While maintaining a 1940s aircraft powered by an ancient engine can be packaged into a marketable experience, most of the time the truth is that it is a real aggravation. Some recent experiences are educational, and more than likely confirm why I am one of a handful of Americans that come to Europe to fly. While I tend to like going against the crowd, perhaps this time the crowd had some wisdom…
The first thing one notices in Europe is that few own their own aircraft. The vast bulk use flying clubs and rent per hour, which I thought was silly and inane, and then explained it away with the fact that most things in Europe are costly, and it’s simply cheaper to rent per hour for the average general aviation pilot. Only real diehards who exceed a critical threshold can push average hourly operating costs below flying club rates by overcoming high fixed costs. While that is true, it is not the whole story.
Apparently, there is this thing called a “CAMO,” which is something I only recently found out about. I believe it stands for “Certified Aviation Maintenance Organization,” and is required for standard category aircraft. I am not sure of the specific vagaries of each country, though the idea is that instead of an A&P and IA handling required maintenance and inspection duties, these are relegated to membership in an organization with defined compliance roles and some level of type certification on the part of the A&P that touches the aircraft. Costs and aggravations, as one could imagine, increase. The same principle exists with instruction; there is no such thing as a freelance CFI. All instructors are part of an “Approved Training Organization,” which operates in a similar way. I have a lot to learn about both philosophies, so I will not purport to offer a journalistically vetted overview.
However, the existence of the ATO and CAMO structures logically points toward flying clubs, as they can take on required expertise and certification roles in aircraft specific to the club, and therefore handle required instruction. Many that do own aircraft have them “operated” in one fashion or another by a club, and therefore the CAMO umbrella applies to them. This also explains why my next problem is made more annoying, as the European supply chain is geared toward a different structure.
The problem I have been facing today dates back to a slew of part installations that took place before moving to Europe. I was told that a starter was required at certain airports in Germany, and that transponder mandatory zones abounded. That resulted in the need to install a ground charge battery, basic electrical system, and starter, which was done in America. Normally, I take “owner assisted” to the maximum level I can, and in this case I opted to pay an A&P to do the entire job. I didn’t want the emotional burden of figuring it out, and it was too sensitive of an installation.
Well, some problems from the installation presented in 2015, and I thought they were solved (recall the irony of disavowing the “owner assisted” part). With warm weather operations resuming in Spring 2016 in Germany, it became apparent that the problem was not fully solved, for which I needed to order some parts. In Europe, the price was $850 versus $500 in the USA, and the wait time in Germany indicated they were merely shipping it from America. An A&P friend of mine suggested shipping it to him in America, where he packaged it in ghetto packaging, labeled it “Metal Parts $0” on the customs form, and a month later, it deposited itself back in his mailbox, rejected by German customs, with my plane out of service the whole time. We then did the FedEx route for a bunch more money, and managed to sneak it through for a $50 brokerage fee. That was not enough, so another expensive part had to come over, which we were able to sneak through my “household goods” initial moving exemption, saving $250 in tax. Meanwhile, the plane was out of service for 4 months.
In this 2016 saga, the engine had to be dismounted to be moved forward a few inches for the replacement of a part. After all was said and done, there was this strange but very slight “wobble” as I described it. All engine indications were acceptable, including runup results. The wobble triggered the mental reflex that the engine had an issue, though it clearly didn’t by all other measurements. After 10 test flights around the pattern, nobody, including my A&P could source it, and eventually I was given advice that Lord engine mounts can take 15-20 hours to settle into place, and to give it some time. There was no question that multiple A&Ps thought I was making it up as it performed “just fine” for them.
Alas, it was given time, and two things happened: the wobble continued, and the engine and all oil samples were completely fine. It still drove me nuts, and I was convinced it had something to do with the dismount and remount process. I also hold a disposition that, if the airplane didn’t do something before, and its doing it now, we have a problem. Most A&Ps tell me in response that it’s an old airplane, it’s in tolerance, and to quit being neurotic.
There were a few pieces of mount hardware that looked suspicious, so I assumed these had to be contributing to the overall equilibrium equation of mount tension, and set about to find some replacement parts. The problem was, nobody really seemed to understand where to find these small pieces as they seemed unusual, so after a conversation with the Lord engineer, my grandfather who restored the airplane, and Univair, and after taking a bunch of measurements as reality seemed to not match blueprints from 1957, it came to my attention that the airplane has a unique mount conversion kit and is therefore not standard (the engine is a field approved installation). I ordered the parts from Univair, plus a slew of other things I thought I would need in the future to be safe – $350 in parts, $120 in shipping, $150 in Spanish VAT and tariffs, despite a regulation that aviation parts not manufactured in the EU do not get tariffed. Sigh.
Those little hardware parts got changed, and, well, no change. Perhaps the “wobble” is ignition related, despite no clear misfiring, and no mag test problems? It was worsened at certain RPMs in descent (indicating mount), though improved slightly on the right mag only in cruise (indicating ignition). I decided it must be coming from somewhere left magneto ignition system, and therefore had a decision to make, as the Bendix mags were coming up for 500-hour inspection. Do I do the mags first, or go for plugs and wires, even though all three were done in 2014?
I decided to go for plugs. They needed to be removed and cleaned, and under Part 43, I can swap them. I took them off, and drove over to France to a flying club to have the plugs tested on their fancy and expensive machine. At that point, the French CFI apologized for misunderstanding our conversation in Spanish and advised he has no “autonomy.” I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, so he walked me to some dank and miserable shed, for which a V-8 car engine was bolted to the floor with an exhaust pipe to the roof, connected to a generator. Despite a robust French electrical grid, the flying club was operating off of a car engine, and it was broken and no one knew when it would work; therefore, the expensive test rig was out of commission.
Horrified by the Summer of Discontent in Germany, I decided to buy new plugs instead of waiting on the French V-8 generating station. The Germans were the only ones that had them, at the price of $400 for a set, instead of $240 in America. Add express shipping so I don’t have to wait two weeks. Sigh.
New plugs were installed, and no change. By now, a concerted and well-planned maintenance cycle was approaching, so I decided it was time to schedule some personal travel while taking the magnetos off and having them sent to a certified shop in France for the 500-hour inspection. I was told the bill should be “a few hundred euros” and they wouldn’t know the amount until they opened them. A few days later, I got an invoice: $1500! Expressing my surprise, I was corrected when I referred to the $1500 number, as it lacked French 20% VAT and shipping (page 2 hadn’t been scanned). When it was all said and done, nearly $1900 was out of the door, and the rationale was that the “prior guy didn’t do a good job” but “now you only need a 500-hour point inspection for the next 2,000 hours or 12 years.” The irony is that the “prior guy” had noted a few years ago that the guy before him did a crappy job on the mags. When I reviewed the EASA Form 1, issued by the French, it contained a variety of Bendix service bulletins, that the first and second idiot had done according to the logbook. I confess that I did get a “revision generale” (overhaul) as opposed to 500-hour point inspection. And, of course, the French kindly painted the exterior of the mags so they look pretty.
The mags were installed, other work done, and aircraft placed back into service, being out of service for a month and not four. No change in the wobble, and not too much of a discernible difference in magneto-induced combustion. I can, however, recalculate my weight and balance as any cash I had left in my wallet is gone and therefore I am lighter. At this point, I deferred to the German PhD and Irish pilot friend, who both said to get new wires some time back. I reiterate that all engine indications were in tolerance. The only person who had a problem with it was me, though I have been the sole pilot in this airplane since 1996 when it was restored, so that nagging voice has some authority.
Be that as it may, I decided after the little $1900 magneto debacle that ignition leads couldn’t be that pricey. I recall buying them for something like $400 in the USA, so I figured it would be $200 in America and $300 in Europe for one side only. How wrong I was! Shopping around until I was blue in the face, the replacement for the left side only was $550, and had a six-week lead time. I decided to call a distributor in the UK, who asked the American-born English speaker where I was calling from, and transferred me to a lady who spoke Spanish. Indignant that I was calling the UK, I demanded to speak in English (for which she obliged), and she kept asking “who maintains my aircraft” and to get them to call. At this point I was irritated, and finally encountered the CAMO bit, where they couldn’t understand why a pilot-owner would call for parts and not the CAMO, and I made clear N registered airplanes have an A&P, and he only calls if the pilot wants to pay for concierge service. Eventually after convincing her I wasn’t committing fraud, she poked around and found an alternate part number: a kit with both sides in stock: 500 GBP. Sigh. $700 with shipping. Ok, I’ll place the order. Oh no, that didn’t include 20% VAT (prices are supposed to include VAT in Europe by regulation). $900+! Now I was on a rampage and refused.
That resulted in a saga of searching around Europe, settling on some Belgians, who then recommended an alternate part number, which was an education Continental makes wire harnesses and they do so at a lower price. At this point, it wasn’t so much about market analysis as who had the parts in Europe without having to wait until 2019. After a call to the TCM engineer in Alabama to confirm spark plug to cowling clearance (this engine is extremely tight), the invoice came to $640.
After getting them installed, the wobble is gone.
I am not sure what the lesson is here. Perhaps it is the almost spiritual relationship a pilot and mechanic must have with a carbureted engine, petting and serenading it to find out what mood it is in? Is it the warm and nostalgic remembrance of working in the shop with a grandfatherly figure in childhood, the beautiful “simplicity” of old airplanes (while grandpa pays the bills, deals with the FAA, and curses at the machine that won’t work)? Is it the lesson that things in Europe take twice as long and cost twice as much for no seemingly discernible logic? Or is it the progressive beauty of the EU single market, where I can freely spend my money on airplane parts in an alarming array of countries without border tariffs?
While these realities are all true, any remaining rage against the machine subsides when I get in the air. No matter how annoying it is, flying is worth it.
Rainbow over the Val du Carol, France. I suspect it matches the mood of the magneto shop after I paid their exorbitant invoice.
La Cerdanya Aerodrome, under some snow. The PA-11 handles snowpack quite well.