What Is Your Airplane Mechanic Trying To Tell You?

What Is Your Airplane Mechanic Trying To Tell You?

By Joe Godfrey

Last year Mike Busch started Savvy Aviator, Inc., and began a series of Savvy Owner Seminars around the U.S. to make airplane owners smarter about their options when it comes to maintenance.

Last year Mike Busch started Savvy Aviator, Inc., and began a series of Savvy Owner Seminars around the U.S. to make airplane owners smarter about their options when it comes to maintenance.

It’s often said that the two happiest days of airplane ownership are the day you buy it and the day you sell it. That’s probably a self-perpetuating theory, because airplane owners who are enjoying the experience and can’t wait for the next trip aren’t likely to sell. It’s the owner who’s writing check after check for repairs he may not even understand that’s more likely to hang the “For Sale” banner on the prop.

If you’ve never had a disagreement or misunderstanding with an airframe and power plant mechanic about the need for or the cost of a repair, you’re very lucky. Disputes come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe the owner thinks a job was done well but that it shouldn’t have taken that long. Maybe the owner is wondering why the A&P needed to install a new part when a rebuilt or repaired part would have cost a lot less and performed just as well.

Maybe the A&P regrets billing the owner for hours and hours of troubleshooting, which would’ve been avoided had the problem been explained more thoroughly when the airplane was dropped off. Maybe it’s worse than that—maybe the shop has been “shot-gunning” the problem, replacing parts one by one until the guilty party finally surfaced, leaving the owner with a huge bill that didn’t have to be so huge. Cases like this sometimes end with animosity and distrust, sometimes end up in court, and might motivate the owner to sell the airplane.

Most airplane owners are trying to cut maintenance bills so we can do more flying with the funds we have. Most A&P mechanics and maintenance shops want a stream of steady, happy customers that keep coming back. Neither party wants to wind up in the all-too-common shouting match. So what can we do?

Mike Busch has a solution. Busch has been a pilot for over 40 years, an airplane owner for most of that time, and has owned a Twin Cessna T-310-R since 1987. He has written articles for many popular aviation magazines, was a Sysop for CompuServe’s AvSig, co-founded and has been the Twin Cessna authority for Cessna Pilots Association for over a decade.

Busch was smack dab in the middle of the Twin Cessna exhaust airworthiness directive in 1999, and worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to draft the revision that kept the fleet in the air. But most of his CPA time is spent trying to help frustrated owners after they’ve thrown a bucket full of money at a problem that still hasn’t gone away. After hearing himself say, “I have a pretty good idea what’s wrong; I just wish you had talked to me sooner…” once too often, he decided to take his show on the road.

Last year he started Savvy Aviator, Inc., and began a series of Savvy Owner Seminars around the U.S. to make airplane owners smarter about their options when it comes to maintenance. It’s an intensive two-day seminar usually held near an airport over a weekend and often timed in conjunction with other aviation events like AirVenture Oshkosh or AOPA Expo.

When you show up, you’re given a two-inch binder filled with eight chapters of useful information. Chapters one through four are the agenda for the morning and afternoon sessions for each day, and chapter five is the relevant Federal Aviation Regulations for airplane owners and mechanics. Chapters six and seven contain maintenance-related articles that Busch and others have written. Chapter eight is full of extra materials that don’t fit the above categories; for instance, there’s a list of discount parts suppliers with addresses, phone numbers and websites. You also get a spiral-bound notebook and pen for taking notes, and a name badge for you and your airplane.

In his non-airplane life, Busch is a computer programmer, so he’s been to his share of seminars, and long ago developed this philosophy: “I can listen or I can take notes, but I can’t do both.” Consequently, chapters one through four contain about 300 slides from his PowerPoint presentation, and a column for jotting your own notes without losing your place.

The first day begins with a discussion of why things are the way they are. Years ago, you would see a Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft dealer sign mixed in with the fuel signs at many airports. Local dealers were also authorized service centers. When you dropped off your Baron for service, you could be relatively confident that the A&P that would work on your Baron had lots of experience working on Barons, had probably worked on a Baron last week, and would probably work on a Baron—or at least some kind of Beech—next week. Mechanics became specialists; they would get to know a particular set of systems and quirks and could diagnose and repair problems efficiently.

These days (unless you happen live in Wichita) that dealer infrastructure is gone, many A&Ps are retiring, and the specialist is rare. Chances are the guy working on your airplane worked on something different last week and will work on something else next week. It’s possible that you know more about the systems on your airplane than your A&P does.

This is not to slam A&Ps, most of whom are honest, hard-working entrepreneurs in a competitive business with an uncertain future, and with a lot on the line if they screw up. Furthermore, sometimes owners pressure mechanics into doing less than their best; have you ever said, “I’ve just got to have this airplane back by Friday!” But when’s the last time your A&P took a few days for recurrent training on your type of airplane? And from whom? The factory? Are they still making your airplane?

Remember, there are no biennial flight reviews or proficiency checks for mechanics. Nor are there type ratings, so once your A&P’s ticket is punched, he can work on anything from a Luscombe to a Learjet. And many do. In the old days, mechanics wound up knowing a lot about a few makes and models of airplanes. In today’s aviation economy, it’s more likely that your mechanic knows a little bit about a lot of airplanes. If mechanics are no longer specialists, what can owners do to navigate the maintenance maze?

According to Mike Busch, fixing a problematic cylinder or two is almost always smarter than a “top overhaul.”

According to Mike Busch, fixing a problematic cylinder or two is almost always smarter than a “top overhaul.”

Disappointing maintenance comes in many flavors. It might be a failure to do something that should’ve been done, or poor execution of something that should’ve been done. It might be doing something that didn’t need to be done, or doing something more expensively than needed. Both owner and mechanic have one goal in common: the safe operation of the aircraft. Beyond that, the owner’s goal is to minimize his cost, while the mechanic’s is to minimize his liability. Those goals are not mutually exclusive, but it takes some teamwork to reach them.

Successful maintenance starts with correct diagnosis of the problem; perhaps the most valuable piece of information in the Savvy Owner Seminars is learning how to troubleshoot a recurring anomaly. Does the problem only happen in flight? At a certain speed or configuration? At a certain altitude or ambient temperature? Is it seasonal—maybe moisture-related? Does it only happen at night—when the electrical load is different? Does it happen in climb, cruise or in descent? Can it be replicated on the ground? Does it happen after doing something else or ever go away by itself? Does it go away if you do something: reduce power, add power, drop or raise the gear, switch tanks?

If you’re in flight at altitude and a non-safety-of-flight condition develops, don’t sit and stew about the money this is going to cost; use the time before you land to gather information. By the time you pull up to the shop, your description may point the A&P right at the problem. At the very least you’ll have narrowed down the options, and that time in cruise just became money in your pocket. In the seminar, Busch offers useful tips for diagnosing powerplant and electrical problems.

Parts for airplanes defy the laws of supply and demand. Often-used (high demand) parts are reasonably priced, while infrequently-used parts (low demand) are astronomical. Why does your mechanic resist using rebuilt or repaired parts? Start with the liability-conscious mindset of the mechanic, factor in the markup percentage that the shop makes on parts, and you can see why he’s always vectoring toward new. Something else showed up in Busch’s research. Most owners expect high prices for parts, but are resigned to paying whatever they cost, and will complain more about labor costs than the parts column on the bill. Consequently, if an A&P has had complaints from a customer about overcharging for labor in the past, then some new problem shows up and the choices are to replace or to repair, the A&P may opt for the higher-cost replacement part with the lower-cost labor charge just to avoid a squabble over that part of the bill. Does any of this sound familiar?

Once you’ve identified a bad part, how do you solve the parts puzzle? Begin by asking your A&P some questions. Are you sure that the part is the problem? How do you know it isn’t something else? (A gauge reading zero could be gauge failure; it could also be a faulty sender or the wire connecting the two. Has he considered that?) If we’re sure that’s what it is, can you fix it? Can I—the owner—fix it? Can we get it fixed? Can we find one in a salvage yard? Can we find one on the Internet? If we can’t find one, can we make one—or have one made?

Many shops will only use original equipment manufacturer parts, but you may find that the part you can order from an Internet parts warehouse—like McMaster-Carr or Newark Electronics—is identical to the OEM part, with one exception: the OEM part comes with an FAA airworthiness approval tag, and the other part doesn’t. However, the other part probably costs a fraction of the OEM part, and your A&P can vouch for its airworthiness when he installs it.

To avoid parts surprises, set a dollar limit for your A&P and make it clear that any part over that amount needs your approval. You get that when you drop your car for service because in most states that’s the law. Just because it isn’t the law doesn’t mean your A&P can’t do it. When you get your list of parts, ask if he’ll give you a day or two to scout other sources for better prices. Remember, you and your A&P are a team in the maintenance of your airplane, and if your A&P resents your involvement in these decisions, or considers it second-guessing his work, maybe it’s time to find a new teammate.

Annual inspections are often a source of conflict over maintenance. The owner is responsible for keeping the airplane airworthy, yet many owners are unclear exactly what that means, and what to do if a shop declares the airplane unairworthy during an annual. Some owners think once the airplane is at the shop, the only way to get it out again is to comply completely and painfully with what the shop suggests. Busch finds other options in the regs, gives you some real-world examples, and spends much time on FAR Part 43. FARs are potentially sleep-inducing, but a reg takes on new meaning when it can save you money.

Busch talks about the three possible outcomes for an annual inspection, when to ask for a discrepancy list, how to obtain an out-of-annual ferry permit, and suddenly—like a pilot using his FAR 91.3 authority to avoid flying into a thunderstorm—you realize that you’re an “owner in command” and you and your airplane aren’t hostage to an annual. You have options.

You don’t have to be a wrench swinger to benefit from the Savvy Owner Seminars, but Busch makes a good case for doing at least one owner-assisted annual on your airplane. He describes his personal transformation from an owner/pilot dropping his C-182 at the Cessna dealer, through annual pilgrimages to Plainview, Texas, with his Bellanca Viking, through a couple of expensive drop-off annuals with the 310, through a watch-and-learn annual, through a watch-and-participate annual, eventually getting his A&P certificate a couple of years ago.

If you’ve never touched a bolt on your airplane, you would benefit from the seminar’s discussions of troubleshooting, options for parts, and resolving disputes. But if you’re currently handling the preventive maintenance on your airplane, you’ll benefit further, and you may be encouraged to get a little more involved—at least once—because of what you’ll learn about your airplane.

An airplane is a vibration nightmare. Ty-wraps, Adel clamps and good hose routes will keep chafing to a minimum.

An airplane is a vibration nightmare. Ty-wraps, Adel clamps and good hose routes will keep chafing to a minimum.

You’ll learn which preventive maintenance items you can legally perform and sign off, and which maintenance items need an IA sign-off. You’re not breaking any rules by working on your airplane, unless you’re flying charters. Part 43.3 says the holder of a pilot certificate issued under Part 61 may perform preventive maintenance on any aircraft owned or operated by that pilot, which is not used under Part 121, 129 or 135. So you earned that right the day you earned the right to carry passengers. In fact, you can legally do anything your A&P does, as long as he’s willing to sign off your work. Here’s how the regs put it: “A person working under the supervision of a mechanic may perform the maintenance, preventive maintenance and alterations that his supervisor is authorized to perform, if the supervisor personally observes the work being done and is readily available, in person, for consultation.” How much of your last maintenance bill was for removing and reinstalling fairings and inspection panels? Wouldn’t you rather put that money into the “weekend at the lake” fund, or the “cool new gadget for the panel” fund?

The morning of the second day is devoted to overhaul options, and Busch takes an adding machine to the concept of top overhauls. You might be surprised at how the numbers shape up. He reviews the options for field overhauls, factory rebuilt engines, and several of the boutique engine shops around the country. As the Twin Cessna guru at CPA, he gets a pretty good view of how these engines are holding up in service.

Each of the four sessions include stories—some happy, some sad—lots of pictures, and Busch is happy to pause for questions. He limits attendance to 20 persons, and there’s usually a wide variety of maintenance experience and an interesting mix of airplanes.

The two-day seminar costs $595 ($545 if you sign up early). Special prices are available to American Bonanza Society and Cessna Pilots Association members. There are also special discounts for your aircraft partner, your spouse or your mechanic. There are currently seven seminars scheduled for 2005, but several are already sold out. Check for details. Also, if you have a dozen or so owners in your area that are interested, drop Busch a note. No guarantees, but last fall a group of owners in upstate New York persuaded Busch to schedule a seminar in their area. They were somewhat persuasive but the Hudson Valley’s fall foliage cinched the deal.

You studied and took tests to be a pilot, but so far there really hasn’t been a school to teach you how to be an airplane owner. Many of us learned the hard way, some of us the expensive way. Incidentally, the initials in the logo spell SOS. Probably not intentional, although if you’re under attack from your airplane’s maintenance bills, Mike Busch’s Savvy Owner Seminars may be the help you need.

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