Mike Busch

When to say “no” to maintenance

May 13th, 2015 by Mike Busch

Ken is the proud owner of a late-model high-performance single-engine airplane. It’s a gorgeous machine, with wall-to-wall glass in the cockpit, a big turbocharged engine, 500 hours on the Hobbs meter, almost no squawks, and still under factory warranty on both engine and airframe. So when Ken took it to a well-known factory-authorized service center for its annual inspection, he expected that it would be relatively painless. Imagine his shock when the shop presented him with an estimate of more than $8,500. That’s when he called me for advice.

I reviewed the shop’s estimate. It started out with a flat-rate charge for the annual inspection (performed in accordance with the manufacturer’s annual inspection checklist) of $2,850. This was 30 hours of labor at the shop’s rate of $95/hour, which in my experience was right on target for this make and model.

Probing deeper

The next item that caught my eye was a $200 estimate for cleaning the engine’s fuel injector nozzles. I used to do such prophylactic nozzle cleaning on my own airplane until about 10 years ago, when I had an illuminating discussion with George Braly (of GAMI and Tornado Alley Turbo fame), who is arguably the world’s expert on fuel nozzles. George pointed out to me that there’s no valid reason to do such periodic nozzle cleaning, because the nozzles do not get dirty in service (since they are continuously being cleaned by a very effective solvent). He told me that in his experience with many thousands of GAMIjector nozzles, virtually all clogged nozzle events occurred shortly after maintenance during which the fuel system was opened up and some foreign material got into the system. That resonated with me, because in the first 12 years I owned my Cessna T310R, I experienced two clogged-nozzle episodes, and both occurred right after maintenance due to grease getting into the fuel system. So I stopped cleaning my nozzles 10 years ago, and haven’t had a clogged nozzle since. I advised Ken to decline the nozzle cleaning.

There was a $300 estimate to replace the O-rings on the brake calipers. I asked Ken whether he had spongy brakes or had any evidence of brake fluid leakage at the calipers. He said no. I suggested he decline the O-ring replacement.

Continental S-20 magnetoThere was a $1,700 estimate for “4-year overhaul of pressurized mags”—$700 for each magneto plus 3 hours to remove and reinstall. The aircraft is equipped with Continental S-20 mags, and the Continental Ignition System Master Service Manual X40000 calls for a 500-hour IRAN (inspect and repair as necessary), not an overhaul. The IRAN typically costs $300 to $400 per mag, depending on what parts need to be replaced. I suggested that Ken instruct the shop to do the 500-hour IRAN instead of the overhaul exchange, which would knock about $700 off the invoice.

There was a $400 estimate to replace the magneto pressurization filter. The filter is clear plastic (actually tinted green) so you can inspect it and see if it needs to be changed. It was clean as a whistle. I suggested that Ken decline the filter change.

Teledyne-Gill G-243 batteryNext was a $800 estimate to replace the battery. The aircraft manufacturer’s checklist recommends replacing it every two years, and Ken’s was two years old. But the battery manufacturer (Teledyne-Gill) recommends doing an annual capacity test and replacing the battery only when its capacity falls below 80% of specs. Using the capacity-test method, these batteries typically last 3 to 5 years before flunking the test. Another thing that bothered me was that the battery—a Gill G-243—cost $395 at Aircraft Spruce, but was listed on the estimate as costing $774. Now I don’t have a problem with shops making a fair profit on the parts they install, but marking up a $395 battery to $774 struck me as a bit much. So I suggested that Ken decline the battery change, wait until the battery flunks its capacity check, and then consider buying the battery and installing it himself.

Then there was a $320 estimate to change the filter in his TKS anti-icing system. The manufacturer recommends changing this filter every 2 years (and his was 2 years old), but in hundreds of filters changed we’ve never seen one that wasn’t spotlessly clean. The shop agreed with this observation. I advised Ken that unless he had some reason to believe someone dumped a Diet Coke into his TKS tank, he should decline the TKS filter change.

Bottom line

Ken called the service center and politely declined the various items that I’d recommended. Ken reported that the shop’s Director of Maintenance had no problem complying with Ken’s instructions, and the invoice wound up some $3,000 lower than it would have been otherwise. That’s enough to buy a fair amount of 100LL, even at today’s prices.

Now many of you are probably thinking that this service center was trying to rip Ken off, and he should never take his airplane back there again. I disagree.

Gavel + wrenchIn today’s litigious world, any mechanic or shop that doesn’t recommend following the manufacturer’s guidance to the letter risks being sued and taken to the cleaners if anything goes wrong. Therefore, in my view, Ken’s service center was almost compelled to present Ken with the estimate that they did. Call it “defensive maintenance” or “CYA” if you wish, but it’s the way things are in today’s post-GARA, non-tort-reform world.

The way I see it, the responsibility for “just saying no” to these over-the-top maintenance recommendations lies with the aircraft owner, not the shop. If the aircraft owner instructs the shop (in writing) that he declines some manufacturer-recommended maintenance task, that takes the shop off the liability hook and allows them to do things the way the owner wants them done without fear of being sued.

Therefore, if an owner wants to avoid paying through the nose for such defensive maintenance, he needs to learn when to say no.

When to say no

Learning when to say no takes a good deal of knowledge and experience, but there are some basic rules. The most important rule is that you never say no to any maintenance procedure that is required by regulation. For example, FAR Part 43 Appendix D requires that every annual inspection on a piston aircraft must include a compression test of the cylinders, cutting open the oil filter to inspect for metal, and running up the engine to check that critical engine operating parameters (oil pressure, static RPM, etc.) are within normal limits. Mechanics are also required to comply with any “Airworthiness Limitations” contained in the manufacturer’s service manual or ICAs. Any applicable Airworthiness Directives must be complied with. All these things are non-negotiable.

Airworthiness definedIt’s also best to avoid saying no to proposed repairs that the inspecting A&P/IA considers to be “airworthiness items.” Those are generally discrepancies that he considers to be safety-of-flight items, and will not be comfortable approving the aircraft for return to service until they are corrected. But don’t be fooled. Many of the items that I suggested Ken decline were listed on the shop’s estimate as “Airworthy Item,” yet when Ken instructed the shop not to do them, they accepted his direction without argument. So just because an item is listed on the estimate as an airworthiness item doesn’t necessarily mean that it really is one. When in doubt, say no and see how the IA responds. If he tells you he’s not comfortable signing off the annual unless you approve the repair, then it’s time to re-think your position.

Good candidates for saying no to include time-directed maintenance recommendations for things that can be readily done on-condition instead. Ken’s battery, pressurization filter, brake O-rings and TKS filter are good examples. (So are most engine and propeller TBOs in my opinion, but not everyone agrees with me.) Consider ignoring the time recommendations and replace or repair these items only when inspection shows that they need to be replaced or repaired. We should only be maintaining things on time (like the 500-hour magneto IRAN) if there’s no practical way to maintain them on-condition.

Also consider saying no to preventive maintenance items intended to prevent failures whose consequences you consider acceptable. For example, replacing your vacuum pump every 500 hours (per the manufacturer’s recommendation) is silly if you have dual vacuum pumps or a standby vacuum system or a backup electric attitude indicator. If a vacuum pump failure doesn’t affect safety of flight, why not simply run it to failure and then replace it? Ditto if you have dual alternators.

Finally, consider saying no to an overhaul if an IRAN will do the job (as with Ken’s mags), and consider saying no to replacing anything that can be repaired instead.

The art of saying no is definitely an acquired skill, but one that can save you a small fortune in reduced maintenance costs once you get the hang of it. Like any acquired skill, practice makes perfect.

Jolie Lucas

Two Mooneys, Eight Paws, Three Pilots and Love

May 6th, 2015 by Jolie Lucas

Two Mooneys, Eight Paws, Three Pilots and Love

Three Mooneys Ready to Go

Three Mooneys Ready to Go

A few weeks ago, I was able to fly my first Pilots N Paws [PNP] mission. The day was a testament to what our General Aviation airplanes can accomplish to give back in service as well as install a permanent smile on our faces.

Gary, the Rescue Pup

Gary, the Rescue Pup

The mission was to help Gary, the twelve-pound Shih Tzu get from the temporary shelter in Long Beach to the San Francisco Bay Area. If you were driving that route, it would take eight and a half hours. But luckily for Gary it was #FlyFast Saturday. His total flight time was under two hours.

The first leg was flown by veteran PNP Mooney pilot, John Baker in his 1993 Bravo. John has flown over 100 dogs and cats on their “freedom flights.” His enthusiasm and zeal for the charity flights for dogs and cats is quite contagious.

Mooney 1, John Baker

Mooney 1, John Baker

After John landed we agreed to meet outside Art Craft Paint. We completed some paperwork and unloaded Gary.

My co-pilot for the day is a great friend, fellow pilot and Mooney Girl, Cat. I thought it was very appropriate that Cat was helping us with the dogs.

Cat and Jolie en route

Cat and Jolie en route



My four-legged Ambassador was Mooney Lucas Aviation Puppy who is in training to become a therapy dog. Mooney and Gary had a great time getting to know each other while John briefed me on the procedure for the receiving party.

We took a bunch of photos, loaded Mooney-dog in the back seat, got Gary in his crate in the back and departed Santa Maria airport for Livermore. Gary did a super job in flight, he only cried a little bit. One hour and twenty minutes later we touched down in Livermore.

Happy pilots and doggy

Happy pilots and doggy

I cannot begin to express what the flight did for ME. I had so much fun seeing John again, albeit for a brief time. Cat and I jib jabbed all the way up and back. She flies a cute little C152. She could not get over the 150kts over the ground on the way up and 160 kts. on the way home. The satisfaction of bringing Gary to his forever home was wonderful.

I want to encourage my fellow Mooniacs  and all pilots to use their aircraft in service to others. We have these beautiful airplanes. Let’s use them to make our world a better place. I am still grinning about Gary, a fun name for a dog. Then again, mine is named Mooney!


Ron Rapp

Those Lousy Checklists

May 1st, 2015 by Ron Rapp

Ah, the checklist. If Shakespeare was a pilot, he’d have written an ode to it.

Once confined to the world of aviation, formal checklist discipline is now common in hospitals, assembly lines, product design, maintenance, and just about any other instance where loss of essential time, money, or bodily function can result from improper procedures or forgotten items.

Some pilots can’t imagine flying without one. Like a child wandering the yard without their favorite blanket, they’d quite literally be lost without that laminated piece of paper guiding them through each phase of flight. I’ve seen pilots who seemed to enjoy using the checklist more than the actual flying.

Others have a difficult time understanding why a written list is needed at all, especially in simple or familiar aircraft. “Use a flow or mnemonic and let’s get going!”, they’d say. While I disagree with that attitude, I understand where it comes from: too many badly-designed checklists.

As anyone who’s operated a wide variety of aircraft types (I’ve flown over 60) can tell you, poor checklists are more often the rule than the exception, and the worst of them will leave a long-lasting bad taste in your mouth. They disrupt the flow of a flight much the way an actor with poor timing can disrupt a scene.

One of the great aviation mysteries is why so many lousy checklists continue to exist. They’re not limited to small aircraft, either. The manufacturer-provided checklist for the Gulfstream IV, for example, is comically long. I don’t know who designs these things, but I highly doubt it’s the line pilot who’s going to be using it day in and day out.

The answer to such cosmic riddles is far above my pay grade. What I can say for sure is that it’s vital for aviators to understand both the purpose for a checklist and the proper way to use one.

The purpose should be self-evident: to ensure that nothing important gets missed. Lowering the landing gear, setting the pressurization controller, those sorts of items. The key word is important, and I think that’s where many checklists fall apart because once the document gets too long, human nature dictates that pilots will either skip items inadvertently or leave the entire thing stowed.

Proper checklist usage? Now that’s something a bit more complex. When an aviator is new to an aircraft, the checklist serves as a “do” list. In other words, each item is read and then the action is performed. Even if a cockpit flow exists and is being taught, the list will have to be read and performed one step at a time because the pilot is simply unfamiliar with the location of switches and controls.

As time goes by, the flow and/or checklist is slowly memorized. Eventually the pilot reaches the point where they’re actually faster and more comfortable performing the items from memory. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a good thing, because it allows the checklist to serve as a CHECK list. Once everything is done, you quickly read through the items on the page to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything.

In my experience, it’s not the neophyte who is at greatest risk for missing something, it’s the grizzled veteran who whips through the flows at lightning speed and then neglects to use the checklist at all. It’s overconfidence. They’re so sure they haven’t forgotten anything of life-altering consequence. And to be honest, they’re usually right — but that’s not the point.

I see this kind of failure quite frequently when flying glass panel aircraft with pilots who are computer-centric Type-A personalities. They’re literally too fast with the flows and need to slow down a bit.

Caution is also warranted when circumstances force a pilot to perform tasks out of their normal order. Often this happens due to interruption from ATC, line personnel, passengers, weather, or even another pilot.

Speaking of weather, here’s a case in point: I was in New Jersey getting a jet ready for departure during a strong rainstorm. We had started up the airplane to taxi to a place on the ramp where it was somewhat protected from the weather so our passengers wouldn’t get quite as soaked when they arrived. That simple action broke up the usual preflight exterior flow and as a result I neglected to remove the three landing gear pins. Thankfully the other pilot caught it during his walk-around, but it shows how easily that sort of thing can happen.

The best checklists, the ones that are truly effective, share some common traits. For one thing, they’re short and sweet. They hit the critical items in a logical order and leave the rest out.

In an aerobatic aircraft, a pre-takeoff check would cover the fuel selector, canopy, fuel mixture, flight controls, etc. In a swept-wing business jet, on the other hand, the critical items are different. Flaps become a vital item, because unlike other aircraft, if those aren’t set right the airplane can use far more runway than you’ve got available. It may not even fly at all.

Checklist design and usage is an under-appreciated skill. As with many things in aviation, when it’s done right it’s a thing of elegance. Art, almost. So next time you’re flying, take a critical look at your checklist and the way you use it. How do you — and it — measure up?

Amy Laboda

A Tale of Two Air Shows: Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun

April 24th, 2015 by Amy Laboda

Springtime after the longest winters are often times the most special, and spring 2015 is no different. Both the flowers and the dormant fliers, particularly of light aircraft, bloom anew. Two April-based air show / fly-ins fire up what may prove to be a most interesting season: Aero Friedrichshafen, in Germany, and Sun ‘n Fun, in Lakeland, Florida. And the two shows could not be more different.

Aero’s highlights this year were electric—literally! The show focused on electric propulsion and capturing power from the sun to fly. Why? In Europe pilots have suffered through decades of unnaturally high fuel costs that have effectively tamped down their enthusiasm for general aviation. Green fuel initiatives, from bio-diesel to electric are offering thousands of pilots and would-be pilots hope that general aviation can thrive again by bypassing fossil fuels completely.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. we are celebrating a winter of lower fuel pricing, and a springtime that has those prices holding steady. New legislation eliminating the need for a Third Class medical for some GA pilots is in committee and could help keep older pilots flying while encouraging more recreational fliers to join the flock. On the professional side of the aviation industry labor shortages are beginning to sting. A dearth of both airline-ready pilots and mechanics are putting the stops on growth at regional airlines around the U.S.

As I write this Sun ‘n Fun’s Fly-in is in full swing and vendors at the event are excited that real buyers are on the Lakeland Linder Airport with money in their pockets ready to spend. To spur them on Piper Aircraft and Mooney Aircraft are both offering new airframes, at the top for Piper (the M600 single-engine turboprop) and at the bottom for Mooney (a diesel-powered trainer). Superior Aviation set forth a three-cylinder, 100 hp diesel engine replacement for the Rotax 912 piston-engine, and revealed plans to scale up to larger diesel powerplants.

Interestingly, several airlines, both regional and national, and a dozen aviation training centers (universities to FBOs) were recruiting onsite, too. Where to find more commercial pilots, A&P mechanics, and certified dispatch professionals was a big topic of conversation there. The good news is that the Sun ‘n Fun charitable arm and its funding partners are working hard on the problem, reaching out to youth through educational projects and scholarships in high school and colleges around Central Florida (and beyond) to teach them the wonders of aviation, and all of its potential.

The best news, though, is that even with their differences, both Aero Friedrichshafen and Sun ‘n Fun are revealing the upbeat, optimistic sentiment prevailing among general aviation pilots this spring. Hey, it’s getting warmer, the sun is shining a little longer every day, and the skies are showing their blue. There is no time like the present to start working on the future. Get up and get flying!

Rob Mark

Instructors to Remember … and Forget

April 21st, 2015 by Rob Mark

After 40 years in both the flying and communicating side of the aviation business, it’s almost impossible for me to remember that I almost allowed my first flight instructor to drive me completely away from the business many years ago. Although he’s long gone – I hope – the lessons still seem significant enough to pass on today at a time when the industry’s hunting and pecking for every possible student pilot. Lucky for me, another CFI entered my life years later and completely turned my world around.

7FC TriChamp

Photo courtesy Chris Houston

In 1966 I was a 17-year old freshman at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation and anxious to learn to fly. I never doubted my goal … to be an airline pilot.

In those days, student pilots and instructors at the school were randomly paired and I drew a guy named Tom. We flew the mighty 90-hp 7FC Tri-Champ with the student in front and the instructor behind.

School began in late September with ground school and the “Box,” a name we’d all attached to the Link trainer we were expected to master before we took to the air. I never realized I was a bit claustrophobic until the first time Tom sat me in the box, closed the door and pulled the cover down on top of me leaving me in nearly total darkness. We didn’t brief much before we began so not surprisingly, the sessions didn’t go well since I never really understood the point of moving a control stick inside a dark little room as dials and gauges spun like mad before my eyes. Looking back on it today, I realize Tom talked a lot, asked few questions and simply assumed I was following. Another was that I hadn’t yet flown the airplane. Finally one day I did.Link_Trainer

I clearly loved every moment in the air despite being nearly clueless about what I was supposed to be doing, except for reminders from the back seat like … “what are you doing that for?” It was at about the five-hour mark that things started to get really ugly because I just didn’t seem to be coming together. I remember landing practice. Right near the pavement on the first few, Tom started yelling … “Flare, flare, flare.” Crunch! The Tri-Champ was pretty forgiving despite hitting hard enough to knock the headset off my head a few times. After an hour of that we taxied in and shut down. Tom grabbed my shoulders and shook me hard from the back seat. “Why didn’t you flare when I told you too?” Somewhat worn out I just stared out the windshield and asked, “What’s a flare?”

I actually managed to solo the next week and was cleared to the pattern alone which helped my confidence enormously. But soon I was back in the Tri-Champ and the Link with Tom and the yelling never ended. To make matters worse, he began slapping me along side the head and yelling when I screwed up. With 15 hours total time, I finally broke. At 17 I knew I would never learn to fly. I quit school AND flying and never touched the controls of another airplane.

Until …

Jump ahead five years as I arrived to my last Air Force duty station. How I got there is too long a story right now. It’s what happened next that’s important.

Within a few days of arrival I located the base flying club. Outside the main door near the aircraft parking area sat a small set of stadium seats near the fence. I’d spend time there watching the Piper Cherokees come and go, some with two people inside, some with just one. I didn’t go into the clubhouse though.

One day, as one of the airplanes pulled up near the fence where I was eating my lunch, the engine didn’t shut down. The guy in the right seat seemed to be engaged in a conversation with the pilot. Finally the door opened, the guy in the right seat hopped out and shut the door patting it a few times after he did. As the airplane pulled away the right seat guy came over to the seats saying hi as he did. Half an hour later the Cherokee returned and the guy next to me left to greet him. Later I learned the pilot was on his second supervised solo and the fellow who’d waved to me was his instructor.

Maybe aRob in a 605 copy week or so later I’m back out on the seats just watching the airplanes when that same instructor comes out of the clubhouse door. He looks around and happens to see me so he walks over to the fence. “Why aren’t you out there flying on such a beautiful day,” he asks. “I’m not a pilot.” “Really?” he says. “You sure hang around here a lot for a guy who doesn’t fly. My name’s Ray. Stop in one of these days,” he said before turning away toward one of the airplanes. The challenge glove had been thrown down.

I didn’t go back to the viewing stand the rest of that week. It was simply too scary to think of being close to something I really loved but had already failed at.

The next week though, I did go back, but only back to the seats. To this day I think Ray was watching for me because he came out of the clubhouse door and waved … “Well, are you coming in?” I sighed deeply but got up and walked over and in the clubhouse door. And that, as they say, was that. Over some coffee, I told Ray my story of failure. Didn’t even slow him down because an hour later we went out flying … and I never stopped again. I went on to earn my ATP and my own flight instructor ratings, fly for a couple of airlines, a charter company and a couple of Part 91 corporate flight departments. As an aviation writer, I even managed to grab a couple of hours in an Airbus A-380. It has all been just so sweet.

My instructor Tom nearly ended my aviation career, but luckily there was another fabulous instructor like Ray out there waiting to offer me a hand up with a little encouragement, which is all I apparently needed.

Today I wonder how many instructors like Tom are still out there. Trust me, one like him is one too many.

So do us all in the industry a favor and offer a ride to that kid sitting outside the fence if you have the chance. You might just change their life.

Ron Rapp

The Weakest Link

April 16th, 2015 by Ron Rapp

If one particular component of an aircraft was determined to be the root cause of 90% of all accidents, wouldn’t we have an Airworthiness Directive out on it? Wouldn’t it be replaced completely? Well we do have such a component: the pilot.

We’re at the point where this isn’t just an academic exercise. A pilot-free airliner or business aircraft is well within the realm of today’s technology. NASA has been researching single-pilot airline cockpits; that gets us halfway there. Corporate aircraft ranging from King Airs to Citations have been certified and operated by a single pilot for decades.

On the other hand, after the Germanwings disaster virtually every airline now has a policy ensuring there are never less than two people on the flight deck — the exact opposite. So which way should we be heading?

Your average pilot probably doesn’t think of him or herself as the weakest link. I certainly don’t. But those pesky statistics…

It brings to mind the illusory superiority bias, that statistically improbably belief of being above average. The most famous example concerns drivers:

According to a study published in a Swedish Psychology journal (Acta Psychologica) a whopping 93% of Americans consider themselves above average drivers. The sample consisted of students, and while the study was conducted in multiple countries, it because obvious that Americans saw themselves as even better drivers than their Swedish counterparts. The Swedish came in at a much lower 69%.

In another similar study by McCormick, Walkey and Green (1986) drivers rated them 80% above average.

Despite extensive training on hazardous attitudes and ADM, pilots aren’t immune to this phenomenon. We’re still human. In fact, the successful, driven type of personality our avocation attracts probably make it more common than in the automotive world. If 93% of drivers feel they’re above average, one wonders how high the needle swings on the pilot population. Who among us wants to admit that despite the massive investment of time, effort, and money we are still subpar?

Are we the weakest link?

Are we the weakest link?

That sort of acknowledgement can be pretty hard on a person’s self-image, but aviators should care about this phenomenon because nine out of 10 accidents are attributed to pilot error. In other words, we literally are the weakest link.

I certainly include myself in that statement. If I had a dime for every mistake I’ve made over the years! Sometimes I think I’ve made them all. In fact a friend of mine — a professional pilot who is known as an excellent aviator — once said that in reviewing the NASA-style safety reports made by line pilots at his company, “I find I’ve made every one of those mistakes myself. Every single one.”

To err may be human, but it’s grating to find myself making the same mistake multiple times; doing so runs a little too close to Einstein’s definition of insanity. For example, I’ve flown while suffering from active food poisoning on two occasions. The circumstances were not identical, but you’d think I’d have learned enough from one episode to have avoided the other.

The first case hit me during a picnic at the Santa Ynez Airport. I had two choices: stay in town or fly home. I chose the latter, and while I made it back without incident, it was a lousy decision to takeoff when feeling so bad.

The second incident occurred at an aerobatic contest in Delano, California. These contests take place in areas where it’s hot and windy. Pilots assist with contest operation when they’re not flying, meaning we’re busy and spend most of the day out in the sun. It’s common to end up dehydrated even while drinking plenty of water. I ate something which didn’t agree with me, and by the time I realized how bad the poisoning was, I’d already flown a hard aerobatic sequence.

This is why I’ve come to be a big believer in the IMSAFE checklist. Amy Laboda just wrote about the importance of this checklist a few days ago. If we can ensure the biological component of our flying is in airworthy shape, the odds of a safe flight rise considerably. IMSAFE isn’t even a complete checklist. It doesn’t mention nutrituion, for example — something my wife will tell you I sometimes ignore.

Pilots may be the cause of most accidents, but in my experience they’re also the cause of many “saves”. Quantas 32, Apollo 13, United 232, Air Canada 143, and USAir 1549 are just a few famous examples of human ingenuity keeping what should have been an unrecoverable mechanical failure at bay. I know of several general aviation incidents which turned out well due to the creative efforts of the pilots. These typically don’t make the evening news, and I imagine there are countless more we’ll never hear about, because when a flight lands without incident it doesn’t generate much attention or publicity. Accident statistics do us a disservice in that regard.

This is why I feel removing humans from the cockpit is not the answer. Commercial flying already holds claim as the safest form of transportation. Light general aviation is a different story, but that’s the price we pay for the incredible freedom and diversity offered by Part 91. No, we would be better served by focusing on improved aeronautical decision making, self-assessment, and training. As I’ve found through bitter experience, it’s a constant battle. Just because you’ve made a thousand flights without incident doesn’t mean your next one will be safe. It’s up to each of us to maintain vigilance throughout every single one of our airborne days.

Statistically speaking, we are the weakest link. But we don’t have to be.

Mike Busch

How to destroy your engine in one minute

April 13th, 2015 by Mike Busch

At least once a year for as long as I can remember, I have been contacted by an aircraft owner whose piston aircraft engine was destroyed or severely damaged by a destructive detonation or pre-ignition event. In one recent 12-month period, I encountered three such incidents.

One incident involved British Cirrus SR-20 powered by a 200 horsepower Continental IO-360-ES engine. The plane was equipped with an Avidyne Entegra MFD with an integrated engine monitoring system called “EMAX.”

The CHT data downloaded from the EMAX system tells the short story of this engine’s demise:

SR-20 pre-ignition event

Click on image to open a higher-resolution version.

Everything looked fine until about two minutes after the pilot applied takeoff power, at which point the #1 cylinder’s CHT began to climb rapidly compared to the other five cylinders. At the three-minute mark after brake release—with the aircraft at roughly 2,000’ AGL—CHT #1 rose above 400°F and set off a high-CHT alarm on the MFD.

CHT #1 continued its rapid rise—nearly 1°F per second—that continued unabated until the piston and cylinder head were destroyed approximately five minutes after takeoff power was applied and two minutes after the CHT alarm was displayed. At that point, since the cylinder was no longer capable of combustion, CHT #1 started plummeting.

We can’t be sure just how hot CHT #1 got because the Avidyne EMAX system “pegs” at 500°F. A reasonable guess is that the CHT peaked somewhere between 550°F and 600°F. No cylinder or piston can tolerate such conditions for very long, and this one obviously didn’t.


Not long after CHT #1 went off-scale on the MFD, the pilot realized something was very wrong, and pulled the power way back. But he was a couple of minutes late, and the engine was already toast. Here’s what the #1 piston looked like after the event:

Piston with corner melting

Click on image for higher-resolution version.

Note the melted corners of the piston crown, the destruction of the top compression ring lands, and the severe metal erosion above the piston pin. (Much of this molten metal wound up inside the crankcase and contaminated the bearings and oil passages.) Also note the severely hammered appearance of the piston crown, the classic signature of heavy detonation. The cylinder head was found to have a big chunk of metal missing from it. Both spark plugs were destroyed by the event as well.

This engine was a low-time Continental factory engine, so the owner figured that the severe engine damage would be covered under Continental’s warranty. I advised him not to bother filing a warranty claim, because I’ve never known Continental to give warranty consideration for a destructive detonation or pre-ignition event. Continental considers this to be operational abuse, not a defect in materials or workmanship, and therefore not covered by warranty. (For what it’s worth, I agree with Continental’s position on this.) The owner didn’t believe me and filed a warranty claim anyway. Continental promptly and unequivocally denied the claim, just as I predicted.

The moral of the story is that it is important for aircraft owners to have a good digital engine monitor installed, to know the telltale symptoms of destructive detonation and pre-ignition, and to act fast when those symptoms appear. You may have less than one minute to react if you want to save your engine.

Another incident

Here’s another similar case that occurred to a Beech Bonanza very shortly after takeoff. The annotated JPI data for this event is courtesy of General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI):

Preignition event

Click on image for a higher-resolution version.

This time, it was the #5 cylinder that experienced thermal runaway and pre-ignition. It was an even more severe event than the one suffered by the Cirrus, and took only two minutes from the application of takeoff power to the complete destruction of the #5 piston, which wound up with a large hole melted through the piston crown:

Holed Piston

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Now that’s ugly!

In yet another case (for which I unfortunately have no photos), a drop-dead gorgeous Lancair IV-P kitplane powered by a fire-breathing 350-hp TCM TSIO-550 engine went up for its first test flight after 10 years of laborious building time by the owner. Within minutes, the airplane was back on the ground with an engine that was totally destroyed. A forensic post-flight evaluation revealed that the magnetos had been timed approximately 10 degrees advanced from the proper timing. That turned out to be a $50,000 mistake.

The Lancair’s instrument panel was wall-to-wall glass, including an ultra-sophisticated digital engine monitoring system. The engine monitor was literally crying out for attention throughout the short test flight, but the test pilot never noticed its warnings until the engine cratered.

What causes this?

There are a number of things that can cause or contribute destructive events like these. I’ve already mentioned one: advanced ignition timing. It’s astonishing how often we see engines with the magneto timing advanced several degrees from spec. (E.g., 25° BTDC when the engine data plate calls for 22° BTDC.) Even a couple of degrees is enough to significantly reduce the detonation margin of the engine. Add a hot day and perhaps a cooling baffle that isn’t quite up to snuff, and BOOM!

Owners should be particularly alert for mis-timed magnetos whenever maintenance is done that involves magneto removal or adjusting magneto timing. (More often than not, these occur during the annual inspection.) If mag timing is advanced, you’ll notice that your EGTs are lower and your CHTs are higher than what you were seeing prior to maintenance. (Retarded timing results in the opposite: higher EGTs and lower CHTs.) If you notice this after the airplane comes out of maintenance, take it back to the shop and have the mag timing re-checked. It’s a quick check and could save your engine (not to mention your gluteus maximus). Magnetos are required to be timed within one degree of the timing specified on the engine’s data plate, and any error should be in the retarded direction.

MP and FF guage comboAnother common culprit is inadequate fuel flow on takeoff. When taking off from a near-sea-level airport—or from any elevation if you’re flying a turbocharged airplane—you need to see fuel flow that’s right up against the red-line on the gauge (or the maximum fuel flow shown in the POH). Unlike most other gauges on your panel, hitting red-line on the fuel-flow gauge (or even going a smidgen over) is a good thing, not a bad thing. Takeoff fuel flow is a lot like tire pressure—a bit too much is a whole lot better than a bit too little. Anything less than red-line fuel flow on takeoff reduces the engine’s detonation margin, and significantly less can reduce it enough to cause a catastrophic event.

Not long ago, a client of my maintenance-management firm had a prop-strike incident that required a teardown inspection of the engine. When the inspection was complete and the engine was reinstalled in the airplane, the owner picked up the airplane from the engine shop and flew it back to his home base airport. Upon arriving there, he informed us that the fuel flow was 3 GPH below red-line on takeoff, and asked that we schedule a service appointment to have the fuel flow adjusted.

I was flabbergasted. What was this owner thinking? Why didn’t he abort the takeoff immediately when he noticed that the fuel flow was 3 GPH short, and ask the engine shop to adjust it? Why would he fly the airplane home in that condition? What part of “inadequate detonation margin” didn’t he understand?

Yet another cause is a partially clogged fuel injector nozzle. This can occur anytime, but most frequently occurs shortly after the aircraft comes out of maintenance because that’s the most likely time for foreign material to get into the fuel system. (I’ve had two serious clogged-nozzle episodes in my airplane over the past 25 years, and both occurred shortly after an annual inspection.)

Save your engine!

ThrottleRegardless of the cause, the solution is not rocket science. There are two simple rules that will almost always prevent these sorts of destructive events from occurring:

First, check your fuel flow gauge early on every takeoff roll. If the fuel flow is not at red-line or very close to it, reject the takeoff and sort things out on the ground. (The exception is takeoffs at high density altitudes in normally-aspirated airplanes, and detonation is quite unlikely under those conditions.)

Second, set your engine monitor CHT alarm to 400°F or less for Continental engines and 420°F or less for Lycoming engines. (On my own Continental-powered airplane, I have my alarm set to 390°F.) When the alarm goes off, do whatever it takes right now to bring the CHT back down below 400°F. Verify that the mixture is full-rich. Turn on the boost pump if it isn’t already on. Open the cowl flaps if you have them. And if CHT triggers the alarm and appears to be rising rapidly, throttle back aggressively to stop the thermal runaway. Don’t be shy about doing these things immediately, because you may only have a minute or two to act before your engine craters.

(Oh, and if your airplane isn’t equipped with a digital engine monitor with CHT alarm capability, do yourself a favor and install one. Trust me, it’ll pay for itself quickly.)

When you get on the ground, put the airplane in the shop and have the spark plugs removed and inspected for damage, the cylinders borescoped, and the magneto timing checked. If takeoff fuel flow was short of red-line, have it adjusted before further flight.

Jolie Lucas

When to get some Dual on the couch: mental and emotional health needs of pilots

April 6th, 2015 by Jolie Lucas
Take a breath, take an honest look

Take a breath, take an honest look

Recently I suffered three unexpected losses. I use the word suffered on purpose here. In December I needed to get a flight review. I had scheduled this with three instructors, but due to the holidays, I was unable to get it done. In early January I contacted a local CFI that I know only socially. He knew about the losses in my life. After talking with me a few moments, he gently suggested that I was not well enough emotionally to fly that day. Of course, I burst into tears because he was number four on my list of instructors.

After I got done crying about it, I got to thinking about how, as a professional psychotherapist, I was seemingly unable to see the state of my own mental health. Below is an excerpt of an article I wrote for AOPA Pilot as well as a link for online screening tools for depression, anxiety, bi-polar and PTSD.

Here are some simple ways to put you and your emotional health on the pre-flight checklist as well as some ideas on when to get support if needed.

Mood: Think back over the past week. Rate your mood on a 1 to 5 scale with 1 being the lowest, and 5 being a happy mood. What is your average? Has anyone told you that you look tired, depressed, or nervous? Sometimes our spouse or families are the greatest mirrors for us. We might not see our mood, but to them it is written all over our faces.

Sleep: Have you been sleeping well? The average person in a lab setting will sleep a 6-7 hour stretch and take a 1-2 hour nap in the afternoon. Think back and check whether you have had any difficulties falling or staying asleep. Our deep restorative delta sleep typically happens well into an uninterrupted sleep cycle. Think about performing a go-round on every approach, with sleep we simply cannot get down to delta if the cycle is continually disrupted.

Energy: Has your get up and go, got up and went? Do you find yourself drinking coffee or energy drinks just to get through the day? Some pilots find they have too much energy and are unable to relax into a healthy focus. Between the tortoise and the hare, somewhere in the middle of the two is the most efficient.

Anxiety and Worry: Someone once told me that worry is interest on a debt we don’t yet owe. An interesting study on worry shows that it can be healthy in small doses. Worry is a high brain function, one that can help us sort through possibilities and strategies. Too much worry shuts down the function and we can find ourselves in a lower brain: fight, flight, or freeze. 30 minutes of worry once per week is effective. How many minutes this week have you racked up?

Concentration/Focus: Particularly important in being pilot-in command [PIC] is the ability to concentrate and stay focused. If you are noticing that your mind is wandering or you are distracted by worry, it might be best to keep yourself and the aircraft on the ground.

Sex Drive: This might seem a strange item to have on your personal checklist, but the fact is a person’s sex drive can be indicative of emotional health. A lack of desire can be suggestive of a mood problem.

Appetite: Does your favorite food taste good to you? Are you eating for comfort or to excess? Healthy food is fuel for the brain and the body. Make sure that you do not fly without fuel on board.

Bumper Sticker: Ask yourself this question and pay attention to the answer: If you had to summarize your attitude about life to fit on a bumper sticker, what would yours say? Is your bumper sticker upbeat and optimistic, or doubtful and negative?

Below is a link for the Mental Health America online screening tools. These screening tools are for use with adults only. If your screening indicates a problem, it is best to contact a licensed mental health counselor in your community for follow-up.


A few days after my crying spell, I completed my flight review and had a great time doing it. My instructor had not flown in a Mooney for some time, and after the necessary maneuvers, I was able to show him a lot about my airplane.

Me and Dad, Christmas Eve

James and Jolie Lucas

One of my losses was the death of my father who was a primary flight instructor in the Army Air Corp and a Mooney pilot for 30 plus years. The day I was to leave for his memorial I was checking and double-checking the weather. I thought to myself, “I wonder if I am okay to fly?” That was the only question I needed to ask. If you wonder if you are okay, you are not okay. I packed up the car and made the five-hour drive with my son. While an hour and a half in the air is quicker, for me, that day, the drive was safer.

Our mental health is equally important as our physical health. We are all subject to the same rules of stress and loss. I am happy that CFI #3 told me he didn’t think I should be flying. His insight could have saved us from a bad outcome. I believe we all do need to have eyes and ears on our fellow pilots. We are a small community and we all get to do something that we love to do. Let’s all make sure we are up to the task emotionally too. Thanks for listening.


Amy Laboda

When the Answer is No

March 30th, 2015 by Amy Laboda

I did not go flying last weekend despite the gorgeous weather. Not even last week. It was not for want to do so. It was because I flunked a test.

What test can a pilot at my experience level flunk that could ground me? The FAA’s IMSAFE test, that’s what. The pithy mnemonic stands for:
Illness – Is the pilot suffering from any illness or symptom of an illness which might affect them in flight,
Medication – Is the pilot currently taking any drugs (prescription or over-the-counter),
Stress – Psychological or emotional factors which might affect the pilot’s performance,
Alcohol – What has the pilot consumed within the last 8 to 24 hours,
Fatigue – Has the pilot had sufficient sleep and rest in the recent past, and
Eating – Is the pilot sufficiently nourished?

It seems like a simple test that every pilot can perform, but it only works when we are honest about it (NTSB accident reports reveal that is sometimes not the case).

When I ran the test last week item #1 doomed me. I had a nasty case of the common cold. At first it was a tickle in my throat, then a burning in my ears that carried through each swallow. And then I woke up and I simply could not breathe through my nose, my chest ached and felt like I’d been left for dead by the side of the road. No fever. Just malaise. Ugh.

I had two “really want to go” flying trips and two that were flexible last week. I considered medication. I even went online to AOPA.org’s Online Medications database  and looked up the many possible medications that I might take to relieve my symptoms without risking the wrath of the FAA coming down upon me.

The database is extensive (although its disclaimer is quick to tell you it is neither guaranteed nor complete), and pinging it for “cures” to the common cold gave me a few ideas, even as it warned me off a few, too. For instance, who knew that heavily advertised Zyrtec is limited to two (2) weekly doses and a 48-hour waiting period post-dosing before flying? That was useless to me: the drug only works for 24 hours at a time. Nyquil was out, too, requiring a 60-hour wait before flight. The old standby Sudafed was in there, but not so easy to get (it sits behind the pharmacist’s counter these days).

In the end I stuck it out with Vick’s VapoRub, vitamin C and chicken soup. I succumbed to Nyquil a couple of nights, too, just to catch some healing winks.

Oh, and I did not fly, at least until the weekend, when I was beginning to feel better. I tested the air by asking my regular co-pilot to be PIC for me on a short, low-altitude journey. The leg out went fine, but the leg back? As we began to descend back to our home field I heard a crackling, and then one ear went muted.  It “hung” at 1,000 feet agl, even as my pilot deftly touched wheels to grass at home. The pressure hurt. Experiment results? Failure. I was not ready to be PIC, in fact I should not have gone up at all, even as a passenger.

One dose of decongestant brought the ear back to sea level and no permanent harm was done. My co-pilot turned-PIC flew off a couple of hours later to cover for me at my last obligation of the week. Sorry guys.

As I type this I am breathing easy and free again without medication, and I’m ready to give flight another try. This time, however, there is no doubt in my mind—IMSAFE today. Are you?

Rob Mark

Improving Your Stick and Rudder Skills: Seaplanes and Taildraggers

March 23rd, 2015 by Rob Mark
UPRT Photo

APS Training photo

In mid-January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released some cold, hard facts. “Between 2001 and 2011, over 40 percent of fixed wing general aviation fatal accidents occurred because pilots lost control of their airplanes.” You might be surprised to learn that when The Boeing Company studied commercial jet accidents around the world between 2004 and 2013, the cause that resulted in more fatalities than any other – by a 2 to 1 margin actually – was Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I). What we don’t know of course is why this keeps happening?

While the relationship between LOC-I precursors and actual loss of control is still being investigated, it’s clear that pilots of all categories are, at times, simply unable to fly their airplanes out of situations in which they find themselves. Cockpit automation has often been pegged as a likely culprit. Today, we’re going to do our part to slow the advance of LOC-I by turning off all the cockpit automation and hand-flying the airplane more often. Two ways I learned to be more closely tied to my airplane was to check out in a taildragger and earn my seaplane rating. Both require all hands on the controls from the moment you turn over the engine until shutdown. While flying both can be challenging at times, I’ve found the skills they build have truly made me a better pilot and instructor.

Dragging My Tail

I learned to fly a 7ECA Citabria many years ago after I bought it. I thought it was just an airplane with the steering wheel on the wrong end – although it used a control stick and not a wheel. Wrong again. For starters, the view out the cockpit window was different from the tricycle gear aircraft I’d flown Taildraggerbecause the taildragger’s nose sits high on the ground. That makes taxiing … interesting. Lots of rudder and brakes to turn the aircraft, or even keep it heading straight, especially when a strong breeze starts blowing. My first few hours with an instructor produced a great logbook entry … “N8300V 1.5 of crash and dash,” he wrote. I was mortified. After all, I already held a commercial pilot certificate. I’d pour the coals to it on takeoff and of course, with P-factor, torque and everything else, the Champ would head to the left side of the runway. Then I’d kick right rudder which brought us back toward centerline. Unfortunately, I waited until the nose began heading to the right edge of the runway to kick in left rudder and hence many zig-zag takeoffs were started and stopped. The key turned out to be calm days of partial power on takeoff, just enough so I could raise the tail and learn to steer before I pulled the throttle back and taxied back for another try.

It took me awhile to realize I needed to lead the nose around rather than allowing it to lead me. But of course during takeoff, the airplane is also trying to accelerate and I couldn’t see much over the nose. I also learned to raise the tail once there was enough airflow. But you have to do that gently or you’ll put the airplane on it’s nose. You might remember something in ground school called gyroscopic effect … well maybe not. Point is, when the tail comes up, that movement also makes the nose want to swing so you really need to be on the rudders there too … positively, but gently. During my first landings, all seemed normal until I realized this was simply a reverse crash and dash … keep on the rudders to keep the nose straight. Add a crosswind and it becomes a tad challenging until the tail comes back down.

Worst case scenario in my Champ was the inability of the airplane to turn downwind after landing in a 25-knot headwind. Too much brake and power and I could feel I’d put the thing on its nose. The solution turned out to be impossibly simple. Shut the engine down, get out and lift the tail myself to turn the airplane around. Then I restarted and moved it to my tiedown. While all of this sounds tough, after 10 hours or so, I was no longer zig zagging. I used my rudders often and cross winds no longer seemed to bother me as much. I’d become not only coordinated, but finely tuned.

seaplaneSplish Splash

Last fall I realized I craved a new learning challenge. That evolved into earning my seaplane rating in Traverse City, Michigan. The first hour in that Cub on floats reminded me of a few things from my days as a taildraggers student. When the pitch and power of the instructor’s voice is high and loud, danger is near. I also realized the airplane started moving the minute the propeller spun up and of course, there are no brakes. Like the Champ, the Cub had a control stick which I thought made aileron and elevator movements easier to plan and water rudders for improved steering on the surface. I just needed to remember to retract them before takeoff and landing. The seaplane rating is all about learning to taxi, takeoff and land on the water. The rest is like any other airplane, except that when the instructor pulled the engine on me at 1,000 feet AGL, those floats acted like barn doors that pegged the vertical speed indicator pretty fast. On takeoff, it’s all about finding a place on the water called, “the step.” It’s a spot where you have just enough forward pressure on the stick to raise the back of the floats out of the water, but not so much that you put the airplane on its nose. Like the taildragger, it was all about learning to fine tune my movements. I learned this piece of fine tuning the hard way however.

On takeoff, I shoved the stick forward in the Cub like I did to raise the tail in the Champ. WRONG! I learned that fine tuning means too much forward pressure on the stick and the floats bog down in the water. After a few takeoffs, I absolutely began to feel it. Too little back pressure on takeoff and we just mush along in the water like a boat. Finding the takeoff sweet spot meant power, a bit of forward pressure and after about three or four seconds, the airplane accelerated … no it actually jumped ahead. Then I had to finely oscillate the stick to keep the floats in the same place until liftoff speed. Then a bit of back pressure and I was climbing just like a regular bird. By the second hour or so of instruction I thought figured it out. My silent instructor in the back seat confirmed it. There is of course the issue of docking the airplane to contend with too, but I’m still working on that part.

The point of convincing you to give a taildragger or a seaplane rating a try is of course, both are fun. But both also require the pilot to control the aircraft very precisely at times. The first few hours will be real work, but after that you’ll be surprised at how much better you’ll fly these and any other airplane. BTW, when you see AOPA President Mark Baker at AirVenture this year, tell him you’re thinking about a seaplane rating. He has more great seaplane stories than any half dozen other pilots I know.