The Savvy Aviator #7: Owner In Command

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Every pilot understands the concept of 'pilot in command,' which places absolute responsibility and final authority for aircraft operation squarely on the pilot's shoulders. But what about when the aircraft isn't flying? AVweb's Mike Busch argues that aircraft owners need to accept absolute responsibility and final authority for the maintenance and airworthiness of their aircraft -- a concept he calls 'owner in command.'

The Savvy Aviator

FAA regulations state clearly that the "pilot in command" (PIC) of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft. The PIC's responsibility and authority is so absolute that in an in-flight emergency, the FAA authorizes the PIC to deviate from any rule or regulation to the extent necessary to deal with that emergency. [FAR 91.3]

I recall flying over the Great Plains a few years ago and hearing a Skylane pilot on the radio with obvious panic in his voice reporting low on fuel, trapped VFR on top of an undercast, and begging the Kansas City Center controller to tell him what to do. "Skylane 123, are you declaring an emergency?" asked the controller. "Uh, I guess so," stammered the frightened pilot. "Skylane 123, say fuel and number of souls on board." "Center, there are three people on board, and I think about 45 minutes worth of fuel. What should I do?" "Skylane 123, are you instrument-rated?" "Negative." The controller suggested a heading toward an area of better weather, and soon afterwards handed off the aircraft to another sector. I never learned whether or not the Skylane made it down safely.

I always find it sad to hear a pilot abdicate his PIC authority like that. The controller probably isn't a pilot (these days, only one controller in 50 is a pilot), knows little or nothing about the capabilities of the pilot or aircraft, and is not the person who is supposed to make life-or-death decisions about how to deal with the emergency. It's the pilot's job to make those decisions. The controller's proper role is a supporting one, providing information to the pilot, giving priority handling to the emergency aircraft as necessary, and keeping other aircraft out of the way.

On another occasion, I was flying over Arizona and heard the pilot of a Merlin turboprop tell Albuquerque Center that he was experiencing a pressurization problem and needed to descend immediately. "Merlin 456, maintain Flight Level 240, expect lower altitude in 25 miles," replied the controller, who clearly wasn't a pilot and obviously didn't have a clue about the urgency of a pressurization emergency or time of useful consciousness at FL240.

The Merlin pilot then did precisely what he was supposed to do: He took command of the situation. "Albuquerque Center, Merlin 456 is declaring an emergency, vacating FL240 for one-zero thousand. Please acknowledge, and advise what heading you'd prefer us to fly during our emergency descent." The controller got the message, issued a heading to the Merlin pilot, and vectored a handful of lower-altitude aircraft out of the way. A few minutes later, I heard the pilot transmit, "Albuquerque Center, Merlin 456 is now leveling at one-zero thousand, emergency terminated." Center replied, "Merlin 456, understand your emergency is terminated, contact Phoenix Approach on frequency 128.65, good day."

Kudos to that Merlin pilot. He accepted his responsibility as PIC, and decisively exercised his authority to deal with the pressurization problem. There was no doubt in that pilot's mind who was in charge, and he acted accordingly. Once the pilot took command by declaring an emergency and unambiguously announcing his intentions, the controller responded appropriately to facilitate the pilot's emergency descent by giving the pilot priority handling and clearing the airspace below him. This is precisely how the pilot-in-command concept is supposed to work.

Owner In Command

While pilots are taught about the PIC concept from their earliest days as a student pilot, a similar concept applies to aircraft owners with respect to maintenance. I call this concept "owner in command," or OIC for short.

FAA regulations make it clear that the aircraft owner is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the maintenance of his aircraft:

Subpart EóMaintenance, Preventive Maintenance and Alterations

FAR 91.403 General.

(a) The owner or operator of an aircraft is primarily responsible for maintaining that aircraft in an airworthy condition, including compliance with part 39 of this chapter [Airworthiness Directives].

(b) No person may perform maintenance, preventive maintenance, or alterations on an aircraft other than as prescribed in this subpart and other applicable regulations, including part 43 of this chapter [Maintenance].

While the regulations don't refer to the owner as "owner in command," I think perhaps they should. As it is now, most owners are unaware of the heavy responsibilities they bear under the regulations with respect to airworthiness and maintenance of their aircraft, and most do not understand that the regs give them all the authority they need to carry out those responsibilities.

Part 43 of the regulations authorizes an aircraft owner to perform a wide range of preventive maintenance operations himself, including oil and filter changes, spark plug maintenance, tire changes, battery servicing and replacement, and dozens of other common tasks. For more complex maintenance operations, the owner is required to hire an A&P mechanic to perform (or at least supervise) the work. The owner is also required to accomplish an annual inspection each 12 calendar months, and this must be performed by an A&P mechanic with inspection authorization (A&P/IA). But regardless of who does the actual work, the owner is responsible for the result in the eyes of the FAA.

Few owners seem to comprehend their responsibility or authority with respect to airworthiness and maintenance. They put their aircraft in the shop, hand over the keys, and tell the mechanic to call them when the work is done. Often, owners give the mechanic carte blanche to "do whatever it takes to make the aircraft safe," and don't even know what work was done until after-the-fact when they receive a maintenance invoice. They act as if the mechanic is responsible for maintaining the aircraft in airworthy condition. In the eyes of the FAA, however, it's the owner who is responsible; the mechanic is just hired help.

I like to compare the role of OIC to that of a general contractor in building a house. The general contractor needs to hire electricians, plumbers, roofers, and other licensed specialists to perform various portions of the construction, but the general contractor makes the decisions, calls the shots, and is primarily responsible for the result. Similarly, the owner needs to hire A&Ps, IAs, and other certificated specialists (instrument repair stations, propeller repair stations, engine repair stations, etc.), but the owner is primarily responsible for the outcome and needs to exercise authority and control over these various "subcontractors."

That's the essence of the OIC concept: The owner needs to remain in control of the maintenance of his aircraft, just as the pilot needs to remain in control of the operation of the aircraft in-flight. When it comes to maintenance, the owner makes the decisions and calls the shots. The mechanics and inspectors are "hired help" with special skills, training and certificates required to do the actual work.

Many owners are overwhelmed by the thought of taking command of the maintenance of their aircraft. "I don't know anything about maintenance," they say. "Isn't that my mechanic's job?" They adopt the attitude that it's their job to fly the aircraft and the mechanic's job to fix it. They leave the maintenance decisions up to the mechanics, and then get frustrated when squawks don't get fixed and maintenance expenses are higher than they anticipated.

If you were building a house and you told your plumber or electrician "just do whatever it takes and send me the bill when it's done," do you think you'd be happy with the result?

Learning to Take Command

How can an aircraft owner learn to take command of maintenance? By learning enough about his aircraft to make informed maintenance decisions and to evaluate the maintenance advice offered by mechanics. Like anything else in aviation, it takes some effort to master these subjects. Fortunately, today's aircraft owners have unprecedented access to maintenance expertise.

Type clubs like the Cessna Pilots Association, American Bonanza Society, Mooney Aircraft Pilots Association, and Cherokee Pilots Association provide easy access to subject-matter experts on virtually every aspect of maintenance. Some of these organizations offer type-specific systems courses, technical articles on a wide range of maintenance issues, sources of discount parts, and even hands-on instruction in doing owner-performed maintenance. There are numerous Internet-based forums, newsgroups and email lists that enable an owner to get an expert answer to virtually any maintenance question in a matter of hours (or sometimes minutes).

Then there's my own Savvy Owner Seminar, a total-immersion weekend course that I developed specifically to help owners take control of the maintenance of their aircraft. I teach these seminars regularly at locations around the country. Here are some of the segments we cover during these weekend seminars:

  • Anatomy of an annual. Each annual inspection actually involves seven discrete steps. There are a number of different ways an owner can keep control of the process to minimize expense and eliminate unpleasant surprises. These range from a full-blown owner-assisted annual to techniques that involve only an hour or two of strategically timed owner involvement.

  • Rules of the game. Most owners are blissfully ignorant of the various FAA regulations that govern aircraft maintenance. What is the definition of "airworthy"? What replacement parts are approved for a certificated aircraft? Which repairs and alterations require filing a Form 337, and which require an FAA field approval? What if an owner wants to switch shops in the middle of an annual inspection? How do you obtain a ferry permit to fly aircraft that's out of annual? It is just as essential for an OIC to understand maintenance rules as it is for a PIC to understand flight rules.

  • Resolving owner/mechanic disputes. Many aircraft owners have encountered situations where they got into a disagreement with a mechanic, particularly during an annual inspection. In such situations, owners often feel that the mechanic has them over a barrel, and that the only way to get the aircraft back into the air is to capitulate to the mechanic's demands. There are effective methods that owners should use to avoid such disputes in the first place. If a dispute is unavoidable, there are techniques owners can use to remain in control and resolve the disputes gracefully.

  • Owner-performed maintenance. The FAA permits owners to perform a surprising range of maintenance on their own aircraft without A&P supervision or signoff. Owners need to know what they are and aren't allowed to do on their own, and understand the pros and cons of such do-it-yourself maintenance.

  • Where to go at TBO. The most expensive maintenance decision most owners will ever make occurs when their aircraft engine needs to be overhauled. Owners need to understand how to decide the right time to overhaul (which may be considerably more or less than published TBO). They also need to know the pros and cons of factory rebuilt engines versus field overhauls, how to choose an overhaul shop, and how to evaluate the shop's warranty policy.

  • The jug jungle. Cylinder replacement usually is second only to engine overhaul as a major maintenance expense item. Owners should learn how to "do the math" to determine how much it costs to change one or more cylinders and when it makes economic sense to do so. They should understand the differences between the various cylinder choices available today (factory, Millennium, Titan, etc.) and should be aware of various money-saving alternatives including oversize, rebarrel, channel chrome, CermiNil, and continued-time cylinders.

  • Troubleshooting for owners. Unresolved squawks and wasted maintenance dollars are typically the result of faulty troubleshooting. It's important not to let your mechanic try to fix a problem until the cause has first been ascertained. Often the best person to troubleshoot a problem is the owner, not the A&P. That's particularly true of problems that occur only in flight and those that are intermittent. We use numerous examples of real-world aircraft problems to teach owners how to isolate the underlying cause of a problem and tell his mechanic exactly what's wrong.

Many of these subjects are discussed in my maintenance articles and columns on AVweb and my free monthly electronic newsletter.

However you choose to go about it, the time and effort you invest to become a maintenance-savvy, maintenance-involved owner will pay huge dividends in increased dispatch reliability and reduced maintenance costs. Take control of the maintenance of your aircraft. Become owner in command!

See you next month.


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