Plane & Pilot
Thursday, December 1, 2005

How Old is Too Old?


A number of recent airworthiness directives for the general aviation fleet seem to be directly related to the aircraft’s age and flight time. So when is it safe to fly an aging plane?


How Old Is Too OldIn just the last few years, a series of T-34s, the military equivalent of a Bonanza, have suffered wing separations. An emergency airworthiness directive (AD) grounded the fleet. Just a couple of months ago, a well-maintained T-6, a World War II trainer, lost a wing doing maneuvers over Florida. With the general-aviation aircraft now averaging just less than 30 years of age, how can you tell if an airplane is safe to fly?
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So, How Old Is Too Old?
There’s a great line in an Indiana Jones movie when he’s explaining why he’s so tired, “It’s not the years. It’s the miles that count,” and that’s exactly the way it is with airplanes. Years are nothing but a number. The question is how many miles of bad road did this particular airplane live through to get to this point? How many nights did it sit out in the rain? How many thousands of hours did it hug the treetops, its pilot staring at pipelines while getting his or her brains beat out in turbulence? How many years did it sit in the weeds ignored? How many students have hammered it onto the runway? How many operators said, “Nah, just fix what’s absolutely necessary”? It’s not how long it has been alive, but how well it lived life that counts.

When trying to decide whether an airplane is too old to fly safely, you can’t think only in terms of years. Condition is everything. The only easy guide is to try to get a handle on the owner’s attitude by the way the important items look. Even if the paint is faded and it has a dent here and there, but the engine compartment is clean and fresh, the belly shows no stains or wrinkles, and the flight deck is worn, the airplane is probably perfectly flyable.

If the airplane is quite new, but there’s oil-soaked dust on top of the engine and mags, the ignition leads are frayed and the belly is streaked with soot and oil, start worrying. If, as you’re being checked out, the owner says, “That doesn’t work, but we really don’t need it,” find a good reason to not take that flight. When it comes to airframe reliability and safety, the owner’s attitude is everything.

Don’t be fooled by a shiny coat of paint and a youthful appearance. That’s not what keeps you in the air.





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