The Savvy Aviator #2: In Quest Of The Ideal Mechanic

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There are a dozen crucial attributes that you should look for when choosing an A&P to maintain your aircraft. Realistically, however, you'll never find any one mechanic who possesses them all. AVweb's Mike Busch explains how to size up your mechanic's strengths and weaknesses, and offers a case study of how to take advantage of the strengths and overcome the weaknesses.

The Savvy Aviator

Over the past three and a half decades, I've had the opportunity (and frequently the privilege) of working with a great many aircraft mechanics. At first it was as a na´ve customer having them perform inspections and repairs on my airplane. Later it was as a student and apprentice swinging wrenches under their supervision as I struggled to learn their craft. More recently it has been mostly as a colleague consulting about thorny mechanical problems with other owners' airplanes (and occasionally my own). I'm greatly indebted to these mechanics (some more than others), for they taught me everything I know about aircraft maintenance. They also taught me a good deal about human nature.

I never cease to be struck by the remarkable variety of talented people involved in aviation in general, and in aircraft maintenance in particular. Some of the finest aircraft mechanics I've ever known come across loquacious and cock-sure, while others are taciturn and exude quiet confidence. Some seem to have heads bursting with knowledge and expertise, while the wisdom of others seems to be focused in their steady, calloused hands. Some approach aircraft problems thoughtfully and analytically, while others seem to rely almost entirely on experience and instinct. Some accomplish their work with great skill and lightning speed, while others are slow and meticulous. About the only attribute they all seem to have in common is uniqueness: no two are the same.

The Ideal Mechanic

I've thought quite a bit about the most important characteristics an aircraft mechanic should have, and identified a dozen specific attributes that I look for when choosing an A&P. To my way of thinking, the ideal mechanic has the following attributes:

1. Communicative: A mechanic's willingness and ability to communicate with customers is right at the top of my list of important attributes. Any time I put my aircraft in the shop, I want to feel confident that I'll be kept "in the loop," and that I'll have ample opportunity to participate in all significant maintenance decisions. What I don't want is surprises. So for me, it's crucial to have a mechanic who'll talk to me frequently throughout the maintenance process, keep me apprised of what's going on with my aircraft, and ask me what I want to do whenever any decisions need to be made.

2. Owner-Friendly: Some mechanics are simply not comfortable working with maintenance-involved owners. Their attitude is, "You hired me to maintain your aircraft, so leave me alone and let me do my job." I can't tolerate an attitude like that. I want a mechanic who welcomes my visits to the shop, who is happy to let me watch and ask questions, and who is open to owner-assisted annuals and owner-performed preventive maintenance. If I visit a shop and see a prominent sign on the wall that says, "Due to insurance restrictions, customers are not permitted on the shop floor," that is not a shop I'll patronize. I think A&Ps need to be mindful that the FAA holds the owner primarily responsible for maintaining the aircraft in airworthy condition. (I also think owners need to be mindful that the mechanic's A&P certificate is on the line whenever he signs the logbook to return the aircraft to service. That's why aircraft maintenance ought to be a team enterprise.)

3. Thoughtful: By "thoughtful" I don't mean "considerate" (as in a mechanic who sends Christmas cards to his customers), but rather "full of thought" (as in a mechanic who takes the time to think carefully and critically about a squawk before trying to fix it). One of my biggest gripes is with A&Ps who try to "shotgun" aircraft problems by replacing parts (usually expensive ones) instead of troubleshooting them methodically to determine where the fault lies. The best mechanics with whom I've had the privilege of working have always been those who are at least as strong at headwork as they are at handwork.

4. Reasonable: As an owner, I want my mechanic to listen to my requests, to make a good-faith effort to accommodate them if he considers them to be reasonable, and to discuss them with me in a reasonable fashion if he thinks they're not. I've had the distinct displeasure of having to deal with otherwise excellent mechanics whose only flaw was that they took a dogmatic, "my way or the highway" approach when dealing with owners. Sadly, this isn't uncommon. I've lost count of how many times I've received calls and emails from frustrated aircraft owners who tell me, "My mechanic says he won't sign off my annual unless I agree to ______." A good friend and fellow Cessna T310R owner recently wound up replacing a perfectly healthy engine because his IA refused to sign off the annual solely because the engine had 1,800 hours on it (400 hours past published TBO); never mind that the engine had great compressions, low oil consumption, clean oil filters, and excellent oil analysis, and that the FAA routinely allows Part 135 operators to run the same engines to 2,100 hours or more. Countless thousands of big-bore Continental cylinders have been replaced needlessly by mechanics who were taught that compression readings slightly less than 60/80 are inherently unairworthy; never mind that the manufacturer says such readings are normal. I consider such strong-arm tactics by any mechanic to be the kiss of death, however well intentioned. (One subject I always talk about in my Savvy Owner Seminars is how to deal with such owner/mechanic disputes. If you ever feel that a mechanic or shop has you "over a barrel" in this fashion, I'd like to hear from you.)

5. Experienced: It goes almost without saying that I want my mechanic to be a seasoned veteran. When a repair is necessary, I want a mechanic who's "been there, done that." I just as soon not have someone go through a learning curve on my aircraft and on my nickel.

6. Knowledgeable in Type: When it comes to troubleshooting a knotty problem or performing a really thorough annual inspection, there's no substitute for a mechanic who has extensive knowledge and experience with my particular aircraft make and model. In this regard, "time in type" can be much more important than "total time." In the heyday of piston GA prior to 1980, the major aircraft manufacturers provided a network of specialized service centers staffed with mechanics who worked on nothing but a handful of models and knew them cold. Nowadays, such specialized service facilities are largely nonexistent unless you're a member of the bizjet set. Try to find a mechanic with a lot of experience working on your make and model; failing that, make sure you develop a good support group of make-and-model experts at your type club or type-related Internet discussion group.

7. Up-to-Date: I've stressed the importance of general experience and experience in type. Be aware, however, that there's a possible downside to using a graybeard mechanic who's been swinging wrenches on airplanes since Orville and Wilbur's coin-toss. I'm talking about the possibility that your seasoned veteran mechanic hasn't kept his knowledge up-to-date. A fundamental flaw in our current system is that there's no recurrent training requirement whatsoever for A&P mechanics (and I certainly think there should be). While it's true that IAs must renew their inspection authorizations annually, IA renewal seminars typically focus on regs, not wrench swinging. So don't be surprised if your old-timer still believes that a big-bore Continental jug must be pulled if it measures 59/80, or that a new cylinder requires non-AD oil for break in, or that aggressive leaning results in burned valves. Do take advantage of your graybeard's decades of experience, but be sure to keep your digital OWT (Old Wives Tales) detector turned on and make sure you keep your own knowledge up-to-date.

8. Cost-Conscious: I know quite a few aircraft owners for whom money is no object when it comes to their airplanes. Unfortunately, I've never had the luxury of being one of them. The high cost of flying is a big deal to me, so mechanics who go out of their way to help me save money on maintenance, especially on replacement parts, tend to quickly earn my undying loyalty. Those who insist that all parts must be new from the original manufacturer, and who don't offer me the alternative of choosing of lower-cost aftermarket, overhauled, or continued-time parts, quickly get crossed off my good-guy list. Sometimes it can be very helpful if the mechanic is also an aircraft owner himself, but that's by no means a prerequisite.

9. Skillful: Certain maintenance operations require special skills. Examples include welding, painting, sheet metal repairs, upholstery work, and deicer boot installation. If my aircraft needs this sort of work, it's very important to determine whether or not my mechanic has the requisite skill. If there's any question, I may very well want to bring in a specialist who does this kind of thing every day.

10. Fast and Efficient: During my years of doing owner-assisted annuals, I spent a fair amount of time hanging around maintenance shops and observing other aircraft being worked on by the A&Ps. I was often struck by the differing paces of the various mechanics I watched. Some mechanics could consistently get routine tasks done much more quickly than others. Sometimes the quickest mechanic could get a job done in half the time that the slowest mechanic took. (Of course, the slowest mechanic was still twice as fast as me.) Interestingly, I observed that the fast guys didn't seem to be cutting corners or doing sloppy work; they simply operated at a more intense and efficient pace, and were less apt to get distracted. If I'm paying for routine maintenance by the hour, I'll take Fast Eddy, thank you.

11. Meticulous and Exacting: On the other hand, there are many tasks where I'd prefer to have a mechanic who is a real a fussbudget, more interested in doing the job flawlessly than getting it done quickly. Examples might be avionics or instrument installation, changing a cylinder on a powerplant, or major disassembly of a retractable landing gear -- all tasks where there's obviously no room for error. I also really appreciate it when a mechanic takes the time to write up a half-page of detailed notes in my maintenance logbook at the end of an annual inspection, rather than dashing off a quick one-line-plus-rubber-stamp entry of the sort I so often see in other owners' logbooks. Another observation: The Fast Eddy types aren't usually well-suited to supervising owner-assisted maintenance, since they tend to be frustrated by the snail-like pace at which amateur mechanics work and the innumerable elementary questions they ask.

12. Accessible: Finally, finding the world's greatest aircraft mechanic doesn't help if he's not available when you need him. The best ones are typically booked up for months in advance. If your aircraft is on the ground (AOG) and you have an important business trip the day after tomorrow, can your terrific mechanic work you into his schedule? In a similar vein, many aircraft owners depend on a mechanic or shop located at a different airport than the one where the aircraft is based. Such an arrangement often results in squawks being deferred rather than fixed promptly, and can be a huge problem if the plane develops a problem that makes it unflyable. If your primary-care mechanic is located away from home base or otherwise inaccessible, you really need to have a Plan B for use when you need an unscheduled repair right here and right now.

Rate Your Mechanic

In a perfect world, your mechanic would score an A+ on all 12 of these attributes; in the real world you'll never find one who does. So what's an owner to do? First, you need to develop an accurate assessment of your mechanic's strengths and weaknesses. Then, you need to come up with a strategy for taking advantage of his strengths and overcoming his weaknesses.

How do you assess a mechanic's strengths and weaknesses? One of the best ways is simply to ask him for an honest self-assessment. Most mechanics are acutely aware of their own aptitudes and shortcomings, and most will be straight with you if you simply ask.

If you asked me for my own self-assessment as a mechanic, for instance, I'd tell you that I'm strong on headwork and weak on handwork. Not to brag (ahem), but I consider myself one of the best natural-born troubleshooters I've ever encountered. I'm also extremely careful and meticulous and very seldom make an error of omission (like forgetting to tighten something). On the other hand, I was born with ten thumbs and my manual skills are sorely lacking. I don't think I've ever painted anything that didn't end up with runs and sags, or ever riveted anything that didn't require at least one rivet to be drilled out and redone. During my A&P practical test, the examiner took one look at my welding samples and made me swear I'd never try to weld anything on an actual airplane. I'm also without doubt the slowest wrench in all of aviation; if I worked on airplanes for a living, I couldn't charge more than 10 bucks an hour.

So buy your A&P a tall cold one and ask him to tell you a little about his background, and what he thinks his strongest and weakest areas are. Ask him his philosophy about communicating with customers, how he feels about owner-assisted annuals, and what he thinks about the stratospheric cost of replacement parts. I bet you'll learn a lot about what makes him tick.

It's also an excellent idea to talk to some of the mechanic's customers and find out what their experiences have been -- good, bad or ugly. A little time spent interviewing a mechanic and a few of his customers will almost always yield the information you need to size him up. Once you have figured out the shortcomings of your mechanic, it's often not too difficult to work around them.

An Interesting Case Study

For example, I recently heard from a Cessna 210 owner who found himself in the position of having to switch mechanics on short notice. It seems that the shop he'd been using closed down and his longtime mechanic went to work as director of maintenance at a corporate flight department:

I really liked my old mechanic. He did something that I did not realize was unique: He performed the annual inspection, wrote up a squawk sheet, and then asked me to come by the shop. He then went over every squawk with me, showing me each problem on the airplane and giving me an estimate to fix it. For some squawks, he'd tell me, "There's no choice, this has to be fixed." For others, he'd say it was my choice, but would explain the possible repercussions if the problem wasn't fixed. Sometimes he'd offer recommendations: "You can probably let this one go until next year." I always walked out of that session having a good idea of the overall cost before any work was done, and feeling that I was in the loop. I really, really liked that approach!

When the Cessna 210 came due for its next annual, this owner took the airplane to a new shop that had just opened on the field. His decision to use this shop was in large part due to the fact that the new shop's owner had recently retired as an aircraft mechanic for the state highway patrol, where he'd maintained the agency's fleet of Cessna 210s for the past 20 years:

"Excellent," I thought. With 20 years of experience maintaining Cessna 210s, how could I go wrong?

To make a long story short, at the end of the annual I received a shocker of a bill! My new mechanic didn't go over the squawk sheet with me before doing the work. About half the things on the bill were things I knew were coming, but the other half came as a complete shock. Perhaps 20% of the items were discretionary things that I might have elected to defer had I been given the choice.

In hindsight, I realized that my new mechanic had spent the past 20 years maintaining Cessna 210s but never talking to customers! The highway patrol airplanes he worked on did not have "owners" in the normal sense of the word. These were government-owned airplanes, so all squawks were fixed automatically and cost was something that never entered the equation.

In short, the new mechanic scored A+ on "experienced" and "knowledgeable in type," but C- on "communicative" and "cost-conscious."

Does this mean that the owner shouldn't use this mechanic again? Of course it doesn't. What it does mean is that the owner needs to sit down with the mechanic and explain the rules of the road:

Mr. Mechanic, when I bring you my Cessna 210 for annual, I would like you to call me when you've completed the inspection but before you start work on any repairs so that we can go over the squawk sheet together and decide which items to fix and which to defer. To help me make informed decisions, I would appreciate it if you'd prepare a cost estimate to fix each squawk, and identify which ones you consider to be critical safety-of-flight items that should not be deferred.

In future columns, I'll be talking about many more ways that owners can work with their shops and mechanics to obtain high-quality maintenance while eliminating unnecessary expense and unhappy surprises.

See you next month.