Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sold, Crated, and Shipped

In recent months, with nearly every pilot I know, I have discussed and lamented the mass exodus of our vintage aircraft treasures to Europe.  If you’ve been paying attention, the wave of exports is obvious.  Amazingly though, whenever I bring it up the most common reaction among antiquers is an acute lack of concern.  To me this speaks volumes about the vintage community and our country as a whole.
When I brought up this subject to some friends at Flabob a few weeks back, they started walking and I followed.  When they stopped, we were in a different hangar looking at yet another Stearman and Travel Air that were each being readied for a voyage overseas.   That’s when the subject of an additional recent expat arose.  This one was heartbreaking.
Many of you may recognize this beautiful Laird LC-RW300 from last summer.  Belonging to Walter Bowe, it received, and rightfully so, a great deal of attention as it made the rounds of the airshow/fly-in circuit.  The history of this thoroughbred contains an amazing tale of a factory built aircraft that was crated, lost, and, decades later, found.  Now though it has been lost again, only this time to an overseas stable. 
Like I said, very few antiquers seem concerned about the flow of aircraft overseas.  From what I can tell, most of them seem to have written it off as a market driven anomaly that in their words “could easily reverse in the coming years”.  And, quite honestly, that is a good argument.  Unfortunately, there is more to the purchase of an antique aircraft from overseas than exchange rates and economies.
A Stearman and  a Travel Air, destined for overseas, mounted to their shipping dollies
Through the years there have been several international waves of warbird exchanges due to changes in the markets.  When it comes to high dollar flying machines such as P-51’s, the costs of crating, shipping, and red tape hassles are a relatively small part of the purchase.  Heck, some of them even skip the crating are flown back and forth.  Yet even with a massive positive swing in all factors of an economy, these related expenses are relatively large and burdensome when it comes to repatriating a vintage aircraft.  Combine this issue with a few other concerns and it is highly doubtful most of these aircraft will ever see US soil again.
Having perused for many years the aviation magazines of Europe, one thing that has always stood out as interesting is the number of vintage aircraft that are wrecked, written off, and that’s it; they’re gone.  Vintage aircraft just aren’t “rebuilt” in other countries the way they are here.  Historically, in the USA, if a vintage aircraft is splattered on a hillside someone will go in, drag out the scraps and, at the very least, attempt a rebuild.  Yet in England, that’s rare even for a Tiger Moth.  Other countries are worse.
Perhaps it is because their aviation rules make it more difficult or outright forbid it?  Maybe, having less space available, Europeans just can’t save everything because, where would they put it?  And don’t forget the European penchant for randomly parking museum aircraft outside, despite their composition.  Then if the organization goes under, times get tight, or the plane’s fabric falls off due to UV exposure, everything is scrapped.  What happens if one of our treasures ends up in one of these scenarios?  That said, there is another other side to the story.
When I asked Mr. Bowe if it could possibly be true he had sold the Laird to someone in France, he told me he had offered it for sale to others but nobody wanted it.  Then some person from France, who by the way wanted his name withheld (what’s that about?), made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.  Now ask yourself this question; why would there be such a buyer in France but not the US?  The potential answers are endless.  Remember though, we live in a country where guys will spend a million bucks to build a P-51 from scratch while truly historical and rare aircraft with price tags under $100,000 languish in the back of a hangars unwanted.  If aviation were the automotive world, the members of our community would be building Corvette replicas while vintage Aston Martins crumbled away. 
Whatever theory you prefer to explain this trend, one thing is for sure.  Right now there are relatively more people in Europe with a desire to own our aviation treasures than there are here in America and that is sad.  We can only blame ourselves; groups and members.  Although all of us may want to believe otherwise, if you remove all the symbolic gestures, there's not much left celebrate.  The excuses are plenty though.
Not a day goes by that I don’t hear them; nobody is interested anymore, the regulations are killing us, gas is expensive, the economy is poor, and the list goes on.  Yet those same items exist, and to a greater extent, in most of Europe.  Gas certainly isn’t cheaper, regulations certainly aren’t fewer, their economies aren’t great, and the list goes on.  And don’t forget, they have a fraction of our airspace.  So where does that leave us?
Years ago, rumors began to spread around England that the Miles Speed Six was set to be shipped to a buyer in the USA.  When the word got out, one British gentleman stepped up and bought it because, although he’d love to have the plane, it was important the British aviation treasure remain on British soil.  That’s the way some cultures are.
There’s hope though.  An acquaintance of mine recently purchased a Spartan Executive.  He’d always wanted one and I had helped him search for a worthy example.  At one time, the search even went overseas to where a gentleman there had easily purchased and shipped two examples from the USA.  Repatriating one of them was seen as a tasty bonus and an attempt was made with no luck.  Later when one was located in Cleveland, the deal that was struck came down to both sides wanting the airplane to stay in the US.
If you had no idea that our vintage planes were being snatched up and shipped overseas, don’t feel bad.  Our groups and publications certainly haven't said anything about it.  They either haven’t noticed or they don’t care.  But now that you know, I would like to ask a very small favor.  The next time you have a vintage American aviation treasure to sell, place an ad in Trade-a-Plane for one month so that everyone knows it is for sale "with deference to American buyers".  If not a single citizen is interested by the end of that time, you should let the plane go wherever it is truly appreciated.  


Anonymous said...

This isn't a new phenomenon, and not just for vintage aircraft. More than 20 yrs ago, I met a man at a Flying Cloud radio shop who had that day bought 9 Cherokees for export to Europe. He was happy because he had a lead on 9 more. H. Heath

Rich Davidson said...

You are correct, as I mentioned in this piece, it has happened many times with other types of aircraft. Yet, this latest wave is new as it involves a very strong focus on vintage aircraft. These exist in far less numbers that GA aircraft and therefore any vintage aircraft turned expat is far less likely to ever be seen in the US again. It is also less likely to survive if it is ever wrecked. Ultimatley, it is all just an observation I believed many people were missing.

Tom McCord said...


You mentioned Trade-a-plane, but in addition to that what do you feel is the best source to get a Vintage Aircraft advertised to American buyers?

Rich Davidson said...

Are you trying to sell something specific? If so, give me a call at the airport. As for the rules in general of selling antiques, it is a mult-faceted and nuanced game.
But, if you start with some basic understanding it helps: Barnstormers.com is a place where the largest percentage of tirekickers go to dream and pretend they are going to buy something. This can make advertising there a pain but it is also cheap. Any time a plane is offered for sale in print it is priced 20-30% over the real market value. I have no idea why that is. "The papers" don't tag on that amount to your price, for some reason people who list in print always ask high. I suspect though it is because so many brokers deal with paper because they know that's where those who have the least background knowledge go to purchase airplanes. Type clubs generally have newsletters and the people involved are usually in love with that type. Therefore the prices there are often high or just from someone who is trying to feel out the market but have no real intention of selling unless a sucker comes along. Yet, there are also people in the clubs that know the true value of their planes. So, you will often see real prices to "crack pipe" prices side by side for equivalent planes. Often though the guys who like paper will assume the pricier plane to be the best and buy it. IT is a strange world. OK so where to best advertise. If it is a low dollar plane I would send it to barnstormers and be strict with dealing with people. Don't waste your time answering tons of questions unless you deem them legit. NOTE: There are only 2-3 legit questions for any plane in that market. Pricier planes should be advertised here also if you really want to get the world out but you will get a ton of BS calls and emails you'll have to deal with. If you have a really nice plane and you want to limit your selling experience to a more sophisticated class of buyer, Trade-a-Plane is a good place to advertise and so are type clubs of which all planes have now-a-days. And don't forget type club fly-ins. The people who really like those planes will be there and will be at their highest level of purchase fertility.
Then of course there are the places you would think to be obvious but aren't. Facebook, twitter, etc. People on these sites pass things around faster than swingers and they do it on a global scale in a fraction of the time. The key with these is to sell it like Go-Daddy. Make it flashy with lots of photos (pilots are the most simple creatures on the planet) and if you have a video of it include it for exponential selling power. And finally there's me. Or people like me. Let all your buddies know you're selling.
So, I bet you wish you didn't ask that question. Ultimately it comes down to how bad you want to sell and the quality of your plane. If it ranks high in quality among the others of the type, you will needs to use all of these to get it sold. Finally, most people selling today are out of touch with the real market value of their planes. If your's isn't selling, you almost certainly have it priced too high. If nobody is calling, you are one of those offering "crack pipe" pricing.