It’s been three months of owning an airplane and last week my autopilot fell out of the panel and onto the floor on initial climb after takeoff! That sucked. But it seemed like a good time to share some of the unexpected things that broke or I didn’t catch during pre-buy inspection now that I’ve had the Tiger for 3 months. I’ll ruin the ending and say I’m very happy to own this particular airplane, but if you are buying a new-used airplane just know that these old birds aren’t perfect and small, and sometimes weird things can happen.

Houston, we have a problem

Owning an airplane can have its unexpected challenges, here are some of the bigger ones I had in the first three months.

“Don’t worry about that box, it’s not critical. It’s just the autopilot!”

This incident was the inspiration for me sharing. I was giving a Young Eagles flight to a 12-year-old aviation enthusiast. I let him make the radio call for our takeoff, we enter the runway, full power, rotate, and we’re not 200 ft into the climb and a metal box falls out of the panel, hits the kid in the leg, bounces on the floor, and slides under his seat. I watch this happen in slow motion and about 0.5 seconds later assure my young passenger that everything is okay, it’s just the autopilot and we don’t need it, but it definitely should NOT have fallen out. Thank goodness he was a kid who was not afraid of light aircraft and had been on several flights before. We continued the flight, he had the controls for a good part of cruise, and we had a great time. Yikes!


“First oil change complete, let’s go fly! Wait… what is that thingie down there?”

I performed the first oil change on the Grumman after about 25 hours. I was underneath the airplane making sure things were clean and tidy and noticed a little protrusion from a hole under the cowling. It’s definitely not an antenna. What is that? I touch it and it moves freely and on closer inspection I see it’s threaded. I stand up and look from the top, reach in, pick it up, and it’s a screw! What is that doing there! What could it be from? I look around the engine and see very quickly that it’s a screw to a valve cover on the #1 cylinder. I replace it, and check the rest of the valve cover screws and several of them are finger tight. I make sure they are all tight and walk away with a little worry that if those screws are secured is there something else that also wasn’t secured right.

“12 miles to the Class D. Oh $#!t! My FMS with com radios just blacked out.”

I was flying on a cold, cold winter day in Wisconsin. I was heading back to my home Class D a little early because I had to use the bathroom. Got ATIS, was getting ready to make a call to Tower. And then boom, my Avidyne screen goes black. I go through my options — get out the Sporty’s handheld radio backup, divert to the nearby untowered field, squawk 7600 and land at home. Ugh. Fortunately, a cycle of the power brought it back and I got home. When I purchased the airplane I saw the Avidyne reboot itself, the owner said it had to do with connections to wifi. And I only saw it every happen, infrequently, on the ground at startup. After this happened, I updated the Avidyne firmware (wow, it was really out of date!) and it’s been solid ever since.

“What is that rattling noise, it sounds like something’s going to fall apart!”

I started the airplane and was idling, setting up my flight plan in the GPS and waiting for the engine to come to temperature. Then I started to hear the high-pitched rattling sort of noise. At first, I was worried it was the engine and pulled back some power to see if it changed with RPMs and preparing to shutdown. Then I realized the noise was coming from behind me. I looked back and half of the interior trim around the rear window is hanging down. My beagle didn’t seem very concerned. So, I shut down, saw there were missing screws and went to fix it. I never did find the trim screws, were they ever there? So, I replaced the screws and tightened the existing ones and we’re back to good.

“It’s flickering like a disco when you turn that knob”

I do enjoy flying at night. The visibility is relatively good where I live, but like many I do have some worries about picking a spot for a forced landing in the unlikely event it’s necessary. The first night flight I went on I turned the rheostat for the instrument panel lights and it flickered like crazy! Fortunately, at the brightest level it was solid. This is also where I noticed the flexible neck map light (which I think is really cool though not really necessary) works intermittently but comes back if you give it a tippety-tap. I’ve since replaced the bayonet incandescent bulbs with direct replacement dimmable LEDs from Aero-Lites, cleaned the rheostat with WD-40 contact cleaner so it’s smooth operating, and cleaned and tightened the map light switch. Lights are working better than new now!

“Dad, is that thing supposed to be hanging off of the airplane wing?”

I took my son on a fun flight for sightseeing, teaching, and to let him handle the controls a bit. We flew to a local airport that has cheap(er) self-serice 100LL. We landed, taxied to the pump, and hopped out. I started paying for fuel and retrieving the hose when my son points out something weird hanging off of the wing. What is that! On closer inspection it wasn’t a snake or a plant, it was a rubber seal between the wing root fairing and the fuselage. I push it back into place the best I can, we fly back home, and it’s come out again. A little 3M 1300 glue and we’re good to go.

“This autopilot is like Zoolander, it’s not an ambiturner :(“

Unfortunately, I didn’t test the autopilot enough in the pre-buy. The wing leveler worked, and it seemed to want to track a GPS heading. But I didn’t play with all the configuration and also do much more to ensure that it engaged. So after I purchased the airplane I started to try and work it more. The wing level worked, if you turned the dial way to the left. And tracking a heading seemed to work, but it would just keep turning and not stabilize in level flight. So, the airplane likes to turn left on autopilot. The seller assured me the autopilot was just refurbished and so I didn’t look more. There is a calibration procedure that I still need to try. But the autopilot controller fell out of the panel (see above!). Maybe these things are related. To be continued.

And Just a little bit more…

And a few other bits and bobs along the way of owning an airplane:

  • The cigarette lighter doesn’t work, so no charging phones yet. One day I’ll pull apart the console to find the inline fuse and check the wiring so that the expensive USB charger I purchased can be put to use.
  • CHT gauge for the #3 cylinder reads low, maybe ambient? The shop said it was fixed when I reported it during pre-buy, and it was. But now it’s not working again.
  • The fuel gauges have some hacky lighting. Left gauge illuminates, right gauge does not. Turns out there is an LED added in the wiring that hangs loose in the left gauge window. Will address that when I rip apart the console for the cigarette lighter.

Other than that, there are some small maintenance items and additions I didn’t think of when I purchased the plane but that needed updating, fixing, or to be added for my preference:

  • Tail beacon light went out. Turns out it was the power supply and so replaced the whole thing with an LED unit from Whelen
  • The glare shield was old, cracked, and wavy. The original Tiger glare shield is also way too low so you can’t see instruments at the top of the panel, which is where my audio is located. So I had to bend down to look under the eyebrow. I replaced this with the AUCountry fiberglass version which makes the panel look as nice as the rest of the airplane and is also angled up so I can see all my avionics now! I also changed the door trim with parts from Vantage Plastics and re-painted the dash cover that was fading.
  • The cabin speakers were in bad shape and were cracked. There were two different models installed, which were two different sizes, and they were both from Radio Shack. It took a lot of Googling to figure that out. So I replaced them with some higher quality speakers with weatherproof mylar cones. I considered removing them completely, but I found out it’s kind of nice to listen to tower when I’m on external power. I also like the idea of backups — you know in case the four headsets I have in the airplane all decide to fail.
  • I added a CO monitor. I started with the cheap card with the color changing dots. But after hearing the Dan Bass CO incident on the “There I Was…” AOPA podcast, I decided to spend a little more. I did a ton of research and decided to go with the Forensics Detectors Aircraft CO monitor. I did a ton of research on this, and landed on this because it had sensitive detection, the size/form factor was perfect for a spot on my panel, and the price was good. The one con on this one is they say the alarm isn’t very loud. But the reviews are mixed on that and where I located it is part of my normal scan and it also has the flashing light.
  • The GPS database was out of date, so that’s something I just need to upload to the Avidyne regularly.
  • There was no fire extinguisher in the airplane, so I purchased a small 1.3lb H3R Fire Extinguisher. Currently I just have it tucked into the rear passenger seat pocket where I can easily reach it from the pilot seat. However, the original fire extinguisher option was mounted under the seat. I’ll be designing and 3d printing a bracket to locate this under the seat when I have more time.
  • I purchased a Battery Minder for my Concorde 12V battery to keep it in good shape. Also, when I first purchased the airplane I let my kids sit in it and play with the headsets and listed to ATC for too long and it was hard to start the next day. So, now I ensure it’s plugged in all the time and I added this quick disconnect harness to the battery so it’s easy to plug and unplug before and after a flight. I also don’t let the kids play with the avionics 🙂 However, there are times I want to use the avionics to perform updates or learn the buttonology and such. Having an engineering background I owned a benchtop power supply. The one I have is no longer available and has some programmability features. But it’s similar to this DC power supply. What I do is disconnect the battery and connect this power supply in its place. Some of the features that I’d recommend for a bench power supply are (1) that you can dial in 13.5 volts which is closer to what the airplance 12v bus actually carries; (2) it has a separate output switch, so you can turn on the power supply and make sure all the voltages and current is adjusted before turning on the output; (3) that it has short, overcurrent, and over heat protection and will turn off automatically. The above power supply has these features, and has good reviews, but I haven’t personally used that model.

In the end, Owning an Airplane…

This is a list of maybe a dozen things that came up, such are the joys of owning an airplane. But I’m still really happy with the airplane and the decision. I would have done some more diligence early on, especially for the autopilot because that could be small, or it could be a major expense. And of course, the control unit fell out in flight in a kids lap :/. But the structure, powerplant, controls, and all the important things have been great so far with no signs of issues.

My goal, my dream is to fly as much as possible. I fly for the joy and the recreation of it. I fly to see new things. I fly to build mastery and for the challenge. I fly to have shared experiences with my family and friends.

That last goal meant that my top priority was safety. I have a family (my wife and two young children) and I want to ensure that they are as safe as possible. A lot of the safely factor comes down the pilot proficiency and good decision making, but that’s for another discussion.

My list of “must have” requirements included (in no particular order):

  • A well maintained and cared for airframe and powerplant
  • Seats for four and sufficient useful load for my family
  • Low-as-possible operating costs so that the financial aspect wouldn’t cloud the joy
  • IFR ready with a decent-enough GPS and autopilot to reduce workload
  • Parts and maintenance availability and a community to ensure long term maintainability
  • Tricycle gear because it’s forgiving, and I wasn’t ready to get into tailwheel
  • A sweet spot on the engine total time, nothing too young for the infant mortality of engines, but ideally <1,000 hrs. to have some more time

And some of the “nice to haves” included (in no particular order):

  • Something pretty with a nice interior and paint job
  • Something with great feel and power so it would be fun to fly solo
  • Extra niceties with the avionics or glass
  • Cruise speed
  • Short and soft field performance and back country performance
  • Low time on the airframe, want plenty of life on things that may be life limited like the spar in the Tiger, but condition mattered more to me
  • Low time on the prop, I want to get use out of it, want good condition, but the cost of a prop overhaul or replacement vs an engine is night and day and I don’t mind absorbing prop work in a few years for the right aircraft

I also took to heart advice I had heard from my CFI and others, which after purchase I fully endorse now:

  • Get a good and thorough inspection, fly the plane yourself and press every button and turn every knob
  • Buy your second airplane first — think about where you’ll want to be in the next 5 years and buy that airplane
  • Buy the airplane with the avionics you want — it’s tempting to buy a cheaper aircraft and upgrade, but you lose a lot of equity in the upgrade and you’ll have a lot of downtime waiting for the work to be done

Deciding on a make and model

I spent months and months researching and contemplating which aircraft to purchase, it consumed me. Obviously, I landed on the Grumman AA-5B and when the right one came on the market, I jumped on it. But here are a few of the other aircraft I considered:

  • Grumman AA-5 and AA-5A, the Traveler and Cheetah – If the right one came on the market I probably would have bought it if the price was right. However, I wanted the performance of the Tiger, in the recommendation of “buy your second aircraft first.” Lots of tempting projects about upgrading the powerplant of these aircraft, but that’s so much more money all in and so much time grounded. So it wasn’t ideal.
  • Grumman AA-1/A/B/C, the Yankee, Trainer, and Lynx – these are two place aircraft that are great fun to fly and much more affordable. I considered purchasing one of these to save on costs knowing that most of my flight hours would be solo or with one passenger. I could then rent a Cessna or a Cirrus for family trips. However, most of these aren’t IFR ready, and I wanted to freedom to take my family out on a day trip or to get some expensive brunch on a whim. The rental wasn’t going to allow for that. Had I gone this route I would have flown with my family probably less than half the time than I have now because every trip would need sufficient planning to get on the rental schedule. The Cessna 150 and 152 were also in this same category.
  • Piper PA-31 Cherokee Six/300 – this aircraft was very high on my list and if the right one came available I probably would have purchased it. But the right Tiger came up for sale first. I really like the club seating, the useful load, the reliable dispatch, and the operating costs. The entry costs were higher than I wanted given all the desire I had for condition, avionics, and such. And it would be more of a truck vs a sports car feel.
  • Cessna 172, 177, 182, 210, etc – there is a lot to like in the Cessna lineup. A lot of familiarity since I trained in a 172. Lots of support around the country. Six place options like the 210 were appealing for the family aspect. Easy to fly, good short and soft field performance. For me, a couple downsides (though not disqualifiers) were the handling, I really wanted something that was more responsive and sporty to feel more connected to the aircraft (I like sports cars and I wanted that feel); the up front costs, they are in high demand and prices reflect that; and there is just a fun factor that was missing, especially since I didn’t see myself doing back country flying.
  • Beechcraft Bonanza – I considered various 35 and 36 model Bonanzas (also looked at the Sundowner) and these of course are amazing machines. Universally loved by owners and the community. The handling, speed, useful load, and heritage were very appealing. However, the up front and ongoing operating costs were more than I wanted to spend for a first aircraft. There is a Beechcraft tax and these are complex, high-performance aircraft with more cylinders.
  • Vans RV-10 – Checks all the boxes except that the entry price was higher than I wanted to spend on a first aircraft. I also didn’t look at the experimental category as seriously. Three months in, and now having some of the small maintenance items to deal with, I have more knowledge and am a much bigger fan of the experimental category and wish I would have looked deeper into experimental options.

I chose the Tiger

Grumman American Logo

The Grumman AA-5B Tiger turned out to be the right choice for me. It checked all the boxes I had, and ultimately what sealed the deal for me was that every review I read and all the feedback I heard was overwhelmingly positive. People love their Grumman’s and there is a small but strong community around the make. That gave me a lot of confidence in the choice. After watching the online ads and forums for months and months, the right Tiger came on the market and I jumped on it. It was maintained by a Grumman specialty shop and had a single owner for decades. It was well loved and checked all my boxes and then some so I paid a premium for it. The extra cost amortized of the next 5-10 years is small relative to the benefit.


After three months of ownership there are a few things I wish I would have considered more. I think I lucked into the right airplane in some ways and I have no regrets, but there are a few things I wish I would have thought through more:

  • Soft field and short field — there are so many cool places to go to get into nature, to go camping, etc. The Tiger short and soft field isn’t terrible and people do it. But it’s definitely not the best performer in the lineup. There are several airports on my “places to visit” list that I may not be able to get into.
  • Engine monitor — after I purchased the aircraft I learned a lot more about maintenance, and specifically Mike Busch and condition based maintenance. One of his “must have” suggestions is an engine monitor with the ability to download the data. I’m happy with the 4-cylinder EGT and CHT and the fuel totalizer for the time being. But an advanced engine monitor is on my list to upgrade.
  • Engine heater and cold weather ops — mine has one but I got lucky and didn’t think about it before I found this aircraft. My home field is in Wisconsin and it gets cold. I flew in the winter as often as I could, with sub-zero temperatures and thank goodness I have the engine heater which I have hooked up to a remote cellular switch so I can start the pre-heat the night before. Cold weather ops was just not something I had considered, so I got lucky that the bird I bought was based in Illinois and was setup.
  • Cabin configuration — I didn’t think about configuring the rear seats for different missions – hauling, camping, dogs. The Grumman turned out to be awesome because the rear seats fold down really easily. I take my beagle on flights with me and he can lay in his bend where I can see and pet him. I haven’t done it yet, but people bring bikes in the back and will even sleep in the cargo area. It’s like a minivan! And with the sliding canopy it’s really easy to get cargo and kids in and out.
  • Experimental — after having some small maintenance items, I realized how limiting the allowed owner maintenance for certified airplanes is. I have an engineering background and have much more capability than the FAA allows me to work on. So this will be a big consideration for my next airplane. Or, maybe I’ll have to get my A&P.
  • Test more — I received the advice to operate everything in the aircraft, and the Grumman knowledgeable CFI I met with for the demo flight said the same thing. I turned on everything and asked questions. However, there are some things I wish I would have dug into more — for example I tested some basic functionality of the autopilot but it turned out there were some other issues. There were also some other small things that I found after purchase that I should have caught with a more thorough test.

I am really happy with the Tiger. The joy and the value I get from it has been worth the costs for me. I think one of the biggest values though is just owning the aircraft instead of renting it. There is a level of freedom and of comfort in aircraft ownership that I think any aircraft would have provided. If I take a long lunch I can go fly. If I’m free after work I can go fly. If we have a free Saturday we can go fly. It’s allowed me and my family to fly much more frequently and on a whim. I get more joy and build and maintain more proficiency.

In addition, everything is where I left it. My headset is waiting for me. My flashlight, hand radio, charging cable, spare batteries, sunglasses are right where I left them. I worry less about other people abusing or damaging something that may affect me. I know things are being maintained and repaired when they need to be. So I can arrive at the airport and get to the runway much faster and with more confidence than with the rental.