Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

What’s That Going To Cost?

Friday, March 11th, 2016

Beechcraft 55 BaronOn a winter Friday evening, a Texas-based aircraft owner loaded three family members into his Baron and flew to Kansas City to attend a weekend function. One of the aircraft’s vacuum pumps failed over Oklahoma. Upon landing at Kansas City Downtown Airport (MKC), the owner asked the FBO on the field if they could replace the failed pump over the weekend, in time for his planned departure late Sunday afternoon. They said they could, and the owner gave them a go-ahead.

When the owner and his family returned to MKC on Sunday afternoon, the owner was pleased to find that the pump had been replaced as advertised. But when he gave the FBO his credit card to pay the bill, he was told that the invoice wouldn’t be ready until Monday when the bookkeeper returned to work. The FBO insisted that the owner sign a blank credit card slip to cover the work. The owner was initially unwilling to do this, but ultimately capitulated when it became obvious that was the only way to get the FBO to release his airplane.

When the FBO’s charge finally showed up on the owner’s credit card, it turned out to be over $1,900. The pump was invoiced at $1,400—well above the manufacturer’s published list price of $1,090 and almost twice the usual “street price” of $800. The labor charge was about $500 for a job that shouldn’t have taken more than an hour. The owner was upset, of course. He fired off a nastygram to the owner of the FBO and vowed never to patronize them again. But in the final analysis, the owner was stuck paying a bill he appropriately considered outrageous.

This sort of thing is hardly uncommon. I know one owner who was charged nearly $1,000 to have his Cessna 210 deiced in Memphis, another who was charged $350 for one hour in a heated hangar to melt the snow of his light twin near Boston, and yet another who was charged $180 at Washington Dulles to have two tires aired up on his Skylane.

Most of these incidents occurred at large FBOs that cater mostly to the bizjet set. But such FBOs certainly aren’t the only offenders. I heard about a mechanic who removed a leaking fuel selector valve from a Bonanza and sent it off to a well-known FAA-approved repair station for overhaul. After inspecting the valve, the repair station quoted $2,000 to overhaul it. At this point, the aircraft owner wisely intervened, directed the repair station to return the leaky valve, and sent it to another repair station in California who overhauled the valve for $375.

While these may be extreme cases, I sincerely doubt there are many aircraft owners among us who haven’t felt blindsided by what we considered to be an unreasonable maintenance invoice from time to time. (Been there, done that, got the bloodstained tee-shirt to prove it.)

The First Commandment

How much?In almost every such case, these unpleasant surprises occur because the aircraft owner authorized the work to be done without first asking what it would cost. In doing that, the owner broke the first commandment of aircraft maintenance:

Never permit a shop or mechanic to perform maintenance on your aircraft until you have received and approved a work order and cost estimate in writing. If and when you approve the work to be done, instruct the shop or mechanic explicitly not to exceed the cost estimate without first obtaining your explicit approval.

I find it amazing how often this commonsense commandment is broken. In almost every other sort of commerce, it would be absolutely unthinkable for someone to purchase goods or services without knowing what they will cost. Most of us would never buy a headset, a pair of sunglasses or a gallon 100LL without checking the price. Nor would we consider hiring a plumber to install a new water heater, a roofer to fix a leak, or Midas to replace the muffler on our car without first obtaining a quotation or estimate.

Yet more often than not, aircraft owners put their plane in the shop and authorize work to be done without obtaining even a verbal estimate, much less a written quote. Frequently, the first time they learn what the work will cost is when the work is finished and they are presented with the invoice. At that point, it is too late for them to influence the outcome; they can only complain and lick their wounds. (Show me an aircraft owner, and I’ll show you an expert complainer and wound licker.)

Why do we do this? I can think of three reasons:

  1. We’re uncomfortable asking the shop or mechanic for a cost estimate.
  2. The aircraft has a known problem, but we don’t yet understand what’s wrong sufficiently for the shop or mechanic to estimate how much work needs to be done or what parts need to be replaced.
  3. The aircraft is in the shop for an inspection, so we don’t yet know what problems are going to be found, much less what parts and labor will be needed to fix them.

Let’s consider these three cases in turn.

Case 1: Uncomfortable Asking

UncomfortableI suspect the Baron owner was uncomfortable about asking the Kansas City FBO for a cost estimate to replace his failed vacuum pump. Perhaps he felt the FBO was doing him a big favor in agreeing to do the work over the weekend. (They weren’t—their labor rate was top-dollar, and they charged time-and-a-half for the weekend labor.) Or perhaps it was because this big city FBO was one that catered largely to the bizjet crowd—you know, the “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” guys.

Perhaps the Cessna 210 owner was uncomfortable about asking the FBO in Memphis what it would cost to deice his airplane because he thought it couldn’t possibly be enough to worry about. (He found out otherwise.) Or perhaps it was because he felt he had no alternative but to have the airplane deiced, no matter what it cost. (There’s always an alternative.)

Whatever the precise reason for their discomfort, their failure to ask what the work would cost before authorizing it cost them dearly. It never makes sense to purchase goods or services without first asking what they will cost.

Purchasing aircraft maintenance is just like any other purchase. The fact that it is not your field of expertise should never intimidate you into failing to asking key threshold questions like “what’s that going to cost?” In fact, the less you know about something, the more questions you should ask before making a decision.

Never feel embarrassed to ask for an estimate before authorizing work to be done on your aircraft. The only time it’s bad form to ask the price is when someone gives you a gift!

Case 2: Don’t Know What’s Wrong

DunnoSure, but what if you don’t know what’s wrong? Say you put the airplane in the shop because the engine has started running rough, but you don’t know why. How can you possibly ask your shop or mechanic for a cost estimate under such circumstances?

My answer is simple: Never ask a shop or mechanic to fix a problem unless you know what’s wrong. That’s like going in for surgery before your illness is diagnosed. Aircraft owners do this all the time, and it’s an expensive mistake.

Aircraft owners need to do as much troubleshooting as they possibly can before putting their aircraft in the shop. In my view, it’s primarily the owner’s job to troubleshoot and the mechanic’s job to fix. It’s often difficult or impossible for a mechanic to reproduce problems in the maintenance hangar. If we owners don’t diagnose a problem before we put our aircraft in the shop, our mechanic often has no choice but to resort to guesswork, trying various things and hoping he gets lucky. When mechanics guess, owners pay through the nose.

Returning to your rough-running engine: In a perfect world, you’ll use your digital engine monitor and well-honed troubleshooting skills to diagnose the problem: e.g., a clogged fuel nozzle or faulty bottom spark plug in cylinder #3. Then, you’ll put your aircraft in the shop and obtain a cost estimate to fix the problem.

But what if you can’t figure out why the engine is running rough? In that case, you put your aircraft in the shop and authorize your mechanic to spend up to two hours (or whatever seems reasonable to you) troubleshooting the problem, and instruct him to report back to you with his diagnosis. (NEVER give the mechanic carte blanche; always specify a troubleshooting budget!) Only then, when the problem has been diagnosed, do you ask for a cost estimate to fix the problem and (if the estimate is acceptable) authorize the repair.

Case 3: Annual Inspection

Annual InspectionIn the case of an annual inspection (where by definition you don’t know what problems will be found), my advice is similar. Put your aircraft in the shop and authorize your mechanic to perform the inspection (which is normally done at an agreed-to flat rate) and prepare a detailed list of discrepancies with a cost estimate to fix each one. (Make sure he understands that he is NOT authorized to perform any repairs or order any parts yet!) At this point, sit down with the mechanic, go over the discrepancy list and estimates in detail, and come to agreement on exactly what repairs are to be done and what they will cost. Only then should you authorize the repair work to proceed.

No matter what the situation is, there is never a good reason to authorize a shop or mechanic to perform maintenance on your aircraft until you have received a detailed written estimate of what it will cost. If the shop or mechanic won’t provide one to you, you’re your airplane elsewhere. Always know what it will cost before you say “go ahead.”

When it comes to aviation maintenance, it’s not impolite to ask what something is going to cost. It’s mandatory.

Flying Through Life… pursue your impossibly big dreams

Sunday, March 6th, 2016
Meeting Zen Pilot

Meeting Zen Pilot, Robert DeLaurentis

On a windy day at Whiteman Airport in the LA basin I had the pleasure of spending some time with Robert DeLaurentis, the “Zen Pilot” and met the Spirit of San Diego [Piper Malibu Mirage] in person.   Often in the air more than on the ground, Robert  lives and breathes the adventure of flying while spreading the message of abundance, connection, and safety.

He is a noted speaker and author with a successful real estate business and over 1250 flight hours as a private pilot. Robert has his private, instrument and multi-engine ratings and holds a commercial pilot certificate and an advanced graduate degree in Spiritual Psychology.

His recently completed circumnavigation of the globe in his Piper Malibu was part spiritual journey, part fundraiser for programs at Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association [AOPA] Spirit of San Diego scholarship fund. He attributes the ability to pursue this lifelong dream of flying around the world to his use of applied spirituality principles.

His first book, Flying Thru Life focuses on helping businesses and individuals go far beyond what they ever believed was possible financially and personally. Robert believes applying the principles outlined in Flying Thru Life allows the manifestation of time and money for people to pursue their sometimes impossibly big dreams.

Spirit of San Diego Students

Students get to meet the Spirit of San Diego

Robert puts forth that we should honor our desires from childhood and our passion. Allowing those desires to unfold helps to manifest them.  “If you ask Spirit to become a painter, you are given a canvas and paint. This is about manifesting. The first step is to ask” Robert says.  He suggests that we be open to what we receive and that it perhaps is a different path than we imagined.  We could be following a path that our parents want us to follow instead of what we are passionate about. “When I honored passion, purpose and Spirit, my life accelerated” he says.


When you are in the ground you can see maybe 100 yards or a ½ mile, but in the air you can see 50-100 miles. Are you smarter or do you just have a better perspective on life?

When you are in the ground you can see maybe 100 yards or a ½ mile, but in the air you can see 50-100 miles. Are you smarter or do you just have a better perspective on life?

The book outlines 19 strategies to avoid negative self-talk and to re-frame fear and doubt into passion and purpose in life.  He believes that when we are in alignment with our deepest dreams, desires and hopes, that we will  receive gifts of time, money, and peace of mind. The gift of time manifests into more hours to fly and train. Financial gifts might be the source of money for an airplane, equipment or new rating.

Fear is oftentimes what holds us back from living our authentic life in a peaceful way.  Robert also believes that what shows up in your plane is also reflected in your life, as the cockpit is a schoolroom. Fear manifests itself in so many ways. These fears hold us back in the life and in flying.  Technology makes flying safer and less expensive. Preparation is the key to reduce fear. Practice makes practice, competency comes with practice.

Flying Thru Life

Flying Thru Life

Flying through Life has some great examples for “Type A” personalities.  One example was when an expensive and critical piece of management software not working for his company. The initial discussion with the president of the software company was met with “You didn’t follow the instructions!”  Robert then paused and communicated with the president in a thoughtful way where he told her his fears and then asked for help. The president then became very helpful and together they co-created a solution.


Last weekend I flew into San Carlos Airport in the San Francisco Bay area. My arrival was easy enough even though there was a TFR over San Jose Airport for the democratic convention, and San Carlos lies under San Francisco’s airspace and is very near Oakland and San Jose. I told ATC that I was unfamiliar with San Carlos and they were very helpful. The tower guys were super nice when I landed. On the way home I thought I would just fly reverse my steps for arrival. As I was taxing out the tower asked me if I wanted the Bay Meadows departure or the Belmont Slough departure quickly giving me details of each. The Bay Meadows departure sounded closest to what I wanted so I said I would choose it. As I got to the run-up area, I felt a little insecure about the instructions. I didn’t have a copy of the noise abatement procedure in my stack of paperwork I had for the trip. So I did what a lot of pilots maybe don’t do, I asked for clarification and help. “San Carlos Ground, 6619U would like to get clarification on the departure as I am unfamiliar and want to get it right.” “N6619U, San Carlos Ground, we love it when pilots ask questions. Thank you. Fly runway heading to 1200 feet, we will call your left turn to the 101 freeway.” I was so proud of myself for not faking it and asking for needed help.

What’s next for Robert? In addition to being a featured speaker for AOPA at Sun n Fun and their regional fly-ins, Robert is releasing his second book, Zen Pilot in the Summer of 2016.  Robert muses on he latest book which details his trip around the world, “I think to some people it might sound strange, but I believe that flying can be the most spiritual thing that you do. Passion and purpose in alignment with Spirit. For me the spiritual component is enormous. The plane takes you from point A to point B, that is a destination, but flying through life is a journey. When people  asked what I learned about flying around the world, I talk about the dream state. When I was flying there was a point in which I didn’t know if I was flying or dreaming [over North Africa]. It is the place I feel most connected. Planes are magical places.”  A true ambassador of general aviation, Robert’s enthusiasm and goodwill is contagious.  I believe what he wants most is for us all to know that if we can dream it, we also possess the ability to make those dreams come true.


To watch the video for Flying Thru Life click here

To purchase the book  click here

earth meets heaven


Manual Flying Skills: Keep ‘Em Sharp

Monday, February 29th, 2016

I’ve taught aerobatic and upset recovery courses to many aviators over the years, and almost without exception am told at the conclusion of training that it represented the best investment of time and money they’d ever spent on improving their skills and confidence as a pilot.

In recent years, the corporate, charter, and airline pilots have begun seeking out this kind of skill set as well. It’s a good thing, because as the Department of Transportation recently reported, some of today’s pilots may not have The Right Stuff.

Where the cockpit is concerned, modern light GA aircraft have a lot in common with the latest crop of business jets and airliners. Under normal circumstances these advanced cockpits add to safety. But when things go awry? Well, as our airplanes become more advanced, they also become more complicated, and that can lead to situations which are not covered by handbooks, manuals, and type-specific training.

We’ve all seen the result of unexpected system failures which were not handled properly by the crew. In recent years, Air France 447 suffered from pitot icing which overcame the tube’s heating element and caused air data errors. During the resulting confusion, the crew entered a stall at 38,000 feet which did not end until the Airbus impacted the ocean. Last December, Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501’s crew responded to a malfunction of the aircraft’s rudder limiter by pulling a Flight Augmentation Computer circuit breaker, which had the unintended consequence of disabling the autopilot. The pilots stalled the aircraft and it ultimately crashed into the Java Sea.

Just to show you that this isn’t something that only happens to “other people,” let me give you two examples of my own. I was flying a Gulfstream IV one afternoon when a wide variety of seemingly unrelated components began to fail. Over the course of 45 minutes or so, we lost air data computers, autothrottles, both autopilots, mach trim compensation, yaw dampening, pitch trim, the flight guidance panel, one altitude encoder, cockpit displays, a display controller, symbol generator, TCAS, an inertial reference unit, and many other elements.

Some of these items dropped offline completely. Others froze or began to malfunction. Some were annunciated on the Crew Alerting System, others were not. Now I knew these components were not on the same bus, nor did they have much in common except that they were electrically powered. Yet the electrical system appeared to be operating normally. We were in visual conditions and not far from landing, which added to the pressure. There’s no checklist for this situation, nor was it ever discussed or simulated during training. Do we land? The aircraft’s braking system is electrical. Should we hold?

Without getting into too much detail, this flight ended uneventfully, but by the time we did touch down, I was basically flying the world’s largest Piper Cub: nothing but a stick, throttle, a couple of analog gauges, and a window to look outside. And that was all I needed. As I recall, the failure was traced to a series of malfunctioning relays under the cockpit floor. Our success was a result of focusing on the basic task of flying the airplane. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do when you’re busy and unsure of what’s really going on with your (normally) trusty aircraft. Failures of this kind cause a rapid loss of confidence in the overall airplane. You’re constantly wondering what will fail next.

The second example was related by a friend of mine. After departure, she lost the #1 comm radio. Not a big deal — the jet has two of them. A little while later, that radio also failed. Over the next few minutes, the flight data recorder failed, followed by the slats, flaps, an AHRS, and other associated componentry. The crew was in instrument weather and flew according to lost communication rules, finally making a high speed, no flap/no slat landing at their destination. Their troubles were caused by a cracked potable water tank, which flooded an electrical equipment bay under the rear floor of the aircraft. Gravity being what it is, one might wonder why important circuit boards are located underneath a water tank… but that’s an issue for another day.

So what does this have to do with upset recovery training? Plenty. The odds of coming out of these scenarios in one piece is directly related to the pilot’s ability to retain control of a malfunctioning aircraft, and that’s when the workload falls heavily on his or her manual flying skills. Truth be told, today’s highly automated airplanes don’t help prepare us for situations of this kind. They do the opposite, physically flying the airplane for us most of the time.

Dassault's Falcon 7X

Dassault’s Falcon 7X

You never know when sharp manual flying skills will pay off. In May of 2011, a Falcon 7X on approach into Kuala Lumpur experienced a rapid nose-up runaway trim condition which could not be stopped. The Falcon 7X was the first fly-by-wire business jet and had been in service for only four years, so this incident caught the attention of many people. It was serious enough that the entire 7X fleet was subsequently grounded. The final accident report was not issued until February of 2016, almost five years later, which should provide an indication of how complex the accident chain was on this event.

Oh, and the crew? They did it right, using a manual flying technique which, while it’s not taught in any type rating course I’m aware of, is taught by myself and others with an aerobatic background. In this case, the pilot learned it while flying Dassault’s other line of airplanes for the military:

While descending through 13000 feet, towards Kuala Lumpur, the elevator pitch trim began to move from neutral to the full nose-up position in 15 seconds time. This resulted in a sudden pitch up of the aircraft to 40° and the aircraft entering a climb. Initially both the captain (Pilot Monitoring) and the copilot (Pilot Flying) were both using the side stick in an attempt to regain control. The copilot then used the priority button to override the captain’s side stick inputs and asked him to stop. The copilot, a former military pilot with experience on Mirage IV and Mirage 2000 jets, then put the aircraft in a right hand bank to a maximum of 98 degrees.

Sudden, uncommanded full nose-up trim is about as bad as it gets when you’re talking about loss-of-control scenarios, yet the pilot was astute enough to remember that he could offset the unwanted lift by banking the jet. Have you been trained on this technique? The pilot had to deal with a beyond-knife-edge flight attitude, load factors as high as 4.6 G, and altitude which ballooned from 13,000 feet to 22,500 feet. What a ride that must have been!

I wasn’t able to locate an English version of the final BEA report, but the French original notes that “the Pilot Flying had performed this maneuver many times during his military career.” After 2 minutes and 35 seconds, the trim motor overheated and was finally cut off, allowing the crew to regain pitch control.

The investigation determined that a small soldering defect on one pin of a computer chip in the Horizontal Stabilizer Electronic Control Unit (HSECU) caused the nose-up instruction to be sent to the Tail Horizontal Stabilizer trim module. Think about the sheer volume of pins, solders, computer chips, and wiring in a modern airplane and you’ll start to realize that these aren’t far-fetched stories borne out of a science fiction novel.

As I said at the top, our aircraft are becoming more complex, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. This increases the likelihood of failures and scenarios for which we have not trained. If you’ll pardon the pun, when the chips are down, it’s usually the person behind the controls who determines whether the situation ends with a classic there-I-was hangar story or a fatal accident report.

Time and time again, we see that manual flying skills are as critical to safe flight as any powerplant or airfoil. Let’s keep ’em sharp.

Seeking Economy, Playing it Safe: Why I fuel up more often than most GA pilots

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

After 31 years as a flight instructor and considerably longer as a certified pilot, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents and incidents caused by aircraft running perilously low on fuel. In the latest data (2012) listed on the website out of 988 general aviation accidents (personal flight), some 50 were attributed to fuel (or lack thereof). It is impossible to tell how many out-of-fuel incidents actually happened that year, or any year, in general aviation, because most pilots who get away with landing the airplane on an airfield after losing power never mention it to the FAA. (Would you?) The good news is that the graph lists no fatalities attributed to such accidents in 2012; but going back a decade from there not all pilots were so lucky.

NTSB statistics on personal flying accidents in 2012

NTSB statistics on personal flying accidents in 2012

I have to say, I work hard so as not to be one of those pilots. In my career I’ve flown plenty of airplanes with fuel gauges placarded “INOP” or with gauges so clearly inaccurate that one just knew not to trust them. I was brought up in aviation to visually inspect, and even measure (with a calibrated dipstick) the fuel in my tanks, and to use a calibrated time/distance method of tracking my fuel burn in flight. So, yeah, I’ve got a lot of tools on my checklist to prevent me from running out of fuel on a flight. So do a lot of other pilots I know.

Then why do they still run out of fuel? There are a few out-of-fuel accidents caused by shrinkage of the fuel tank bladder from age (even though senders registered it full, and visual inspection showed it full, the bladder could not hold as much fuel as indicated). Those are, however, rare. And even in those cases I’d question the pilot, wondering why he didn’t notice that the tanks didn’t seem to hold as much as they used to hold. There are a few out-of-fuel incidents from leakages (a stuck gascolator quick drain, for instance). Again, I’d question the pilot on his/her preflight thoroughness (always step back and look at the airplane top to bottom one more time before you climb in to fly away).

Then there are the math errors and buttonology errors. Essentially the pilot miscalculates actual fuel burn, and, knowing his fuel gauges are generally inaccurate s/he ignores them until the engine starts to sputter. This problem can occur if the pilot forgot to consider his fuel burn on climb, in a full-rich mixture configuration. Or, he may have completely forgotten to lean the mixture.

Buttonology errors are more of a modern airplane’s problem. Perhaps the pilot did visually inspect his tanks and noted that each seemed to be down a few gallons. But it is tricky with some fuel totalizers to program in the exact amount of fuel in each tank. Maybe the pilot just taps the “full” button but promises she’ll remember the tanks aren’t full. And then the headwinds are stronger than predicted at altitude. Yet her fuel totalizer tells her not to worry—she’s got enough gas to get to her destination. Except she doesn’t.

Another pilot just pushed the throttle up, figuring he could go faster into the headwind and solve the problem that way. He did not, however, account for the extra fuel he was burning at the higher power setting.

Interestingly enough, most of the pilots who miscalculate fuel at the end of a long flight leg land just short (say, within 10 or so miles) of their intended destination. Sometimes on another airfield. Sometimes not.

I maintain that in most out-of-fuel accidents and incidents the real culprit is poor preflight planning. Pilots simply calculate the fuel exhaustion point of their aircraft, maybe slap a reserve on there (the FAA minimum on a VFR day is just 30 minutes) and then draw a line (most of the time with a flight planner app) that represents that time/distance on a chart and pick an airport near the end of it as their refueling point. Maybe they use an app to find the most competitive fuel in the area and fly to that airport. I get what they are doing. Pilots who fly light general aviation aircraft tend to want to fly long flight legs because they are perceived as most efficient. Many aircraft engines burn twice the fuel in climb as they do in cruise. They want to limit the amount of time they spend at those high power and fuel flow settings.

Well, efficiency be damned. When you are planning a flight, or for that matter, preflighting your fuel system, it makes no sense to set yourself up for failure by pushing the limits of your aircraft’s capabilities. Out-of-fuel accidents can be prevented so easily. Plan to land with twice the FAA minimum in fuel—the reserve recommended by the AOPA Air Safety Institute. Period.

Plan for unanticipated headwinds by underestimating your aircraft’s performance. I flight plan at a lower speed and higher fuel burn than what my airplane typically does. It is my cushion. I like cushions because they give me the wiggle room I need on days where the weather doesn’t play into my hand.

AOPA's newest version of its flight planner provides members with an excellent tool for preventing out-of-fuel accidents and incidents.

AOPA’s newest version of its flight planner provides members with an excellent tool for preventing out-of-fuel accidents and incidents.

And do what I do: use a sophisticated flight planning tool such as those found in moving map apps, or browser-based tools such as AOPA’s flight planner, which

offers easy-to-use graphic tools for choosing good refueling points along any flight path. When programmed with your aircraft’s performance parameters and departure time the planner will color-code your course to indicate where you’ll need to land for fuel, based on the forecast wind. The magenta route line will turn yellow to represent the caution zone segment in which you have 60 to 90 minutes of fuel remaining. The course segment will turn red if less than 60 minutes of fuel remains. Current fuel prices at airports on or near your route pop right up on the planner. Just select one along the yellow section of your course and the planner reroutes you and includes the fuel stop. Best of all, you can email the route to your iPad or android tablet and it will interface into several popular moving map apps with a few clicks.

Then go fly your plan. You’ll thank me for counseling you to land a little more often on a long cross-country about the time you step out onto the ramp and stretch your legs a bit. Or maybe when you are availing yourself of those free homemade cookies and a fresh cup of coffee served up with a smile in so many of our wonderful independent FBOs. The difference in your overall en route time won’t change much, but the quality of the day is likely to be just a bit higher.

Give it a try. Let’s work to make 2016 the year that out-of-fuel accidents suddenly disappear from the NTSB’s graph of stupid-pilot-tricks.


Five Secrets of Cost-Effective Maintenance

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

Under the FARs, performing maintenance is the job of an A&P mechanic or FAA-approved repair station, but managing maintenance is the aircraft owner’s job. In essence, the FAA looks at each aircraft owner as the Director of Maintenance of a one-aircraft aviation department. Unfortunately, few owners know how do do this important job, and most do it very poorly. Many owners leave it to their A&Ps to manage their maintenance, and then many times wind up unhappy with the outcome.

The essence of good maintenance management can be boiled down to five simple rules. Follow these five principles religiously and you’ll discover that you have a safer and more reliable aircraft while simultaneously spending a whole lot less on maintenance.

Maintenance ShopRule 1. Choose the right shop

To use a building-trades analogy, an aircraft owner’s job is to act as the “general contractor” for his aircraft maintenance. The owner hires skilled tradesmen—maintenance shops, mechanics and other technicians—to do the necessary maintenance work, then manages them to ensure they perform as desired and that they come in within schedule and budget, and occasionally fires them if they don’t perform to expectations.

The owner’s most important job by far is the first one: hiring the right shop, mechanic or technician for the job. If you hire the right person for the job, the rest tends to work out well. If you hire the wrong person, the best management skills in the world may not be sufficient to rescue the situation.

Many owners don’t take this responsibility seriously enough. Often, they simply use the shop at their home base because it’s convenient to do so. Or they choose a mechanic because he seems friendly. Or one that some aircraft owner friend has nice things to say about.

Doing the job right requires much more “due diligence” than that. You need to interview a prospective shop or mechanic just as you would a prospective employee. What do you look for in such an interview? Lots of things, but the most important attributes you should look for are what I call “the three C’s.” The mechanic (or the shop’s director of maintenance) must be competent, communicative, and cooperative.

  • Competent means that the mechanic or DOM has as much experience as possible with your particular make and model of aircraft. A mechanic’s “total time” is far less important than his “time in type” with your particular make and model. Just because a mechanic has done a great job on your friend’s Bonanza doesn’t mean that he’s competent to work on your Cirrus. Before you hire a mechanic, grill him about his experience with your particular make and model. Try to find someone with the most “time in type” posible.
  • Communicative means that the mechanic or DOM is committed to keeping you “in the loop” while your aircraft is in the shop—keeping you continually apprised of status, and consulting you whenever a decision needs to be made. Many mechanics are excellent at this, but many others are not—their attitude is often “you hired me because I’m an expert at what I do, so please go away, leave me alone, and let me do my job.” If a mechanic has this attitude, run (don’t walk) away.
  • Cooperative means that the mechanic or DOM is someone that you find easy to talk to, and who is willing to listen to your directions and desires and do things your way to the extent that he can (while still complying with applicable FARs). It means someone you “can do business with.” Once again, many mechanics are cooperative and customer-oriented, while others are rigid and dogmatic—they believe that there are only two ways to do something: their way and the wrong way. Dogmatic mechanics tend to view the world in black and white, while cooperative ones view it as it actually is: a thousand shades of gray. Seek out the cooperative, customer-oriented ones—avoid the dogmatic ones like the plague.

Repair EstimateRule 2. Insist on a written estimate

Your next job is to ensure that the shop doesn’t wind up presenting you with an invoice that will make you faint or take out a second mortgage. How do you accomplish that? Simple: Always make sure you know what maintenance is going to cost before you approve it.

You might think this is so obvious that it’s not worth saying. You’d be wrong. It always astonishes me how often even experienced and sophisticated owners approve maintenance without knowing what it’s going to cost, and then suffer from serious “sticker shock” when they get the invoice. It also astonishes me how often shops undertake expensive work without obtaining the owner’s explicit and informed approval.

The irony is that this couldn’t happen if it were your automobile that was in the shop for maintenance rather than your airplane. Virtually every state has laws and regulations that require automotive maintenance shops to present each client with a detailed work order and cost estimate, and to obtain the client’s explicit approval (usually in writing) before starting work. Those same laws and regulations usually prohibit the shops from exceeding the agreed-to estimate by any significant amount without going back to the client and obtaining approval of an amended estimate.

There are no such laws and regulations for aircraft maintenance facilities. Aircraft owners are generally assumed to be smart enough to find out what the work is going to cost and get it in writing before giving approval to proceed. Bad assumption! It’s amazing how often aircraft owners fail to ask the threshold question “what’s that going to cost” before approving work, and only find out the answer at invoice time when it’s too late to affect the outcome.

Ah, but what about an annual inspection, where the shop doesn’t know what things will cost until they open up the aircraft and inspect it? That’s easy, too. Owners must insist that an annual inspection be divided up into three distinct, sequential phases: inspection, approval, and repair.

During the first phase (which is typically covered by the shop’s flat rate inspection fee), the shop opens the aircraft, inspects both the physical aircraft and the maintenance records, and generates a report listing the discrepancies found. That discrepency list should clearly identify “airwothiness items” from other, lesser discrepancies. It should also include a specific repair recommendation for each discrepancy, and a specific cost estimate for parts, labor, and outside work.

During the second phase, the owner reviews the discrepancy list, recommendations and estimates. He asks questions about anything he doesn’t fully understand to ensure “informed consent.” He may want to get a second opinion on some items from another mechanic, type club tech rep, or other expert. He may want to explore various alternatives to the repair recommendations offered by the shop. At the conclusion of this phase, the owner goes back to the shop with specific direction (preferably in writing) as to which items on the list he wants repaired, and how he wants the repairs to be done.

During the third phase, the shop performs the repairs as directed, and the owner fully expects that the invoice will conform fairly closely with the written esimates that he has approved. Should unforeseen contingencies arise while doing the work (as they sometimes do), the shop must stop work, go back to the owner with an amended estimate, and obtain the owners explicit authorization to proceed (or not).

As obvious as this may seem, it’s frightening how often it doesn’t occur. Many shops engage in a practice that I call “inspect a little, fix a little, inspect a little, fix a little, lather, rinse, repeat.”  If a shop does that, then there’s no clear “decision point” at which the owner can review the discrepancy list and cost estimates, achieve informed consent, and give explicit authorization to proceed. Owners must insist that shops not operate in this fashion, and fire them if they won’t cooperate.

Rule 3. If it ain’t broke, don’t let ‘em fix it

Every aircraft service manual contains page after page of recommendations for scheduled preventive maintenance. Do this every 50 hours. Do that every 100. Do something else once a year. The lists of scheduled tasks go on and on. The service manual for my Cessna 310 has no less than 350 separate scheduled maintenance tasks.

Any owner who follows the manufacturer’s scheduled maintenance recommendations is simply throwing money down the drain. Why? Simply because the very notion of a one-size-fits-all maintenance schedule makes no sense from a scientific or engineering point of view. It makes absolutely no sense to apply the same maintenance schedule to an aircraft based in Tampa and one based in Tucson. Or one that flies 30 hours a year and another than flies 300. Or one that’s tied down outdoors and another that lives in a heated hangar. Yet that’s what the service manual recommendations call for.

ActuatorConsider this: My Cessna 310 service manual calls for removing, disassembling, cleaning, lubricating, reassembling and reinstalling the elevator, rudder, and aileron trim tab actuators every 200 hours. The service manual for virtually every Cessna single and twin model has a similar recommendation. This involves at least 6 to 8 hours of work. So if you actually “did it by the book,” you’d add roughly $3 per hour to the cost of flying just for trim tab actuator maintenance.

In the 29 years and nearly 5,000 hours that I’ve owned my Cessna 310, I’ve never disassembled or lubricated any of the three trim tab actuators. Not once! Why? Simply because they didn’t need it—and last time I looked, you don’t get extra credit for doing unnecessary maintenance.

How do I know the trim tab actuators didn’t need to be lubricated? Because I check their condition at least annually, and it takes all of two minutes to do so. The procedure is dead simple: First, climb into the cockpit and rotate the trim wheel all the way from one end of its range to the other, checking to see whether the trim wheel rotates smoothly without any sign of resistance or binding. Second, climb back out of the cockpit, walk over to the trim tab, measure how much free-play it has, and check that against the maximum allowable free-play set forth in the service manual. If the trim wheel moves smoothly through its full range, and if the trim tab does not have excessive free-play, then the trim tab actuator is just fine and doesn’t need to be messed with.

Okay, so if a Cessna trim tab actuator can go for 29 years and nearly 5,000 hours without needing to be lubricated, why does Cessna say to do it every 200 hours? Because Cessna’s service manual recommendations have to work for every airplane in the fleet, even the worst-case airplane. And there’s probably some Cessna somewhere—probably a Cessna 185 on floats up in Alaska that spends six months of the year operating off salt water and the other six months of the year locked up in a hangar because the weather is too bad to fly—that actually does need to have its trim tab actuators lubricated every 200 hours! But my airplane lives in a hangar and flies regularly, so servicing the trim tab actuators on my airplane every 200 hours would be gross overkill.

More to the point, it never makes sense to maintain a component on a fixed timetable (i.e., every so many hours or so many months) when it’s feasible to monitor the condition of the component (which takes two minutes for trim tab actuators) and maintain it only when the condition monitoring tests indicate that maintenance is actually required. We call this “condition-directed maintenance” (CDM) as opposed to “time-directed maintenance” (TDM).

CDM is always more efficient than TDM, because it causes components to be maintained only when they actually need maintenance, instead of when the manufacturer guesses it might need maintenance. Especially when the manufacturer’s guesses are heavily laced with pessimism to account for the worst-case airplane in the fleet.

We should only perform TDM when CDM is unfeasible because no practical condition-monitoring technique exists. Studies show that CDM is feasible for well over 90% of the components in our aircraft.

Many shops and mechanics insist on “doing everything by the book,” and often suggest to owners that this is required by regulation. In fact, manufacturer-recommended maintenance schedules are almost never required by regulation (unless you own an LSA), and almost always represent a huge waste of money. If your shop is one of those “do it by the book” facilities, just say “no.” And if they won’t take “no” for an answer, find another shop.

Rule 4. Don’t fix it until you’re sure what’s wrong

How many of you have had the experience of putting your aircraft in the shop to get some squawk fixed, then getting it back from the shop with an invoice, only to find on the first flight after maintenance that the squawk wasn’t fixed? Hmmm… I see a lot of hands raised, and I see a bunch of you with both hands raised. Seriously, I doubt there’s an aircraft owner who hasn’t had this experience, and most have had it multiple times.

TroubleshootingAnytime this happens, you’ve experienced a troubleshooting failure. The shop wasn’t lying on the invoice when it claimed to have spent H hours working on the problem, and D dollars in replacement parts. The problem is that the H hours of labor and the D dollars in parts didn’t fix the problem. Therefore, clearly the H hours were spent working on the wrong thing, and the D dollars were spent replacing parts that didn’t actually need to be replaced. Why? Because the shop tried to fix the problem without first thoroughly understanding its cause. That’s a troubleshooting failure!

Inadequate troubleshooting is probably the single biggest cause of wasted maintenance dollars. Why does it happen? There are a number of reasons. One is that many aircraft problems occur only in flight and cannot be reproduced in the maintenance hangar—and if a mechanic can’t reproduce the problem, then there’s no way for him to troubleshoot it systematically, and he’s forced to resort to guesswork about the cause of the problem (and those guesses are often wrong). Another is that good troubleshooting requires excellent systems knowledge, and sometimes our mechanics don’t know some of the systems on our aircraft as well as they should (which is usually our fault for picking the wrong mechanic for the job).

Never let a mechanic try to fix something unless and until you’re quite sure that he has diagnosed the problem thoroughly and understands exactly what’s causing it. Try never to put a mechanic in the position where he has to guess what’s wrong. When mechanics guess, owners often wind up throwing money down the drain.

OverkillRule 5. Don’t overkill the problem

Finally, when your airplane has a problem and you’ve diagnosed it properly, get it fixed but don’t go overboard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen airplanes go into annual with one or two weak cylinders and come out with a $20,000 top overhaul. That’s nuts. If you have one or two weak cylinders, have them repaired—or replaced if they turn out to be unrepairable—but for Pete’s sake leave the rest of the cylinders alone.

Recently, I was corresponding with a T210 owner who explained to me that at his 2007 annual inspection, the compression test revealed one cylinder that measured 50/80, so the mechanic replaced the cylinder with a new one (at a cost of $2,000). Then at the 2008 annual, another cylinder came up 50/80, and the owner decided to major the engine (at a cost of $45,000)!

Give me a break! We don’t overhaul engines because of weak cylinders! We repair the cylinders, or if they’re unrepairable we replace them. We only overhaul an engine when something goes wrong with the “bottom end” that can only be repaired by splitting the case—a spalled cam, a cracked case, a prop strike, or something like that.

This stuff really works!

That’s all there is to it:

  1. Chose the right shop—one that’s comptent, communicative, and cooperative.
  2. Insist on a written discrepancy list and estimate before approving any work.
  3. If it ain’t broke, don’t let them fix it.
  4. Don’t let them fix it until you’re sure what’s wrong.
  5. Don’t overkill the problem.

These five simple rules encapsulate the essence of good maintenance management. Follow them and you’ll wind up with a safe, reliable airplane while saving many thousands of dollars a year in unnecessary maintenance costs. My company provides professional maintenance management services, and we employ these principles every day managing the maintenance of 600 airplanes and have saved our clients millions. I guarantee they’ll work just as well for you.

One Six Right, see it again for the first time

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

“As a filmmaker you want to be able to affect, move and inspire.” Brian J. Terwilliger


On a bright sunny Los Angeles day last week I was lucky enough to get to check in with movie maker Brian J. Terwilliger at his office in Universal Studios. We had first met in July at Oshkosh when he did a media screening of his latest movie Living in the Age of Airplanes. Brian and I spent a little under an hour talking in July about general aviation, movie making and life. However with the 10th anniversary of his documentary film, One Six Right: the Romance of Flying and its release on Blu-ray, I wanted to follow up.

Brian says he was passionate about aviation since childhood. As many future aviators he spent time making airplane models and watching the sky. He learned to fly at Van Nuys Airport KVNY, and later made the iconic airport his muse for One Six Right.

Sigmund Freud is attributed for saying that a human needs four things to be healthy:

1) work you love to do;

2) love of friends and family;

3) physical health;

4) passion.

When I am working with counseling clients I often describe passion as the one thing that you have a hard time explaining to someone who doesn’t share that passion. Luckily for us aviation-addicts, One Six Right was released in 2005 to help capture the love of flying and the value of our airports.

Flash forward ten years to the re-release onto Blu-Ray. “One Six Right was filmed with a state-of-the-art digital cinema camera, though due to the technical limitations of DVDs which display less than 20 percent of the camera’s resolution, the audience has never seen the full quality of the film,” said producer/director Brian J. Terwilliger. “The Blu-ray is not only six times the resolution of the DVD, we went back to the original camera masters and re-digitized every frame, re-mastering each shot to achieve more vibrant colors and sharper images by using tools not previously available. It looks better now than it did on the night of the premiere!” The anniversary edition Blu-ray includes the special features from the DVD plus the entirety of One Six Left (the companion DVD), including “The Making of One Six Right.” The Blu-ray also features 10-minutes of never seen before air-to-air footage of 12 different airplanes — all in high definition. Watching anniversary edition is almost like watching a different movie. The aerial photography sequences are simply stunning. Click HERE to see the DVD/Blu-ray comparison video.

One Six Right was five years in the making. Brian describes that during the project he was compelled to tell the story of general aviation. I have to admit that I love the word compel. For me it means that the gift just has to come out of us. Now that the Blu-ray of One Six Right is out, I would highly encourage folks to pick up a copy and share it with your friends and neighbors. As pilots we truly live life in three dimensions. Our passion for airports and airplanes is sometimes very hard to describe to those on the ground. Luckily for us we have this great aviation film to move and inspire us.Kids_at_Fence


Born in to the Golden Age of Aviation

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

The Golden Age of aviation started when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic 1927, and continued to 1939. According to Norm Baker, aviation was on everyone’s mind in the country, with air races, speed records, Lindbergh and Earhart. As child he built model airplanes and looked skyward. His was a family of modest means, yet his parents fully supported his dreams of becoming an aviator.

“As a child I always loved the look of airplanes, that is why I built model airplanes. The look of something detached from the Earth, all alone. I wanted to look at the Earth from the sky”

Norm was 8 years old when the DC-3 first flew in 1935. As a 12-year-old Boy Scout he dreamed of someday flying a DC3. In 1941 the Piper Aviation Company sponsored a national contest to build a J3 Cub model. 13-year-old Norm entered the contest and by mail received the contest rules and specs. Immediately he went down to hobby shop to buy balsa wood, glue etc. Maybe fortunately, Norm didn’t win first prize but won a lower prize: flight lessons. His supportive parents allowed him, at age 13, to get lessons.

Flushing Airport, Queens NY

Flushing Airport, Queens NY

In 1941 Piper Aviation paid for lessons for Norm at Speed’s Flying Service at Flushing Airport in Queens [which no longer exists]. Of course, he learned to fly in J3 Cub. A quick study he was eligible for solo with 8 hours of instruction, but Norm had to wait until his 17th birthday in 1945. Norm flew the same Cub all the way to pilots license at 40 hours, age 18 years. Had it not been for the prize money from Piper, he would not have been able to afford lessons.

Norm recounts how Speed Hanzlik may have saved he and his brother’s lives when he flew from Ithaca New York to Flushing airport during school break. “It must have been 1946 after I had my private pilot’s license and we flew down to Flushing where our parents were waiting to take us home for the holiday. Inexperienced pilot that I was I didn’t plan my flight well and arrived after dark in a Piper Cub with no lights and no radio. I managed to find the field and was enormously relieved to see the runway lighted by automobile headlights arranged to be there by Speed.”

Norm later attended Cornell University Ithaca, New York, studying engineering. He joined Cornell Pilot’s Club, 26 students owned one Piper Deluxe, side by side.

Norm was also enamored with the sea and joined the Naval Reserve. In 1951-53 when the Korean War broke out he was assigned to a destroyer- USS Samuel N. Moore DD747. As the ship’s Navigator, Norm had to be a celestial navigator for there was no radar more than 200 miles off shore and GPS hadn’t yet been invented. He used the sun, stars, moon, and planets as navigation aids in mid-ocean.

In 1982 Norm and his wife Mary Ann purchased a 95-foot schooner named the Anne Kristine. The 123-year-old-ship was the oldest continuously used sailing vessel in the world, launched from Norway in 1868. In May of 1991 the Anne Kristine set sail from New York for Tortola. However within thirty-six hours the lives of the crew were in grave danger due to the convergence of two storms Hurricane Grace and the nor’easter that the movie Perfect Storm was written about.   Though the ship was lost in the perfect storm, thanks to a dramatic midnight rescue by Coast Guard, there was no loss of life.

In 1992 Norm went back to his first love, aviation, and started flying again. He bought a 1966 Cessna 172, N4676L, which be lovingly named Anne Kristine II. Norm and wife Mary Ann flew a lot together. He attends EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh annually. A non-smoking marathoner, skier, horseback rider, hiker and swimmer, Norm’s bride, Mary Ann, unaccountably passed away in May 2003 from lung cancer.

Norman Baker with Anne Kristine II Photo Credit: Tracey Eller

Norm never forgot his childhood dream of flying the DC3. He contacted Dan Gryder who owns Elite Flight Services. “You meet people from all walks of life in aviation, and meeting Norm Baker was a true gift.  Norm called me as a cold call, and informed me that he would be taking my DC-3 class. In speaking with him several times, I suspected that Norm was probably retired, but I never asked his age or why he wanted to fly the DC-3″ Dan says.

DC3 Student

DC3 Student, Norm Baker

In December 2015, Norm flew to Griffin Georgia alone in his Cessna 172, fully IFR and holding a second class medical.  “He got out a tow bar and pushed the 172 around like a high school kid would.  Turns out Norm was 87 years old, almost 88 and out flying around America.” Gryder recalls.

Norm attributes his good health to staying active, and a special exercise routine that he complete each day, a ritual that consumed 45-minutes per day but kept him in top shape.

Norm flew the DC-3 and Dan was proud to issue him a new pilots license with the coveted DC-3 type rating on it, And then just for fun he opted for an hour left seat in a jet where he experienced touch and go landings, and a few climbs of over 5000 feet per minute…something he had never seen before. Gryder muses, “He boarded his 172 and flew off into the sunset, but I made a friend on this trip that really affected me in a profound way.  What a shining example for all the rest of us!”

Dan Gryder presents  Norm Baker with this type rating

Dan Gryder presents Norm Baker with his DC3 type rating

I asked Norm about inspiring the love of flight in kids. His answer surprised me a bit. I suppose that many times I think we just need to have big events, and get lots of kids in airplanes. Norm paused and thought about it. He said that he has to spend time with the child. “I have to know what the child looks at that thrills him. You have to talk about what the kid wants to hear, what lights them up. They might ask, “Can I do it?” We need to be able to say, “Yes you can!”

Norm Baker was lucky to be born into the Golden Age of Aviation. Perhaps the lesson I take away from meeting Norm is our ability in the aviation community to make our current age a golden age. Yes, we need to have events at our airports, and get loads of kids into our airplanes, but as well, we need to slow down and really talk with our youth. Find out what lights them up about aviation. That way we can all resoundingly say, “Yes you can!”


Monday, January 11th, 2016

Jet fuel contamination of avgas remains a killer.

On March 2, 2008, a turbonormalized Cirrus SR22 was destroyed when it crashed shortly after takeoff in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, killing all four people aboard. Shortly after the aircraft departed from runway 20, the airplane’s engine lost power, and the aircraft hit a building and exploded. Further investigation revealed that the aircraft had been refueled with Jet A instead of 100LL.

This report reminded me of an incident 16 years earlier during which my own 1979 Cessna T310R was misfueled with Jet A at San Carlos (Calif.) Airport, a busy GA airport just south of SFO. Fortunately, I caught the (mis)fueler in the act, red handed. Had I not been lucky enough to do that, I probably wouldn’t be writing this column.

Normally, I either fuel my aircraft myself (at a self-serve pump) or watch it being fueled (when avgas is supplied by truck). On this occasion, I’d radioed for the fuel truck and waited patiently for it to arrive. After 10 minutes of waiting, Mother Nature intervened and compelled me to walk into the terminal building in rather urgent search of a loo. By the time I took care of my pressing business and returned to the ramp, there was a fuel truck parked by my airplane and a lineperson pumping fuel into my right main tank.  As I approached the aircraft, I observed to my horror that the truck was labeled “JET A.”

Theoretically impossible

At first, I was not too worried, because I believed that misfueling my airplane with Jet A was physically impossible. That’s because in 1987 (the year I purchased by T310R), all turbocharged twin Cessnas became subject to Airworthiness Directive AD 87-21-02 which mandated installation of restrictor ports on all fuel filler openings. The restrictor ports were designed to make it impossible to insert an industry standard Jet A nozzle, while accommodating the smaller diameter avgas nozzle.

The AD was issued because the FAA became aware that a large number of misfueling indicents and accidents were occuring in turbocharged aircraft. These aircraft typically were prominentaly decorated by the factory with the word “Turbo” and apparently linepeople were confusing it with “Turbine” and pumping Jet A into the tanks.

So the FAA mandated that jet fuel trucks install a wide spade-shaped fuel nozzle, and that vulnerable airplanes (like turbocharged twin Cessna) have restrictor ports installed into which the wide jet fuel nozzle would not fit. This made misfueling of piston aircraft with jet fuel theoretically impossible. (They also said that it’s theoretically impossible for bumblebees to fly.)

But as I arrived at my airplane, I discovered that indeed my left main tank had been topped with Jet A. How was this possible? A subsequent investigation by the local FSDO revealed that the Jet A fuel truck at San Carlos Airport had not been fitted with the correct spade-type nozzle. (I suspect they got in trouble for that.)

Jet-A nozzle vs. avgas nozzle

Jet fuel nozzles have a wide spade top that is theoretically incapable of being inserted in an avgas fuel filler equipped with a restrictor ring—but don’t count on it!

Undoing the damage

I spent literally hours trying to find an A&P on the field that would assist me in purging the fuel system of its witches’ brew of 100LL and Jet A. That turned out to be surprisingly difficult. The fueling company was falling all overitself to be helpful (because I’m sure they feared a big lawsuit) but they had no mechanics or maintenance capabilities. There were several maintenance shops on the field, but none wanted to go near my contaminated airplane, clearly afraid of the potential liability exposure. Finally, I persuaded one maintenance manger to help me out after writing and signing an omnibus waiver absolving the shop and its mechanics of any liability in connection with their work on my aircraft.

The purging process itself was quite an eye opener. We drained the tanks as completely as possible, putting the noxious effluent into a 55-gallon drum provided by the fueling company (who had agreed to deal with the costly disposal of the nasty stuff). We disconnected the fuel line going to the engine-driven fuel pump and drained all the fuel from that as well.

Next, 5 gallons of 100LL (donated gratis by the fueling company) was poured into the main tank, and then pumped through the system using the electric boost pump and drained from the disconnected fuel line into a 5-gallon bucket.  The fuel in the bucket was tested for Jet A contamination using the paper-towel test: A few drops are placed on a paper towel and allowed to evaporate completely. Pure 100LL will not leave an oily ring on the towel, but even small amounts of Jet A contamination will leave an obvious ring. The stuff in the bucket flunked the test.

Another 5 gallons of 100LL were poured into the tank, and the process repeated. Once again, it flunked the paper-towel test. We had to repeat the procedure three more times before we were satisfied that the system was essentially kerosine-free. We reconnected the fuel line, cowled up the engine, the fueling company then topped off the airplane (again gratis), and I was finally good to go…fully six hours after the misfueling incident.

Restrictor filler & GATS jar

Be sure all your fuel filler ports have restrictor rings. The big GATS jar (available at Sportys, Aircraft Spruce, and elsewhere) does a far better job than the slim screwdriver-type testers.

Lessons learned

I learned some important lessons that day. Perhaps the most important is that it’s impossible to distinguish pure avgas and a mixture of avgas and Jet A by color alone. My main tanks had been about half-full of avgas, so after the misfueling they contained roughly a 50-50 mix. If you take a jar full of pure 100LL and another jar full of a 50-50 mix of 100LL and avgas, I guarantee you will not be able to see any difference in color or clarity between the two.

I hadn’t realized that before. I has always been taught that you sump the tanks and observe the color—100LL is blue and Jet A is straw color. What I was not taught is that a mixture of 100LL and Jet A is also blue and that you simply can’t tell the difference visually. In retrospect, I shudder to think what would have happened had I not caught that Jet A truck in front of my airplane.

I was also taught that since Jet A is significantly heavier than avgas (6.7 lbs/gal versus 5.85 lbs/gal), the Jet A and 100LL will separate just like oil and water, with the Jet A at the bottom (where the sump drain is) and the 100LL at the top. That’s true, but only if the contaminated fuel is allowed to sit for hours and hours. It turns out that 100LL and Jet A mix quite well, and the mixture takes a surprisingly long time to separate.

There are at least two good ways to distinguish pure 100LL from kerosine-contaminated 100LL. One is by odor: Jet A has a very distinctive odor that is detectable even in small concentrations. The other (and probably best) is by using the paper-towel test: Pour a sample on a paper towel (or even a sheet of white copy paper), let it evaporate, and see if it leaves an oily ring.

Nasty stuff

What effect does Jet A contamination have on a piston engine? Enough to ruin your day.

You can think of Jet A as being fuel with a zero octane rating. Any piston engine that tries to run on pure Jet A will go into instant destructive detonation. However, in real life, we almost never encounter that situation because the tanks (at least the main tank used for takeoff) is almost never completely dry when the aircraft is misfueled.

Therefore, the real-world problem is not running on pure Jet A, but on running on a mixture of 100LL and Jet A.  Depending on the mixture ratio of the two fuels, the effective octane rating can be anything between 0 and 100. A mixture with a lot of Jet A and just a little 100LL might be detectable during runup.  A 50-50 mix might not start to detonate until full power is applied, and the engine might fail 30 seconds or 3 minutes after takeoff. Just a little Jet A contamination might produce only moderate detonation that might not be noticed for hours or even weeks. Like so many other things in aviation, “it all depends.”

The Cirrus SR22 accident in Rio reminds us that the problem of misfueling is still with us, despite all the efforts of the FAA to eradicate it. We need to be vigilant. Always watch your airplane being fueled if you possibly can. Make sure its fuel filler ports are equipped with restrictor rings. Don’t just look at the fuel you drain from your sumps—sniff it, and when in doubt, pour it on a paper towel.

A Signpost Up Ahead

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

A380 JetwhineWhat a blast I’ve had the past year here on the Opinion Leaders blog. But if we’re opinion leaders, you our audience, deserve a pat on the back for being Reader Leaders. I’ve been truly encouraged and inspired by how many of you took the time to offer words of support to some of my stories, as well as comments when you thought I was off my rocker. OK, maybe I didn’t like those quite as much, but it all comes with the territory.

This year I managed to share a few tricks of the trade to improve your stick-and-rudder skills in any aircraft, as well as a few ideas to encourage the next generation of aviation geeks to follow in our footsteps and even had a few questions for you about how I should deal with a few ruffled feathers between ATC and me. Of course there was that sad story last summer about the loss of my friend Jeremy Monnett at Oshkosh just weeks before AirVenture.

But that was 2015.

With 2016 waiting just around the corner, I think it’s time for me to bow out and offer another writer an opportunity to share their perspectives on aviation while I get back to my own blog at and The Airplane Geeks Show.

Before I leave, I’d like to ask you to take a look at our new venture, the On the Mark video series we’ve created with the folks at If you enjoy these short pieces, I hope you’ll share the link with your friends and even consider subscribing.OTM Logo 1

Come on now, there’s no eye rolling in aviation for you Reader Leaders … you can handle great content from both the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog AND On the Mark.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and all the other holiday greetings of the season.

See you around the blogosphere in 2016. Don’t forget, your questions about all things aviation are always welcome at [email protected].

Warm regards,

Rob Mark



Buying the right plane

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

TAP CoverFinding the right airplane to buy is hard work. Who among us hasn’t spent hours looking through Controller or Aircraft Shopper Online or Trade-A-Plane or Barnstormers looking for that perfect candidate—one with low time, a fresh overhaul, new paint and interior, great avionics, and a bargain price?

Dream on!

Common sense says you’re unlikely to find an airplane like that—and if you do, there’s probably a good reason that it’s underpriced … like maybe lost logbooks, major damage history, wing spar corrosion, an expensive AD that hasn’t been complied with, or some other big-time skeleton in the closet.

Nothing’s perfect

Many of the aircraft you see advertised are in reasonable shape, decently maintained, and worthy of consideration. But if you expect them to be in pristine condition—or even in as good condition as represented in the ads—you’ll probably be disappointed. If you have your heart set on buying a perfect airplane, you’d better buy a new one and be prepared for sticker shock. A well-equipped new Cessna 182T costs about $500,000 these days, and a Cirrus SR22 or Cessna T206H goes for about $750,000, and a Beechcraft Baron G58 now sells for $1.35 million.

If these prices are beyond your pay grade (and they sure as heck are beyond mine), you need to accept the fact that any “pre-owned” airplane you buy will be somewhat less than perfect and will require some fixing up after the purchase.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying a “fixer-upper” so long as you go into the deal with your eyes open, have a good understanding of what it will cost to correct the airplane’s deficiencies, and are confident that this cost is adequately reflected in the negotiated purchase price.

High-time engine

Lycoming EngineOf course, some kinds of deficiencies are easier to deal with in this fashion than others. The easiest of all is an airplane with a high-time engine that’s close to (or beyond) TBO.

I say it’s easiest because engine time is almost always fully reflected in the selling price. In other words, an aircraft with a run-out engine is almost always priced sufficiently below the price of a similar aircraft with a zero-time engine to account for the cost of a major engine overhaul or factory-rebuilt exchange engine. I bought my own airplane with nearly run-out engines, and I’m convinced that buying an airplane with run-out engines has a lot of advantages.

One advantage is that the new owner gets to choose whether to overhaul or exchange for a factory rebuilt. If he opts to overhaul, he gets to choose the overhaul shop, the kind of cylinders he wants on his new engine, and any special items that may be desired when reinstalling the new engine (such as Teflon hoses, new Lord mounts, exhaust system repair, etc.) And that’s as it should be, since it’s the new owner who will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for years to come.

A second advantage of buying an airplane with a run-out engine (or engines) is that the seller is probably motivated to sell (rather than shell out big bucks for a major overhaul or factory rebuilt), and so may be a bit more flexible during price negotiations. In fact, I’m always a bit suspicious when I see an aircraft listed for sale with a “fresh overhaul” or unusually low engine time. I can’t help but think that the seller most likely knew he was about to get rid of the airplane when he had the engine overhauled, and it seems to me it would be mighty tempting to cut corners and minimize cost in that situation. Maybe I’m just cynical.

A third advantage of buying an airplane with an engine at or near TBO is that you might just wind up getting a pleasant surprise. After buying my T310R with engines just 100 hours shy of published TBO, I wound up flying the airplane for 600 more hours of trouble-free operation before deciding to overhaul the engines at TBO+500. With reserve for overhaul of $30/hour/engine, that wound up being a $36,000 windfall for me.

Most aircraft listed for sale have engines somewhere in between “fresh overhaul” and “run-out.” The problem here is that it’s often impossible for the buyer to know how much time he can expect to get out of the engine before overhaul. A good friend of mine—let’s call him “Frank”—bought a gorgeous 1978 Cessna T310R some years ago with mid-time RAM engines. Now RAM is arguably the country’s premier overhaul shop for TSIO-520 engines, and the engines got a clean bill of health during the pre-purchase inspection, so Frank fully expected it to be years before he’d have to think about major overhaul. At the first oil change after Frank bought the airplane, however, some ferrous metal showed up in one of the oil filters. Frank sent the filter contents to RAM, and they determined that one or more cam lobes were coming apart. Frank wound up having RAM tear down and overhaul the engine. Ouch!

Bottom line is that I think the best way to buy a used aircraft—all other things being equal—is to buy one with a high-time engine, plan to overhaul it or swap it for a factory engine shortly after the purchase, and make sure the cost of doing so is priced into the selling price.

High-time airframe

Jacked AirframeIn contrast, an airframe with beaucoup hours is much more difficult to analyze. Unlike engine time, airframe time cannot be “rolled back” by doing an overhaul. It is what it is.

High time on an airframe isn’t necessarily a bad thing. An airframe with high time has probably been flown regularly and often throughout its life. That’s good. Also, a high-time airframe usually belongs to a “working airplane” (flight school, charter, cargo, etc.), and such aircraft tend to receive better and more regular maintenance than owner-flown “hangar queens.”

In contrast, an airframe with unusually low hours is often one that has experienced lengthy periods of disuse, and unless the aircraft was based in a dry climate or stored in a heated hangar, it’s a likely candidate for having hidden corrosion damage.

Low-time airframes tend to command premium prices. Some years ago, a study of light twins listed for sale indicated nearly a linear inverse correlation between selling price and airframe hours (after adjustment for engine time and equipment), with depreciation of almost exactly $10 per airframe hour. (In other words, all other things being equal, a 6,000-hour twin sold for $30,000 less than a 3,000-hour twin.)

I’m not sure that’s rational—but market forces are often not rational. Personally, I’d be more comfortable buying a 25-year-old airplane with 4,000 hours on the airframe (average 160 hours/year) than a 25-year-old airplane with 1,000 hours on the airframe (average 40 hours/year). Of course, I’d really want more information about how those hours were distributed over the aircraft’s life, whether there were extended periods of disuse, whether the aircraft was hangared or tied down outdoors, where it was based (Tucson or Tampa), and so forth.

Very high-time airframes are another matter, however. We used to think that airframes would pretty much last forever if adequately protected from corrosion. That may still turn out to be true for some airframes (like strut-braced high-wing singles), but in recent years there has been increasing concern over the useful fatigue life of cantilever-wing airframes, particularly single- and twin-Cessnas and Beechcraft Bonanzas and Barons. There’s already a very costly spar-strap AD for high-time Cessna 400-series twins, and a good possibility of more such ADs in the future that could have a big impact on owners of high-time airframes.

As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t pay a big premium for an ultra-low-time airframe, and might even do well to be a bit suspicious of one. A mid-time airframe—with hours commensurate to its chronological age, indicating that it has been flown regularly and often—may be a more worthy candidate, not to mention a better bargain.

I warned you it wasn’t easy.

Older aircraft

1960 Cessna 210AFiguring out what model year to buy is another toughie. Market valuation of airplanes tends to drop precipitously with calendar age, and you occasionally see older aircraft for sale that have been well maintained, are corrosion-free, and are offered at what seem to be screaming bargain prices.

My advice to all but the most experienced aircraft buyers is to be wary of older airplanes, particularly older complex airplanes. There’s a good reason for their enticingly low asking prices: An older airplane can easily turn into a money pit. In fact, that may be precisely why it’s for sale.

You may figure that if the selling price is cheap enough, you can afford to spend the money to refurbish that older airplane into something really nice. Take an old, clapped-out 1960-model Cessna 210, for example, that you see in Trade-A-Plane for only $30,000. Add $30,000 for a zero-time engine, $20,000 for new paint and interior, and maybe another $15,000 to replace those old tube radios with a modern comm and GPS. So for $95,000 you’ll wind up with a first-class speed merchant, right?

Unfortunately, your “better than new” refurbished airplane won’t be worth anything close to the $95,000 you have invested in it. It might appraise at $60,000 at best, so you’ll be $35,000 underwater and in a world of hurt if you have to sell it. Unless you’re sure that you’ll be keeping the airplane for a many years, it’s generally wise to avoid purchases that involve spending substantially more than fair market value for the aircraft.

What’s worse, 1960 was the first year that Cessna produced the 210, and not surprisingly the earliest models are saddled with expensive Airworthiness Directives and maintenance problems. Cessna learned a lot from building that aircraft for 26 years, and later models of the Cessna 210 are truly outstanding airplanes. But the earliest models are… well… somewhat less outstanding.

I don’t mean to be picking on the Cessna 210 either. The same holds true for early model Bonanzas, Cherokees, Mooneys, etc. You can often buy one for a song, only to discover your new acquisition is eating you out of house and home. Unless you’re an A&P with lots of free time and looking for a “project airplane,” my advice is generally to buy the latest model year you can reasonably afford, and to avoid aircraft requiring high-ticket refurbishment.

Outdated avionics

Old Narco AvionicsThe conventional wisdom used to be that it was better to search for an airplane with suitable avionics than to buy one with older radios and refurbish the radio stack. That’s because a new radio stack increases the resale value of the aircraft only a small fraction of what it costs to buy and install. So it’s a lot more economical to let the other guy upgrade the panel than for you to do it.

These days, however, you may have little choice in the matter. We’re in the midst of a major avionics revolution, with terrestrial navaids getting phased out and GPS WAAS and ADS-B and real-time weather fast becoming a must-have for serious cross-country flight. Unless you luck out and stumble across an airplane for sale with a G-1000 or Aspen Evolution already in the panel—and that’s not terribly likely—you may have to bite the bullet and spring for the gear yourself.

Still, it’s best to find an aircraft with reasonably up-to-date avionics and minimizing the amount you’ll have to invest in electronics refurbishment. Installing a new autopilot is especially expensive, and it’s a big plus if you can find an aircraft that already has a decent autopilot installed.

Worn paint or interior

Worn SeatDon’t hesitate to buy an aircraft just because the paint or interior are getting long in the tooth. Inexperienced buyers tend to get way too hung up on cosmetics. What really counts is what’s under the paint and beneath the carpets. I’d buy a mechanically sound, corrosion-free airplane with shabby paint and interior in a heartbeat.

Think of paint and interior like you think of engines: Something that wears out and has to be redone every ten years or so. It really makes more sense for the buyer to do this after the sale than for the seller to do it before. After all, shouldn’t the new owner get to pick the paint colors and upholstery materials?

Much like engine time, the cost of paint and interior tends to be well reflected in the aircraft selling price. If you buy an aircraft with fully depreciated cosmetics, you can reasonably expect the selling price to be discounted enough to compensate for a substantial portion of the cost of refurbishment.

Mechanical discrepancies



You’ve found a plane you really like a lot, and arranged to have a prebuy examination by a mechanic you trust. The inspection turns up some significant mechanical discrepancies. Now what do you do?

That’s easy: First, talk to your mechanic and determine what it will cost to correct the problems. Next, present the inspection findings and repair estimates to the seller, and see if he’s willing to reduce his selling price enough to cover all, or at least most, of the repair cost. If so, you’ve got a deal; if not, you may want to pass and find another aircraft.

Some discrepancies—corrosion damage to a wing spar, for example—may be so costly to repair that they’re instant deal-breakers. But most discrepancies—say, a soft cylinder or an inoperative autopilot servo—should be readily resolvable.

I’ve seen the prospective buyer of a half-million-dollar Cessna 421C walk away from the deal because the prebuy revealed two cylinders with poor compression. In my view, that’s nuts. The cost of replacing those two jugs is less than one percent of the purchase price. The purpose of a prebuy on a 421C should be to uncover the $50,000 discrepancies, not the $5,000 ones. (If you’re buying a Bonanza or Arrow or Skylane, scale these figures down appropriately.)

Good, clean, mechanically sound, corrosion-free airplanes are getting harder and harder to find, so don’t let a good one get away because of a problem that’s easy to fix.