going to be difficult to find an airplane that checked all the boxes unless I was willing to spend a lot more money, or settle for something less. In fact, the first quarter of 2018 was perhaps one of the more stressful periods in my life due to my decision to start looking for an airplane. During the process, however, I did learn a lot about what to do and what not to do.

In mid-January, I came across two similar aircraft that interested me. One was a 1960 M35 located in southern Virginia and the other was a 1963 P35 in southern California. Both of these airplanes were being offered in the mid to upper $50,000 range. In addition to similar price points, they both shared 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 and 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 of any kind and an inoperative Brittain autopilot that would require replacement.

1963 P35 Bonanza

1963 P35

I contacted the broker for the 1963 P35 and we spoke at length about the airplane. He admitted that 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. Not to digress, but this scenario actually plays out quite frequently. It is incumbent upon aircraft owners to proactively draw up a plan (and share it with their spouse) for how to handle the disposition of the aircraft after an untimely death. I expressed concerns to the broker about the high-time engine and the fact that it had sat for the past couple of years, as well as the serviceability of the autopilot. He responded by saying, “It’s a 55-year old airplane. What do you expect?” I also asked about the logs and he indicated that they were all in order. A few days later, I spoke with the broker again and this time, he had a completely different story about the history of the airplane 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 from what he had told me just days earlier and he hung up the telephone on me. I then reached out to one of my colleagues in California who is also an owner-pilot based at the same airport as this broker. After telling him the story, he laughed and told me that he was not surprised as he had heard similar stories about this broker over the years. Despite my concerns about the ethics of the broker, I figured that I may as well make an offer contingent upon a thorough pre-buy inspection. The aircraft was based at an airport that is home to very well respected ABS shop which I wanted to utilize for this pre-buy. Unfortunately, upon contacting the shop, they indicated that they would not be able to get me in for a pre-buy inspection for at least two months. This was absolutely unacceptable to the broker. Time to move on.

1960 M35 Bonanza

1960 M35

I started to focus my attention on the 1960 M35 in Virginia. I emailed the broker with some preliminary questions and also left a voicemail message for him. After two days, no response. I have that brokers are 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 tirekickers. Needless to say, it’s frustrating when they don’t want to give you the time of day. After multiple attempts, I finally did make contact with the broker and he actually ended up being a nice guy. Several conversations later, he emailed me scans of the logbooks which I reviewed carefully along with another 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. The offer was accepted after some negotiation and the reality started to set in that I may actually become an airplane owner.

Scheduling a pre-buy inspection was the next challenge. The owner did not want the aircraft flown to a shop away from his home airport. Only one mechanic was 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-certified mechanic within 150 miles and none of them were interested in traveling to do the pre-buy except for one, Lou Pugliese. Lou indicated a willingness to travel, but his schedule would not open up for about a month. Initially, this time frame was not received well by the seller and his 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 the mechanic, I was convinced that using him would be a mistake. The seller suggested that I just accept the annual inspection, which he was about to do, as a proxy for the pre-buy. I knew that would 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 the annual inspection as soon as the seller had hoped. As a result, I was able to schedule Lou Pugliese to do the pre-buy as the annual was being completed.

On the day of the pre-buy, I traveled to Virginia to meet the broker, my mechanic and the seller’s mechanic. The day would prove to be a fantastic educational experience for me. Although I did not ultimately end up purchasing this airplane, I am glad that I spent the time and money to go through this process. As I approached the shop where the airplane was having its annual inspection, I was full of excitement. I was going to get the first look, in-person, at what might be my new airplane. However, as I approached the airplane, 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 Lou Pugliese from Flying Leaf Aviation in Asheboro, North Carolina, was a wealth of knowledge. He took the time to explain everything that he was looking at, why he was looking at it, and what the short and long-term implications were of everything that 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 that was just completed. This, of course, did not instill confidence with regards to the quality of recent maintenance. One of the bigger ticket items that Lou uncovered was a leaking fuel bladder in the right main fuel tank. When this was pointed out, the broker said, “Oh yeah, the seller told me about that. He just never fills the tanks past 2/3 full and its 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. I was not sure if I should just walk away from the deal, or if perhaps this was as good as it was going to get. I needed guidance, but was not sure where to turn.

While trying to gather as much information as I could from sites such as the American Bonanza Society and, I became aware of Randy Africano, a buyer’s agent that specializes in the acquisition of Bonanzas and Barons. I decided to take a chance and reach out to Randy via email to see if he might be able to offer some guidance regarding the purchase of 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 based on my experience. I have not paid retail for an airplane like this in over 2 years. You should NOT buy this airplane… if you put a 0 SMOH engine in the airplane it will be worth LESS than what you are going to pay for the plane today. Are you working with a broker on this plane? If you are, who is the broker? I ask simply because you are getting taken advantage of…

Lou is one of the best Beech guys I know. I am certain your pre-buy was done with care… but its the wrong airplane for you financially.

I am in a pre-buy for a client today but you can call me tonight at my cell number below.

After a lengthy telephone conversation with Randy, I decided to walk away from this airplane, despite the investment of time and money, and engage Randy’s services.

I signed an agreement retain Randy Africano as my buyer’s agent on February 14, 2018. Randy stated that it would take approximately 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. Airplanes listed with brokers are often misrepresented and 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, everything changed. Now, more than ever, it is critical to only purchase only those airplanes that can best maintain their value. Randy was searching for a needle in a haystack.

1975 V35B Bonanza

1975 V35B

Ironically, just a week after signing my agreement to retain Randy’s services, I found out that 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, leather interior, and decent paint. I immediately contacted Randy, and we both agreed that if I could get the airplane for the right price, it might be a great situation for me. Because the airplane was based at KABE, I told Randy I would go take detailed photos of the airplane as well as scanning the engine and airframe logs so that he could review them.

Opening the engine compartment of this airplane revealed what appeared to be a fairly new engine. The heir that was selling the airplane stated, “Yes, the engine was overhauled less than two years ago.” I couldn’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. However, the engine was not overhauled, but rather just refitted with a new case. So, despite the fact that the engine had been removed from the airplane and the case split open, the owner had decided against an overhaul. Clearly the owner was taking a cheap approach with regards to the engine maintenance. Randy was very skeptical what other items may have been deferred over the years as well.

Based on this information, we made an offered that reflected a virtually run-out engine. However, the seller declined our offer and eventually sold the airplane several months later through a listing on Barnstormers.

At this point, I was starting to think I would never get an airplane. I would scour the airplanes for sale online and send ones to Randy that I thought might be viable. 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…”

1965 C33 Debonair

1965 C33 Debonair

During the third week of March, Randy emailed me a link to a listing on Trade-a-Plane. He said that the airplane was being sold by the owner and not through a broker. It appeared to be a pretty good airplane, although it did have 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, Randy proceeded with caution and we made a nearly full price offer which was verbally agreed to by the seller. Randy had included several contingencies in the purchase agreement to protect me in the event that the airplane was not as advertised.  The seller ultimately rejected our offer because of those contingencies. Another red flag. So close, yet so far.

1962 P35 Bonanza

1962 P35

One evening in late March, Randy calls me and asks me to go to my computer and check my email. In the email was the photo to the left of this paragraph. He said, “I think this is the one.” He had just gotten off of the telephone with the owner who had recently lost his medical, but had 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. However, the seller thought his airplane was worth considerably more. Over the next few weeks, Randy convinced the seller that he had a qualified buyer that would be a good steward of the airplane that he had owned and loved for the past 26 years. The airplane looked great from the photos and checked nearly all of the boxes. We made an offer and it was accepted on April 13th. Randy, once again, wrote a VERY detailed purchase agreement that covered all the bases and protected me in the event that the airplane was not as represented.

The next step was to arrange for the pre-purchase inspection. The airplane was based near Sacramento, California. Randy made all of the arrangements for the inspection. I wanted the inspection done by Honeycutt Aviation, which was not too far from where the airplane was based. Randy spoke with Dan Honeycutt several times, but Dan just could not fit it into his schedule. He pointed us to Mather Aviation at Mather Field in Sacramento and we scheduled the inspection for Monday, April 30th. I was a bit skeptical at first about using this shop, as it was not on my list of 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 in Ron Sanow of Expert Aircraft Solutions (an ABS Center of Excellence) to come and assist with the inspection. Ron wrote the ABS Flight Control Rigging Guide, so that should indicate his level of expertise! Eric and Ron spent two full days thoroughly checking everything on the airplane while Randy supervised their inspection. 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.

Aram & Randy with the new Bonanza!

I flew in on Tuesday to see the airplane first hand and was overwhelmed. The aircraft was so much more impressive in person. The pictures did not do it justice. 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 Randy and I in detail, but indicated that 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 aircraft 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 the perfect Bonanza without the assistance of Randy Africano and I will always be grateful that he talked me out of that original M35 just two months prior. So, if you are searching for your perfect Bonanza, the best advice I can offer is to call Randy Africano. You won’t be disappointed.