The Savvy Aviator #3: Whom Can You Trust?

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As aviators, we often find ourselves in the position of having to trust other people with our lives, our safety, and our financial well-being. We trust air traffic controllers to keep us from hitting anything, mechanics to keep our aircraft airworthy, engine manufacturers and overhaul shops to build engines that won't quit, salesmen and brokers to help us find an aircraft to buy, insurance agents to help us protect against contingencies, and so forth. But whom can you really trust? Mike Busch offers some thoughts on that subject.

The Savvy Aviator

Recently I talked at length with an aircraft owner who had acquired a 1980 Cessna 340A just a few months ago. He found the aircraft through one of the best-known twin-Cessna brokers in the industry. The pressurized twin appeared to be in pristine condition, with excellent logs and mid-time engines (about 850 hours SMOH). Because this would be a $300,000 purchase, the buyer approached the transaction with appropriate caution. He arranged to have the plane flown to one of the top twin-Cessna maintenance shops in the country for a prebuy inspection, where it received a clean bill of health. Satisfied that the airplane was in first-class shape, he bought the plane and flew it home.

Only 30 hours later, the airplane was in the shop for some minor maintenance when a sharp-eyed mechanic noticed a fuel stain on a cylinder head. Closer inspection revealed a serious head crack. When the cylinder was removed, the mechanic looked inside the engine and discovered severe corrosion damage, including a cam that was totally trashed. Before it was over, the airplane was grounded and both engines sent out for major overhaul, at a total cost to the owner of nearly $70,000. Needless to say, the owner was shocked and dismayed, and couldn't help feeling that he'd been betrayed by the people he'd counted on to advise him on the purchase.

I was so struck by this owner's plight that I wrote up the gory details of his ordeal in my Savvy Aviator Newsletter, complete with a photo gallery of high-resolution photos showing the devastating corrosion damage to these engines. This sad tale also started me thinking about the broader subject of trust in aviation.

Whom Can You Trust?

We aviators are of necessity a trusting lot. We constantly trust other people -- controllers, mechanics, engine shops, medical examiners, airplane salesmen, insurance agents, etc. -- with our lives, our safety, and our financial well-being. But whom can you really trust?

There are some general rules. The most obvious is that you should place your trust in people who you know to be competent and experienced at what they do. In my last column I suggested interviewing a mechanic and talking to some of his customers to assess his competence and experience before entrusting him with the maintenance of your aircraft. The same applies to choosing an engine overhaul shop, an AME, or an aviation insurance agent.

Competence and experience are not enough, however. You also need to ensure that the person you are trusting is someone who keeps his promises. Many hard feelings are caused by people who make promises they can't or don't keep. Before placing your trust in someone, make sure that both of you "are on the same page," that he agrees your expectations of him are realistic and that he's someone with a reputation for doing what he says he will do.

Another crucial element in deciding whether you can trust someone is to determine if his best interests are consistent with yours. If he wants the same thing that you want, chances are you'll be satisfied with the outcome. But beware if his goals and yours are divergent. I'll discuss some specific examples later in this column.

Even if you're dealing with someone who is competent, experienced and desires the same result as you do, absolute trust is seldom warranted. Even the most competent, experienced and well-intentioned people occasionally make mistakes, and few of life's pursuits are as unforgiving of mistakes as is aviation. That's why you should keep up your guard even when dealing with the trustworthiest people. Or in the words of Ronald Reagan, "trust but verify."

Let's consider some specific situations.

Inspections and Maintenance

My last column talked about what to look for when choosing a mechanic to perform inspections and maintenance on your aircraft. In that article, I discussed a dozen attributes you should look for in an A&P, including overall experience, expertise with your particular make and model of aircraft, skill in communicating and dealing with owners, and so forth.

One reader commented that I'd forgotten to mention one of the most important attributes of a good mechanic: trustworthiness. In fact, I didn't include trustworthiness in my list because I don't consider it to be an attribute that can be readily assessed by interviewing a mechanic, giving him a quiz, or even talking to his other customers. Rather, trustworthiness is something that develops between an owner and a mechanic over time: "I've used Fred to maintain my aircraft for the past five years, and I've grown to trust him implicitly."

By interviewing a mechanic and asking about his background, you can probably assess whether he has the necessary competence and experience to merit your trust. By talking to his other customers, you can get a handle on whether he has a reputation for keeping his promises. But that still leaves the question of whether the mechanic's best interests are consistent with yours.

In some respects, a mechanic's interests are inherently coincident with yours as an aircraft owner. You want your aircraft to be airworthy and safe to fly, and so does your mechanic. If your aircraft crashes due to a mechanical problem, your mechanic may lose his livelihood and you may lose your life. So there's an inherent bond between owner and mechanic: both want the aircraft to be safe.

In other respects, however, the interests of the mechanic and the owner may diverge. This is especially true when money enters the equation. Most owners are sensitive to the cost of maintaining their aircraft (I sure am!) When presented with several alternative ways to restore their aircraft to safe and airworthy condition, most owners will naturally opt for the least-costly alternative. Mechanics, on the other hand, are sensitive to liability, and when presented with several alternative ways to restore an aircraft to safe, airworthy condition, most mechanics will naturally opt for the alternative that minimizes their liability in case something goes wrong. Of course, the minimum-liability alternative is often the maximum-cost alternative. And therein lies the predicament.

Replacement Parts

For instance, some mechanics and shops make it a policy to use only original equipment manufacturer (OEM) replacement parts. As you might imagine, this is often not the most economical way to go. If I need a new light dimmer rheostat for my Cessna 310, Cessna's price is about $200, but I can buy precisely the same Mallory VK-series wirewound rheostat from Newark Electronics for about $25. If you hold the two parts side by side, they are literally indistinguishable. The only difference is that the Cessna part comes with an FAA form 8130-3 Airworthiness Approval Tag in which Cessna Aircraft Company vouches for the airworthiness of the part. A mechanic who installs the one from Newark Electronics doesn't get a Form 8130-3 and must vouch for the airworthiness of the part when he signs a logbook entry for his work. This is perfectly legal (see sidebar to the right) and saves the owner $175, but mechanics and shops are often unwilling to do it because they believe it increases their liability. Repeat this situation 10 or 20 times over the course of an annual and you can be talking about real money.

So while you probably can trust your mechanic to keep your airplane safe and airworthy, don't count on him to do it in the most economical manner. If you're content to maintain your aircraft on a money-is-no-object basis, you're lucky. The rest of us need to deal with cost control in an involved and assertive fashion, and to do that we need to know what cost-saving options exist and what's legal or not.

One technique I always recommend to owners is to give your mechanic a firm standing order not to replace any part that costs more than some specified amount ($100, $200, $500) without first contacting you for approval. If he calls to tell you that he needs to install a new $1,500 frammis, you should first ask him to explain what troubleshooting steps he's taken that make him certain that your frammis is faulty. Next, ask whether there's any possibility of repairing your frammis instead of replacing it. If your frammis is not repairable, try to find out whether you can get an overhauled/exchange frammis, an aftermarket PMA'd frammis, or a used/serviceable frammis from a salvage yard.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your shop makes a profit on the replacement parts it installs on your aircraft, so there's some incentive to sell you an expensive part rather than a cheap one (even if the cheap one is just as safe). In my experience, however, most shops do not try to sell you expensive parts because of greed; in general, they're much more worried about minimizing their liability than making a few extra bucks.

Also, while you may very well be able to buy replacement parts for less money than your shop charges, it's generally considered bad etiquette to purchase your own parts at discount and then ask your mechanic to install them. To do so is rather like buying a steak at the supermarket and then bringing it to a restaurant and asking the chef to cook it for you. (It's quite another thing if you're buying parts like tires or spark plugs that you intend to install yourself under your owner/pilot authority to perform preventive maintenance.)

This whole issue of replacement parts is one where owners (at least those on a budget) need to get actively involved, and to learn what questions to ask and what alternatives to costly factory-new parts are available to them. I spend a good deal of time on this topic in my Savvy Owner Seminar, and I plan to devote at least one future column to this subject.

Engine Overhaul

Major engine overhaul is the most important (and most expensive) maintenance decision most aircraft owners ever face. It's also perhaps the ultimate example of trust. Most of us do not get an opportunity to watch while our engine is being overhauled (or while a "reman" or exchange engine is being built for us). Our old engine is removed, shipped off to an engine shop, and a month later a freshly overhauled "black box" arrives to be installed in our aircraft. If we fly 100 or 150 hours a year, we'll be entrusting our lives and those of our families and friends to the workmanship in that black box, sight unseen, for the next 15 or 20 years.

Choosing an overhaul shop to trust is a much riskier decision than choosing a mechanic to trust. If we choose a mechanic and subsequently have second thoughts about our choice, we can usually change horses any time we like. But when we choose an overhaul shop, we know we'll be stuck with the consequences of our decision for 15 or 20 years, so we darn well better get it right.

So how do we choose an overhaul shop? Price? Warranty? Size? Reputation?

When I first became an aircraft owner more than 35 years ago, the answer to this question was relatively simple: If you wanted the best engine money could buy, you'd buy a factory rebuilt engine from Continental or Lycoming. These "remans" were very pricey, but the quality was top-notch and the factory warranty was superior to anything you could get from an independent overhaul shop. Even if you ran into a problem after your factory engine was technically out of warranty, the factories would generally take care of it anyway, just to keep you happy and ensure you'd go for another factory engine when yours reached TBO. Field overhauls were considered second-class engines for folks who weren't willing to pay the premium price for a factory reman, and who would accept an engine with fewer parts replaced and a lesser warranty.

But all that has changed. When the general aviation market imploded in the 1980s, TCM and Lycoming went through a period of denial, waiting for their OEM market to come back to life. But by 1990, both companies recognized that this just wasn't going to happen. They realized that they were now basically in the overhaul business, and that their competition was the field overhaul shops. Both companies responded to this revelation by slashing the prices of factory-rebuilt engines while simultaneously hiking parts prices, putting field overhaulers at a tremendous disadvantage and driving many of them (including such well-known names as Mid-States, Schneck, and Western Skyways) out of business. The overhaul shops that managed to survive could no longer compete with factory remans solely on the basis of price, so they transformed themselves by marketing their overhauls as being better than factory engines, albeit no cheaper and often more expensive. Some shops like Victor and Mattituck started offering high-priced "boutique" engines with powder-coated cases, chrome-plated rocker covers, and porting, polishing and balancing that bordered on the anal-retentive. They apparently found plenty of takers among owners who cared more about snob appeal and bragging rights than about getting a good engine at a reasonable price.

Meantime, the loss of their OEM market and the reduced prices of factory remans meant that TCM and Lycoming suffered a severe decline in profit margins. One way both companies dealt with this situation was to slash their warranty expense. No longer could the buyer of a factory reman expect to receive the benefit of the doubt on a warranty claim. Many stories emerged about TCM and Lycoming "weaseling out" of making good on claims for engines still under warranty on the basis of some technicality. For example, TCM's much touted two-year "Top Care" cylinder warranty has a small-print provision that requires the cylinders to be borescoped annually. Hardly anyone borescopes cylinders unless there's some indication of a problem (like bad compression), and many shops don't even own a borescope. So if you flunk a compression check 13 months into your 24-month Top Care warranty and make a warranty claim against TCM, and if your shop didn't borescope your cylinders at the 12-month point, rotsa ruck!

In the past 20 years, the engine business has been turned on its ear. Factory engines are now among the cheapest ways to go, but obtaining warranty coverage is like trying to get blood from a stone. There are a few top-drawer independent shops (RAM Aircraft, for example) that offer the kind of customer-is-always-right, no-questions-asked warranty coverage that once was associated with factory remans but is no more. Not surprisingly, these few shops tend to be the most expensive. Now, as then, if you're looking for a generous warranty policy, you need to be prepared to pay a premium price. The way I look at it is that part of the premium price you pay is an insurance premium for a policy that covers you for unplanned engine problems. If you elect not to pay the premium price, you also have to be prepared to self-insure.

For most owners, paying less and self-insuring may not be an unreasonable way to go. Virtually all engine warranties cover "infant mortality" problems that occur during the first 6 to 12 months. After that, it has been my experience that most owner-flown engines that develop premature problems do so at around 500 or 600 hours. For the average owner who flies 100 hours a year or so, these problems won't arise until the engine is five years old, by which time the engine will be long out of warranty no matter who overhauled it. To my way of thinking, if a premium warranty is likely to be useless, then there's no point in paying a premium price to get one.

So who should you trust to overhaul your engine when the time comes? Unless you've got excess disposable income burning a hole in your pocket, my advice is to avoid the high-priced boutique overhaulers and look for a shop that offers a good-quality overhaul at a fair price and has plenty of satisfied customers. If your old engine was a "lemon" or has developed major problems (like a cracked crankcase or a damaged crankshaft), consider getting rid of it and buying a factory reman. If your engine has been good to you over the years, have it field overhauled by a trustworthy shop with a decent reputation. Either way, don't expect to get any meaningful warranty coverage after the first year or so.

Buying an Aircraft

I started this column out with the sad tale of an owner who paid $300,000 for a supposedly pristine Cessna 340A with mid-time engines, only to discover 30 hours later that both engines were trashed. This story underscores the fact that buying a "pre-owned" aircraft is definitely a caveat emptor affair in which it may be a mistake to trust anyone.

You never can trust a seller to represent his aircraft accurately or to establish a fair selling price. Virtually every aircraft owner has an over-inflated opinion of his bird, considers it to be in pristine shape and superbly maintained (even if it's actually a corrosion-plagued bucket of bolts), and thinks it's worth far more than its true fair market value. Listening to owners talk about their aircraft often reminds me of Garrison Keillor describing his fictitious town of Lake Wobegon, Minn., where "all of the children are above average." (Let me confess that as an aircraft owner myself, I'm probably guilty of the same offense.)

If you work with a professional aircraft salesman, broker or appraiser, you'll probably get a more objective assessment of fair value. But it's a big mistake to trust a salesman, broker or appraiser to assess whether or not the aircraft is in decent mechanical shape. For that, you need to hire a trustworthy A&P mechanic to perform a prebuy evaluation of the aircraft, preferably a seasoned mechanic who has a great deal of experience with the particular make and model involved.

Above all, never allow the prebuy to be done by anyone who has any prior connection with the aircraft or any prior dealings with the seller. A very common mistake is the one that our Cessna 340A buyer made: to have the prebuy done by the same mechanic who performed the last annual on the aircraft. This is a really bad idea, because that mechanic has a predisposition to find the airplane airworthy -- if it's not, after all, it probably means he botched the prior annual, and that's something few mechanics are prepared to admit. It's essential, therefore, that the mechanic you chose to do the prebuy should be one who will approach the aircraft with a completely skeptical attitude, and have absolute allegiance to you (not to the seller).

Air Traffic Control

This column is primarily dedicated to maintenance matters, not pilot stuff. But it occurs to me that the basic principles of trustworthiness that we've been discussing apply universally to all kinds of human interactions that we deal with in aviation.

Take dealings with ATC, for example. When we fly IFR, we trust air traffic controllers to prevent us from hitting anything (like a mountain or another aircraft). But can we really trust them? For a controller to merit our trust, he needs to be competent and experienced, and his best interests must be consistent with ours. Is that really the case? Mostly yes, in my experience, but occasionally no.

I'm sure I've dealt with thousands of controllers during the 40 years I've been an active pilot, and I'm glad to say that the vast majority have been superb at what they do. I also number quite a few controllers among my personal friends, and have spent lots of time in ATC facilities plugged in while they worked (usually in awe) and chatting with them over coffee (at breaks) or beer (after quitting time). They're incredibly skilled, very serious, and fully cognizant that theirs is a life-and-death profession with zero tolerance for error.

Over those same 40 years, however, I've had a tiny handful of bad experiences. Not more than I can count on the fingers of one hand, mind you, but it only takes one.

On March 3, 1990, a controller at Burbank TRACON (now part of SoCal TRACON) vectored me within a fraction of a second of hitting a commuter airliner. (See My Big Deal: A Pilot's Tale for some of the gory details.) Only about a month ago, a controller at Las Vegas TRACON descended me so low that he lost radar contact with me while I was IFR on a vector headed straight at some high terrain. (Fortunately, it was severe clear at the time.) In both cases, I followed up with the quality assurance managers at the respective FAA facilities, and in both cases it turned out that the controller involved was a "developmental" undergoing on-the-job training. So while the vast majority of controllers are both competent and experienced, every so often you encounter one that isn't.

Are the controller's best interests consistent with yours? Well, if the best interests we're talking about involve you not hitting other objects composed of aluminum or granite, then yes, definitely. If anything, the controller is even more anxious to keep you separated from traffic and terrain than you are to be separated. Personally, I could give a fig whether I pass five miles from that Boeing 747 or three miles, but to a controller at the ARTCC the difference between five and three is a mound of paperwork and some remedial training.

On the other hand, the controller doesn't get any extra brownie points for clearing you direct or giving you a smooth altitude or keeping you away from that embedded cell. So don't count on him doing that unless you ask. In my experience, if you ask for what you need, most controllers will go out of their way to accommodate you. Only a few times in 40 years have I had to flex my muscles as PIC by declaring minimum fuel status or threatening to declare an emergency.

In the final analysis, it really doesn't matter whether you're dealing with your mechanic, an engine shop, an aircraft broker or an air traffic controller. People are people, and the basic rules of trust are universal.

See you next month.