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Diary of an aircraft owner
By Paul Jansen
To start a Piper Warrior II, you turn the ignition key from OFF, past two stops representing the RIGHT and LEFT magnetos, and a third stop for BOTH magnetos, before reaching the START marker.
This fires the electric starter motor which kicks the 160 hp Lycoming 0-320-D3G carburetted 4-cylinder engine into fire-breathing life.
The gap between OFF and START is about an inch. On April 23, 2011, that inch represented a quantum leap from dream to reality. That day, when I turned the key, I moved from dreaming about owning a plane to becoming one of the lucky few that did.
I had a bill of sale and had even flown the Piper from Seletar airport (WSSL) to Senai (WMKJ) and later to Subang (WMSA) months before this. But it had not been certified for full and free movement by Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA). Until that happened, 9M-PRJ was more of a promise than a plane. The transition had come just three days earlier, on April 20, 2011, when the DCA granted 9M-PRJ a Certificate of Airworthiness.
I received this news from Syed Ramdan of Admal, the company I had hired to help shepherd the Piper through the process of moving from the Singapore registry of aircraft to the Malaysian one. It had taken about five and a half months.
There are moments in an aviator’s life which are more memorable than others. The first time you are allowed to handle the controls. Your first solo. Passing the final handling test. Taking your first passenger. For me, cranking the engine after getting that C of A, ranks with all those previous events.
I was told by a friend that owning a plane is a millstone, not a milestone. From a purely financial viewpoint, I could understand why he felt that way. Factor in insurance, maintenance costs, licensing fees, hangerage, consumables, and so on, and you are going to be out of pocket about three thousand dollars every month. Add compliance with airworthiness directives and replacement of unserviceable equipment, and this figure could go up substantially. Succumb to the desire to fix things that work but bother you aesthetically, like torn seats, cracked plastic, etc, and you may need a new checkbook.
But the figures in your head are drowned by the beating of your heart when the engine you start is in the first plane you own.
I remember the three days from the time I was told about the C of A approval as a blur of activity. Grabbing the first available flight (Tiger) from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur on April 22. Taking 9M-PRJ on April 23 on a short flight from Subang to Ipoh (WMKI) 90 nautical miles to the north and back, to re-acquaint myself with its handling characteristics – I had not flown in it for months. And then taking it back to Senai on April 24.
With me were Anthony Cheong and his wife Brenda Phan. Anthony, like me, had yearned to be a pilot from his boyhood, and had not given up the dream though fate sent him on a different path. His persistence paid off. He got his licence after raising a family, building a career, Brenda ever at his side, supporting his efforts.
We did not make the journey alone. Mr William Lee, president of the Johor Flying Club, joined us. He had bought a Piper Warrior from the Singapore Youth Flying Club at the same time as me. And he had received his C of A for his eponymously-named plane, 9M-LEE, at the same time 9M-PRJ did.
William and I had done our sums separately and came to the same conclusion: While ownership created some burdens, it also gave us flexibility. We could now go where we wanted, when we wanted, and with who we wanted. No guilt about hogging a club plane. No worries about damaging a friend’s aircraft.
Our first trip, in formation, to Ipoh, was made on the spur of the moment.
“Where shall we go?”
“OK, formation of two, take-off in two hours.”
In those three sentences lie the answer to all who are debating about whether to buy or rent. Ownership offers options not easily available to non-owners.
Automobile pioneer Henry Ford knew this. Having put car ownership within the reach of Everyman in America, Ford sought to do the same with airplanes. By 1926, his company had developed a working prototype of the vehicle which would open the skies to the average person just as his Model T had done on the ground.
This was the single-seater Ford Flivver. It was 15 feet long, with a wing span of 22 feet – to meet Ford’s demand that it be able to fit into his office. The wood, steel tube and fabric aircraft was powered by a 3-cylinder, 35-horsepower, engine which gave it a maximum 85 mile-per-hour speed.
Ford’s test pilot was a close friend, Harry Brooks. In 1928, Brooks took a Ford Flivver on a flight from Detroit to Miami. Though he had to make a forced landing 1,200 miles later, in North Carolina, it was still a world record. He had to make another forced landing in Florida. Then, after taking off for the Atlantic Ocean, he crashed just offshore.
Brooks body was never found. Ford took the loss badly. Some say that it led Ford to cancel the project. Certainly, the Depression which occurred shortly after put paid to any chance for its revival. The mass production car changed our lives, made us more mobile physically and socially, connected village to city, and engendered the explosive growth of suburbs. What impact on our lives would a low cost, massively available plane have had?
I think of this a lot. I was a guest of one of Ford’s successors in 1982 and was invited to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, where I saw the original prototype. Built to change the future, it sat alone, its destiny unfulfilled.
In the 8 months since I received the C of A for 9M-PRJ, I have flown it to most parts of Malaysia, and crossed the Straits of Malacca to Padang, Indonesia. To reach the Indonesian town entails a westward climb to 7,000 feet to cross verdant mountains. Suddenly, the Andaman Sea springs into view, a boon for fishermen and a bane when an earthquake in 2004 sent a tsunami crashing into Sumatra.
That trip was bittersweet in several ways. We made new friends whose hometown was still recovering from that tectonic cataclysm. And we lost a colleague who crashed while putting on an aerial display for the Indonesians shortly after arriving from Malaysia.
Joy mixed with sadness too when 9M-PRJ joined Johor Flying Club aircraft to give free rides to children from charity homes.
The children’s excitement was infectious. But the pilot volunteers found it hard to keep smiling when we learned how some of them had been abused by the very people who should have been protecting them in the first place.
On most trips, though, the joy is unadulterated. Especially when I get a chance to do a “Young Eagle” flight: introduce flying to youths who have never had a chance to sit in a light aircraft.
I have found the 22-year-old Piper’s rhythm. There is an easy grace to her movements. I know her “normal” sounds and can detect when she is trying to alert me to some minor ailment. She has taken a hard landing or two. But I am getting better at greasing her onto the runway.
There are no airs about this Piper. No glass cockpit. No air-conditioning. On the ground, on an Equatorial day, she feels like a sauna. But once in the air, she does what she was built for.
She is fun to fly. All those I have taken up in her agree. On long journeys, rear seat passengers, including the very excitable, often quickly fall asleep, so even is her gait, so equable her temperament.
“Situational Awareness” is considered one of the most important qualities needed for a pilot. I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am, each time I walk up to 9M-PRJ, each time I advance the throttle and she leaps into the air, each time I look at a friend in another plane flying alongside, each time I look up into the sky and down at the ground far, far below.
If only Ford had persisted with his Flivver.
Acquaintances often ask me where I can go with the plane. It is a reasonable question for non-pilots. For me, “up” is a destination. To be companion to eagles, floating above mountains, watching a thunderstorm open its floodgates below me, are experiences which buoy me.
In “Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America’s Fall from Grace”, author David Beers offers us his view of how the nascent aerospace industry in California went from limitless possibilities to grinding downsizing.
His autobiography puts his father, an ex-Navy pilot who becomes a Lockheed engineer working on secret projects he cannot discuss with his family, at the centre of the changes. It is a poignant tale.
One episode stands out for me.
After taking a golden handshake, Beers’ father Hal joins friends to share two aircraft: a Beechcraft Bonanza and a Cessna 172. Hal considers himself lucky. After he left, golden handshakes were replaced with layoffs. Now, he has time and the money to enjoy it. Hal takes David up in the C172.
Along the way, he says: “God must have intended Man to fly. Why else would He have made the top of clouds prettier than the bottoms?”
The Piper Warrior II has a 916.5 lb useful load. And she can take you on a 500 nautical mile trip. It all begins by turning the ignition key an inch to the right past three marks. Before I do, I often whisper a prayer that others, many others, will be given the chance to do the same.