Looks Sweet, Tastes Sour

Resources > Savvy Stories > Looks Sweet, Tastes Sour

When Denver-based Theo first contacted Savvy about doing a prebuy, he identified himself as a first-time airplane buyer but said he knew exactly the aircraft he wanted to buy and was ready to make an offer. Theo was on a limited budget and had been looking at older Mooneys. He’d found a Colorado-based 1966 Mooney M20C—asking price $42,000—and asked us if we could manage a prebuy for him.

Before pulling the trigger on this, we asked Theo to provide scanned copies of the Mooney’s logbooks so that we could perform a preliminary review (something we do at no charge). Savvy’s Tony Barrell A&P/IA went through them and told Theo he didn’t think this was a great purchase candidate.

For one thing, the aircraft had been in an incident less than a year after it rolled off the production line, when a 23-year-old pilot ground-looped it into a drainage ditch while trying to land at Colorado Springs in a gusty 28-knot crosswind. It was impossible to tell from the maintenance records how extensive the damage was or whether it had been repaired properly.

Another concern was a big multi-year gap in the logbooks during which there was no record of the maintenance on or activity/inactivity of the aircraft. That made Tony a little uneasy.

Finally, Tony felt that this Mooney’s 180-horsepower normally-aspirated engine might be a bit underpowered at Denver’s mile-high field elevation. So, Tony recommended that Theo look for another purchase candidate.

Second Attempt

Not long afterwards, Theo asked Tony to review another Mooney. This one was a 1964 M20E being offered for sale by a broker in Phoenix, Arizona. Asking price was $41,900. The broker’s web page featured lots of pretty photos, with ad copy that read, “This E-model is fast, efficient, and affordable! The most sought-after short-body Mooney because of its 200 hp IO-360. Its great climb rate, cruise speed, and useful load makes this the perfect X/C aircraft.”

Now, if you’re looking to buy an older all-metal airplane, Arizona is a great place to find one because corrosion is outlawed by statute. But as Tony went through the Mooney’s maintenance records, it quickly became obvious that this 56-year-old airplane had spent its first five decades living outdoors on a tiedown in North Carolina. Worse, it hadn’t been terribly active and the engine logbook revealed once-a-year oil changes at the annual inspection and no preventive maintenance between annuals.

The Lycoming IO-360 had been last overhauled in 1987 (33 years ago). The handwritten logbook entry made it clear that the overhaul had been done “on the cheap”—by an A&P mechanic (NOT a certified repair station), to service limits (NOT new limits), using continued-time channel-chromed cylinders, a reground cam, reground lifters, and the original crankshaft and crankcase.

Tony told Theo that this M20E looked like a more worthy candidate than the M20C, but he was a bit spooked by its five decades of living outdoors in North Carolina, it’s once-a-year oil changes, and its 33-year-old el-cheapo overhaul. However, it became apparent that Theo was in love with this airplane and considered the prebuy a mere formality. He said he wanted to move ahead with a prebuy, and Tom Cooper A&P/IA—another of Savvy’s most seasoned account managers with more than 30 years of experience—was assigned to manage it.

Scheduling a Prebuy

No sooner had Tom introduced himself, Theo sent Tom a copy of the purchase/sale agreement he’d just signed with the Phoenix broker. “You will note the intention is to conclude the sale within 10 days,” Theo told Tom. “The aircraft is at Falcon Field (KFFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. Other than photos I have not seen nor flown the aircraft.”

Now, 10 days is an almost impossibly short timeframe to schedule and complete a thorough independent prebuy examination. Most competent shops are booked up for months in advance, and persuading them to shoehorn a prebuy into their shop schedule is not easy since it usually means delaying an annual inspection for a regular customer, something that most shops are understandably reluctant to do.

The first shop Tom contacted (in Glendale, Arizona) responded that they no longer work on Mooneys. The broker gave Theo the names of four mechanics at Falcon Field, but Tom ruled them out because Savvy has a strict rule against having prebuys done by any mechanic who has a relationship with the seller or the seller’s broker (since such a prebuy is hardly independent).

Ultimately, Tom contacted a shop in Chandler, Arizona that Savvy had used before with excellent results, and they agreed to do the prebuy. The broker agreed to deliver the plane to the Chandler shop the next day.

Scope and Detail

Tom’s next challenge was to define the scope and detail of the examination. He asking the Chandler shop’s Director of Maintenance (DOM) for an estimate to conduct a prebuy exam in accordance with the Mooney annual inspection checklist plus a borescope inspection of the cylinders. The DOM quote to do this was over $3,000 which was more than Theo was comfortable paying.

Tom then proposed using a shorter (53-item) checklist that would involve about half as much labor as the full annual checklist. Theo agreed to this. The DOM asked Tom to define “any items the buyer would consider a show stopper, causing me to stop the examination and report back to you.” At Tom’s suggestion, Theo agreed that the prebuy should be paused if the shop discovered any airworthiness discrepancies that were likely to cost more than $1,000 to repair.


A few hours later, the DOM reported back to Tom:

All the steel components of the airframe have surface rust. If I were doing the annual inspection on this airplane, I wouldn’t approve it for return to service without sanding/priming or replacing numerous parts and hardware. I have not yet reviewed the logbooks, but there’s a rather costly Mooney service bulletin calling for inspection of the steel structure that was written specifically for planes like this one. It appears to have been living in a humid/coastal environment.” The DOM attached a half-dozen photographs illustrating the plane’s corrosion issues.

“The engine has three chrome and one steel cylinder, and all look good under the borescope,” the DOM continued. “The oil pressure relief valve adjustment is screwed all the way in, which raises a concern. Flexible fuel and oil hoses appear homemade and appear quite dated. We’ll finish up today at 4 pm. Let me know by tomorrow morning if you want me to continue with the examination.

Tom asked the DOM to write up his findings so far, together with repair estimates for each airworthiness discrepancy found. The DOM provided a 64-item discrepancy list. Here is just some of what he found:

  • Left fuel tank drain leaking  $50.
  • Fuel leaks on intake tube.  $100.
  • Oil leaks in several locations.  $500.00
  • Surface rust and engine mount bolts rusted and old.  $800.
  • Cylinder #2 leaking oil at exhaust port. $1,000.
  • Aileron rod ends have excessive play.  $200.
  • Non standard magneto switch. $500.
  • FAR 91.411 /.413 certs expired.  $800.  (Anticipating static system leaks due to age.)
  • All exterior AN bolts heavily rusted, recommend replacement.  $1,000.
  • Parking brake cylinder leaking.  $300
  • Cabin door doesn’t open properly, may be bent, needs adjustment.  $100.
  • TSO tags missing on Aft seat belts.  $500.
  • Brake line fittings rusted, old hoses.  $600
  • Corrosion on wheels apparent. Need to disassemble to determine extent.  If corrosion found excessive, $2,000.
  • All gear actuating push-pull tubes rusted, need to treat.  May require replacement, $3,000.
  • Surface corrosion throughout interior wing skins and fuselage.  Clean and apply Corrosion X for aluminum treatment.  
  • Additional inspection of steel structure recommended per Mooney service bulletin.  Additional expense if hardware replacement necessary,    $2,000.
  • Two large wasp nests removed from Aft spar at flap actuator area.
  • One mud daubber nest attached to Aft side of main spar carry through. 
  • Too much dirt in center section to properly inspect.  $500.
  • Flap actuator and flap pump leaking heavily.  $500.
  • Flap hydraulic hoses dry and hard. $200.
  • All rudder and elevators attachment hardware rusted.
  • Trim mechanism lacking grease and lube.  $300.
  • No weight and balance data available.  If re-weigh and equipment list need to be recreated, add $1,000.
  • Cylinder #1 intake leak. $100
  • Oil drain-back return lines all leaking, replace. $300.
  • Front crankshaft seal leaking.  $400.
  • Oil pressure relief valve adjustment  leaking.
  • Rust on elevator counterweight rivets.  $400
  • Static wicks broken at rudder.  $100
  • Rust on rudder control actuator bracket.  $700    
  • Rust on baggage door handle.  $100.
  • Rust on cabin door handle.  $100.
  • Rust on all landing gear trunions. Recommend further inspection and disassembly to determine extent.  Remove clean and inspect and prime / paint. $3,000.   (If replacement is required, additional costs will apply.)
  • Rust on elevator push-pull rods and actuating bellcrank aft of battery box.  $2,000
  • Rust on engine mount, sand and prime. $300.
  • Rust on valve covers.  $200.
  • Cylinders #2 & #4 intake gasket leaking.  $100.
  • Engine ground cable to engine truss loose and appears to be automotive.  $200.
  • Baggage door hinges extremely worn.  $1,000.
  • Baggage door hold-open inop.  $500.
  • Instrument system filters dirty.  $200.
  • R/H fuel sending unit leaking.  $500.
  • L/H fuel line at fuselage leaking.  $500.
  • Battery will not hold charge.  $500.
  • Engine last overhauled Dec. 11, 1987. No mention in logbook of required component overhauls at time of engine overhaul (fuel system, Ignition system, etc.).
  • Based on appearance of wing skins, several skins in left wing appear to have been replaced (less surface corrosion).


“I have carefully read through the discrepancy list,” Tom reported to Theo. “The shop has done a great job of inspecting this aircraft. The DOM’s Mooney experience is obvious. I have to conclude this aircraft has been poorly maintained and was basically flown into the ground.”

“If you decide to purchase this airplane,” Tom continued, “be prepared for a long-term project that will be very costly. My recommendation is  to walk away from this aircraft and look for another that is airworthy and won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Sorry but I can not recommend this aircraft.”

After striking out on his first two tries—the 1966 Mooney M20C and the 1964 Mooney M20E—Theo has now asked Savvy to review the logbooks of a 1960 Piper PA-24 Comanche. Good luck, Theo!

While none of these airplanes would be our first choice recommendation for a first-time aircraft owner, Theo seems determined to find a high-performance single priced around $40,000. His decision to utilize Savvy’s nationwide prebuy management program (SavvyPrebuy) has at least prevented him from getting into a money pit that he can’t climb out of.

It is remarkably common for inexperienced buyers like Theo to become smitten with an aircraft based on an online ad featuring slick ad copy and color photos of nice-looking paint and interior. Sometimes it’s hard for us to convince the buyer that what they really should be focusing on is what’s going on under the paint, cowlings and floorboards. An independent prebuy that is thorough and performed by a knowledgeable inspector with an experienced set of eyes is the only way of knowing whether the apple of the buyer’s eye is a peach or a lemon.

Savvy manages literally hundreds of these prebuys every year. Our team of seasoned A&P/IAs have seen plenty of peaches and lemons, and are experts at advising buyers when to buy, walk away, or drive a harder bargain. If you’re in the market for an aircraft, wouldn’t you benefit by having Savvy arrange, manage and interpret the results of your prebuy and advise you what your next move should be? Learn more about our Prebuy Inspections included in SavvyMX.

You bought a plane to fly it, not stress over maintenance.

At Savvy Aviation, we believe you shouldn’t have to navigate the complexities of aircraft maintenance alone. And you definitely shouldn’t be surprised when your shop’s invoice arrives.

Savvy Aviation isn’t a maintenance shop – we empower you with the knowledge and expert consultation you need to be in control of your own maintenance events – so your shop takes directives (not gives them). Whatever your maintenance needs, Savvy has a perfect plan for you: