In 1991, my need for an airplane larger than my Cessna 150 led to a search that ended with a 1959 Cessna 172 my A&P father located near his home in Texas.
The plane obviously needed some cosmetic work, but it fit my meager budget and I was promised it would be sold with a fresh annual inspection. The annual inspection sealed the deal. I figured it would at least be safe to fly in spite of its dowdy appearance, which Id deal with as resources allowed.
My father took care of completing the sale and flew the 172 the 15 or so minutes to his home airport. On landing, he got the first of a whole string of surprises the airplane would reveal in the coming months.
At touchdown on the short strip, he found the right brake didnt work at all. A leaking seal had vented all the hydraulic fluid at the first hard brake application. The interesting stop took the entire runway with the left brake doing all the work.
Now suspicious of the seller and furious with the IA who signed off on the inspection, Dad started compiling a list of discrepancies. The list got very long and eventually made it to the FAA. To get the airplane up to me, he got it airworthy enough for a ferry permit and flew it to my airport, where my budget didnt get it flying for nearly a year.
While you expect some discrepancies in a just-purchased airplane, some were so obvious a blind mechanic could have noticed them. The elevator surfaces, for instance, were from a newer-model 172 and were a couple of inches too long. The elevator tips stuck out well beyond the end of the horizontal stabilizer.
The vertical stabilizer/rudder assembly was attached to the fuselage with automotive bolts. There was no ELT, the magnetic compass didnt work, the elevator down-stop was non-existent and the entire fuselage was filled with wasp nests that took repeated washings with a pressure washer to remove. The list of discrepancies submitted to the FAA took two single-spaced pages.
As it turned out, the fellow holding the Inspection Authorization allowed the seller (who was an A&P himself) to perform the inspections and the IA signed them off, apparently without even looking at the plane. This trust in an unscrupulous A&P cost the IA his ticket and might very well have cost an unsuspecting pilot his life.
To many owners/pilots, the annual inspection is a dreaded event. It typically requires several days downtime and, for the unfortunate, several months discretionary income. The owner lives in fear of the inspector discovering an unexpected problem that will further extend the downtime and could very well cripple the bank account. For them, the temptation is great to find an IA who will make the inspection more owner-friendly or at least allow a deteriorating condition (like a low compression reading) to get by for just a little longer.
To begin with, an IA is an A&P whos been holding the ticket for at least three years and has managed to pass a written exam requiring considerable effort in researching aircraft airworthiness issues. The applicant also must prove he or she can use the proper references to determine airworthiness.
While the test is reasonably difficult, most A&Ps can pass it with a bit of studying and the use of test guides and learning aids. In addition to passing the test, the IA candidate must reasonably demonstrate access to the required tools and references required working as an IA.
Nothing in the FARs require an IA to limit exercising their authority on particular kinds of airplanes, and they dont even have to have much experience at all. IA candidates need only prove, in a rather loose fashion, that they need the authorization to better perform their job.
While the IA ticket carries with it tremendous responsibility, it isnt like a graduate degree in maintenance; it is merely a certificate saying the holder has met the knowledge requirements to perform annual inspections and approve major repairs for return to service.
But like any venture that combines business with aviation, what IAs know and what they practice can be two different things.
Auto manufacturers would be out of business if cars were maintained like airplanes; the vehicles would last forever, like airplanes. It occasionally amazes light plane passengers when theyre told the airplane theyre riding in is older than they are and yet still quite safe and in good condition. The annual inspection is the primary reason this is so.
The annual, of course, is an in-depth inspection designed to catch deteriorating conditions within the airplane as well as an opportunity to do periodic maintenance items (such as air filters and fuel filters). The scope and detail of an annual inspection is outlined in FAR 43, Appendix D. This FAR outlines the basic requirements for an annual (and 100 hour) inspection. Most pilots would be well-served by pulling out the reg to learn what an annual includes – and what it doesnt.
Aircraft manufacturers cover these requirements on each model of aircraft by providing an inspection guide in their service manuals. Owners may want to purchase the service manuals for their aircraft (available through aircraft dealers or local FBOs) to discover the detail areas an IA needs to inspect during the annual. Knowing more about the airplanes maintenance requirements may help you save money even if you never get your hands greasy by teaching you more about the aircrafts operating systems.
Shopping for an IA
As much as anyone in aviation, Im inclined to get the most for my money. But just as it takes money to make money, sometimes you have to spend money to save it. At no time is this more true than in buying an annual.
The inspection shouldnt be something you want to just get over with. Instead think of it as an opportunity to find small problems now before they turn into big ones later.
To get the most for your money, find a good inspector who has the expertise and will take the time to find little problems before they cost you dearly. A small crack in a flap can be quickly repaired and may avoid an expensive re-skinning for hundreds or thousands of dollars later. A loose control cable found and tightened today may avoid a very labor-intensive cable replacement down the road. You get the idea.
Like good carpenters, good IAs gain a reputation for quality work. Other owners around the flightline can help point you in the right direction. Of particular interest should be owners of aircraft like yours.
IAs who are familiar with aircraft like yours know where problems tend to crop up. This saves time in labor by speeding the diagnosis and the cure. They are more likely to have parts on hand or can get them through their normal suppliers. Shops not normally dealing with your type of aircraft may have to spend labor time locating suppliers and arranging to get the parts.
Is More Better?
Anyone who works for a living feels their time has value, and a mechanic is no different. Independent mechanics will set a rate that they think theyre worth plus the overhead of keeping the shop going.
In large maintenance shops, the overhead is increased by maintaining a large inventory of parts, buying specialized tools, running a large hangar and leasing property at a major airport. Smaller shops have lower overhead, but may not have the necessary equipment to handle your particular aircraft. Delays may occur because smaller shops dont stock as much inventory or have the equipment to perform some kinds of repair work. A large shop may get your inspection done in a day or two, while a small shop may take a week or more.
There is an old debate about mechanics. Some people justify expensive shops by saying, You get what you pay for. Others say large shops can lead you to waste a lot of your money paying for all that glamorous equipment you dont use.
For every 172 owner who boasts that his mechanic took only one day to complete an annual there is a critic who says that if it didnt take three days it was hurried and not done right. The truth is not so black-ad-white.
My first summer job was working for an IA out of a grass strip where he kept several hangars for rent as well as his main hangar, where he ran a shop. Though budget priced, the fellow was meticulous in the work he performed on airplanes.
More than one time I had my tail chewed because I hadnt done something exactly right. He wanted to instill in me that aviation isnt something you do halfway. He lived the philosophy and, without a white hangar floor or computerized AD lists, he had a backlog of business stretching for months. As a retired college professor, he performed low-cost annuals on par with the best shops, but apparently felt he was doing well enough at the rate he charged. The business is still going 25 years later.
In recent years, Ive dealt with a large shop locally with the exotic tools, white hangar floor, and a rapid computer for AD research and parts ordering that make the maintenance effort considerably faster. As with the fellow at the grass strip, they have a good reputation for quality work, though at considerably more cost.
The important thing is that there are no big differences between the shops. Sure, the big shop turns an airplane around a bit quicker, but thats offset by the higher cost.
The two are virtually identical in one important respect: quality. Both are recognized in their particular pilot communities as performing good work. That goes back to the original recommendation: talk to other pilots and find out. Dont just go to the yellow pages and look for the one with the biggest ad, and dont just ask one person for a recommendation.
The time it takes to turn around an airplane is an important consideration for owners (especially partnerships) that use the airplane frequently. Familiarity with the airplane is quite important in determining what kind of time is required to do the job.
For example, anyone familiar with single-engine Cessnas will know about the seat rail airworthiness directive where the holes elongate through wear with the seat-latching pin. The best means of measuring the holes is to use a gauge with the critical dimensions cut into it (a go/no-go gauge) for both hole elongation and depth.
Those who have the gauge and are familiar with Cessnas can get the job out of the way in a few seconds. Those working from the AD will take 20 times longer.
Another example is the 1,000-hour (500-hour for floatplanes) inspection of the vertical stabilizer attachment points on a Cessna 205/206/207/210. The inspection takes quite a while the first few times, comparing the picture to the various bolts, spars, and bulkheads. Familiarity with the procedure can speed it to a few minutes.
Finally, stay away from IAs who are willing to sign off an annual for a fee, no matter how perfect you think your plane is.
Yeas ago, my budget forced me to maintain my old Cessna 150 myself. Overseen by a helpful IA on the field, I worked pretty hard on it through the entire spring and summer following its purchase. By the time the annual was due, I had tweaked, turned, and looked at nearly every bolt, washer, and rivet on that airplane and felt I had a near-perfect plane.
I approached the IA whod watched me do all this and hinted that Id like him to sign off the annual.
He politely refused, saying hed gladly let me perform all the work involved, but he needed to do the inspection himself, both by law and conscience.
He did, in fact, discover a few small problems Id not noticed during the course of the inspection. He did both of us a favor by insisting he do the inspection himself.
A pencil-whipped annual can save you a few bucks now, but watch out for what it will cost when the final bill comes due.
-by Clint Lowe
Clint Lowe holds an IA and operates a Part 135 cargo operation.