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Zee Plane, Zee Plane 


After selling the boat recently, and taking up flying again with a few lessons, I have been looking to purchase a small plane to make getting back and forth between Birmingham, Alabama and Savannah, Georgia easier, and more fun.

I had narrowed the type of plane down and figured it would take a lot of patience to find one I would want and that would be within my budget. Among the planes I have owned or flown in the past was an eighties model Cherokee Saratoga, a fixed-gear, single-engine, six-seat Piper. As Wikipedia will tell you “The Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six is a series of single engine fixed landing gear light aircraft manufactured in the United States by Piper Aircraft between 1965 and 2007.” The most recent version is called a Piper 6X, or a 6XT for the turbo-charged version.

My criteria for a plane were as follows: first, I needed roominess and the ability to carry two couples or the lovely Laura Lee and a few grandchildren; second, I wanted a fixed-gear, single-engine, naturally aspirated plane which would save enormously on the costs of maintenance, fuel, insurance, and required pilot recurrent training. The last plane I owned was a Beechcraft Baron, a 200-knot twin-engine, retractable-gear, fabulous piece of machinery. My recollection is that I had a cost of about $100 per hour of flying just to cover insurance and required annual training at Flight Safety in Wichita, Kansas. I was ready for a serious downsizing from that type of aircraft.

The Piper 6X fits the bill perfectly. It has a roomy cabin with club seating for four behind the pilot and co-pilot seats. It has a “useful load” of 1,200 lbs., which means it will carry that much weight in fuel, passengers, and luggage. With about 50 gallons or 300 lbs of fuel on board, it will carry 900 lbs. of passengers and luggage for about three hours and cover 450 nautical miles. There is only one other plane in this size and category that will compare to that, and it is the Cessna 206. However, the Cessna is not as roomy or luxurious, lacks the club-seating, and feels very utilitarian in comparison.

So I studied the market for late model 6X’s and got a handle on the prices and equipment for those available. None of them were quite right as they were either overpriced, not in good shape, had too much time on them, or lacked some of the avionics equipment I thought I would need. I assumed I would sit back for awhile, taking flying lessons and slowly getting back into flying. However, about a week ago N881RJ appeared on the market, a beautiful 2005 model with only 800 hours total time that looked to be reasonably priced and have all of the equipment I was looking for. So last week I flew up to Lexington, Kentucky to take a look, and the plane looked perfect. It was listed by a brokerage firm called Airmart in Lexington, which is owned by a gentleman named Grant Sutherlin. I asked around among the aircraft community about him and he has an excellent reputation and is rapidly growing the company that was founded by his parents. He and his company are well-known and respected in the industry, and I felt good dealing with him. By the time I left Lexington, we were working on an offer, and a deal was struck the next day. 

So Monday of this week I drove to Birmingham and Grant had arranged a pilot to fly the plane down for the “pre-buy inspection” on Tuesday. This involves a mechanic going over the engine and airframe very carefully, checking the compression of the cylinders, and making sure the required service has been maintained. I was fortunate to have an old friend who has maintained the planes for the company where I worked for many years perform the inspection. The plane passed with flying colors and the deal was closed yesterday morning.

So yesterday ended up being a whirlwind of activity, and one of the longest days of my life. I had agreed to fly the pilot back to Lexington as I was covering his expenses anyway, and he is a licensed and very good flight instructor. I went to bed at midnight Tuesday planning to sleep until 7 yesterday morning, but I was up at 5 and felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I was busy wiring funds, renting a hanger in Birmingham, moving the plane across the field to buy fuel, waiting to hear that my insurance had been “bound”. etc. It was a hectic morning and we finally got away a couple of hours later than I had hoped.

The pilot/instructor accompanying me is a Frenchman named Laurent. He pronounced his name very carefully and allowed that it was OK to mispronounce his name, but just don’t call him “Larry”. I took that as good cause to call him “Larry” from then on. He knows what he is doing, and if I was learning from scratch, he would be the perfect instructor. But I’m an old dog, and I like to do the checklist the way i do it. So we had to come to some understanding as we went. Laurent is a gentleman and a scholar, and there aren’t many of us left. I learned a lot in two hours of flying with him, and I appreciate his contributions to my safety and knowledge.

When I dropped him in Lexington, there was a further delay dealing with the closing paperwork, which meant I was destined to arrive back in Savannah after dark. After everything was done, I suffered a pretty serious loss of self-confidence when I realized I was about to take off alone in a plane for the first time in 12 years. I had a nearly three-hour trip in an unfamiliar plane with avionics with which I am not yet experienced. I would have to climb to 8,000 feet in some mild turbulance and below-freezing air to get over some mountains, and I would arrive at an unfamiliar airport to do my first night landing in more than a decade.

But, logic told me it would be a piece of cake, and it was. The plane performed well. The weather was good. And I knew how to fly in such a basic situation. Not to say I wasn’t alarmed at every little bump, white-knuckled on the night landing, and totally exhausted when I finally landed, but the trip went well.

So here I am, out of boating and into flying. I will write a lot more about the plane in the coming days, for those who are interested, and there will no doubt be many new adventures to report. Stay tuned.

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Reader Comments (3)

Looks very luxurious compared to my buddies 1956 Super Cub...lol

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Smith

I recognize that last photo. Oddly enough, many of our acquaintances have mentioned that scene: "What's your Vector, Victor?"

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean

Well done captin!
What an initiation.
Freezing levels 3 hours and a night landing, yikes.
Perfect airplane for you. I know you will have many years of stories to tell.
Now for your water rating to take the commute to Ford down to zero.
Congratulations on getting your wings back my friend.

March 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoodle

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