There's an old saying in aviation: if you're an aircraft owner, the two happiest days in your life are the day you buy your plane and the day you finally sell your plane. Hour 139 started me on the road to one of them.
By the summer of 2003, flying had become my obsession. I'd gotten my private pilot's certificate at Hour 119, and with my Ph.D. thesis finally complete, I spent time on my new hobby every day: flying when I could, reading books from Stick and Rudder to Jeppesen's Instrument Commercial Manual, and chatting in online discussion forums. I forced myself to find other dinner topics with D., though. She enjoyed flying with me every now and then but was getting tired of hearing me talk about it. I can't say I blame her.
The restrictions of being a renter started to wear on me. I was still flying airplanes from my flight school's training fleet. They were doing good business. Planes were typically reserved for two-hour blocks randomly throughout every weekday and booked solid on weekends. To take a longer trip, the only way to get even six contiguous hours was to reserve it two months in advance. One sunny Saturday morning, I noticed a cancellation on the schedule and rushed to the airport with D. for a quick brunch in Santa Barbara. The scenery was fantastic, but she never quite relaxed knowing that we had to rush to get the plane back before one-thirty.
I started to put together a list of reasons why I should buy a plane. Imagine the sense of freedom being able to fly on a moment's notice without having to have the plane back in time! Or the excitement of taking an overnight trip to another state! Or how cool to be chatting randomly at a party and be able to say, "Why yes, I am a pilot! Let's get out of here and fly somewhere."
I even managed to convince myself that buying a plane might save money. Rental aircraft are billed per hour that the engine is running. An odometer-like device called a Hobbs Meter ticks off tenths of an hour when it senses engine oil pressure. The rate—say, $120 per Hobbs hour for a Cessna Skyhawk—covers fuel, maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and other costs. But the actual cost to the owner is more closely related to the number of hours the engine is running at high power during flight. Seeing the Hobbs meter tick while I was taxiing and doing pre-flight checks always annoyed me: Why am I paying for fuel I'm not even using? I'm just paying off someone else's aircraft loan instead of my own! I suppose we all lie to ourselves to rationalize our desires. There are good reasons to buy an airplane, but beware: saving money is not one of them.
So started my search for the perfect airplane. I was soon buried under an avalanche of options. Was it better to buy something common like a Cessna or a Piper, enjoying plentiful spare parts and experienced mechanics, or risk a more exotic model that might have better features? Did I care more about flying quickly, or comfortably? How many passengers did I want to carry? How far did I want to go? Should I buy an older plane fully certified by the FAA, or one of the newer, zippier models built from a kit and classified as "experimental"? I considered the risk of retractable landing gear, which improves speed and range, but adds weight and can require expensive maintenance—especially if I forgot to extend it before landing. An old aviation adage made that sound inevitable: "There are two types of retractable-gear pilots—those who've landed with the gear up, and those who will."
After weeks of poring over magazine articles and specification lists I was ready to stalk my prey: a Cessna Cardinal with retractable landing gear. I'd enjoyed flying Cessna's classic Skyhawk during my training. The Cardinal RG is similar enough to be familiar, but better in nearly every way: longer range, faster, roomier cabin, more passenger capacity, and prettier. It has big doors that make it easy to get in and out. Visibility is superb thanks to its large windows, lack of wing struts, and the position of its wing slightly aft of the pilot. It had a reputation of being stable and docile, making it easier to fly in clouds. There were only a few thousand of them: it had been manufactured for just eight years, from 1971 to 1978. I made it my job to find one.
I scoured the web looking for the perfect specimen. I borrowed a copy of Trade-A-Plane, a magazine with nothing but classified ads for aviation: aspirational pornography for pilots. I took notes on each one that I found, comparing the price to the equipment and age. Buying a plane is quite different than buying a car—every 1989 Honda Civic is more-or-less the same, but every plane is unique. Each has gone through decades of use and disuse and has its own history of repairs, upgrades, and in some cases, damage.
I called one seller after the next to ask for specifics. Soon, I'd written a script I would follow on the phone. From reading buying guides and talking to other owners, I'd learned a litany of important questions to ask about an airplane and didn't want to forget any of them. I must have driven the sellers crazy: How fast does it cruise? Has it been in any accidents? Is it stored in a hangar, or outdoors? When was the last annual inspection? Have there been any gaps in the inspections? What's the condition of the interior? When was the glass last replaced? How does the paint look? Are there any squawks—that is, known defects? What are the cylinder compressions? How old is the vacuum pump? When was the propeller last overhauled? Did they also overhaul the prop governor? Are the radios clear? Are the complete logbooks available? Have all Airworthiness Directives been satisfied? Is it IFR certified? What's this plane's useful load? Are you the owner, or an agent? Why are you selling it?
This was how I ended up getting a ride with the most controversial salesman in the aviation business.
* * *
Anyone who has been in the market for a small airplane has seen his name. Anyone who owns an airplane, more likely than not, has received a postcard from him. Internet aviation forums are filled with posts debating him: friend or foe? Everyone seems to have an opinion about Barron Thomas.
Barron was, and probably still is, a broker selling used airplanes from his office at the airport in Scottsdale, Arizona. Owners who want to sell without dealing with buyers deliver planes to his ramp; he sells them for a fee. Searching online for Cardinals for sale, I came across several of his ads: nice-looking airplanes, fairly well-equipped, at low prices. What was the catch?
I did a web search for his name and found one debate after the next on whether or not it was safe to buy a plane from him. "I don't trust that guy," someone commented. "He seems shady," said another. My first reaction was to run the other direction, until I noticed that their specific complaints about him were all pretty soft:
"He's extremely impatient with me on the phone."
"He won't tell me the tail number of the aircraft he's selling and he blurs the number out of the airplane photos. What's he hiding?"
"He said I have to come down and look at the logbooks if I want to know what's in them."
"I get these stupid postcards all the time asking if I'm ready to sell my plane yet."
He didn't necessarily sound friendly, but no one actually had any stories of being cheated. The tail numbers might just be blurred out to prevent buyers from contacting sellers directly, cutting Barron out of the deal. Perhaps I was just too trusting, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I called him up. He seemed pleasant enough on the phone.
"Have all the Airworthiness Directives been complied with?" I asked at one point, following my script.
"I assume so, but you'd have to come down and look at the logbooks to be sure."
He had dozens of airplanes for sale. He did not know all the details of each aircraft from memory nor did he offer to research them. He made money by dealing in volume. If I was serious about the plane, he told me, I should come visit. The specifications and the price were posted online. Once there, I could spend as long as I liked inspecting the plane and its logbooks, and even go for a free test flight. The unspoken message, of course, was that if I wasn't serious, I shouldn't waste his time. Speaking to Barron was much different than speaking with owners directly: they'd chat my ear off about each upgrade and all the improvements they'd lavished on their babies. Barron was all business. I started to understand why some people didn't like him.
"Come look at the plane, and if you see anything you don't like ...," he said. The sentence made enough of an impression on me that I started to write it down in the notes I was taking while I was on the phone. My notes trail off. I don't remember how it ended.
* * *
"You're going to Scottsdale to look at a plane?" a pilot acquaintance at my home airport had asked when I mentioned I'd bought airline tickets. "So, Barron Thomas, then?" His tone was a strained politeness that would not have been out of place had I told him I was planning on doubling my retirement savings by investing in lottery tickets.
The van finally reached the Scottsdale airport. I climbed out and found Barron sitting in a large office he shared with his assistant, Lori. Barron was a stout man with short cropped hair who looked to be in his late forties, wearing a crisp white dress shirt and tie. Papers and file folders were stacked everywhere. Bookshelves lined the walls, largely filled with business literature: The Iacocca Management Technique. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A few years after I met him, I noticed several web sites described a similar book Barron had plans to co-author with Ben Stein: How You Can Sell Anyone Anything.
"Welcome, welcome!" he said, rising from his chair, smiling warmly, and shaking my hand firmly. "Thanks for coming down. Aaron will show you the plane."
Aaron emerged from a back room. He was younger, tall, trim, and also smartly dressed in a shirt and tie. He removed the plane's keys from a small pouch and I followed him back outside, through the airport's perimeter fence, and to a large parking area where a couple of dozen planes were tied down in spaces labelled "BARRON THOMAS".
|My first look at Niner Seven Hotel.
"Yeah," I said, a little sheepishly.
"Oh, the Cardinal is a great first plane. It's got ... uh ..." he trailed off, jiggling the key. "I can get us in."
He opened the small baggage door in the rear of the plane, shimmied through it, clambered over the back seat, and unlatched the door from the inside.
"Do I always have to open it that way?"
* * *
I met Tommy next. He was a flight instructor and the owner of the local pilot shop. Tommy was familiar with Cardinals and took me up for a test flight. He was an older fellow wearing a t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap, reminding me of my own instructor. He seemed to be in a hurry. I suppose he could be forgiven for being curt since I wasn't paying for his time.
The flight was a blur. I'd never flown a Cardinal before, and had only a single flight in an airplane with a variable-pitch propeller or retractable gear. The plane had a bevey of gauges and knobs absent from the aircraft I'd flown during my training: cylinder head temperature, cowl flaps, fuel flow PSI, manifold pressure, propeller pitch. What did these even do?
I was sitting in the pilot's seat, but Tommy did all the work as we lifted into the warm evening air over Scottsdale. "Okay, now retract. Remove the takeoff flaps. You'll want to lean it out to the top of the green after takeoff," he said mysteriously, moving the position of a knob. "Then bring the RPM down to 2,500, but keep the throttle at full. Watch your CHT, don't over-lean and keep the cowl flaps open if it's running hot." I was totally overwhelmed.
We barely had left the runway when we did a 180-degree turn and returned to the airport. At 0.4 hours, this remains the shortest flight in my logbook.
* * *
"So, what do you think so far?" Barron asked me as we returned to the office.
"It seemed fast. Really confusing," I said.
"That just takes practice. Please, have a seat," he told me, motioning to an empty desk and chair. "Let me get you the logbooks."
Barron busied himself in a filing cabinet and returned with a stack of binders and file-folders seven inches high, placing them on the desk in front of me. "Let me know if you need anything," he said. Then he returned to his desk and started making phone calls.
I started thumbing through the thick sheaf of papers, trying to make sense of it. I'm not a mechanic; most of it was foreign to me. What's a flap follower cable? Should I be worried that the door actuator turnbuckle needed adjustment? I longed to have an expert at my side: I barely knew how to fly, yet here I was trying to understand the maintenance history of a plane nearly 30 years old!
I sat back, exhausted. Barron was still on the phone. In fact, I noticed, he was on two phones: one resting on his shoulder, and the other in his hand as he dialed it.
"Yes, hello, this is Barron Thomas, calling for Joseph, please," he said into the phone he had just dialed. "Yes, I'll hold."
He placed that phone on his shoulder and put the other phone to his ear: "Hi Scott, this is Barron Thomas. I'm just calling to ask if you're still looking for that perfect Bonanza. I just got one in and I'd love to have you come down and take a look at it. All right. Thank you," he said.
He immediately dialed a new number: "Hello, this is Barron Thomas, calling for Dave. Yes, I'll hold."
Then on the other ear, the person he'd been waiting for had apparently come to the phone: "Hi Joseph, this is Barron Thomas..."
I had never seen anything like it. Even the time he spent on hold with a potential customer was being put to use trying to sell to someone else. Back and forth, from one phone to the other, the cycle continued as I watched in awe. What would happen, I wondered, if both people came to the phone at the same time?
I found out a few moments later: with one phone on each ear, and with a playful smirk crawling across his face, he said to both simultaneously: "Hello, this is Barron Thomas." Then, putting down one handset for a moment, he said into the other, "Please hold for just one moment."
As I closed the logbooks and packed up my notes it was five in the afternoon. Barron was ready to leave, too. He offered me a ride back to the Phoenix airport in his large, new sedan. He gave me some inspirational words during the trip: "Sometimes, you have to just take an opportunity. You can't sit trying to make a decision forever. If it feels right, you just have to go for it."
I'm not necessarily the most astute judge of character, I admit. But sitting in his office, watching his virtuoso performance on the telephone, I felt like I understood the source of Barron's reputation: chasing down leads as fast as his fingers could dial numbers, he clearly had little extra time to spend answering a long series of questions from random pilots who weren't really ready to buy. Brusque? Certainly. An ambitious salesman? Without question. But that didn't necessarily make him un-trustworthy.
At least, that's what I told myself up until the day, 8 years hence, that I read he'd been indicted for fraud, allegedly running a Ponzi scheme. The plane was a great buy, though.