I just got back from EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. It was a grueling week for me that included ten different Forums Plaza lectures, two “stump the IA” sessions at the AOPA seminar tent, and my first-ever AirVenture press conference. I’m still recovering.
AirVenture marked the release of my new book Manifesto, the first of what I expect to be a four- or five-volume series that anthologizes the most important of my aviation articles written over the past several decades. Manifesto is a short, pithy volume about maintenance philosophy. The next volume will be devoted to aircraft engines, and I’m hoping to have it out by the end of 2014.
One chapter of Manifesto is titled “How Mechanics Think” and addresses their extreme concerns about liability (both civil and regulatory), resulting in a compulsion to do everything exactly “by the book” and an aversion to trying anything new or different. It’s this aversion that is the subject of my blog post this month.
For the first decade after I purchased my Cessna 310 in 1987, I used Goodyear Flight Custom tires, which mechanics told me were “the gold standard” for GA aircraft tires. In 1998, I switched to Michelin Air tires because they were less expensive than the Flight Customs and were rated for the same weight and speed and reported to last just as long. I had just as good luck with the Michelins as I did with the Goodyears.
Then, in 2005, I decided to try Desser retreads after Aviation Consumer did a big competitive torture test of various tire brands (Goodyear, Michelin, McCreary, Condor), and found that Desser retreads fared even better than top-of-the-line Goodyear Flight Customs, even though they cost half as much.
I’ve used Desser retreads ever since, and Aviation Consumer was right: The darn things wear like iron. They’re dimensionally identical to new tires, so there’s never been any question about their fit in the wheel wells. Half the price, equal or better lifespan, perfect fit…what’s not to like? Could this be why most commercial aircraft operators and flight schools use retread tires, as do virtually all airlines?
In 2008, I started recommending Desser retreads for my company’s managed-maintenance clients. The reaction from shops and mechanics was astonishing. You’d have thought I’d just lit a stink bomb in church!
A number of shops flatly refused to install retreads, claiming they were taking this position “for liability reasons.” Others reacted with contempt and derision: “You’re serious about nickel-and-diming the maintenance by installing el-cheapo recaps on a half-million-dollar aircraft? Are you out of your mind?”
The fact that the biggest customers for retreaded aircraft tires are commercial operators, flight schools, and airlines didn’t seem to carry any sway with these mechanics. Nor the fact that Desser retreads beat Goodyear’s and Michelin’s top-of-the-line new tires in the Aviation Consumer torture test.
Silly me. I always considered saving money a good thing. To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen, “A hundred bucks here, a hundred bucks there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
Six years later, all of my clients who followed my advice and opted for retreads and are very happy with their decision. Other clients demurred and sprung for the pricey Flight Custom IIIs, and they’re happy, too. I have learned not to push the issue. I still use Desser retreads on my airplane.
Spark Plug Wars
In 2006, I needed to replace the spark plugs on my airplane. My Cessna 310 has 24 spark plugs, so a full set of new plugs represents a non-trivial expense. While pricing out a set of Champion RHB32E massive-electrode plugs, I noticed that Autolite spark plugs were four bucks cheaper, a savings of $100 on 24 plugs. A hundred here, a hundred there….
I’d used nothing but Champion plugs for the past 35 years, but as a world-class cheapskate I just couldn’t resist saving a hundred bucks, so I ordered the Autolites. When the new plugs arrived, I installed them and was very impressed. For one thing, the Autolite plugs are nickel-plated so they are much more corrosion-resistant than Champions (which are painted). For another, the Autolite threads start with a taper that makes them much easier to start in the cylinder spark plug boss. Subsequently, I learned that the Autolite plugs incorporated a fired-in sealed resistor assembly that solved the problem of high-resistance plugs that long plagued Champions.
Champion had dominated the aircraft spark plug market for as long as I could remember (and that’s a long time), but these Johnny-come-lately Autolites (first introduced in 2002) seemed like a better mousetrap. I’ve used Autolite plugs (which are now called “Tempest” after Unison sold the product line to Aero Accessories) ever since, and I love them. In 2008, I started recommending Autolite plugs to my managed-maintenance clients, and the blowback from their mechanics was truly breathtaking.
“My A&P was appalled that anyone would consider using Autolite plugs”, one owner told me. “Since he’s something of a curmudgeon, I asked my hangar neighbor (who’s an A&P) and was treated to a tirade about how he once tried a set of Autolites and they all died after 150 to 250 hours. I then wandered to another FBO on the field to take a straw poll of the two A&Ps on coffee break and was treated like a dummy who would sacrifice my airplane to save a few bucks.”
“I told my A&P this morning that I’d just installed Autolite plugs,” another owner said. “It was like throwing gasoline on a barbecue. I got out of there very quickly.”
Yet another owner received this inscrutable response from his A&P: “We like Champions, they’re better—but we use Autolites in our rental fleet and haven’t had any problems.” Translation: “If you’re paying for the plugs, we recommend the high-priced spread, but if we’re paying for them, well….”
I’ve never had an aircraft owner report any problems with the Autolite/Tempest plugs. Several manufacturers have issued service bulletins calling for Champion fine-wire plugs to be removed from service because they fail so often. Continental Motors now ships their new, rebuilt and overhauled engines strictly with Tempest plugs instead of Champions. Yet still I find that few A&Ps in the field stock anything but Champion plugs, and a few still refuse to install Tempests even when their customers specifically request them.
Where’s the Beef?
Why do so many A&Ps badmouth Desser retreads and Tempest plugs in the face of improved performance and cost-effectiveness? I’ve heard some owners suggest that it’s because there’s less mark-up on Desser tires than on Goodyears and on Tempest plugs than Champions. I’m not sure I buy that. In my experience, an A&P’s decisions are rarely motivated by greed, and are much more likely motivated by fear—specifically, fear of the unknown and fear of getting sued. Besides, a genuinely greedy A&P could find much more lucrative outlets for his greed than spark plugs and tires.
This resistance to trying new things—a “late-adopter” mentality—seems disturbingly common among A&Ps in my experience. It’s same psychology that causes some mechanics to discount the benefits of borescope inspections (often because they don’t own a borescope), spectrographic oil analysis, and digital engine analyzers (because they’re never learned to interpret the results), and to blame most cylinder problems on lean-of-peak operation (because they’ve never studied combustion theory and don’t realize that their Toyota runs LOP on the drive home from work).
Why are so many A&Ps skeptical of new-to-them products, methods and ideas? Why do so many choose to live life on the trailing edge of technology? Two reasons: lack of training and fear of being sued.
When I first earned my mechanic certificate (after having been a certificated pilot for 35 years), I was astonished to learn that the FAA has no regulatory requirements for an A&P to receive recurrent training of any kind. I found that shocking. If pilots have to go through recurrent training at least every two years, why doesn’t a similar requirement exist for the mechanics who maintain our airplanes?
In 2005, the FAA finally amended Part 145 to require mechanics who are employed by FAA certified repair stations to undergo initial and recurrent training. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But the majority of A&Ps who work on our piston-powered aircraft are not employed by a certified repair station, so they still are not required to get any recurrent training. And the recurrent training that repair station mechanics receive often tends to reinforce the old way of doing things rather than teaching them about new ones. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find piston-GA mechanics whose knowledge is seriously stale and out-of-date.
Fear of being sued—liticaphobia—is a serious deterrent to mechanics trying something new. Lawsuits against shops and mechanics once were rare, but they have exploded over the last two decades for reasons I will discuss in a future blog post. The cost of defending such lawsuits can be ruinous for an individual mechanic or small business. Mechanics and shops have become very reluctant to try anything new or different, for fear it might come back to bite them in court.
I am certainly not suggesting that all piston-GA mechanics suffer from stale knowledge and a fear of trying new products and methods. The smartest and most talented A&Ps I know are information junkies and leading-edge thinkers. But many mechanics are incredibly resistant to change, very reluctant to adopt new technologies and methodologies, and their opinions often lack any basis in actual hard data. Owners are wise to seek expert second opinions rather than accepting their mechanics recommendations as gospel.
It can take real work for an aircraft owner to find a mechanic who is willing to consider new products and modern maintenance methods, but in my opinion it’s worth the effort.