Chad and Michelle West’s “Dream Catcher”

By Dan Brownell

Chad West’s most recent plane purchase, a 1985 Dakota, is his dream come true. He’s been a pilot since 2003 and has flown and owned a number of planes, but he favors Pipers, especially the Dakota. “The plane I had before this Dakota was a 1999 Piper Archer III. I have owned three Cherokee 180s, an Arrow, and a V-tailed Bonanza. I flew law enforcement helicop­ters for 15 years, but whenever I talk about my love for flying, I always skip to flying my low-wing Pipers as my favorite memo­ries. The first time I flew a Dakota, it was totally familiar to me. It was a Cherokee on very noticeable steroids.”

On the Hunt

Chad and Michelle searched for the right Dakota for almost three years when N6919M came along in May 2021. “We live in Iowa, and I decided to go to southwest Texas for a turkey hunt­ing trip,” Chad said. “Michelle said she would keep looking for our plane while I was gone, but I kinda chuckled and said, ‘Good luck’ because I had just about given up.

“While I was gone, on the third day, she posted on a Dakota fo­rum on Facebook that she wanted to find her husband a Dakota so he would stop crying. The owner of N6919M’s wife in Albany, New York, responded to Michelle’s post, saying they would be list­ing their Dakota on Trade-a-Plane the next day.

“Michelle sent me the information on the plane, which was ex­actly what I was looking for. It had around 3,000 hours total time, the engine had only 300 hours since factory remanufacture, and the price was dead-on fair and in our budget. So I left Texas immediately after climb­ing to the top of about a 300-foot elevation in the hill country for cell service to speak with the owner to let him know it would take me three days to get there. The owner was very understanding and told me he would hold the plane advertisement until I looked at the plane and decided if I wanted to buy it. I was there in three days, loved the plane, completed a prebuy, and flew her home.”

Chad and Michelle enjoying their beloved Dakota.

The Interior Renovation and Panel Upgrade

The next step was to renovate and upgrade 19M. “We already figured a new interior and new avionics in whatever we bought was probably going to be needed, and this plane had original interior and paint. The paint was good and it shined up nicely, but the interior padding was almost nonexis­tent,” Chad said.

Eager to get it updated, he immediately flew 19M to Acadiana Aircraft Interiors ( in Opelousas, Louisiana, for a custom interior. As soon as that was finished, he had Avionics Solutions ( in Lafayette, Louisiana, do a complete avionics panel and equipment upgrade. “The panel was already nice,” he said. “But I added a number of items: GTN 650Xi, dual G5s, GTR 225, GFC 500 autopilot, PS Engineering 8000G, AirGizmos iPad mount, panel-mounted Garmin aera 660 portable GPS, remote-mounted GDL 51R XM receiver, TOGA button, Cygnet trim switch, remote-mounted Garmin Smart Glide activation button, two Garmin USB ports, and Flight Stream 210.”

Chad put as much effort into finding the right shops to do the work on his plane as he did to finding the right plane. “It’s a long way to Louisiana from Iowa for interior and an avionics upgrade, but I knew these guys from my professional flying career in he­licopters since they had done work on the helicopters that I flew. I also thought it would be best if I got both interior and avionics done at the same time, and I’m very pleased with the results, which were better than Michelle and I expected.

“The interior was done first, then the avionics, which were all supposed to be completed within about three months. Then COVID hit, and that three months ended up being 11 months, but they pickled the engine for me and actually completed an annual inspection that was due.”

Because of his extensive research ahead of time, Chad was pre­pared to have the avionics work begin as soon as Avionics Solutions was ready to take his plane. “I had started looking on YouTube for recommendations on avionics over the three years of looking for this Dakota, so I pretty much knew what I wanted based on my budget. I was unsure about the audio panel from PS Engineering, however, so I called the company and got to speak with the owner. After I explained the performance I wanted, he said all I needed was an 8000G, which I purchased.

“The funny thing is that when he asked me how I found my Da­kota, he interrupted me in the middle of my story and said, ‘Are you the guy that his wife found the Dakota so you would stop crying?’ Flabbergasted, I asked, ‘Yes, how did you know that?,’ to which he shared that he had read Michelle’s post on the Dakota forum!”

N6919M’s outdated look before Acadiana Aircraft Interiors worked their magic.
The door before its transformation.
Acadiana Aircraft Interiors exceeded the Wests’ expectations.
Acadiana Aircraft Interiors in LaFayette, Louisiana, did the interior upgrade. The following photos except full panel photo courtesy of Kassi Laughlin Photography
Fewer than 25 of the 1985 Dakota were produced, making this particular aircraft relatively scarce. All the more reason to make sure it is preserved.

The Right Plane for the Mission

“My primary mission is cross-country flying,” Chad said. “Mi­chelle and I are both lucky enough to be retired at fairly young ages and we usually take trips around the 600 to 800 nautical mile range. The Dakota fits our needs almost perfectly because the back seats are usually filled with a small ice chest, as we love to have lunch in the air, along with my flight bag, a pillow for her, and a couple of small blankets,” Chad said.

“Our luggage is all the way in the rear of the plane and can hold up to 200 pounds. It’s common for us to be nowhere near being overloaded, and we usually bring clothes we won’t even need, so some extra shopping at our destination is never an issue, all with full fuel if we need it.”

Worth the Wait

“The new interior is amazing,” Chad said. “I have made nu­merous flights nonstop in the 4- to 5-hour range in total com­fort, which is a first for me in all of my six airplanes that I’ve owned over the years, accumulating just south of 5,000 hours.

“I have never done a complete interior upgrade before on any of my prior airplanes or any avionics besides maybe a portable GPS, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out which I appreciate more, the interior or the avionics! I love them both. The new panel makes my flying such a breeze that I have not regretted spending the money at all.”

Parting Words

“If I had to offer advice for someone who is at a similar place in their life as we were and wanting a plane that you plan on keeping for a long time, buy the type of plane you want with lesser interior and avionics because that gives you the opportunity, if you’re patient, to catch the plane of your dreams!

“We feel very fortunate to be able to have our beloved Piper Dakota, which have affectionately named “The Dream Catcher,” which fits because I fly her a lot, and every time I fire her up, I give thanks and praise to God above for allowing me to actually have the experience of making a dream come true.”

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