Top Ten Owner Tips

Precious little maintenance guidance is available to aircraft owners. Here are ten tips to save you some bucks and whittle down flight risks.


An Aviation Safety Staff Report

It is said that one of the most dangerous things in general aviation is an airplane owner with a #2 Phillips screwdriver. While unknowledgeable owners have undoubtedly contributed substantial sums of money to mechanics who have to fix their mistakes, few aircraft are falling out of the sky from bad maintenance. On the other hand, the days of a Cessna, Piper, Mooney or Beech dealer on every airport corner are long gone, and its increasingly hard for owners to find local maintenance shops with type-specific knowledge. Instead, many maintenance providers have become generalists when it comes to piston-powered aircraft, working on a wide range of types throughout a typical day.

While finding good maintenance is a critical aspect of aircraft ownership, its not the only one. Personal aircraft ownership can easily be far more complicated-and expensive-than owning a boat, a recreational vehicle or a vacation home, assets usually in competition with aircraft for disposable income. And, while we must pass tests before legally flying it, no such requirements are imposed on owning an aircraft-anyone with a pulse and good credit can buy one.

A basic understanding of an owners responsibilities and privileges can save money and result in a safer, more efficient airplane. Unfortunately, new owners usually depend on a combination of friendly mechanics, more-experienced tiedown neighbors and hangar-flying tales to navigate the often-murky skies of aircraft ownership. Much of that advice can be flat wrong, especially when it comes to operational issues or transferring what works with, say, a Mooney to diagnosing a Diamond. Its past time for owners to become more educated and involved in operating their airplanes.

Type Clubs
Joining and participating in an organization devoted to your aircraft is a must for any serious owner. There is simply no substitute for the collective knowledge and experience to be gained from the hundreds-thousands?-of owners who have likely encountered the same issues youll face with maintenance, repairs, operations or upgrades.

The American Bonanza Society and the Cessna Pilots Association are two of the largest and best-known type clubs out there and provide a wide range of services to their members. They are involved in every aspect of owning the marques addressed, including going to bat for owners with the FAA over ill-conceived Airworthiness Directives. Type clubs are especially valuable during the pre-purchase phase of aircraft ownership as they are most familiar with a models idiosyncrasies.

Regional Groups
Localized groups focused on specific geographic areas can also be beneficial, especially when it comes to finding the best local engine shop, the cheapest engine oil or learning when scarce hangars become available. They can be formal, like an EAA chapter, or an informal Web site or e-mail forum. Youll not only learn more about the nuances of flying your areas airspaceand weather, youll meet some like-minded new friends and could save money on everything from ferry flights to fuel. It really pays to know other owners.

Oil Changes
Do your own oil changes. Even if its on a windy ramp in the dead of winter, youll save money and learn more about your airplane. Look for a local petroleum distributor who markets your brand of engine oil and can save you up to 50% per quart versus buying from the local FBO. After uncowling the airplane, take time to closely inspect the engine compartment while the oil is draining. Be sure to get the proper tools (safety-wire pliers and an oil-filter cutter, for example) and have an experienced mechanic show you how its done the first time. Your engine will be better off and the money you save can be used to fly more. Be sure to cut open the filter to inspect for metal. Log the work under your owners authority.

Oil Analysis
Put your engine(s) on oil analysis. Sending a small sample taken from the drained oil at each change to a lab doing spectrographic analysis can help diagnose any number of maladies-including an ill-fitting air filter, for example-and establish both baselines and trends. Using such a service costs only a few dollars each oil change, is painless and provides yet another data point when trying to resolve engine issues. Use the same lab, to ensure consistency in results, and keep the records for future reference. Plugging the numbers into a computer spreadsheet averaged for hours between changes can help decide if an elevated reading is a problem or normal. Documentation like this-along with complete logbooks and other supporting paperwork-can help when you sell the airplane, also.

Protect Your Logs
Speaking of logbooks, incomplete or missing logs can have a major impact on your aircrafts selling price when you decide to trade in your flivver for, say, a new Cirrus. Some say that missing logs can mean a 25% hit on the selling price. And if you ever get involved in an accident or an FAA enforcement action, either Uncle Sugar or the insurance company will want to see them.

Take the time to copy the pages and supporting documents (Forms 337, yellow tags, work orders, etc.) and put both the copies and the originals in a safe place. Make sure the copies are legible; some use a digital camera to produce an image of each page and then burn the results to a CD-ROM for easy storage and retrieval. Meanwhile, keep the originals organized and protected, like in a fireproof safe or a bank safe deposit box.

Never leave your logs with a shop or mechanic-they can get lost or destroyed. The only time a mechanic needs to look at your logs is during the annual inspection to verify AD compliance. Otherwise, have them print up a self-adhesive label for any new logbook entries and make sure they get into the log at the appropriate spot by putting them there yourself.

Owner-Assisted Annuals
Some shops may not like the idea of an owner helping out with the work during an annual inspection. Tough. If its a show-stopper for them, politely but firmly take your airplane and your business somewhere else.

Assisting the shop with your annual inspection is one of the most valuable ways an owner-especially a new owner-can get to learn his or her airplane. Youll discover which access panels allow inspection of which components, what some of the hidden areas of the airframe look like and what to look for during a pre-flight inspection. Youll also learn how to actually perform the maintenance the FAA allows owners to do-oil changes and spark plug cleanings, for example-and which tools youll need to do the job properly. Striking up a friendship with the shop by spending a day or two with them cant hurt down the road when you need something fixed at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. Plus, youll be right there when the IA mutters, Uh-oh. Better take a look at this.

Take the time and spend the money to get the current maintenance and parts manuals for your airplane. Getting them on CD-ROM is fine-you can keep a copy of the disc in the airplane for when youre on a trip and need some work done on your Mooney at a King Air shop-but youll also want the printed versions at the hangar for reference. Especially as our airplanes get older, part numbers change and are superseded. Having correct and current parts lists and maintenance procedures readily available can save untold amounts of time and money when its time to replace that out-of-spec frammis or find a new one. If your airframe manufacturer no longer sells new manuals, look to one of the reprint companies for a decent-quality copy. The Web-based auction site eBay can be a good source, depending on what you need. Also, having all the necessary manuals can mean getting top dollar for your airplane when you sell it-the buyer should have peace of mind knowing that you maintained the airplane per the manufacturers instructions and installed the correct parts.

Get the Right Training
Learning the best ways to fly your airplane in various configurations and during emergencies can pay big dividends in safety and, sometimes, reduced insurance premiums. Flying with the 200-hour CFI who has never flown your airplane type to knock out a BFR is fine, but youll need someone intimately familiar with it to show you things like emergency descents, short-field performance and engine failure procedures, especially in a twin. Again, type clubs can be invaluable resources when it comes to finding instructors experienced in how to fly your airplane, with the Bonanza Pilot Proficiency Program perhaps one of the best-known resources. Dont forget to spend some classroom time going over the airplanes systems before turning the key. Asking for additional work on things you may not fully understand.

Continuing Education
Once you get your Private and, say, your Instrument rating, you might think thats the last time youll need to see the inside of an aviation schoolhouse. Nonsense-with color moving-map GPS navigators in our panels, pop-up TFRs and new tricks on engine monitoring and operation everywhere you look, there is always something new about owning or flying your airplane to learn about. Its no secret were fans of training like the Advanced Pilot Seminars and the Savvy Aviator series, but theres a good reason: The education value from events like these is immense and well worth your time and money.

Your local FAA office may also offer a wide range of evening programs on various topics, many of them eligible for credit towards the WINGS proficiency program. Dont let the latest innovations in owning and operating your 30-year-old airplane pass you by. Yes, you can teach old dogs-err, pilots- new tricks.

Fly the Airplane
Lastly, dont let your bird become the airports hangar queen-airplanes work better and last longer when theyre flown regularly. Try to fly at least one hour a week and get out of the traffic pattern. Get some air underneath the wings and let the engine temperatures stabilize to circulate warm oil everywhere and boil off any corrosion-causing water that condensed. Keeping things lubricated and exercised through frequent use is one of the best ways to tamp down high ownership costs.

Owning an airplane is not for the faint of heart or weak of wallet. However, taking some time-honored and common-sense steps can improve the ownership experience, leave you with a safer, better-maintained airplane and result in reduced costs. What more can you ask for?

Also With This Article
“Defer This? It Depends…”
“The Savvy Owner”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here