Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Discussions about buying and owning your own plane.
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Joined: Wed Dec 23, 2009 6:54 am

Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby AdamFrisch » Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:13 am

Long time listener, fourth time poster. Thought I'd share my story.

Just before christmas last year, an old 1953 Aero Commander 520 twin popped up on Ebay. I've always loved Commanders (certified high wing fanatic) and vowed to one day own one, but I had my dreams set on a future Shrike, the 500. I hadn't planned on my first aircraft being a 60 year old, unsupported 520. Anyway, the price was low so I was intrigued, but there was a reserve; I thought I'd give myself $500 to bid with above the start price, just to see where the reserve was. Found out that I was immediately the high bidder and the reserve was met! Not what I had planned. Anyway, there was another week to go on the auction and I was sure someone else would come along and bid over me. As I drove home to Sweden from England over christmas (I live in the US, but flew home for the holidays), it became more and more apparent that no one was going to come along. I was the sole bidder. This terrified me to no end at first but I'm glad that, in a way, she found me rather than the other way around.

But first some history. The Aero Commander 520 was the first in a long line of future business aircraft from famous designer Ted Smith (Piper Aerostar, A-26 etc). When they came, they were the Learjets of their time. Very expensive and high end. The 520's were made from 1951 to 1954, when they got replaced by the slightly more powerful 560. They had the rather unusual geared Lycoming GO-435 that also powered Helio Couriers and many early helicopters. This is an unsupported engine (as all the geared ones are), but thankfully there is still a good supply of parts around. All the geared Lycomings have a bit of a bad rep, but unfounded according to those who own them. They just need to be flown right. The 520 is the only Commander with a straight tail, all the subsequent ones had swept tails. That basic design continued for another 30 years in various forms up until the last Rockwell Twin turbine commanders were made in the mid 80's. You might recall that famous ace Bob Hoover did aerobatics with his Shrike (500U) in the 60's, 70's and 80's.

As I came back from the holidays I flew directly to a cold Detroit to have her pre-buy inspected by the Twin commander eminence gris and Commander-genius, Morris Kernick. Thankfully I'd joined the Commander Mailing List and he was recommended to me. I'd flown him out from California earlier and as I landed we met at a diner to get the verdict. Turns out that there were tons of smaller squawks and things that needed attention (as one would expect), but that she was in pretty good shape. Certainly one of the better 520's he'd seen - not that there are many left around. In annual and all AD's complied with, her paperwork in order and flown regularly. That's all I could ask for really, considering her age. This is how she looked first time I laid my eyes on her at KPHN:

Testament to Ted Smith's wonderful lines is that she hasn't aged much. Except for the nacelles and the tail, she could be a new twin.

You can clearly see the tail resemblance of the Douglas A-26 Invader and the 520.

Big and roomy, certified for 5 people in the Normal Category.

After all the boring title transfer works and clearing any liens, the task came to get her home to California and to Morris Kernick's shop in Stockton in the Bay-area for some necessary TLC. I was only halfway though my twin rating at the time (I've since got it), so I needed some help in this department. Fortunately, captain JimBob, owner of the Commander Mailing List, A&P/IA, professional ferry pilot and also an owner of an Aero Commander 680E was available to help me out. But there was a storm approaching from both ends of the coasts, so to be able to make an almost 1800nm journey safe in VFR conditions, everything had to be right. It looked like there was a small window mid February where the whole trip could be done, albeit with a horrendous headwind (more about that later) and the risk of the Bay area getting hit by a rain storm. Said and done - we jumped on planes to Detroit and drove up, had her preflighted and loaded all the papers, spare seats and spare parts into her hold (she swallows insane amounts of luggage - you could easily get skis in there) and went to bed for a super early departure.

Here she gets fueled up the night before our departure.

Crack of dawn we wake and a last check of the weather - it's clear skies, but the winds aloft are terrifying and low level windshear is forecast across the continent. We decide to go anyway. We warm the GO-435's up (and this is also the first time I hear her run) in the cold morning light and then taxi out to Rwy 22 and take off. We do a low pass for the former owner (who I later find out was in tears as she went by for the last time) and off we go.

We stay low for the first three hours, averaging 150kts, skirting around Chicago Bravo airspace. The minute we try to go high, the headwind nails us and the GS drops dramatically. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa are flat as pancakes, so here we can really lick the earth and get good GS.

It doesn't last.

We do the first fuel stop at Grinnell, IA - terrible crosswind gusting to 27kts on final, and fuel her up with 88gals after 3.1hrs of flying (which is about 29gals/hr). Not too bad for staying so low. My card didn't work at the FBO, so the owner just said "mail me a check when you get back". Only in the Midwest! Worryingly, the right engine needs 3 quarts after 3hrs - this is less good. Her oil pressure is within the green, but slightly on the low side at low altitudes, and better up high (as we'll later find out). She produces good power, but this is something that's being looked at now as we speak. UPDATE: the oil leak was due to a cracked tach wire housing attached to the core and has now been replaced. Phew! Could have been bad news otherwise...

First fuel stop in Iowa. 88gals.

Take off again and head for Nebraska. Pretty much all uncontrolled airspace flying and we rarely talk to anyone. We see even less aircraft and people as the giant American tapestry expands. We keep staying low and over unpopulated areas we literally skim the earth. It's a magic ride and very exciting speeding over vast beautiful landscapes. I'm flying most of it and all this low level flying has got me hooked. Next stop is Ogalalla, NE. A rather sleepy little airport. We finally manage to rustle up a mechanic and buy some more oil for the right engine. The left one hasn't used a drop. We put another 90gals in and 4 quarts of oil.

Capt JimBob flying low over a frozen Nebraska.

As we continue west, the GS start dropping even lower. We're seeing around 120-130kts now, so that's 20-30kts on the nose. As we get closer into Colorado the terrain slowly creeps up on you, and although we're still flying really low close to the ground, the altimeter is now showing almost 4000ft.

It's a premonition of what lays ahead: The Rocky Mountains. Finally we see them. Like a huge majestic line of snow capped mountains - you can't fly around them unless you have some serious time to spare, and we don't. The Bay area rain storm is already in effect and is forecast to get worse, so we're in a race against time to get to California. So we leave the confines of ground effect and pull back - many of the Rockies are at 12500ft and higher. Immediately we get hit by the headwinds and the GS plummets. As we get into the mountains, the ride gets very bumpy. Mountain waves and huge sinks and climbs after each peak. It's pretty intimidating. At least the skies are clear and we still have daylight, but it won't last much longer.

The descent into Salt Lake city area after the Rockies. We still have the Sierra Nevadas to contend with ahead of us. At nighttime...

Many of the peaks are above us and it becomes an exercise in finding the best way through the mountain and not stay above 12500ft for too long. We carry no oxygen. It's a beautiful ride, but a bit scary. After a while it starts to taper off and we get through a pass and into Utah. Our destination is Spanish Fork airport just at the bottom of the valley. It's now pretty late in the afternoon and the sun is starting to set. I do my first (rather hard) landing here, but she doesn't seem to mind. It's hard to slow her down, due to how you have to fly with the geared Lycomings (never let the air move the propellers), so it's a powered approach and you only walk it off just before the flare. The huge flaps and the landing gear helps her get there. She touches down at around 70kts and is in essence, just a big Cessna. Very docile.

Refueling at Spanish Fork, UT. A beautiful and very busy GA airport at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The old girl draws a crowd wherever she goes and people love to to have a chat.

We are up against it now. Sun is setting and the weather is worsening in the Bay area. We have to motor. Take off over the Salt Lake flats as the sun gives up its ghost. It's staggeringly beautiful and it hits you how wonderfully pretty America can be. GS is now in the 100kts range, which means we have 50-60kts on the nose! Unreal. We almost screw up really bad when we realize that the new Bendix/King AV80R GPS that JimBob has brought isn't showing the Restricted areas. The old G300XL in my aircraft did show it, but we hadn't looked at it much. I'm glad we did. We almost bust one of the biggest US military R-zones and had to do a detour that probably ate 30 mins out of our precious time.

Night is now setting in and ahead of the mighty Sierra Nevadas are towering. I'm getting rather uneasy at the prospect of flying over 14500 peaks at night, but JimBob doesn't bat an eyelid. Thankfully it's a moonlit night, so visibility is good. However, as we proceed, it's clear that the headwind has become even worse - we see GS of 80kts now. We won't make it to SF Bay on the fuel we have, or if we did, it'd be a close call. JimBob decides we need a last fuel stop and we call up Eureka, NV airfield on the Unicom and ask them if they're still open. They are, thankfully (makes a difference from the UK where I flew before I moved to the US - almost all airfields close at sunset or before). We land with a 28kts headwind and taxi up to a mom and pop FBO and get her topped up. Me and JimBob are ravished, not having had any time for food all day, so we devour some peanut butter cookies and fuel up on Coke. I make a half hearted attempt at trying to convince him to stop there for the night and try in the morning, as I'm really fearful of having to climb up to 12500ft again in the dark with mountains all around us. JimBob won't have it - we'd be socked in for a week, he says (and he was right). So we power up and fly out. It's an anxious climb. Altough the visibility is good, you can only really make out the snow capped tops, the darker bits kind of blend into each other. In my paranoid mind it becomes a question of: yeah, I know the highest peaks have the most snow, but what if one peak somehow didn't get any snow and is higher than the rest...? We'd probably not see it. It's a terrible mindf**k.

Under us there is nothing. Not even a single light. Our GS is now 70kts. JimBob has in 16.000hrs and 30 years of flying never had such headwinds, he says. He's furious and exhausted at the pace we're making. We've been in the air for more than 13hrs now. She barely climbs without going backwards and we often see GS drops to 50kts in climbs to clear peaks. The dangerous temptation is to ever so slightly push the nose over just to gain some speed, but with 14000ft peaks all around you, that's not such a good idea. It's also a rough ride with all the windshear. I think the wings will come off at times and I'm extremely nervous during this part of the flight.

Then the left engine shudders.

I first think it's just some more turbulence, but its not. A moment later it happens again, but this time worse. "That's the left engine trying to quit on us", JimBob says matter of factly as he checks the magnetos. I'm almost having a heart attack by this point. We're at 12500ft and there is nothing but peaks below us. At night. Nowhere to go. And she won't fly on one engine much higher than 6000ft... But we motor on and the engine doesn't give us any more scares. I'm on edge, checking oil pressure and vitals constantly for the rest of the flight.

As we get closer to California we see that the Bay area is socked in. We are forced to fly south, extending our stay over the Sierra Nevada peaks, doing my nerves no good. We're still at 12500ft and the ceilings in the Bay area are at 6-7000ft OVC according to Oakland FSS. We have to find a hole, or else we face having to cross back over the Sierras into Nevada and go to Lake Tahoe. I dread having to cross those mountains again with an engine that's given me a scare. Finally we see a faint light between the layer of clouds at the foot of the mountain. It turns out to be Pine Mountain Lake airport (E45) and its beacon (thank god for light beacons!). We just manage to squeeze it in between the mountain and the OVC. The ride down is pretty scary, extremely bumpy and we skim the OVC to stay clear of the ridges, so momentarily lose all visual references.

"I think we've made it" JimBob says as we see the lights from the San Francisco area spread out before us. It's a comforting sight after 15hrs of flying, let me tell you. As a final insult, we get 30kts tailwinds for the last 10 minutes of our ride. Thanks a lot.

JimBob PTT lights the runway up at Stockton and we land uneventfully. We taxi up to Morris hangar where he's been patiently waiting. I'm too tired to put the gust locks on and just leave her for the night. We go to a night open diner to get a meal and unwind and debrief. Morris is already giving multiple possible reasons why the right engine drinks too much oil (see update earlier) and why the left one nearly quit on us (unpressurised magneto, fuel valve, etc). He's confident there are easy fixes for both. I'm blessed that I'm accompanied by such knowledgeable and expert people - the Commander community is very strong in the US.

It has been one of the most scary and exhilarating days of my life. I will never forget it. I will however try to forget the $1600 fuel bill...

She likes this.

All considering, she behaved flawlessly except for the scare with the left engine. She's a real gentle plane (we did a power on stall early and it was no worse than any single I've flown) and has great harmony. Not too fast and not too slow - cruises at 150-155kts, but can with a flap gap seal STC go 10kts faster. I've decided not to add a flap gap seal as it adds take off distance, and to me, a short roll is more important - I'm in no great hurry and like to fly into small airfields. Commanders are built tough and can land on any surface (they're still used extensively in South America on grass strips) with those big mains. She has a really interesting, and for the time, advanced Autolean feature so you never have to lean her. She's also got the simplest fuel system in the world - there isn't even a fuel tank selector. All four tanks gravity feeds into a center tank. Up high she consumed about 20-23gals/hr, which isn't bad for her age. That huge tail and elevator can also help you keep her straight in almost any crosswind.

She's now been in the shop for more than 3 months. Morris is 72 years old and he has to fit my bird into all his other repairs, so it's taken a lot more time than I'd wanted. All the oil leaks have been fixed and thankfully it was not something major. One cylinder showed low compression, but has now come around after some cleaning and nursing. The aileron bolts were overtightened and of the wrong type. My brakes and my steering were shot and I'm amazed JimBob even got her stopped with those brakes - they were bad. That's all been fixed. Front tire replaced, temp meter installed, new manifold pressure gauge, new stall warner, new seat rail locks etc. Last thing that's getting fixed now is the front wheel assembly as the doors would only halfway retract when the wheel went up. The geometry of the rods was all wrong and had to be sorted out. Cost so far? $9000 in repairs, but that's what I expected, $1600 fuel to get her home, $1500 for ferry piloting and $2000 for pre-buy inspection and flights and stuff. First year will always be steeper as you get all the squawks and personal bugs out of the way. Soon the annual is coming up and that will probably be another $4-5000, minimal squawks. So, it's a lot of money, but next year should drop down to half or even less than that.

It takes time to get them flying, but almost done now.

So, was it a wise thing to buy an old vintage twin as a first aircraft? Probably not. There's is no way this is going to make any financial sense. At all. Except for the purchase price, nothing is going to be very cheap owning one of these. But hey, I figured, someone is going to have to save these for future generations, why can't it be me? Also, really old aircraft, and the people that work on them, have a knack for "solving problems", repairing and digging up old stuff, so in many ways I reckon owning this twin is probably going to be a lot cheaper than having to call Diamond Aircraft for a new part everytime one of those brake down. I've always bought stuff with my heart and not necessarily my head and sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. I don't regret being led more by emotion than logic. It's too early to tell, but I'll keep you informed.

Next time I pick her up (after some local instruction), I'll be flying her myself back to LA. Wish a new vintage aircraft owner luck, will ya?

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby Landis » Mon Jun 13, 2011 11:15 am

That's a beautiful plane and a great story. I hope I see it in the skies in NorCal territory soon!


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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby gmarshall » Mon Jun 13, 2011 4:08 pm

Hey, as long as you're comfortable enough financially speaking to keep the props turning, and enjoy the aircraft, don't let anyone tell you that the airplane was a 'mistake'. Great story, and beautiful aircraft.

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby AdamFrisch » Fri Jul 01, 2011 12:35 pm

Well, here's a little update for anyone that cares.

After being in the shop for almost 4 months, I was getting very anxious to get her out of there. I suppose I wasn't mentally prepared for just how long everything takes with aircraft. A week can go by just whilst you're waiting on some silly part to be sent...


Getting forced out of the shop by an overly keen new owner..

Finally, Morris, the mechanic, said she was getting close. We got a hold of an instructor with some Aero Commander time and he came up with me. But it didn't work out for various reasons. I knew it was time to call JimBob again who'd helped me ferry it back from Detroit. He's not a certified instructor, but you can't find anyone with more experience in these aircraft.


Had to be jump-started during all tests, as battery was crap. The joys of old aircraft...

JimBob flew down to meet me in Northern California and I'd promised to fly him back up to Washington and get familiar with the aircraft along the way. On the way up the left generator quit, which was annoying, but thankfully I had one more.


Old school, to say the least. I swear that tumbling big AI is original...and it's terrible.

Long story short, the training and familiarisation process contained amongst other things: shutting one engine off and landing feathered, doing insane short grass strip landing and t/o's and tons of normal ones until it felt right. Stalls, clean, dirty, power on, etc. After half a day it was time to do my first solo takeoff and it went pretty well, if I may say so myself. The weather was terrible. We did most of my circuits in about 800ft ceilings and it was wet, wet, wet.


Up in the wet Washington/Oregon area, one has to contend with drizzle and 800ft ceilings. Feels just like ole Blighty..

Anyway, after JimBob deemed me capable enough not to kill myself, I was let go. Battling with myself, I launched from Portland to the west as the weather looked slightly less c**p that way. It would be an all too familar read in the NTSB report: "Inexperienced pilot, little time in the aircraft, CFIT, etc". I didn't want to be that guy, but at the same time I was dying to get to fly her, on my own, just us, not anyone babbling in my ear telling me what to do. But first I had to get out of Jim's narrow strip with all his ex-Navy and retired Pan Am airline pilot neighbours watching me. I managed, but it was probably not too pretty.

After about 3 hrs of weaving and bobbing around in the valleys of Oregon, I had to give up and land at Roseburg. I'd not come very far in my journey - it had mainly consisted of going down a valley, chickening out and turning into that almost-CFIT guy I desperately so wanted not to be. Anxiety ran high. But I wasn't giving up quite yet. Evening was coming and I thought I'd give it one last poke. I found a opening towards the Pacific and managed to snake my way to the coast, but by this time it was almost dark. I tried to get south, but it was jammed with clouds into the sea. I landed at a little field by the coast called Cape Blanco, but soon realised it was nothing there that could provide for me for the night (note to self; always have a sleeping bag in the aircraft, always have some dry food and always keep a warm jacket or pullover there), so I launched to the next one north which was Bandon State. Refuelled and decided this wasn't much better, so I fired up with the aim to go north again to the next really big airport, Oregon State. By now it was dark and and as I taxied out my landing lights, taxi lights and all the interior lights went black! That was a sign as good as any that there'd be no more flying that day and I took the hint. I could barely see the taxiway as I taxied back to the apron.

I managed to rustle up the last motel in Bandon, only to find there was no taxi service in the whole town. I walked about 3 miles in pitch blackness and freezing my, you know what, off until finally the friendly town cop took pity on me and drove me into town.

Next day, the weather looked slightly better, but not by much. I launched south following the coast. The wet Pacific air that comes in can only rise as the coast is so rugged, so it turns into low lying clouds immediately. It's stunningly beautiful, but not flying friendly. I tracked the coast, often with a mist layer below me and an overcast above and barely any sight of land. The hum of two engines was reassuring and I'd never have dared on one. Finally there was a wall of clouds going down to the sea. It looked a little bit better out towards the ocean, but even with two engines, I'm not brave enough to do a 50nm mile detour over open water, half empty tanks, not knowing if I can make it back into shore on the other side... It was turnaround time. The three airports I'd passed were all impossible to get into with the clouds, as they nestled in the hills. Finally I got into Little River, fuelled up an sat it out. Not a soul in sight on any of these smaller airports.

A Coast Guard Hercules thundered by and I asked him over the radio how it looked towards the south and he said it was getting better, so I decided to give it another try. As I came closer to San Francisco, the same bl**dy wall into the ocean again. But there was just a hole big enough to fit a Commander through towards the inland, so I took my chances with that wormhole. And lo and behold - inland was pretty clear and the trip back to Stockton was uneventful.

The aircraft ran like a Swiss watch. Not a hickup. If you don't count the electrics, that is. Or the generator... ;) Don't know what the problem is, but the annual is due soon so that will be dealt with then. More downtime to look forward to!

So, how is she to fly? She stores energy really well and a 500ft climb is just a pull back - don't have to touch the throttles or anything. Very stable and much better on one engine than the Seneca I trained on, which surprised me as this is much heavier. My approaches were always dead on, something I'm not known for being good at with the Cessnas... She's just stable as a rock and makes your job easier. Insane rudder control with that big paddle and we did some slips that could rival a Cub's. And JimBob did a short field t/o that blew me away: 3/4 flap and pull back fully aft on the yoke as soon as she rolls and she's off the ground at about 45kts going straight up. I couldn't believe it - pretty impressive for such a big bird. In cruise, I pulled back on the power and ran her about 20-22" and 2500 rpm (geared engines, so the RPM is higher than on direct drives) and this gave about 140kts in speed and about 29gph, at sea level. Up high I think it would be more like 23gph. Knuckles to the firewall, she does about 160kts in ideal conditions. Certainly not the fastest twin around, but not the slowest either. 23gph isn't bad - I know a few Bonanzas that almost burn that!

I put 17 hours on her solo in these three first days. It's great to build up the confidence in her and get a "feel" for everything. I trust the main systems completely, now I just wish the electrics and that old tumbling ancient AI could be dealt with.. All in due time. It's easy to try to do too much and all at once. I'll fly her with her avionics and instruments as is for a while and not overextend myself. Just buying gas will take care of that for you all by itself - I'm skint after these two days!

Other problems: We had a broken tach angle reduction gear on the right engine, and that was the reason she burned so much oil. Or at least that's what we thought. Right engine still burns a bit too much oil (albeit less than before) and it spits it out on the nacelle and it streaks back. A quick drain is leaking, so that could perhaps be the cause, but it could be a ring as well. The annual will tell. Yesterday I flew down to Aircraft Spruce in Corona and bought some 120W thick oil to see if that helps, but won't know as she's now in for her annual. Engine runs great, has great compression and produces great power, so somehow I don't believe it's anything fatal.

Here's a very patchy video of my trip back (as I was too busy avoiding clouds to capture much), but please don't ridicule for the unintentional wink - I was chewing a mint to calm my nerves. :shock:

YouTube - ‪Flying the Aero Commander 520 home solo for the first time...‬‏

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby Keys » Fri Jul 01, 2011 7:19 pm


I just checked in, and to me 527P looks great! I got my multi in a 680 back in the 1970 and just loved the Aero Commander. It was the best IFR platform that I have flown. When I went looking for a twin a few years ago, I did not find many Aero Commanders. Locally, we have a freight company that has about twenty-five with TKS installed, but he was not interested in sell any of his. Ultimately, wound up with a nice B55 Baron that I love to fly, but she take a loving hand to keep her is shape too. 527P looks like someone took good care of her, and I am sure that you will too.

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby AdamFrisch » Sat Jul 02, 2011 1:16 am

Oh, thanks. Yeah, my friend has a 680E. They're faster and have a more stretched cabin, but they also burn more fuel.

Mine isn't as pretty up close as she might look - her paint is peeling and she desperately needs a complete strip and repaint job. I almost had a heart attack when I inquired about how much that would cost... So I think it will be just a strip job first and then seal her up. I kinda like the bare metal look and I think it would fit this vintage quite well. Maybe just paint the tail. Will see.

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby champguy » Sat Jul 02, 2011 12:36 pm

"You can tell the men from the boys, by the price of their toys."
You go guy!
Oh, word of advice, never look back.
Remember, not all who wander, are lost.

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby AdamFrisch » Thu Dec 29, 2011 4:14 pm

As I come up on my first year, I thought I'd give you guys an update from the trenches of antique dinosaur twin ownership. And man has it been a war - especially on my wallet! I'm beginning to see that the saying pay now, or pay later is very true for older aircraft.

Still, no regrets at all.

I won't bore you with too many tangents, but early September I finally got her back from the annual and immediately decided to go on a 1600nm cross country trip to Chicago. It was literally the first trip after it got out of the shop. Purpose was two-fold: first I had a job there and also (just by sheer coincidence), the yearly American Aero Commander Club's fly-in in Detroit (which is around the corner from Chicago) was happening on the Sat I had off from work. So, off we went. I gave myself two days to get there.


This is what happens if you don't pay your mechanic.

Crossing the Sierras and the Rockies was uneventful, except for getting buzzed by F18's in the Utah desert. As I passed Salt Lake City the weather started deteriorating and thunderstorms were forming all around me. I managed to find a passage through, but eventually my good luck ran out. I was surrounded by bad weather in the Wyoming Rockies and had to commit to a short gravel/dirt strip at high elevation called Medicine Bow. It flew a low pass to see what it looked like (not great) but decided to give it a go as I didn't have much choice. Strip was a bit rough, but my fillings stayed in place. A farmer gave me a lift down into the only hotel in town. He said he hadn't seen anyone land there in at least 6 months. I wolfed down a cheeseburger as I mulled over my options.


Surrounded by thunderstorms in the Rockies, I admitted defeat and landed Medicine Bow. Field elevation 6646ft and only 3200ft long.


Staying the night. Notice the newly built terminal in the background.

Damn it - had it cleared towards the east? It sure looked that way. I decided to have another go at it. Wind was howling, so I got off easily even though the field was rather short. Pissed around and wasted another hour of fuel until I finally had to admit defeat for a second time and land back at the same field and stay the night. Early next morning the weather was far worse and the wind had gone. I was really nervous about the T/O - high elevation and on a short strip with no wind to help me - it could spell disaster. Thankfully, the old girl was off in a little more than half, which is quite impressive.

The rest of the day it just got worse and worse and I had to fly 3hrs in pissing rain and hazy fog following roads, dodging radio towers and aerials. At least I was out of the Rockies. I almost gave up numerous times, but pressed on. Finally got rewarded with a higher ceiling as I got closer to Iowa and could climb from my aerial-clipping altitude.

Then all of a sudden the left engine started running rough. I tried the usual - booster pumps, magnetos, etc - nothing. It went away as quickly as it came. Flew on for about another 20 mins and then the roughness came back again, this time for much longer and I had some more time to troubleshoot. I contemplated declaring an emergency to the controller that had me on radar service, but ultimately decided against it as I had quite a few options - there were airfields all around me and I had plenty of altitude. Still, not only was it the critical engine, it was also the only one with the hydraulic pump on it, so if it decided to give up its ghost it would mean finding a landing spot very soon (as the gear would have come out when the hyd press went to zero). Finally after fiddling about, I must have missed the detent in the magneto on my previous try, because when I switched to the right she all of a sudden ran fine again (which I would subsequently find out was false, but more about that later).

I landed at Chicago Executive and taxied to one of the only two options for handling, Atlantic, fully aware of the fact that they now had me by the b***s. To my surprise the two day parking only came to about $30, which is very reasonable. Good ole US of A. As I taxied in a G5 captain spooling up his engines waved cheerfully at me from his cockpit. Who knows, maybe he got his start flying mail at night in one of these?


Chicago Executive is very close to O'Hare so one has to watch out so as to not bust their Bravo airspace.


Frolicking with the the big boys. Swing a cat here and you're bound to hit a G5.

At the weekend it was time to go to the fly-in in Detroit. As I started my take off roll, the plane veered to the left and it was obvious there was something more serious going on. Finally found a mechanic on the weekend who could have a look. Compression was zero on two cylinders...:(I was starting to realise that not only was I not going to Detroit today, but the old girl was going to stay in Chicago for awhile. Here's the aborted takeoff:

Aborted takeoff Aero Commander 520 - YouTube

Turned out that one of the cylinders had chewed up a compression ring, hacked it to a million pieces and spat it out through the exhaust valve. But as it got hacked to pieces, it had impacted not only the top of the piston (see photos), but also shorted one of the spark plugs by deforming the electrode. This is what made the engine run rough and also respond to the magneto change. The other cylinder had a shot intake valve and was pressurising the case (or maybe it was the other way around). Anyway, they were both junk.


One can clearly see the pitting at the top of the piston and the jack it made on the side as it departed.


The ring damaged the electrodes on the spark plug as it got pulverised.

Mechanics were very nice chaps, but not used to old planes and had "Cirrus-itis", so when they pulled the cylinders they started getting worked up about the look of the cam. Now, changing a cam means splitting the case, which, in effect, means an overhaul. An overhaul on one of these old geared engines is not as cheap as a direct drive engine. The few that do them normally insist on overhauling the gearbox as well (even though there might not be anything wrong with it), which adds to the cost. We were talking $40K here - money I just didn't have. So as I was desperately trying to source another spare engine so I could get back to California, my regular mechanic there was also looking at pictures of the cam they sent etc and not agreeing that it needed any overhaul at all.


One can clearly see the metallic sheen in the oil from the pulverised ring. The Chicago boys were not happy with this.

Finally the pics were sent to Lycoming and they also said the cam looked fine, so the Chicago boys relented and proceeed with the cylinder change. Dodged a bullet there, for sure.


New cylinder coming on.


Is she getting some perverse pleasure of having men attend to her jugs?

Here's a clip of my cross country trip to Chicago:

Cross country California-Chicago in Aero Commander 520 - YouTube

Three weeks later it was time to pick the old gal up. I'd asked them to look at the misbehaving beacon and they'd found it littered with car parts and dodgy wirings, so I replaced it with a brand new STC'd Whelen unit. This, plus the cylinders and work relieved me of $4700. Phew.


Nobody puts baby in the corner!

I did a couple of high speed taxis and prepped for an early morning start back to California.

I tracked south through New Mexico as I didn't want to hit the grunt of the Rockies at their highest point with two new jugs. The last 2 hrs into LA were quite nerve wracking as I had to pass the last bits of the Sierra Nevadas in darkness. It messes with your head knowing you have mountains below you you can't see. I felt very uncomfortable. Night flying over mountains is just not something I want to do much of. When I finally saw the lights of Palm Springs spread out in front of me, I felt like I had been born again! Night landing at home base, El Monte airport.


Crazy Austrian chick refuelling in Arizona. But the price was the lowest on the whole trip - $4.65/gal!

The trip back was pretty uneventful and can best be viewed in these clips, for those who like to endure the torture of hearing my bad R/T. First day:

Chicago to Nebraska travelogue cross country in my Aero Commander 520 w. full ATC, Part 1/2. - YouTube

Second day:

Nebraska to Los Angeles travelogue cross country in my Aero Commander 520 w. full ATC, Part 2/2. - YouTube

But we're not finished yet! Oh no - the wallet has yet still to be tapped some more!

My gear down safe light had started to play up and as I flew up to my mechanic to have it looked at, they found a cracked stiffener in the front wheel well. Three weeks and $3200 later I picked her up in Stockton and flew back. A week later on a night flight around LA with a friend, the green light - once again - didn't come on as I extended. Thankfully, you can see the mains lock through the side windows on the Commander, and during daylight hours you can also see the reflection of the front wheel in the spinners. But this was at night, so no way to know if the front was fully extended for sure, but I was pretty confident it was. As we landed I held the nose off as long as I could - thankfully it held. So next day I flew a short trip to a local mechanic who has some Commander experience. He tested the switch and it comes on immediately - it was just out of alignment. Or that's what we thought. As he wheels the old girl into the hangar, the front wheel collapses on the tug and she drops like a rock, crushing the front doors! Obviously something else is wrong. I leave for work abroad the day after, but get the word that there was another bigger crack behind the bearing for the drag brace that keeps the front gear locked. It had gone unnoticed as it was hidden behind a panel. Still, better here than on the runway...


Just after the drop. The guys are sitting on the elevator to lift the nose up so we can extend the front wheel back into position.


Doors bent and crushed and can't be saved. Had to source new ones.

Today, she's been in the shop for almost a month and hopefully I can pick her up later this week. I haven't dared ask what the bill is, but I don't think it will be a penny under $5K…

This incident has prompted me to modify my landing technique. I used to keep the front wheel off as long as possible and when the elevator stopped flying, she would drop the front back onto the runway. I don't think that was the right thing to do, but it was how I was taught. From now on, I will keep the wheel off, but gently fly her back down just before I run out of elevator. That will hopefully stop the cracking of stiffeners. Who knows, they could have been there for years before, so not entirely sure it was my technique that caused it. Still, better safe than sorry.

Lessons learned? Have lots of money with old airplanes that have had journeyman maintenance. They'll eat you alive if you're not on top of things and can give them a loving home. Hopefully, I'll have taken care of most things that can possibly go wrong by now and she'll give me a trouble free 2012, but somehow I doubt it....

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby turbo » Thu Dec 29, 2011 8:40 pm

adam, what a story. she is beautiful. i didnt know there was unlimited space to a post. i guess jack bought the cadilac of forums. keep up the good work.
summers s. windsor, ct/ winters stuart, fl RV-6/ R-44 / Gyroplane "The government is a body of people notably ungoverned." Image

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Re: Perfect first aircraft? A vintage twin, of course!

Postby Scofreyjet » Fri Dec 30, 2011 11:51 am

Turbo, like Adam's Twin Commander, no expense is spared in the maintenance of the UCAP Forums... ;)

What a great story. I was getting nervous as Adam was poking around at the weather, even though I knew he must have lived to tell the tale. :lol:
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