The Savvy Aviator #1: From Appliance Operator to Maintenance-Savvy

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There's a lot more to aircraft ownership than knowing how to fly. In the inaugural edition of his new column, AVweb co-founder Mike Busch recounts his gradual transformation from a classic 'appliance operator' to maintenance-involved owner, and finally to A&P mechanic.

The Savvy Aviator

When I first became an airplane owner 35 years ago, I hadn't the slightest interest in aircraft maintenance. I had just relocated from New York to Southern California to pursue a career in the up-and-coming field of computer software. I'd earned my private pilot certificate four years earlier while a student at Dartmouth College, and my instrument rating two years later while pursuing an MBA at Columbia University. Now, at the advanced age of 24, I was at last earning enough to buy my first airplane and get serious about flying.

Had you told me then that in 20 years I'd be doing serious wrench-swinging on a complex turbocharged twin, and that in another 10 years I'd be a certificated A&P mechanic helping hundreds of fellow aircraft owners cope with their thorniest maintenance problems, I'd have asked you what you'd been smoking. (It was the 1960s, and there was a lot of that going around.)

My 35-year transition from archetypical "appliance operator" to maintenance-involved owner to A&P mechanic and maintenance adviser/instructor was as unintended as it was unforeseeable. Like many of you, I'd dreamed about flying since I was a little kid watching airplanes fly overhead. But those boyhood dreams somehow never included cutting open oil filters, packing wheel bearings, changing cylinders or cleaning grease from under my fingernails.

I thought the tale of my conversion from pilot to pilot/mechanic might be a good place to start this new monthly column, The Savvy Aviator, which will focus on maintenance and other non-flying aspects of aircraft ownership. I think it'll help you understand my perspective on aircraft ownership, why I think the era of the appliance operator is over (at least in piston-powered GA), and why I believe that every aircraft owner today needs to become at least reasonably maintenance-savvy.

Chapter 1: When Things Were Simple

My first airplane was a 1968 Cessna 182L Skylane. I bought it brand-new from Cessna for the then-princely sum of $25,000. In today's dollars, that's roughly $140,000 (about half the price of a 2004 Cessna 182T.)

In those days, the government literally bribed you to buy a brand-new airplane with investment tax credits, bonus first-year depreciation, and accelerated depreciation. With the sky-high income tax rates that existed then, I figure the government subsidized about 50% of the purchase price of my new Skylane. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

1968 Cessna 182L Skylane

Cessna fitted out N42648 per my specifications with the latest state-of-the-art 300-series Cessna-crafted radios, all ready to fly serious IFR. I'll never forget the day I arrived at the Cessna delivery center in Wichita to pick up my new airplane and fly it back home to California. I was 24, and thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

My home base at the time was Orange County Airport in Santa Ana, Calif. (SNA); today it's known as John Wayne Airport. In 1968, it was a bustling GA airport. I quickly discovered that maintenance of my new Skylane was no problem. SNA had a thriving Cessna dealership with an active Cessna Single-Engine Service Center manned by a sizeable staff of A&P mechanics who did nothing but work on single-engine Cessnas. These guys really knew the airplanes, and replacement parts were plentiful and cheap.

Over the next five years, I flew the wings off that Skylane, including about a dozen coast-to-coast trips and lots of shorter missions. The airplane was always superbly reliable, owing partly to its youth and simple systems, and partly to the Cessna Service Center mechanics who really knew what they were doing.

I flew the plane. The Cessna dealer fixed it. The system worked just as God and Dwayne Wallace intended.

NOTE: According to the FAA aircraft registry, N42648 is still flying, and registered to Edward D. Mergler and Bruce A. Panttaja of Tulare County, Calif. If you're reading this, Messrs. Mergler and Panttaja, thanks so much for taking good care of my firstborn. I know it's a lot harder for you than when I owned her, and I appreciate it.

Chapter 2: The Plot Thickens

After five years of flying that wonderful Skylane, I'd amassed some 1,500 hours in my logbook, earned my Commercial, CFIA and CFII tickets, and felt ready for something faster. I was eyeing Beech Bonanzas and Cessna 210s when a fast-talking airplane salesman named Dick Wells offered me a demo flight in the left seat of a new Bellanca Super Viking; after 15 minutes I was convinced that this was the nicest-flying, sexiest-looking machine I'd ever seen.

Just to be sure, I rented an earlier-model Viking for a couple of weeks and took it on my next coast-to-coast trip. It was a fantastic experience, except for that one incident at Phoenix Sky Harbor when I put the gear down and got no green light on the nosegear ...

1973 Bellanca Super Viking

A few weeks later, I placed my order for a brand new 1973 Bellanca Super Viking, all decked out with the latest Narco avionics and a Century two-axis autopilot. N93592 had had been a factory demonstrator and had 50 hours on the tach, so I got it for the bargain price of just $45,000 (equivalent to about $200,000 today). As before, I traveled by airlines and rental car to the Bellanca factory in Alexandria, Minn., to take delivery of my new machine, then flew it home with a stop in Plainview, Texas.

Plainview is famous for two things: It's the boyhood home of Jimmy Dean (of country music and pork sausage fame), and the home of Miller Flying Service, which was the country's preeminent Bellanca service facility, at least in those days. I stayed in Plainview for a few days while the folks at Miller added some additional avionics and did an oil change and 50-hour inspection.

There's not a whole lot to do in Plainview, so I wound up hanging around the airport and watching the mechanics work on my new Super Viking and several others. I was impressed; these guys worked on nothing but Bellancas day after day, and they really knew their stuff.

I first based my new Super Viking at SNA, then relocated it to Long Beach Airport when my wife and I moved from Newport Beach to Long Beach. But the Bellanca was something of an odd bird, with its spruce-and-mahogany wings and fabric-covered steel-framed fuselage and tail surfaces. I could never find a shop or mechanic in Southern California that I really trusted to work on this machine for anything other than the most routine service. So I wound up making a yearly pilgrimage to Plainview for the annual inspection on N93592, a ritual that didn't particularly set well with my new wife. (She gamely accompanied me to Plainview once. Thereafter I made the trip solo.)

I flew the Viking all over the country, and it proved to be a terrific traveling machine. But because this was a more complex aircraft than the Skylane and because I couldn't find a competent Bellanca shop nearby, I wound up getting more personally involved in its maintenance. I still didn't do much wrench swinging, but I did make a point of overseeing all the maintenance and making all the necessary decisions, sometimes in telephone consultation with my mentors in Plainview.

My maintenance involvement increased even more after I became active in a public-benefit organization called The Flying Samaritans, and started flying monthly medical relief missions to remote dirt strips in Baja California and the Mexican mainland. When a mechanical problem developed down there, we pretty much had to deal with it ourselves, at least to the point of being able to ferry the aircraft back to the U.S. for proper repairs. Since I'm not sure whether or not the statute of limitations has run on those adventures, let's just say I never flew south of the border without a toolbox and a roll of duct tape, and I learned a lot about the Viking during those trips.

There were times I would long for the simple days when I could just drop my Skylane off at the local Cessna Service Center and not have to worry about a thing. After all, I bought the Viking to fly, not to fix. But that seemed to be the price for having such a fast, capable, sexy, exotic aircraft. So I did what I had to do to keep it flying. Little did I know where that would lead.

NOTE: I eventually wound up selling N93592 to an old college friend who lived in Phoenix, Ariz., and whom I felt sure would give my Viking a loving home. He flew it actively for a while, but then I lost track of both him and the airplane. Then a few years ago, I received a very sad email from his ex-wife (also a pilot) who told me that my friend had died in his early 50s under tragic circumstances. She said that the airplane had not flown for years and was parked outdoors in a state of serious disrepair and neglect, and that she honestly doubted it would ever fly again. According to the FAA aircraft registry, however, Shane B. Smith of Tucson acquired N93592 in March 2002. I can only hope Mr. Smith is restoring it to flying condition (which is no mean feat these days for a wood-and-fabric airplane long out of production), rather than parting it out.

Chapter 3: Hands-On

Fast forward to 1986. By now, I'd sold the Viking, moved 250 miles northwest from SoCal to the Central Coast, and was without an airplane for the first time in nearly two decades. I missed flying terribly, particularly every time I heard "that sound" and looked up to watch an airplane fly by. It was time to buy another airplane.

I realized that this experience would be very different: It would be the first time I'd be buying a used aircraft instead of a new one ... simply because they weren't making new ones anymore. The GA industry had gone into free-fall in the early 1980s, and by 1986 Cessna had shut down piston production altogether, and the other light-plane makers were either shut down or producing a trickle of aircraft with a skeleton staff.

I started looking at Trade-A-Plane listings for A36s, T210s and P210s. But I soon noticed that piston twins were screaming bargains compared to singles, with T310s selling for less than T210s of similar vintage and total time. I hadn't seriously thought about moving up to a twin, but this seemed like a golden opportunity to do so. In addition to the inherent ego gratification involved, I convinced myself that a twin would be more comfortable for my wife, and perhaps would persuade her to fly with me more. After studying various alternatives (like Aerostars, Aztecs, Barons and Commanders) and consulting with several twin owners and A&Ps, I narrowed my search to a late-model Cessna T310R.

My third and current airplane, a 1979 Cessna T310R. This photo was taken in 1989. Since then, the airplane gained a new paint scheme and 2,000 hours, while I lost about 50 pounds.

It took me six months to locate the right one. I looked at a dozen different T310Rs, and most were obvious dogs. Then, in January 1987, I finally located a one-owner, low-time aircraft in reportedly pristine condition up in Montana. I flew up to Missoula, liked what I saw, purchased N2683X on the spot, and flew it home the same day. I paid $79,000 for the airplane (equivalent to $130,000 in today's dollars). By any account, it was a lot of airplane for the money. Today, it's worth about $200,000.

Darwin, the chief A&P/IA at my local FBO, Santa Maria Aviation, claimed to have lots of experience working on twin Cessnas. In fact, SMA operated two twin-Cessnas for charter: a Cessna 310Q and a Cessna 421C. So I felt pretty confident about the maintenance on my new acquisition, at least at first. In my first few months of ownership, the plane went into the SMA shop several times for various squawks, and generally they got fixed, but the invoices were a bit of a shock. Even the most trivial problems resulted in a $1,000 repair bill. Welcome to the world of twin ownership.

When it came time for the first annual on N2638X, the plane was down for two weeks and the bill came to $11,000. Yowza! Darwin assured me that the first annual was always the hardest, and that things would probably settle down going forward. A year later, the next annual cost $9,000; a bit better, but not much. I started wondering whether I'd bitten off more than I could chew with this airplane.

Ah, but what a marvelous airplane it was! I decided to hang in there.

By the time the third annual rolled around, Darwin had left SMA, ultimately to leave aviation maintenance altogether for a more lucrative profession. SMA's maintenance operation had dwindled down to one junior mechanic, a quiet fellow named Rod who was the first to admit that he was not long out of A&P school and still wet behind the ears. Now I was worried. Not sure whether Rod knew what he was doing, I decided maybe I'd better keep an eye on things. (My underlying theory was that two people who didn't know what they were doing were somehow better than one.) I asked Rod if he'd mind if I hung around the shop to watch during the annual, and Rod quietly replied that was fine with him.

Before long, "hang around and watch" turned into "hang around and help." Twin Cessnas have a half zillion inspection plates and fairings that need to be removed for an annual inspection, and I figured I was as competent as the next guy to remove the two zillion screws. One thing led to another, and before long I found myself waist-deep in my first owner-assisted annual. I didn't plan it that way, honest. It just sort-of happened.

Rod was incredibly patient with me, gently correcting my innumerable first-timer mistakes and tolerating my hundreds of dumb questions. I'm sure I was more of a hindrance than a help, and I'm not sure why he put up with me. Perhaps he enjoyed having someone around who was even more junior and inexperienced than he was. Or perhaps he figured that if I participated in the annual, I was less likely to complain about the bill. Whatever his reasons, I hope there's a special place in Heaven reserved for A&Ps like Rod.

This first owner-assisted annual was full of surprises for me. I was surprised to find out that I really enjoyed working on the airplane. I found it to be a wonderfully therapeutic change-of-pace from my normal work routine of slaving over a hot computer keyboard all day. I was also surprised to discover that I actually had some aptitude for it. I learned a great deal of valuable information about my airplane in the process, which I found stimulating.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was that by the time Rod and I had completed the annual inspection checklist, the discrepancy list had 100 items on it! Most of those discrepancies weren't big deals -- a chafing wire bundle here, an unsecured fuel line there, a gear door with a worn piano hinge -- but they were all things that could eventually become big deals someday if they weren't corrected. Some of the squawks were items that could have been deferred to the next annual without compromising safety, but I figured better to fix them now. Rod and I patiently fixed every one of those 100 squawks -- Rod graciously allowed me to do as much of the work as I felt capable of doing, and to act as his helper and apprentice for the tasks that required special skills or knowledge. Most of the discrepancies we fixed had obviously been there for years, some since the airplane first left the factory, and it sure made me wonder about the thoroughness of annual inspections I'd received the past two years at a combined cost of $20,000.

By the time Rod and I were done several weeks later, the airplane was squawk-free, and the invoice came to just $4,000. That didn't count my several weeks' worth of sweat equity, of course, but I considered that to be amply repaid by the vast amount I'd learned in the process. I felt that the airplane was now in the best mechanical shape it had been in many years, and that my personal involvement in the annual was at least partially responsible for that. I vowed to remain involved in future maintenance.

The following year, Rod was still running the SMA shop when I brought '38X in for its annual. I told Rod I'd like to work with him again, and he said, "Mike, why don't you go ahead and open the airplane up, drain the oil, remove the top spark plugs -- you know what to do -- and call me when you need me." I wound up doing about 80% of the work myself that year, and the discrepancy list was only about 30 items long, all very minor items. I felt really proud of that.

Six months later, the engines on '38X had reached 1900 hours -- 500 over published TBO -- and it was time for major engine and propeller overhauls. I'd decided on what engine and prop shops I wanted to use, but that still left the task of removing and reinstalling the powerplants. I decided it would be fun to do as much of that myself as possible. By this time, Rod had quit his job at SMA and moved to Africa as a mechanic for Missionary Aviation Fellowship. (He's still there 15 years later; I just received a nice email from him with a return address in the Democratic Republic of Congo!)

I asked around and finally found an A&P who was willing to come to Santa Maria and work with me on the engine change. He wound up staying with me as a houseguest, and each day we'd both go down to the airport and work on the airplane. Between the two of us, it took a week to remove both engines and transport them to the engine shop. The A&P went home, but I spent several days working alone in the hangar, cleaning up the empty engine compartments with solvent and Scotchbrite and treating a few corrosion areas with acid etch and Alodine. A month later, the A&P returned and we spent about two weeks installing the newly overhauled engines, hanging the freshly-overhauled props and governors, and getting the fuel systems and governors properly adjusted. By the time we were done, the engine installations were immaculate, and I could readily identify every single line, hose, connector, wire bundle and accessory in both engine compartments without looking anything up. I felt proud about that, too.

Chapter 4: Getting Help, Giving Help

By now, the Cessna Pilots Association had relocated their headquarters from Wichita to Santa Maria (in no small part due to my lobbying efforts). CPA executive director John Frank, a good friend and an experienced A&P/IA, graciously took me under his wing, gave me a set of keys to his roll-around toolbox, supervised and signed off my work on the airplane, and generally kept me from doing anything stupid.

CPA has a staff of full-time tech reps to help members with their technical problems, and each year one of them would be chosen to work with me on my annual inspection. By now, I was doing virtually 100% of the maintenance on '38X myself, so all they needed to do was perform the inspections and sign off my work to make it legal.

In turn, the CPA tech reps were starting to refer lots of member queries about twin Cessnas to me, since by now I had the systems of these airplanes down cold. I started writing a monthly column titled "Tech Topics" for CPA Magazine. Each article gave me an excuse for delving deeply into one of the airplane systems and learning everything there was to know about it. I also became a frequent instructor in CPA's renowned systems and procedures seminars, and traveled all over the country teaching these courses to Cessna owners. Before long, I developed a reputation as an expert on troubleshooting twin Cessna systems and TCM powerplants. I found myself receiving and answering scores of emails and phone calls from twin Cessna owners from all over the world.

Most of these calls and emails came from exasperated owners with airplane problems that their local shops just couldn't seem to solve. In many cases, the owners had already spent thousands of dollars on parts and labor chasing the problems to no avail. I was delighted at how often I was successful at diagnosing their problems sight-unseen and putting them on the right path to solve them. My biggest frustration was usually that they hadn't come to me earlier so I could have spared them much of the unnecessary grief and expense.

My interactions with these owners made it clear to me that things had changed radically since my early days as an aircraft owner. The maintenance infrastructure for piston-powered GA airplanes was now a shadow of its former self. No longer could an owner drop off his airplane at a manufacturer-affiliated service center and be assured that it would be serviced by experts who worked on that make and model day in and day out. Nowadays, the mechanic who works on your Bonanza, Cherokee or Skylane might have just finished fixing a Decathalon and be scheduled to work on a King Air next. Very few of today's GA mechanics have the luxury of becoming experts on one particular make and model of aircraft. For a shop to stay in business nowadays, it has to be able to work on pretty much anything that comes in the door, so the mechanics wind up learning a little about a lot of different makes and models, instead of a lot about one or two specific models. This makes it tough for these mechanics to troubleshoot problems effectively, and results in the sort of owner frustration that I hear about so often.

In 1995, I co-founded AVweb and served as its Editor-in-Chief for more than seven years. My AVweb responsibilities kept me busy 16 hours a day and I was forced to curtail my teaching activities, but I managed to continue my technical support activities for CPA members and my monthly magazine articles, and every March I took off enough time from work to perform the annual ritual on '38X with my own two hands.

In 2001, I realized a 10-year dream by obtaining my A&P certificate. The full story of that adventure would fill a column by itself. For now I'll just say that it was one of the most challenging things I've ever done in aviation, and that I'm prouder of my mechanic's certificate than all my pilot and flight instructor ratings combined. I'd been doing all the maintenance on '38X for a decade, and finally I could take full responsibility for it myself. The experience of earning my A&P and signing off my own work gave me a newfound appreciation for the enormous responsibility that mechanics take each time they sign a logbook entry and return an aircraft to service. It gave me a deeper understanding of why professional maintenance technicians make some of the decisions they do, and how much different the world looks from the other side of the toolbox.

Chapter 5: Sharing What I've Learned

In September 2002, Belvoir Publications acquired AVweb and I stepped down from my position as Editor-in-Chief. I would now have some free time for the first time in years. What would I do with my life "after AVweb"?

I gave that a lot of thought, and finally decided to pursue a project I'd been thinking about on and off for several years: developing a weekend seminar for aircraft owners designed to help them become more maintenance-savvy, and to gain the confidence necessary to take control of the maintenance of their aircraft. I felt I could help owners learn how to make better maintenance decisions, how to work more effectively with their shops and mechanics, how to resolve disputes before they got out of hand, how to participate actively in troubleshooting problems with their aircraft, and generally how to reduce the cost and frustration involved in maintaining their aircraft. In addition to these seminars, I resolved to spend more time writing about aviation, including a maintenance-oriented column for AVweb.

No sooner had I set to work developing the seminar when fate threw me a curveball. In February 2003, I was diagnosed with a very rare bone-marrow malignancy with a scary name: hairy cell leukemia (HCL). My aviation plans quickly went on the shelf as my focus shifted to learning everything I could about my unusual disease, and then aggressively treating it.

In December 2003, after months of treatment and a near-death allergic reaction to an antibiotic, I was pronounced cancer-free, with absolutely no detectable residual disease. It was the best Christmas present I ever received. I'm pleased to say that now I'm feeling great, firing on all cylinders (LOP), flying and swinging wrenches on '38X, writing and tech-repping for CPA, and working as productively as ever.

I finally launched my long-delayed Savvy Owner Seminar and plan to offer the course one weekend a month at various locations throughout the U.S. Full details are available at the Web site. (So much for the obligatory shameless plug.) I've also now inaugurated this monthly column on AVweb, and each month I'll try to share with you some of what I've learned about how to work with mechanics and shops to obtain the best possible aircraft maintenance with a minimum of expense and frustration.

See you next month.