The last month has been, suffice it to say, the dark side of aviation. A combination of maintenance misery, coronavirus, European rules, and an airplane turned money pit has tainted the glories and freedoms of aviation with the dark, menacing cloud of a massive thunderstorm. In many instances of ranting to friends, one suggested that I write about my experience, ostensibly to point out how various byzantine Kafkaesque rules could use an overhaul. My only reply was: “It is going to sound like I am whining about the consequences of my own ignorant, ill-fated decision to voluntarily ship an old airplane to Europe and not expect to be driven insane by the rules that were well known to exist beforehand.”

Well, here I am, writing about it anyway.

Putting the Economist Hat On – Mechanics

The situation I have been facing this month devolved into a cesspit of money spending, eventually landing on a situation requiring specialized assistance, which meant finding a specific mechanic willing and able to do the job. It is always an issue to find one that will work on an N-registered aircraft, either if the person is a FAA A&P, or uncomfortable with performing the work, furnishing a work order, and having a separate FAA A&P return it to service.

After getting over those hurdles, which often means far fewer mechanics are available, I find that they are all booked solid, despite the fact that the world is flying less. This seems to be the case most of the time, and I had to ask why that is the case. In a previous post, I wrote about how EASA had changed some rules to loosen up mechanical licensure, stepping closer to the “freelance mechanic,” which otherwise barely exists here.

The problem lies in the quantity of policies, procedures, and paperwork that revolve around flight instruction and maintenance activities. It favors organizations over individual mechanics and instructors, which favors highly active flying clubs instead of private ownership. That means a small fleet of [rented] aircraft, flying quite regularly, with resources onsite in the case of a problem. If a plane is out of service, there are others to rent.

Along comes the American with a Cub, asking for some help from an organization like this, even if the European mechanic is a FAA A&P, and the answer is almost uniformly that these institutions are booked out for weeks. How could this be, that in the land where rules stifle aviation, there are thriving, profitable businesses?

When one combines paperwork and rules eliminating freelancers, pushing activity to busy clubs and repair stations, one can find that they are incentivized to run at full capacity, pushing new bookings out into the future. That is not a problem with clubs and companies with small fleets, as aircraft can be substituted. Some private owners have their airplanes “operated” by clubs, which means they are part of the system, likely getting priority. Add in that some European countries have labor laws that discourage eliminating staff, and one can see that economics + the rules and structures that be = limited organizations keeping their order books full. In the US, another A&P would be hired part-time to pick up the slack, whereas those decisions are made far more conservatively on this side of the pond. Besides, who cares if some immigrant wanders in with a broken plane?

That does contrast with the reality that I have wondered how A&Ps in America earn a good living. Many freelancers are either vintage airplane enthusiasts, work weekends for extra money, are retired, or are poor businessmen. To run a proper repair station, cover fixed costs, bear the risk of liability, and earn more than a low-end wage, fees would need to be structured not too differently than in Europe, with order books as full as possible.

I am not sure what the point of this subsection is, other than exasperation that offering to shower money on maintenance technicians seems to not produce…. maintenance activities.

Coronavirus – Get Out of Jail Free Card

It is apparent that the pandemic’s effect on supply chains is separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to competence. Unfortunately, I had two maintenance nightmares span this situation, and they both are revelatory.

The first was an exhaust stack repair early in March. I phoned an outfit in the USA, who told me they would repair it two weeks after I sent it. Noting how I would be out of service a month, I asked if we could come to an agreement and prioritize it for a fee. After some back and forth, the price was set at $250 for the expedite fee. “We’ll get to it in 3-5 days.” “From now?” “No, after it arrives. Wait….6 days. We can do it in 6 days.” “Six calendar days?” “No, 6 business days.” “Then why I am I paying $250 for it to take the same amount of time.” “We’re not shutting down our shop for you! Good day!” [click]

I called another in the USA, same deal: 2 weeks. I asked about AOG fees and these people kindly told me that “We used to do it. Everyone then pays it, and we can’t keep up.” I would say hire more people, but I digress. Maybe they figured out the European model of profitability…

I got recommendations for an excellent outfit in Germany. I called them and they said the backlog was one week. I packaged loads of customs paperwork, including that the whole aircraft is customs cleared into Germany, and shipped overnight, ok with the week delay as shipping round trip would be overnight instead of a week. After 10 days, nothing had happened, as it was still at customs. DHL said the exhaust shop was ignoring them. The exhaust shop sent signed copies of paperwork submitted to customs. A week later, I was informed that German customs was returning it “for insufficient paperwork” and it would take… a month. I would have driven up there to clear it, except lockdown began and borders were closed. “We’ve had people do that before,” said the shop.

That’s it! I am going top dollar brand new PMA!

I called another shop in the USA, agreed on $1500 for new parts, gave specifications, and they were wonderful to get it done in a few days and hurry up to ship it as lockdown was looming for them. It arrived in Europe, after $250 in express fees….and it didn’t fit. While exhaust systems can be subjective on Cubs, there is nothing subjective about the exhaust port on the cylinder and the location of the adjacent intake elbow. At this point, I found a blacksmith in town who heated and whacked the relevant portion into submission, and that problem was solved.

While it was a frustrating charade that ropes in the pandemic, it is a microcosm of everything that is miserable about attempting to keep a 1940s airplane in the air. I am beginning to lose the romance of the idea, that’s for sure.

Coronavirus woes are not over. The latest round has resulted in ordering no less than six installments of parts from the UK and USA, and each order begins with “carriers are not guaranteeing delivery times.” That actually means two things: the carrier is released from doing the job, and the parts seller now has no obligation to be dutiful in getting “overnight” orders out, communicating about it, or getting anything right. I could go on about the miseries endured, down to full on incompetence and outright fraud (charging for overnight, sending economy, refusing to credit the difference). Some carriers are delivering as promised, and some distributors get things out as promised. Some distributors indicate their fulfillment backlog clearly, others take the order and payment and ship it a week later with not a shred of understanding why that is a problem, pointing to the pandemic as a blanket excuse for blatantly failing to live up to promises. It has been, needless to say, challenging.

It would be helpful if distributors would post clearer notice as to their current situation (as some do), though I would imagine there is an incentive to hide deleterious backlogs so as to ensnare customers into making a sale that they wouldn’t otherwise make. It is interesting to watch how some keep the parts flowing as if nothing has changed, and others seem to have fallen apart.

The End of General Aviation

I woke up this morning with a headline in Swiss news. The Upper House of Parliament voted for a package to impose taxes on each passenger for commercial airline flights, for environmental reasons. I also noted that it includes “private flights where fees will be from $500 to $5000 per flight.” Come again? That caused a panicked Google search, which revealed little as to what a “private flight” meant. Stewing over breakfast, I didn’t even need to articulate the ramifications if this were true. My wife was the one to suggest living in another country if that was correct.

I didn’t think it would apply to light aviation, as it would immediately end all non-luxury general aviation in the entire country. None of these mechanics I am spending so much time talking about mentioned it, nor did it appear anywhere else, so I sent some emails, and response was that the proposed legislation apparently is limited to private flights in “jet aircraft.” I don’t know if that means jet a-1 powered flights (including diesel engines), includes turboprops, or is for turbofan engines only.

While those in the US would cringe at these fees, I must point out that they are fractional compared to the total fees paid in Swiss aviation for larger aircraft. The type of individuals that come and go in Switzerland in private jets are of the highest wealth tier globally and will likely pay the fees, with some modest decrease in utilization. The issue, however, lies with how, if that law were written poorly or incorrectly, it could, in one fell swoop, end all general aviation in the name of environmental reasons.

We talk frequently about “user fees” and other such things “creeping” into aviation in America, slowly squeezing it. We do not talk about an Armageddon where one law ends the entire thing overnight. While it is unlikely to happen, this morning’s news headline was at the very least educational. It also cemented that the battle keeping an old plane flying is losing its romantic appeal, though I can’t imagine choosing to have a life without aviation.

I suppose, much like flying a Cub low and slow in a thunderstorm (hmmm…that has never happened), the clouds eventually clear and one flies again on a sunny evening over bucolic farmland. My prefrontal cortex can intellectualize the concept, though the emotional reality of my sentience is so immersed in this misery that I can’t seem to get my head around the idea of flying before I am no longer middle aged. This too shall pass…

Addendum: The Quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail

I wrote the above portion of the post roughly one week ago. While I was duly rattled and frustrated, I thought I had a solution lined up, as a friend found another Swiss A&P/IA to try, one who had lived and worked in the USA for over a decade. After we spoke, he was amenable to coming up to install a heli-coil on a stud, a problem which had derailed my entire enterprise and for which one shop after another told me that I must basically bring the engine to them for the case to be split. Interfacing with A&Ps in the USA told me a field repair was possible, although I couldn’t find anyone to do it.

Anyhow, he was “always looking for new customers” and “just needed to check if he had the tool.” Excellent! The problem will likely be solved and, to make matters better, I like the guy. The next day, I got a call and it was explained, after consulting with other staff, that it is a risky job due to the hardened aluminum of the case, where free drilling could be the wrong angle or create a crack. It would help if there was a jig, though they did not know where to find it.

So, I was back to the drawing board. I double checked with a few A&Ps in the USA to confirm if a field repair is a shop school myth, and they said it is not preferable, though it can be done. Forum hunting online pointed me to Divco in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I called them to ask if a jig exists and if I could buy it. “Not really, but if you have one, and most people don’t, you can cut a junk cylinder and use the base as a jig.” Miracle of miracles, I have a junk cylinder and I was just about to throw it out! Problem solved!

Or so I thought… I emailed the new A&P that I had developed a crush on and…crickets. If there is one thing I have learned, is that a mechanic’s confidence and the intelligence of a certain repair method are two different things. The sudden lack of interest meant that, for this repair, he is probably not the guy if he is slinking away after having announced I found the much sought after jig.

So, it was back to the “Swiss guy who travels around in a van doing repairs.” He is also an A&P, albeit quite a distance away. I had spoken before and he said that he was extremely booked out, wasn’t afraid to do it, and he didn’t have the tools for the coil installation, as he “tried to buy them once a few years ago and gave up.” Now that he was going to be the one, I called him to schedule, advising that I would be ordering the parts. His reply was: “Things are crazy with coronavirus, so I am not scheduling anything until you get the parts. Nothing is for certain.” I thought he was being persnickety, though so be it, let me get the tools ordered to get a confirmed delivery date.

And this is where my week went sideways.

I called Divco, who told me most of the details what to get. Divco, by the way, is wonderful. I phoned the distributor in California that they use, and after some back and forth, called Divco again willing to “pay them for this nonsense” and they walked me through the exact heli-coil specs. It is quite a web of what to buy. They didn’t want money (which makes them even more incredible). I got pricing final, which was about $150, and then the distributor said, “We cannot prepay and add shipping. We need a courier account number.”

Strange. Be that as it may, I phoned a client, got their UPS number and…inactive. I called another client, got their UPS number, and upon attempting to ship, that account doesn’t allow that kind of shipping. At this point, I requested some sort of way to ship it, and they said its “against company policy,” for which I raised an immortal hell and was told that they got defrauded once so, sorry, but “we will ship it to someone in the US.” I declined to mention that they should be content next time their Amazon order goes to Indonesia for re-routing instead of their house.

I took their quote and sent it to a company in the UK and Switzerland, both of which promised to get back to me. Nothing. I then looked for more distributors and found a stock function on the Stanley Engineering website and found that one other company in the USA stocks the install tool. I went through their online shop, loaded up the cart, and….requires a courier account number. I called them and asked if it is a manufacturer requirement and they said, “It isn’t. We took a US card once for an order of $40,000 of stuff that went to Africa and it got charged back, so it’s company policy. “But its $150, it’s going to Switzerland, I am a US citizen, and I will send you a copy of my US driver’s license or anything else you want.” “Sorry, company policy.” Someone else called back and recommended three other distributors. I called them all and they stock the coil but not the tool. I mentioned to one about the African fraud story and she eloquently replied, “Everyone knows not to trust when the Ethiopian prince writes you online.”

I started digging through Google searches and found that I could get an equivalent tap from a distributor in the UK. They had no tool nor coil, but I thought I could divvy this up and attack that way. The tap, by the way, is on page 562 of their massive catalog, but alas, they did not have the install tool. Eventually I found another distributor, in Switzerland, and navigated their web shop. The part numbers were not equivalent, so after digging through a mass of them, I found all three parts, although I would have to order 200 heli-coils in a bag instead of two. So be it. At 1-3 working days, I’ll take it. When I went to check out, they will only ship to Germany. I then called the Swiss office, and they said “We don’t ship from Switzerland. You must do it from France.” On to the web shop in French, load up the cart…will only ship to France.

Somehow, in my despair, I found through Google that an industrial supply company in the US had one of the parts…the elusive tool! Maybe I can get the coils from Texas, the tap from the UK, and the tool from the USA! To my surprise, they had all of them! I checked out, adding the Swiss address and my credit card and….it worked. Suspicious, I called the company, told them I placed the order, and confirmed that they would ship. “It is ‘in review,’ but if we need anything, we’ll email you.” Six hours later, just before bed, I got an email, “Thanks for your order. Due to the cost of complying with export regulations, we are cancelling your order.” At this point, I located a parcel forwarder in New Jersey, called the supplier, switched to the NJ address, and will have to swallow probably $100 to $150 in costs to forward via an intermediary, for which the parts should arrive in 10-12 days, for which hopefully this vandwelling Swiss mechanic will be willing to show up before August.

The candidate Swiss A&P did explain that European procedure is to CNC machine the case if a stud pulls. “That’s why you aren’t able to find a European mechanic to do it. It is not standard procedure here. What they do not understand is that it is a November registered airplane and we can do things the November way. It does not have to be precise, as it is an American product.” What they also fail to understand is, based on my research, how probable it is in the life of an O-200 engine that a stud will eventually pull.

So, there you have it…the dark side of exotic international flying. I will either ditch aviation and become a monk or buy a second plane as insurance against mechanical woes. Stay in America…or buy a new plane with a warranty and global service network.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.