Buying a Used Aircraft
The Paperwork Check
You’ve been planning your used aircraft purchase for a long time, and now you’re standing next to a great looking airplane that seems perfect: It fits your purposes, the price is in within your budget, and that new paint job makes it look great on the ramp. All you need to do now is have a mechanic give the airplane a once over and you can sign the check, right? Not so fast!
Much of the value of the used airplane you are about to buy is wrapped up in the paperwork, and doing a detailed records review can save you heartache and money down the road. What records should you examine? What paperwork tasks do you need to be prepared for once you buy the airplane?
The acronym you learned for the documents that must be onboard the aircraft when you got your pilot’s license—ARROW—provides a good starting point for where to begin your records examination. Checking for the presence of the airworthiness certificate, registration, radio station license (if operating or communicating with VHF ground stations outside of the United States), operating limitations, and weight and balance is important, but this is really only scratching the surface. Each one of these documents has some “gotchas” that can turn your used aircraft buying experience into a nightmare. This article will give you the information you need to perform an effective records review and ensure that the paperwork is correct before you go fly.
The airworthiness certificate will have the “N” number, model number, serial number, and certification category of the used aircraft that you are considering purchasing. Each aircraft’s airworthiness certificate is issued by the FAA and remains valid as long as the aircraft is maintained in accordance with the federal aviation regulations and is properly registered. Your job as the buyer of a used aircraft is to make sure that the aircraft has actually been maintained! Here is where some detective work comes into play; you’ll need to apply a very critical eye to the aircraft’s logbooks.
When looking through the logbook of a used aircraft, you’ll need to keep your eyes open for things that look like more than garden variety repairs. The addition or removal of equipment that substantially alters the aircraft from its configuration as originally certified will require a description of the work performed (FAA Form 337—Major Repair or Alteration). While you probably won’t find any entries in the books that describe a damage event like “hit a fence with the right wing,” you may well find verbiage that says something like “reskinned underside of right wing.” Repairs of this nature also require FAA Form 337s, and the absence of those documents should raise red flags.
Look carefully at any additional equipment that appears to have been added to the aircraft. Changes to the airfoil, cowling, control surfaces—anything that changed the used aircraft you are looking at from its original design probably require a supplemental type certificate. That paperwork should be included with the aircraft’s maintenance logbook documentation.
When it comes to ensuring that the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate is indeed valid, making sure that all of the FAA airworthiness directives (AD) for the aircraft have been complied with is of paramount importance. When you have a mechanic look at the airplane you can ask him/her to check the AD compliance status, but it is both useful and educational to also do so yourself. Remember—AD’s are regulatory in nature, so compliance is mandatory no matter what kind of flying you intend to do with your aircraft. If you discover that some AD’s have not been complied with, you’ll want a clear idea of what the cost will be to make the airplane legal before you sign the bill of sale. You can search for ADs at https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/airworthiness_directives/.
The airworthiness certificate for the airplane isn’t something that will change once the sale is complete; it is specific to the aircraft and will be conveyed along with the airplane once the purchase is complete. In fact, since the airworthiness certificate is required to be displayed within view of all occupants, it should never leave the airplane.
The registration of the aircraft is the one document that isn’t transferable with the sale of the aircraft—you’ll have to request a new when by submitting a copy of the bill of sale to the FAA once you buy the airplane. But, that doesn’t mean that the existing registration doesn’t warrant a little scrutiny. The “N” number should match the aircraft, and the name on the registration should be that of the current owner or company. Knowing the registration and ownership history of a used aircraft can be very helpful when you are making that final purchase decision. There are some good services out there, like Aero-Space Reports, that will do full title searches on the used aircraft you looking to buy. If you are an AOPA member, there is a discount you can use on Aero-Space’s services. You can check them out at https://www.aopa.org/go-fly/aircraft-and-ownership/buying-an-aircraft/aircraft-title-and-escrow-services.
Once you’ve signed the bill of sale, you’ll need to make sure that you get a registration application form from your local FAA FSDO. This is an old fashioned carbon copy type form; the white and green copies should be mailed to the FAA while the pink copy should be kept in the aircraft until your permanent registration arrives. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait until the new registration arrives to fly your used airplane; the pink copy acts as a temporary registration and is valid for flights within the United States.
Radio Station License
If you live in the contiguous 48 United States, there is a good chance that the used airplane you are buying won’t have an FCC radio station license, nor does it need one. So long as you are not planning on flying your aircraft outside of the United States, a radio station license is not required as it was in years past. There is an important exception to this rule: If you plan on talking to foreign ground stations, you’ll still need an FCC radio station license. If you live along the northern or southern border of the U.S. and think you might use air traffic services in Canada or Mexico, you’ll need an FCC license for your aircraft.
If the used aircraft you are looking at buying already has an FCC license, you are in luck—radio station licenses are issued to the “N” number and are transferable. Make sure that the registration number depicted on the radio station license matches the registration. If you are going to be flying internationally and need to apply for an FCC radio station license for your aircraft, go to http://wireless.fcc.gov/services/index.htm?job=licensing&id=aircraft_stations for more information.
The regulations say that the “operating limitations,” must be on board the airplane when it is operated, but these will nearly be universally be found in the pilot operating handbook (POH). The pilot’s operating handbook can be considered to be a regulatory document; it contains all of the information, limitations, normal and emergency procedures, and performance data you need to fly the airplane.
Ensuring that the pilots operating handbook that comes with the airplane is the correct one is important. When the aircraft was manufactured it was delivered from the factory with a POH (or AFM) that was for that particular aircraft—the telltale sign that it is the one for the airplane is that it is in a loose leaf binder format that allows for revision. Sometimes, the aircraft’s serial number will be on or inside the cover. The POH that you can buy from your local pilot shop does not meet the requirements of the regulations to have the operating limitations on the aircraft.
Once you get your hands on the POH, check to make sure that it is in good condition and that all of the pages are present. If need be, you may be able to order a new POH from the manufacturer, but this can be expensive. Your used airplane purchase in much better shape if the POH for the airplane is completely present and accounted for.
Weight and Balance
You’ll want to ensure that a current weight and balance document and equipment list is provided with the used aircraft you’ll be looking to purchase. An older used aircraft that hasn’t been weighed since it rolled off of the assembly line should raise some red flags in your mind. Additionally, you’ll want to go through the equipment list line by line; if it doesn’t match what is currently installed in the airplane, get the current owner to obtain a new weight and balance before you buy.