Diary of an aircraft owner
By Paul Jansen
The fried flour pancake sat on the plate in front of me. The knife and fork in my hands were poised to reduce the prata into bite-sized morsels. But my mouth was open for a different reason.
My breakfast companion had just tossed off what was – to him – a little tidbit of news at the Jalan Kayu restaurant in the Seletar suburb of Singapore.
“The Youth Flying Club is selling its fleet of Pipers.”
The club in question was the Singapore Youth Flying Club (SYFC), an initiative by the Singapore Government. Established and operated, initially by the Defence Ministry, to introduce kids to flying, it allowed selected teenagers to get a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) at practically zero cost. The club was also a breeding ground for air force pilots.
The plane of choice for the fleet was the four-seater Piper PA28-161. Acquired in 1989, it was the improved (post-1983) version, the Warrior II.
What my breakfast companion and flying friend was off-handedly telling me was that the youth flying club was selling its aircraft piecemeal rather than in a block tender. This came as a surprise as I was expecting, as many others did, that the latter was a “cleaner” process with none of the messy negotiations surrounding individual sales.
Having concluded that any divestment of aircraft by the club would take the enbloc tender bidding route, I had been looking elsewhere for a good buy.
My search really started when I was in primary school. Bicycles, motorbikes, cars and boats had no grip on me. When I day-dreamed, I dreamed of flying my own aircraft. The details of this aspiration was, at first, fuzzy. Then they coalesced, thanks to “Biggles” books and the epic tales of the Spitfires and Hurricanes of World War II: It had to have low wings and be propeller-driven.
As the years passed, the day-dream filled the spaces between the brain cells which focused on earning a living, saving for the future, making a mark, and all the activities occupying our waking hours.
Then in 2004, businessman Victor Lim Kee Liew who heads Asian Micro Holdings and had taken up flying for sport, re-introduced me to the pleasures of flying, after a break of close to 30 years. He encouraged me to fly his three experimental category Quicksilver MX II “microlights”. One thing led to another and I went from getting a “Restricted” PPL for experimental aircraft to a full PPL.
But the notion of owning a plane remained one of those distant desires, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, or swimming with the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef. After all, the clubs I joined had aircraft I could rent. Then I decided to take a break from work and spend more time flying. But there were limitations to what I could do with club planes and how long I could take one out. Suddenly, the dream of owning an aircraft became a conscious effort to acquire one.
At first, I considered getting an experimental aircraft. They were two-seaters, easy to fly, and relatively cheap to own depending on the model you got. The Quicksilvers were around US$18,000. Furthermore, the ones I was short-listing were exciting to captain because of their open fuselage. But as my flying took me further, my search for the ideal plane widened to General Aviation (GA) aircraft with their longer range and additional seating.
With new 4-seaters costing S$380,000 and up, I turned to Aircraft Shopper Online, Barnstormers, eBay, trade-a-plan, and others for “pre-loved” ones instead. But the interesting listings all had one major drawback: they were located far away in the United States, Canada and Britain. This made it hard to check them myself. It also meant that I was likely to have greater difficulty in chasing for any documents discovered missing after I had bought the plane, exported it and submitted it for registration.
So I looked closer too: in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. But not for one moment did I look in my veritable backyard: the Singapore Youth Flying Club. Now, the news from Anthony Cheong across the breakfast table took me some seconds to digest.
In 1989, the club replaced its fleet of Cessna 172s and AT-6 Airtourers with 12 Piper Warriors. A generation of youth later, it was set to do this again, replacing the Pipers with 13 Diamond DA40 aircraft. I grabbed my iPhone and messaged William Lee, president of the Johor Flying Club, who had also been assisting me in my search over the past year.
It transpired that William had known about the sale for some days. But he had not thought to inform me as we had concentrated on makes and models which were more spacious or powerful: Rockwell Commander 114s, Piper Archer IIs, Grumman American Tigers. He had assumed I would not be interested in the SYFC aircraft.
But they met two of my criteria: easy to inspect and likely to have all the paperwork in order (or easy to track down). The race was on. I knew that the very reasons the SYFC aircraft appealed to me would also be the same ones which would quickly draw other buyers.
I was right. By the time I got the spec and price list, several of the aircraft had been snapped up. However, one that was still available caught my eye: 9V-BOE.
Like the others, the 8,200 total airframe hours was relatively high compared to privately-owned aircraft. However, the Avco Lycoming 0-320-D3G 160HP flat-four engine had been overhauled and “zero-timed” recently, stretching its lifespan for another 2,000 hours.
Better yet, it was one of only four fully-equipped for Instrument Flying and came with an Electronic Horizontal Situation Indicator (EHSI), one of only two with this. The EHSI has several advantages over the conventional electro-mechanical HSI: it is said to be more sturdy, capable of displaying more data and doing this in colour which helps the pilot interpret them more easily. Of course, these were factored into the price. “My” 9V-BOE was listed at double the selling price of the non-IFR planes.
An appointment was made with the Seletar Airport-based club through the helpful Mr Teng Kim Hai, Executive Director of MAJ Aviation, the sales agent, and I quickly made my way there. By then, plane fever had spread to William and another friend, Shane Lim, who joined me.
The condition of the hanger gave us an idea of what to expect from the planes: It was spotless, with tools neatly tucked away, equipment well marked, and staff smartly dressed. We were not disappointed. Roger Lee, another pilot friend who had come along, opened the front cowling of one of the available Pipers and coughed dramatically. Pointing to the engine compartment, he said: “There’s less oil here than on my face!”
That may have been an overstatement, but the aircraft had obviously been well looked after by Lim Sek Khoon and the rest of the maintenance team at the SYFC.
Not unexpectedly. Singapore parents, like others elsewhere, dote on their children. And since this was a Government-operated club, safety was especially important and this translated into a very high quality of care for the machines.
That did not mean there were no issues with the planes. Some had suffered minor incidents during student training and others were close to requiring an engine overhaul. But, by and large, they represented good value.
A few more trips ensued over the next fortnight – to narrow our choices, talk to the club’s Operations Manager, Colonel (Retired) Willie Chow, and inspect the books.
It took us a day to go through just three – the Airframe Log, the Engine Log and the Propeller log. Because these were fleet aircraft, some applications for modifications were made jointly for some aircraft, and some were made singly. Sometimes, propellers were exchanged after re-conditioning. And so on.
These changes all had to be fully-documented. And we had to make sure we had all the paperwork for these for each of our planes. (As it turned out, later we still had to seek the maintenance company’s help to locate additional documents.)
Then it was time for cheque-signing and handshakes. We had each purchased a Piper. But it wasn’t time to break out the champagne yet.
A fortnight later, our Pipers were ready to be flown to the Sultan Ismail International Airport (WMKJ), also known as Senai International Airport, in Johor, Malaysia. A Civil Aviation Authority officer from Singapore met us at Seletar Airport and performed some formalities before we could take off.
A friend, Singapore Airlines pilot Ted Cheng, and I, flew 9V-BOE from Seletar to Senai. The CAAS officer travelled by car to the Senai airport and met us there to ensure that the three aircraft were properly removed from the Singapore register. This included more paperwork, as well as removing the plaques identifying SYFC as the operator of the Pipers, and painting over of the registration marks on the fuselage.
We had earlier sought and successfully obtained the Malaysian authorities permission to bring the Pipers into the country. We got import permits and found a local company, ADmal, to shepherd the planes through the registration process.
Now, things were in train. The aircraft had to be checked. Weighed and balanced. The electrical load calculated. Radios needed approving. Logbooks pored over all over again and the paperwork for all major repairs and modifications assembled, or if missing, tracked down and collated. Johor Flying Club president Lee, who had experience in importing planes, was of immense help in anticipating problems and finding solutions.
It was an exciting moment when we obtained the Certificate of Registration for the planes. We could now put our call signs on the aircraft.
More thorough checks lie ahead. Flight tests have to be done and so on. Understandably so, as flying machines are sophisticated vehicles. Only after all these checks are satisfactorily completed will we be ready to submit our applications for the Certificates of Airworthiness, without which no plane is allowed to fly.
Those who knew about my lengthy search for a more powerful and newer aircraft than a Piper PA28-161 asked me why I appeared to settle for less. I find it difficult to explain that I did not. That there was something about the modest 9V-BOE that spoke to my heart. As the pilot-philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupery noted:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.
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