The Savvy Aviator #5: Owner-Assisted Annuals

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There's no better way for an owner to get savvy about his aircraft than to assist with an annual inspection. In fact, AVweb's Mike Busch strongly urges every aircraft owner to go through the process at least once, preferably early in his ownership tenure. Mike explains what's involved, and offers some alternatives for owners who simply can't spare the time.

The Savvy Aviator

In my early days as an aircraft owner in the late 1960s and 1970s, taking my airplane in for its annual inspection was not much different from taking my car in for 10,000-mile service. I'd make an appointment with the shop, taxi the plane over to the maintenance hangar, hand over the keys and maintenance logs, sign a couple of forms, and ask the shop to call me when the airplane was ready. A week or two later, I'd get a phone call, drive over to the shop, be handed an invoice, write a check, get my keys and logs back, and taxi off into the sunset.

It wasn't until the late 1980s that I participated in my first owner-assisted annual. That turned out to be a watershed event in my 35-year career as an aircraft owner. For reasons I can't exactly recall anymore, I decided to take two weeks off from work to watch and help during the annual inspection of my 1979 Cessna T310R.

Wow, what a fascinating experience! In those two weeks, I learned more about my airplane than I ever thought possible, became fascinated with the mechanical aspects of the airplane, and much to my surprise found myself starting down the path to ever-increasing involvement with and expertise about my machine that ultimately led to me earning my A&P (mechanic) certificate more than a decade later.

I fully appreciate that most aircraft owners are too busy to devote two weeks a year to swinging wrenches on their airplane, and few have any real interest in the maintenance side of aircraft ownership. Heck, I felt the same way myself back then. Nevertheless, an owner-assisted annual is such a valuable learning experience that I strongly urge every aircraft owner to go through the process at least once as an essential part of his aviation education. Even if you never do it again, you'll have learned a tremendous amount about your aircraft, and you'll be far better equipped to talk intelligently with your mechanic and make well-informed maintenance decisions.

Anatomy Of An Annual

To understand how an owner-assisted annual works, you first have to understand how an ordinary annual works. In fact, one of the most important things you'll learn going through an owner-assisted annual is how the annual inspection process works, and that's a huge help in dealing with your mechanic or shop on future annuals even when you don't assist.

When we speak of an "annual inspection," we're generally referring to an annual ritual that involves quite a bit more than just the inspection that is required by FAR 91.409 ("Inspections") and whose scope is defined by FAR Part 43 Appendix D ("Scope and detail of annual and 100-hour inspections"). The ritual also involves preparing the aircraft for inspection, repairing discrepancies that are found during the inspection, and doing normal once-a-year preventive maintenance.

There are basically eight steps to the ritual. Let's go through them one by one:

  1. Open the aircraft. The first step is to prepare the aircraft for inspection by removing inspection plates, cowlings, spinners, fairings, seats, carpets, trim panels and anything else that needs to be removed to expose the "guts" of the airframe and engine. If the aircraft has a retractable gear, this phase also involves disconnecting gear doors and positioning jacks to ready the aircraft for the gear swing. For a simple, fixed-gear, single-engine airplane like a Cessna 182, this phase is typically a day's work. It might take two days for a retractable like a Bonanza, Mooney or Centurion, and I usually figure on three man-days for my Cessna 310 twin.

  2. Inspect the aircraft. This is the actual inspection of the aircraft as mandated by the FARs. It must be done personally by an authorized inspector, usually an A&P mechanic who holds an FAA Inspection Authorization (colloquially, an "IA"), and cannot be delegated. The inspection must be accomplished using a checklist, although it need not be the one furnished by the manufacturer. (I've developed a customized annual inspection checklist for my own airplane, and I ask each IA who inspects my airplane to use it.) For a single-engine airplane, this phase usually takes no more than one day of work; less if the airplane is simple and has a fixed landing gear. For my turbocharged twin, I figure two days.

  3. Inspect the paperwork. The IA is also required to research the aircraft maintenance records each year to determine whether the aircraft is in compliance with all applicable Airworthiness Directives (ADs) and airworthiness limitations, and whether any new or recurrent ADs or other required inspections (such as biennial altimeter and transponder certs) are due this year. This phase can take minutes or hours, depending on whether the aircraft maintenance records are complete and well organized. I use a recordkeeping system called "adlog" that IAs love because it makes this research a snap.

  4. Create a list of discrepancies. When the IA has finished inspecting the aircraft and its paperwork, he prepares a list of discrepancies that have been found. At this stage, a wise IA will want to sit down with the aircraft owner and go over the discrepancy list, giving the owner an estimate of what it will cost to correct each discrepancy, and discussing which discrepancy items must be addressed right away and which could be deferred. At this stage, the IA and owner should agree on what repairs will be made and what those repairs will cost. (Most unwelcome surprises and unpleasant disputes arise when this step is shortchanged.)

  5. Repair the discrepancies. Next the discrepancies uncovered during the inspection are repaired, except for those non-critical ones that have been deferred. This is the "variable portion" of the annual ritual, and there's no good way to predict how long it will take until the inspection is done and the discrepancy list is in-hand. Some years you luck out and get off light, while others involve one or more heavy repairs. I recall that the first annual inspection after I bought my Cessna 310 yielded about 100 discrepancy items and cost me over $10,000. This year, we only found about 20 discrepancies, and most of them were trivial ones that took only minutes to fix.

  6. Perform preventive maintenance. Although not technically required as part of an annual inspection, the annual ritual usually includes a bunch of standard preventive maintenance tasks like changing the oil and oil filter, cleaning and gapping the spark plugs, greasing the landing gear, servicing the battery, and so forth. This is typically a day or two of work, depending on the complexity of the aircraft. This year, my four magnetos came due for 500-hour maintenance, which took an extra day of work to accomplish.

  7. Close the aircraft. At this point, it's time to put the aircraft back together, reinstalling all the inspection plates, cowlings, spinners, fairings, seats, carpets, trim panels and other stuff that were removed at the beginning of the ritual. As with the opening step, figure a day's work for a fixed-gear single, perhaps three days for a complex twin like mine.

  8. Make the logbook entries. The final step is for the IA to make the required entries in the aircraft maintenance records. These entries document all the maintenance performed, memorialize the annual inspection, and include a signed statement by the IA that the aircraft has been found airworthy and is approved for return to service. (A note about terminology: The IA must "approve" the aircraft for return to service, but it isn't actually "returned to service" until you take it up for its post-maintenance test flight. Under certain circumstances, you must make that flight without passengers and must log it in the aircraft's maintenance records: see FAR 91.407 ["Operation after maintenance"].)

Unless the aircraft is in particularly bad shape, the most time-consuming parts of this ritual are usually the opening, closing, and preventive maintenance -- all things that a pilot-rated owner is permitted to do under the regs without A&P supervision or sign-off. This leads us to the owner-assisted annual.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

An owner-assisted annual includes the same eight steps as a non-assisted annual. The only difference lies in the division of labor between you and the IA. Here's how it usually works:

  1. Open the aircraft. This is typically performed by the owner. The first time, you'll probably want to do it in the maintenance hangar so that the IA can show you precisely which inspection plates, fairings and panels need to come off, and can coach you though any operations that aren't obvious. Once you've been through the process once, you may opt to do much of the preparation in your hangar or at your tiedown before towing the aircraft to the shop for the inspection.

  2. Inspect the aircraft. The regs require that the IA perform the inspection personally, but a maintenance-savvy owner will want to tag along and ask the IA to point out each discrepancy he finds. I recommend that you offer to carry the IA's clipboard and to write down the discrepancies as the IA finds them. This saves him time and, more importantly, gets you more intimately involved in the inspection process.

  3. Inspect the paperwork. This is another area that the IA must perform personally, but the savvy owner can (and should) research the aircraft's AD status and furnish the information to the IA so he doesn't have to look it up. If you subscribe to a service like adlog, the research is largely done and this phase of the annual becomes a non-event.

  4. Create a list of discrepancies. If you carried the clipboard during the inspection and organized the AD information, then this step will be essentially done before it starts. However, it's essential to sit down with the IA and go over the list so you have an idea of what things are going to cost and are fully informed before you approve any repairs. This is the stage where fix-or-defer decisions are made on non-critical squawks -- and it has been my experience that owners usually opt to fix more and defer less when they're personally involved in the annual.

  5. Repair the discrepancies. At this point, you'll have a list of perhaps a few dozen discrepancies that need to be resolved. Some will be simple things like tie-wrapping a wire bundle so it doesn't chafe. Others may be complex, like changing a cylinder. In an owner-assisted annual, you'll want to go over the discrepancy list with your IA and decide on how to divvy up the work so you can handle the easy squawks and he can tackle the difficult ones while you watch.

  6. Perform preventive maintenance. Almost all of the standard preventive maintenance tasks that are normally performed during the annual -- oil change, spark plugs, battery, lubrication, etc. -- are ones that you as a pilot-rated owner are permitted to do yourself without A&P supervision or sign-off. Nevertheless, you'll definitely want to have your mechanic show you how to do any of these operations the first time so you don't make novice mistakes that could come back to bite you. Once you've done these things once under supervision, you'll be comfortable doing them solo.

  7. Close the aircraft. Closing up is typically performed by the owner. If you were paying attention when you opened the aircraft, closing should be pretty much of a no-brainer. Plan on spending a bit more time closing than opening, because you'll probably want to clean some of the parts before you put them back together, lubricate others (like the seat rollers and pivots), and maybe even shampoo the carpets.

  8. Make the logbook entries. The IA traditionally makes the required logbook entries whether the annual is owner-assisted or not. Interestingly, however, the regulations (FAR 43.9) actually require that the logbook entries for maintenance be made by "each person doing work," even if a different person is required to approve the work. So if you did any preventive maintenance or assisted with any repairs (no matter how trivial), you're supposed to make the relevant entries in the aircraft maintenance records. My practice over the years has been to prepare all the necessary logbook entries using a word processor and self-adhesive label stock, and then present them to the IA for review. If the IA is happy with the entries, I sign off the work I did and he signs off the work he did (including the annual inspection and approval for return-to-service), and then I put the signed-off stickers into the logbooks. If the IA is not happy with the entries I've prepared, then I make any necessary revisions, print new stickers, and get them signed off.
You can see that an ambitious owner can perform the lion's share of the work involved in the annual ritual, and can limit the IA's involvement to just the actual inspection plus any complex repairs that might be necessary. But an owner-assisted annual isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. You can choose to do as much or as little as you wish, and leave the rest to the pros.

If You Don't Have Time To Assist

As I said at the outset, I feel strongly that every aircraft owner owes it to himself to go through a full-blown owner-assisted annual at least once in his career as an aircraft owner, preferably early in that career. There's no other way to learn as much about your aircraft in as short a time, and I firmly believe that the knowledge you gain will pay dividends year after year.

Nevertheless, many owners take the position that they're simply too busy to take a week or two off from work or family obligations to get involved in an owner-assisted annual. If you find yourself in that position, here's my advice:

  • If you can't take the time to do a full owner-assisted annual, then at least be present for the actual inspection of the aircraft (step #2). For most single-engine aircraft, this should involve no more than one full day; for my turbocharged twin, I figure two days. Follow the IA around during his inspection. Offer to carry the clipboard and write down the squawks as he finds them. Ask the IA to show you each discrepancy so you can see it with your own eyes.

  • If you can't be present during the inspection, then at least make sure you sit down with your IA after the inspection is done (but before any repair work is started) to go over the discrepancy list in detail, obtain estimates for the necessary repairs, make any fix-or-defer decisions, and give informed consent to the repair work to be done.
Maintaining an aircraft is a lot like raising a child. You can just throw money at the problem, but you'll get far better results if you get personally involved. The more you learn about your aircraft, the better your ownership experience will be. Consider scheduling an owner-assisted annual. Check if your type club offers a detailed systems course for your model. Sign up for my Savvy Owner Seminar.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Mike Busch? Check out the rest of his Savvy Aviator columns.