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Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot

How To Shoot Yourself in the FootOver the years, I’ve spent a lot of time hanging around maintenance shops like the proverbial fly on the wall, watching the comings and goings of airplanes and owners and listening to the mechanics talk. In the process, I’ve noticed that owners often wind up inadvertently sabotaging the maintenance of their aircraft by imposing inappropriate time or money pressures.

Deadline

FridayOne of the worst things an owner can do is to put his aircraft in the shop on Monday for an annual inspection and tell his mechanic “Bill, I’ve just gotta have the airplane by Friday…big weekend family trip!” A week might be enough time to get the work done if there are no surprises, but maintenance is seldom surprise-free.

In the case of an annual that starts on Monday, it might well be Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning before the IA has gotten the aircraft all opened up, inspected everything, and actually knows what repairs need to be done and what parts need to be ordered. Now the mechanic is working with a gun to his head. In a good-faith attempt to please you (and avoid a confrontation when your aircraft isn’t ready when promised), he’s likely to rush the work and defer any maintenance that is less than absolutely safety-critical.

Lather, rinse, repeat a few times, and you wind up with an aircraft that isn’t as well maintained as it should be. Is that really what you want? Not to mention you’ll be launching off on your big trip in an aircraft just out of annual without leaving time for a proper post-maintenance shakedown flight (sans passengers). Not smart.

Whenever you put your plane in the shop for annual inspection or major maintenance, be prepared for the plane to be downed for twice the estimated time. Tell yourself that when it comes to aircraft maintenance, it’s better to do it right than to do it fast. If the airplane is done on time, be pleasantly surprised. If it runs over due to unforeseen contingencies, keep your cool and be happy that your mechanic cares enough to do the job right.

Sticker shock

Fighting over moneyAlso high on the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot list is arguing over the bill after your aircraft comes out of annual or major maintenance. This is a great way to win the battle but lose the war. At next year’s annual inspection, your mechanic will remember last year’s argument, and will do everything in his power to keep it from happening again—by deferring any maintenance that is not absolutely critical in a good-faith attempt to minimize the bill. Those deferred items will inevitably come back to bite you, because in the long run it’s always cheaper to fix problems sooner rather than later.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating a money-is-no-object approach to maintenance. Anyone who knows me or has read my stuff knows that I’m a world-class skinflint who will do almost anything to avoid spending a nickel more than necessary on maintenance. But arguing over the bill after the job is done is not the way to save money, trust me. All it will accomplish is to sabotage the quality of maintenance you receive.

Get involved!

Dirty handsIf you want to keep control over the cost of maintenance (and I’m definitely in favor of that), the way to do it is to get involved early in the process. Tell the IA to call you as soon as he’s completed the inspection but BEFORE he’s started any repairs or ordered any parts.

When the IA calls, pay him a visit and go over the discrepancy list with him. Ask him to give you a time and cost estimate to repair each item on the list. For items that aren’t safety-critical (yet), make a joint decision whether to fix now or defer. (In my experience, most owners will elect to fix more and defer less than what the mechanic would decide on his own.)

When you’re done going through the discrepancy list with your IA, you’ll have a pretty solid estimate of what the final bill will be, so there shouldn’t be any unwelcome surprises. And your mechanic will know that his final bill had better be pretty close to the estimate he gave you, or he’d better have a darn good explanation for why it isn’t.

There’s no better way for an owner to learn how to work effectively with mechanics than to do an owner-assisted annual. By the time you’re through, you’ll have learned how the process works and have a much better idea of how things look on the other side of the wrench. I think every owner owes it to himself to go through this experience at least once. Even if you never do it again, the knowledge you’ll gain will pay dividends for as long as you own an aircraft.

Mike Busch is arguably the best-known A&P/IA in general aviation, honored by the FAA in 2008 as National Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year. Mike is a 8,000-hour pilot and CFI, an aircraft owner for 50 years, a prolific aviation author, co-founder of AVweb, and presently heads a team of world-class GA maintenance experts at Savvy Aviation. Mike writes a monthly Savvy Maintenance column in AOPA PILOT magazine, and his book Manifesto: A Revolutionary Approach to General Aviation Maintenance is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions (112 pages). His second book titled Mike Busch on Engines was released on May 15, 2018, and is available from Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle versions. (508 pages).

6 Comments

  1. TremontGreenjacket

    July 13, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    I always try and take the time to read Mike’s writing, whether on the AOPA blog or the Cessna Pilots Association Magazine. I never fail to learn something useful.

  2. Kenneth Hetge

    July 14, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    ….and the worst case when it comes to schedule or cost is that when next year rolls around, “all slots are full”, wink-wink. Owning an airplane and using a local maintenance shop or person is a very critical relationship. I will not go hungry working on your airplane nor will I expect you to break the bank to pay me. It is a relationship. I will never allow something to leave my shop if it needs to be repaired/replaced or fixed. Likewise, I will never allow someone’s “must have schedule” drive me out of my comfort zone. Most folks and shops follow a “process” (and checklist) and if this gets upset, the comfort factor goes out the window. Some of you (owners and maintenance staff, alike) may not like these words but they come from a guy who not only works on airplanes, but also owns them. This is a relationship and it must be respected.

  3. Charley Brown

    July 15, 2016 at 1:30 pm

    Mike’s approach is fundamentally sound for ANY type of job assignment that has any possibility of “discovery” along the way. First, you make a tentative agreement on scope, schedule, and budget. Then the performer spends a part of the agreed-upon time exploring the problem. Then the two parties get together and refine the assignment — maybe more than once. Then there are no surprises at the end.

    It *is* all about the relationship. You build trust, and then the only nasty surprises come from the airplane itself — and you both deal with it.

    As a builder/maintainer/owner/pilot of an experimental airplane, I’m on both sides of the fence — and the mechanics have a tough job. Not so much solving the airplane problems, as meeting the owners’ expectations and trying to educate the owners without alienating them.

  4. In order to save some money on my annuals I will spend time at the shop opening up my aircraft for inspection. They do the inspection and put her back together.

  5. Brooks Martin

    July 15, 2016 at 5:41 pm

    Thanks, Mike. I’ll be sure to follow your advice. Been following some of it already, but you present the total package. This article gets book marked 🙂

  6. There is no rule that says an annual inspection must be completed in one period. If you have been doing regular preventative maintenance an annual has to be completed before the last day of the month. So, schedule the inspection during the first few days of the month and repair and adjust as needed to return to service, assuming no problems are found that are “grounding.”
    The trip can be flown assuming it isn’t past the end of the month and then the annual inspection can be completed, perhaps even on the first day of the next month.
    But the common problem I’ve seen is the deferred maintenance that just does get fixed. It is perhaps a minor adjustment, a throttle or prop microswitch adjustment or gate position for feathering or a gear warning horn. It works just not perfectly, you’re used to it.
    I have seen props that would feather before the gate on the control lever was engaged and past, the gate should put the prop at the bottom of the green arc on the tach.
    Cabin doors should latch, lock and unlock. Pressurized airplanes should be checked to make sure the door can’t be unlatched with cabin pressurized. Fuel gauges must read zero when empty, not 500 pounds of fuel when empty, that means the condition of the fuel system might require draining and checking accuracy. On JetA powered airplanes, the fuel probes can become fouled with years of contamination and the gauges can read hundreds of pounds of fuel that isn’t there. On some airplane the fuel in the wing tanks cannot be seen unless it is topped off. When topped off the gauge should not read 1800 pounds when full is 1300 pounds.

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