Advice: $50. Good Advice: $100. Questions Answered: $50. Dumb Questions Answered: $100. Service: $50/hr. Service if you participate: $100/hr.
For most owners, airplane maintenance is a pit of quicksand. If you plunge in, its easy to get in over your head. But if you stay out, mechanical problems can accumulate until dispatch reliability and safety are severely compromised.
The question each owner has to ask is how involved in maintenance they want to be. The question has many answers, and the road to answering it depends upon first determining your objectives. Is the goal to save money? Improve reliability? Log hours toward the A&P requirement?
Next, you have to ask yourself how serious you are. The days of point and shoot maintenance are long gone. Not even the military can afford to summarily replace everything that doesnt work.
Minimal involvement means maintenance will be reactive only. Youll fix what breaks, without trying to anticipate something needing repair or replacement before it breaks. The minimalist pays only for what the IA demands to get the airplanes annual inspection signed off. Of course, there is no free lunch, and while this approach may reduce the cost of annual inspections, the price can be measured by reduced dispatch reliability and wholesale replacement of failed assemblies.
To be more involved, owners can adopt several strategies: proactive inspection, proactive replacement of items nearing their end-of-service life, owner-assisted interval maintenance (all logged under supervision), and owner-assisted annuals.
Personally, I dont participate in my annuals other than to show up during the inspection phase and have stuff pointed out to me. But I do spend considerable time doing the first three because I want to avoid in-flight part failures.
Clearly each owners answer to the question of how involved they want to be depends on several factors. It depends on the availability of the owners time, of the mechanics time, of your need for reliable dispatch, of your tolerance for downtime and your budget.
Until a few years ago, I did not regularly do my own oil changes, when my base shop was so busy that I was in danger of running beyond 50 hours. That prompted me to purchase a filter cutter and learn from the base mechanic what to look for in the filter. I had seen his accordion cuts of my filters and those of other airplanes before, but nothing beats doing your own. For me, the process also helped lead to a better understanding of what to look for while in the engine compartment.
Each owner will eventually develop his own routine for participating in the airplanes maintenance. For some new owners that routine may develop by happenstance. Others may take a more aggressive approach in defining what they want to learn how to do, and going about accumulating the skills and tools. This strategy doesnt mean you have to spend your weekends in the hangar bedecked in grease up to your elbows. It can be as simple as 50-hour phase checks by the maintenance shop, with IRAN (Inspect and Replace As Necessary) for critical things on an agreed list. Your mechanic can help develop the list, which you can amend over time as you get more familiar with the needs of the airplane.
Ive developed an inspection program for my Seneca II that includes a few items that are checked every time I use the airplane. It adds a few minutes to each flight, but thats nothing compared with the inconvenience of having something break at an inopportune time.
Rules of Thumb
There are several rules of thumb for dealing with maintenance. Primary among them is to treat your mechanic well. Generally, the way to convince your mechanic youre serious about maintenance boils down to: Show interest, be accessible, pay attention, never stint on the funds, and pay promptly.
If you show interest and are accessible, the mechanic will know that he can finish the job and go on to the next. If he cannot get a prompt response from you when he wants to advise you as to a part failure or an extraordinary expense, he will be forced to move on to another aircraft. The shop cannot sit idle, as there are very slender margins.
If work continues, he knows you may be very, very miffed by a surprising bill. In addition, by not showing up or calling, you miss an opportunity for systems education – and this is priceless. I always show up. The education is the dessert and I want dessert. His number on my pager gets a high priority response.
Depending on your relationship with the shop, you might want to develop a routine so the mechanic knows how you would like to proceed. For example: you may want to give the go-ahead in advance for any repair the shop deems to be safety-related and to notify you by telephone, voicemail, fax or e-mail. You may want to set a benchmark, say $1,000, below which they have the authority to make the repair, but above which they need to check first. But if you make these kinds of arrangements, always honor them. Once theyre in place, the mechanic will have no reason to stop work on your airplane, thereby delaying its completion.
In the course of your inspections as owner, dont fix anything thats not on the Part 43 list of pilot-approved repairs without advising the mechanic and requesting supervision. Otherwise your repair will constitute unapproved in accordance with no data.
When your IA signs off on the aircraft, hes also putting his stamp of approval on the work youve done. He will not be able to do so if he didnt see what was done. For example, some owners may be tempted to replace worn out looking vacuum tubing with unapproved tygon tubing, a recipe for disaster. Do that and any mechanic worth his salt will demand that it be replaced with proper stuff.
Advise in advance what you intend to do and the mechanic will tell you (or sell you) the proper materials to use in the repair, and youll get a logbook entry documenting the event.
The list of maintenance rules is long, indeed.
• Dont leave a tire on until you can see the air. Thats penny-wise and pound-foolish. I use certified retreads to make tire replacement economical, but be careful because some retracts leave marginal room in the wheel wells. If you think tires are expensive, compare it to how youll feel after the airplane hydroplanes, or when it ground loops away from the flat tire, or when it strands you at a remote airport on a weekend.
• If you see it, fix it or get it fixed. A slightly low landing gear oleo strut can result in oval rivet holes if your next landing isnt perfect. Bad baffling can cause your cylinders to run hot.
Theres no point to looking if you arent going to act. Recently, after shooting approaches in IMC, I noted a click-thud coming from behind the panel when I was holding near-full up elevator. It turned out a strap tie had broken and a vacuum hose was brushing the top of the chain wheel apparatus behind the panel. A beefier strap tie fixed that and prevented the hose from abrading – with resultant loss of vacuum, or worse, loss of control.
• Transient stuff deserves your attention, too. An intermittent alternator light could be as serious as an impending brush failure or as simple as moisture in the regulator. A drippy fuel drain could mean debris in the tank that will probably lodge again, eventually destroying the gasket. An excessive magneto drop that corrects itself through leaning could be as simple as carbon fouling, as tough as lead fouling, a plug in one of the cylinders near failure – or youre about to have catastrophic magneto failure due to flooding of the oil seal.
• Anticipating failures costs less than suffering through the failure. Rather than wait for the complete assembly to fail, fix the suspect component. For example, a fuel pump with a leaky shaft seal can be sent out for pump head overhaul, rather than waiting for the whole unit to flood and be trashed. Check out the price of parts and you will see this strategy really pays off. Check out the wait for parts, and youll see it really makes a difference.
• Sometimes a specialty shop does a better job and is a better value. My current shop used to groan when they saw me taxi up in the turbocharged Mooney. Yes, the mechanics take care of four Mooneys – and they really did their best to help me out – but in the end the trips to a distant maintenance shop that specialized in Mooneys made the difference. The part was always in stock and they had always seen this type of failure before.
The downside is that you dont get the same education because youre not there. So, theres a corollary: First-timers, dont buy an exotic bird. How are you going to get your education from afar?
Learn the quirks of your bird from the type-specific club. Virtually every model of airplane has one, from popular Cessnas and Cherokees to clip-wing Cubs and Beech Staggerwings. Read the FAAs Service Difficulty Report summaries and, if youre concerned, conduct an inspection.
Buy the maintenance and parts manuals for your aircraft so youll know what your mechanic is talking about when he refers to a bad part number. The Service Difficulty Reports also usually refer to part numbers. Itll help a lot if the mechanic can phone you with news that you need part 19 on page 1G18 and its on his microfiche and your computer screen at the same time.
Dont even think of presenting your mechanic with unapproved parts. This is like having an illegal aircraft for the check ride. Hes risking getting his ticket pulled if he accepts. If you want to obtain FAA-PMA or factory parts on your own through discount mail-order sources, better ask first.
Some mechanics welcome the reduced work load in tracking down and ordering the part. Others are accustomed to marking up the part to improve the shops bottom line and are reluctant to lose the revenue stream. Some dont want to take the chance that a counterfeit part will be foisted on them. Ask first.
In many places, the FBO shop rates are less than the local Dodge dealership. Parts are what cost, so make sure you and your mechanic are on the same page.
Many aircraft owners worry about how to select a mechanic. Theres also another side to the equation. You need to make the mechanic select you as well. When you need help and the shop is busy, theyre going to give priority to the customers who are reliable, easy-to-deal with and who pay their bills promptly. You want to be one of them.
Choose your mechanic by reputation. Ask other aircraft owners and youll quickly get a sense of who deserves a shot. Temper that decision by what kinds of airplanes the mechanic already takes care of. You dont want to finance a learning curve by owning the shops most exotic bird, nor do you want to be left in the dust by trotting a Skyhawk into a shop that makes its living off Gulfstreams. Choose by facility. A repair station may use a teenage apprentice to actually do the repair; the old salt may only see your bird at critical times. Sometimes a one-man shop is a better option.
If you think you are getting ripped off, it might be true. But you also need to consider that you may be the one who needs an education. Could you have avoided the problem by being more proactive? Are you financing a learning curve? Should you have gone to the specialty shop?
You know you have a good relationship when, after eight hours of work, your mechanic calls you up and says I spent about eight hours chasing it and it was something really, really, simple that I shouldve checked first. I cant bill you for all that.
Finally – and most importantly – the best preventive maintenance is operating your machinery properly.
• Though your POH is loaded with data for operating at 75 percent power, remember that the airplane is marketed for speed, so the manufacturer has pushed it to the limit for a competitive advantage. Immense amounts of wear and tear can be avoided simply by operating at 65 percent power. The difference in cruise speed is generally small, typically on the order of 6 to 8 knots. Want to go faster? Buy something faster and run it at 65 percent.
• Want to run lean of peak? Some airplanes thrive on it, some dont do as well. Just remember that all economies are false if you work your way to an early overhaul, so do it right. Make sure the aircraft is equipped with the engine monitoring equipment so you know whats happening up there.
• Do you really need to fly when the forecast is for temperatures far below zero? That cold is just hard on everything that flexes.
• If youre not going to fly for three months, pickle the engine in accordance with the factory procedure. It doesnt cost much and it will avoid lifter corrosion.
• Cold out? Preheat the engine and the cabin. Most of the engine and gyro wear occurs during startup. Preheat strategies vary, but be sure the engine is warm to the touch before you crank so that the oil actually runs. Putting a 1500-watt bathroom heater in the cabin for a couple of hours prior to departure also makes your passengers happy.
• If you have fuel bladders, top the tanks before you put the airplane away. Bladders last longer without oxygen contact.
• Reduce manifold pressure at a maximum of 3 inches per minute. When one of my turbo-single students went from 65 percent to idle power in one pull, I had to ask Cant you hear the turbo groaning?
• If youre flying over hostile terrain, remember youll lose all economies if you are forced to land off-airport. Thatll cost lots of parts and lots of labor. Plan your route and altitude in a manner compatible with survivable low-damage emergency options.
• By the way, whens the last time you checked tire pressures during your preflight?
Remember, your aircraft is only as good as you make it. That requires contributions of time, money, education and effort.
-by Bruce Chien
Bruce Chien is a CFII-MEI and AME who owns a Piper Seneca II and a Cessna 140.