The Savvy Aviator #6: Trusting Saboteurs

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An alarming number of today's piston GA aircraft are in poor mechanical shape, and their owners are partly to blame. AVweb's Mike Busch describes how owners encourage poor maintenance -- sometimes through misplaced trust and sometimes through inadvertent sabotage -- and explains how you can avoid doing so.

The Savvy Aviator

I've probably talked to thousands of owners of piston-powered airplanes over the years. Every one is serious about safety, and I've never met one that wasn't absolutely convinced that his aircraft was safe and well-maintained. "I carry my family and friends in this airplane, so I'd never cut corners on maintenance." Nevertheless, the piston-powered GA fleet is in the worst mechanical shape ever.

For years, John Frank and I taught two- or three-day type-specific systems courses for the Cessna Pilots Association in locations throughout the country. At the beginning of each course, John and I would ask a couple of the participating owners to volunteer their airplanes to be pulled into the hangar and opened up for hands-on sessions. We would de-cowl one of the airplanes, and put the other one up on jacks for a gear swing. As a result, I got the chance to get a close look at a representative sample of the piston-powered Cessna fleet.

It was rare that we didn't discover significant mechanical discrepancies with these "show and tell" airplanes, generally to the shock and dismay of the owner. ("I can't understand it ... the airplane just came out of annual!") A fair number of the discrepancies we found were serious enough (as in "life-threatening") that they had to be repaired before the owner could safely fly home from the class.

This problem isn't limited to Cessnas by any means. I recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with Thomas P. Turner, Manager of Technical Services for the American Bonanza Society (ABS). At one point, Tom and I were discussing ABS's terrific program of monthly "service clinics" where owners of Beechcraft Bonanzas, Barons and Travel Airs can fly in and have their aircraft inspected by some of the foremost Beech mechanics in the country.

While Beech built outstanding aircraft, statistics indicate that they are involved in an alarming number of landing gear collapses. Such incidents generally don't involve injuries but they are expensive, generally requiring an engine teardown, a new prop, and some airframe repairs. Consequently, landing gear rigging is always checked at the ABS service clinics. According to Tom, more than 50% of the aircraft that fly into these clinics are found to have landing gear downlock tensions far below the minimum acceptable limit! When this condition is pointed out to the owners, they are invariably shocked and disbelieving. ("But it just came out of annual!")

You're probably thinking that none of this applies to your bird, because you have a terrific mechanic who keeps your aircraft in tip-top shape. Don't be so sure. Every one of those Cessna and Beech owners believed the same thing until they were shown otherwise.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Many factors contribute to this abysmal state of maintenance in the piston fleet. The service infrastructure for piston-powered GA airplanes is a shadow of what it was 25 years ago before the industry went into free-fall in the early 1980s. The vast network of factory-supported service centers that existed then has all but disappeared. Many of the most experienced GA mechanics have retired, and those entering the field are mostly focused on turbine aircraft (where the money is).

Nowadays, most of the shops that work on piston-powered GA airplanes are just barely scraping by. It's a tough way to make a living, believe me. To survive, these shops have to be prepared to work on whatever kind of aircraft comes through the hangar door. The mechanic doing the annual inspection of your Beech or Cessna might have just finished working on a Piper Arrow and will be working next on a Mooney Ovation. Instead of knowing all there is to know about one make and a few models, most GA mechanics today have no choice but to learn a little about a lot of different makes and models -- perhaps just enough to be dangerous.

Then there's the issue of "maintenomics." I own and fly a 1979 Cessna T310R. When I purchased it in 1987, I paid about $80,000 for it. Today, it's worth perhaps $200,000. But if the T310R was still in production, a new one would probably sell for about $1.2 million. (That's about what a new Beech Baron 58 costs, and it's not even turbocharged!) Now heaven knows I can't afford to buy a $1.2 million airplane. But from a maintenance standpoint, that's exactly what I own. When the Cessna parts department sets prices for replacement parts, they treat those parts as if they were for a $1.2 million airplane. In fact, since my airplane is 25 years old, its maintenance budget should actually be a good deal higher than a new $1.2 million airplane. Yikes!

But blaming the poor state of piston GA maintenance on uninformed mechanics or greedy manufacturers is a cop-out in my opinion. Neither mechanics nor manufacturers are responsible for keeping our aircraft airworthy.

FAR 91.403 Responsibility for airworthiness
The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with applicable Airworthiness Directives.

In the eyes of the FAA, we owners are the general contractors who are responsible for the maintenance of our aircraft, while our mechanics are basically hired help. If our aircraft are in poor mechanical shape, we owners have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Don't Believe Everything Your A&P Says

For one thing, we owners tend to be way too trusting of the mechanics who work on our airplanes. We assume that they know what they're doing, and that we can count on them to do what needs to be done to keep our aircraft safe and reliable. Sadly, that's not always a safe assumption nowadays. Most owners naively assume their mechanic knows everything there is to know about maintaining their aircraft. Often, he knows just enough to be dangerous.

When I first acquired my Cessna T310R 17 years ago, I initially had the maintenance done by the maintenance chief of the local FBO, a seasoned A&P/IA in his 40s by the name of Darwin. This particular FBO owned and operated two twin Cessnas for Part 135 charter -- a 310 and a 421 -- so I felt reasonably confident that Darwin knew what he was doing. When the aircraft came due for its first annual inspection on my watch, I asked Darwin to do it.

Since this was my third aircraft, I'd known enough to purchase the parts and service manuals and tried to learn all I could about the maintenance aspects of the airplane. While reading through the service manual, I was struck by the rather intricate procedure for rigging the electromechanical landing-gear retraction system, whose step-by-step description occupied at least 20 pages of the service manual. According to Cessna, this procedure was to be accomplished every year. So when I happened by the maintenance hangar and saw my airplane up on jacks undergoing a gear swing, I asked Darwin if he was going to perform the full-blown rigging procedure "by-the-book."

"Bad idea," Darwin told me with a been-there-done-that look on his face. "If we mess with any of those landing gear adjustments, we'll throw all the other adjustments off. The gear looked good and sounded normal during the gear swing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

When the annual came due a year later, Darwin had moved on to another company and so another A&P/IA named Tom did the annual that year. Tom was also an experienced twin Cessna mechanic. I asked Tom about doing the full gear rigging procedure as described in the service manual, and got pretty much the same reaction as I'd gotten the year before from Darwin: "Looks good, sounds good, ain't broke, don't fix it."

And so it went for my first five years as a Cessna 310 owner. Each year I had a different IA do the annual. Each year I asked about the service manual rigging procedure. And each year the IA told me that it was a bad idea to mess with the gear rigging.

Finally, my fifth annual inspection was done by yet another experienced twin Cessna mechanic named Phil. When I timidly asked Phil about doing the gear rigging procedure and mentioned that it had not been done in the five years I'd owned the aircraft, Phil looked horrified. "Of course we're going to rig the gear," said Phil. "It's very important on these airplanes, and it's really no big deal." Phil invited me to hang around and watch while he went through the gear rigging procedure step-by-step, by-the-book, and I did. The whole procedure took several hours, but wasn't particularly difficult. Not surprisingly, Phil found the gear significantly out-of-rig and had to make a bunch of adjustments to bring it within specifications.

From then on, I did the full rigging procedure myself at each subsequent annual inspection. Like Phil said, it took a couple of hours but it was no big deal. In the process, I learned quite a bit about how the landing gear retraction linkage worked, and I came to understand why proper rigging was so essential to the strength of the landing gear, and why a mis-rigged gear could easily collapse. How nave I was to believe all those mechanics who'd told me "ain't broke, don't fix it." Had I not been fortunate enough to have Phil do the annual when he did, my airplane might easily have suffered a gear collapse.

Some years later, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation asked me to perform a safety study of the Cessna 310. In the course of this effort, I reviewed 11 years worth of accident and incident history for the Cessna 310, and compared it with similar data for a comparison group of other light twins. Part of the study focused on accidents and incidents caused by mechanical failures. In this area, the Cessna 310 stacked up quite well against the comparison group with one glaring exception -- the incidence of landing gear collapses for the 310 was fully twice that of the comparison group. Further investigation revealed that the primary cause of these gear collapses was improper rigging of the retraction system!

With the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, it's clear that Darwin, Tom, and the other IAs who told me "ain't broke, don't fix it" were simply intimidated by the landing-gear retraction system on the Cessna 310. They didn't understand the system well enough to be comfortable with it, and were therefore scared to make any rigging adjustments lest they make things worse. These same mechanics -- all with inspection authorization -- were swinging wrenches on multiple twin Cessnas, not just mine. No wonder there are so many twin Cessnas flying around with landing gear systems that haven't been properly rigged for years. Is it any surprise that they collapse a lot? Scary!

Don't think for a moment that this is just a problem limited to West Coast mechanics or with twin Cessnas. The ABS service clinics discovered the exact same thing going on with more than half the Bonanzas, Barons and Travel Airs they checked. And don't think it's just a problem with landing-gear systems. I've seen exactly the same sort of "ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality applied to everything from TCM fuel-injection system adjustments to internal magneto timing.

So what's an owner to do? Here's my advice:

  1. Maintain a healthy skepticism about what your mechanic tells you. If it doesn't sound right to you, and especially if it doesn't agree with what the service manual says, seek a second opinion. Today, it's easier than ever for an owner to get expert advice on virtually every facet of aircraft maintenance. Contact your type club. Get on an Internet forum where owners and mechanics involved with your aircraft make and model hang out.

  2. Don't have your aircraft inspected by the same shop or IA every year. No matter how terrific you think your mechanic is, rest assured he has his strengths and his weaknesses just like every other human being. Different eyes see different things, and different mechanics are knowledgeable and competent in different areas. Make a conscious effort to rotate among different inspectors.

I try to use a different IA every year, and I never cease to be amazed at the discrepancies we discover that have obviously gone undetected for years and years. I'm absolutely convinced that my airplane is in much better shape than it would be if I relied on the same inspector every year.

Don't Shoot Yourself In The Foot

Over the years, I've spent a lot of time hanging around maintenance shops like the proverbial fly on the wall, watching the comings and goings of airplanes and owners and listening to the mechanics talk. In the process, I've noticed that owners often wind up inadvertently sabotaging the maintenance of their aircraft by imposing inappropriate time or money pressures.

One of the worst things an owner can do is to put his aircraft in the shop on Monday for an annual inspection and tell his mechanic "Bill, I've just gotta have the airplane by Friday ... big weekend family trip!" A week might be enough time to get the work done if there are no surprises, but maintenance is seldom surprise-free. In the case of an annual that starts on Monday, it might well be Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning before the IA has gotten the aircraft all opened up, inspected everything, and actually knows what repairs need to be done and what parts need to be ordered. Now the mechanic is working with a gun to his head. In a good-faith attempt to please you (and avoid a confrontation when your aircraft isn't ready when promised), he's likely to rush the work and defer any maintenance that is less than absolutely safety-critical.

Lather, rinse, repeat a few times, and you wind up with an aircraft that isn't as well maintained as it should be. Is that really what you want? Not to mention you'll be launching off on your big trip in an aircraft just out of annual without leaving time for a proper post-maintenance shakedown flight (sans passengers). Not smart.

Whenever you put your plane in the shop for annual inspection or major maintenance, be prepared for the plane to be downed for twice the estimated time. Tell yourself that when it comes to aircraft maintenance, it's better to do it right than to do it fast. If the airplane is done on time, be pleasantly surprised. If it runs over due to unforeseen contingencies, keep your cool and be happy that your mechanic cares enough to do the job right.

Also high on the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot list is arguing over the bill after your aircraft comes out of annual or major maintenance. This is a great way to win the battle but lose the war. At next year's annual inspection, your mechanic will remember last year's argument, and will do everything in his power to keep it from happening again -- by deferring any maintenance that is not absolutely critical in a good-faith attempt to minimize the bill. Those deferred items will inevitably come back to bite you, because in the long run it's always cheaper to fix problems sooner rather than later.

Let me be clear: I'm not advocating a money-is-no-object approach to maintenance. Anyone who knows me or has attended one of my Savvy Owner Seminars knows that I'm a world-class skinflint who will do almost anything to avoid spending a nickel more than necessary on maintenance. But arguing over the bill after the job is done is not the way to save money, trust me. All it will accomplish is to sabotage the quality of maintenance you receive.

If you want to keep control over the cost of maintenance (and I'm definitely in favor of that), the way to do it is to get involved early in the process. Tell the IA to call you as soon as he's completed the inspection but before he's started any repairs or ordered any parts. When the IA calls, pay him a visit and go over the discrepancy list with him. Ask him to give you a time and cost estimate to repair each item on the list. For items that aren't safety-critical (yet), make a joint decision whether to fix now or defer. (In my experience, most owners will elect to fix more and defer less than what the mechanic would decide on his own.) When you're done going through the discrepancy list with your IA, you'll have a pretty solid estimate of what the final bill will be, so there shouldn't be any unwelcome surprises. And your mechanic will know that his final bill had better be pretty close to the estimate he gave you, or he'd better have a darn good explanation for why it isn't.

There's no better way for an owner to learn how to work effectively with mechanics than to do an owner-assisted annual. By the time you're through, you'll have learned how the process works and have a much better idea of how things look on the other side of the wrench. I think every owner owes it to himself to go through this experience at least once. Even if you never do it again, the knowledge you'll gain will pay dividends for as long as you own an aircraft.

See you next month.


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