The Savvy Aviator #15: The Annual Inspection Trap

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Your airplane is undergoing its annual inspection, and the shop tells you the aircraft needs some costly repair work. You disagree, but the IA says he's unwilling to sign off the annual until the work is done. What are your options?

The Savvy Aviator

Judging by the inquiries I get from aircraft owners, it's a frustratingly common situation: You get a call from the shop that's annualing your airplane, and the news isn't good. The IA found something wrong and it's going to be expensive to fix.

Because you're a savvy and maintenance-involved owner, you ask the IA for the details of what he found wrong and what work he feels must be done. You take a look yourself, do some research, and perhaps even ask your type club's tech rep or some other knowledgeable person for a second opinion. In the end, you conclude that the IA is wrong -- that the work isn't necessary, or that there's a much less drastic and less expensive way to deal with the problem.

You sit down with the IA to discuss your conclusions and try to bring him around to your way of thinking. But he's adamant, won't budge, and says he can't sign off the annual unless the expensive repair is accomplished.

At this point, many owners feel powerless. Although they truly believe that they're right, they also feel that the shop has them over a barrel -- and that if they ever want to be able to fly their airplane again, they have no real choice but to authorize the shop to do the work. So reluctantly and resentfully, they tell the shop to go ahead.

A Case In Point

A few years back, I received an email from an understandably disgruntled owner of a 40-year-old Cessna 320 twin:

The IA doing my annual said that he could see some movement in the horizontal stabilizer. He grabbed the end of this and lifted up and down to show me the movement. He said that the forward spar mounting holes were probably worn and that Cessna had a SB out for this. I couldn't see the movement he was talking about it just looked like normal flexing to me. I asked to see the SB so he went to look it up for me and it turned out that the SB was only for the 400 series and did not apply to my Cessna 320 at all.

I pointed this out to the IA. Undaunted, he said there was no way he would sign off the annual without pulling the vertical and horizontal stabilizers off to inspect the mounting holes. He told me that the stabilizer would probably break off in less than 10 hours and kill my family and me.

The rest of the annual had already been completed when he found this. I considered going somewhere else for a second opinion, but I'd have to pay this shop for the work they already did on the annual and wouldn't get the plane signed off. Besides I thought maybe he wasn't just trying to run the bill up and there really was a life-threatening problem. So I let him disassemble the tail section.

The IA told me the two forward spar-mounting holes for the horizontal stabilizer measured .382". I contacted Cessna myself to ask them about it and they said the maximum allowable size was .379". So I suppose that technically there now needs to be some sort of repair, but I don't think .003" warranted disassembly of the tail section and certainly don't think this caused any movement or play in the horizontal stabilizer like this IA claimed he could see. It seems like he could have just removed the bolts and checked the size of the holes without dissembling the tail. I did suggest this to him, but he said it all needed to come apart.

I'm sure if all the structural mounting bolts for the wings etc. were removed and the holes measured that they are all a few thousandths over. The plane is 40 years old.

I really don't trust the shop doing my annual or this IA. I won't ever be going back to them after this.

It's hard to blame the owner for feeling angry. From the tales of woe I hear from owners, this sort of thing happens quite often.

I shudder to think how many cylinders have been needlessly replaced on big-bore Continental engines because they measured slightly less than 60/80 during a compression check. More than 20 years ago, TCM issued service bulletin M84-15 that makes it clear that a cylinder with compression readings in the high 40s or low 50s can be perfectly airworthy, and more recently they issued SB03-3 that further liberalized the criteria for compression tests. (See my column on this issue.) Unfortunately, there are still IAs out there who are adamant that an engine cannot be returned to service with a cylinder that measures less than 60/80.

Over A Barrel?

Owners frequently acquiesce in situations like this, even when they're convinced the IA is wrong, because they feel they have no alternative. Many think that if the IA won't sign off the annual inspection, the plane is doomed never to fly again.

Others -- like our case-in-point twin Cessna owner -- believe that their only alternative is to take the airplane to another shop and start the annual inspection all over again from scratch. Worse, what if there's no other shop on the field and the airplane has been declared unairworthy and can't be flown to another shop?

If you find yourself in a predicament like this, stick to your guns and don't despair. It's obviously better if you and your IA can discuss your disagreements and resolve them amicably -- but if you can't, it's your airplane and you still have options.

What's An Annual, Anyway?

A big part of the reason that owners often feel impotent in these situations is that they don't really understand what the Federal Aviation Regulations say about annual inspections. They know that the airplane cannot be flown when it is "out of annual"...

FAR 91.409 Inspections

(a) Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, no person may operate an aircraft unless, within the preceding 12 calendar months, it has had -

(1) An annual inspection in accordance with part 43 of this chapter and has been approved for return to service by a person authorized by 43.7 of this chapter;

But unless they happen to be mechanics, few owners know what Part 43 says about what an annual inspection entails, what maintenance record entries are required, and who is authorized to do what. In my weekend Savvy Owner Seminars, we devote nearly a half day exploring the regulations related to maintenance, and the participating owners consistently rank this segment as one of the most valuable in the seminar.

For example, most owners are surprised to learn that while the FAA requires that an annual inspection be done by an authorized inspector (generally an A&P mechanic with Inspection Authorization -- usually referred to as an "IA"), there is no requirement that the inspector who performs the annual inspection be the person who supervises any necessary repairs or ultimately approves the aircraft for return to service. In fact, any A&P can approve the aircraft for return to service -- it doesn't have to be an IA. There are even cases where the return-to-service approval can be signed off by the owner himself, even if he's not an A&P.

Inspection Vs. Repair

To make sense of the regs, it's important to keep in mind that inspections and repairs are two quite distinct and different things in the eyes of the FAA.

An annual inspection (which must be performed by an IA) consists of a visual evaluation of the aircraft and its components, certain operational checks and a review of the aircraft paperwork including a review of AD compliance. An annual inspection does not include any repair work, routine servicing, or other maintenance. When the IA finishes inspecting the aircraft, he is required by FAR 43.11 to make one of two alternative entries in the aircraft maintenance records:

  • If the aircraft is found airworthy and approved for return to service, the IA will make an entry that says, "I certify that this aircraft has been inspected in accordance with an annual inspection and was determined to be in airworthy condition."

  • If the aircraft is not approved for return to service because of needed maintenance, noncompliance with an AD or some other discrepancy, the IA will make an entry that says, "I certify that this aircraft has been inspected in accordance with an annual inspection and a list of discrepancies and unairworthy items has been provided to the aircraft owner or operator."

This second case is called "signing off an annual with discrepancies." It's not done very often, but it can be an invaluable tool for an aircraft owner who finds himself in a disagreement with his IA while the airplane is in the midst of its annual.

Signoff With Discrepancies

Once the IA has finished inspecting the aircraft and its paperwork and has presented the owner with a list of discrepancies and unairworthy items, the IA's job is done. It is now the responsibility of the owner (not the IA) to get the discrepancies corrected and the unairworthy items repaired.

The owner can have this work done by any A&P or shop he chooses, and it is the responsibility of that mechanic or repair station (not the IA who did the inspection) to approve the aircraft for return to service -- what most owners inaccurately refer to as "signing off the annual."

Note that the regulations are clear that when an annual is signed off with discrepancies, those discrepancies are not to be documented in the aircraft's maintenance records (logbooks). Rather, they are to be listed on a separate piece of paper that is signed and dated by the IA and presented to the aircraft owner. Why a separate piece of paper? So that once the discrepancies have been corrected, the owner can (legally) destroy the discrepancy list as if it never existed.

So our aforementioned twin Cessna owner could have declined to allow the annualing shop to yank the tail off his airplane, and instead directed the IA to sign off the annual while listing the allegedly loose horizontal stabilizer as an uncorrected discrepancy. The owner could then have taken his airplane to another mechanic, and if that mechanic inspected the horizontal stabilizer and found it airworthy, he could properly return the airplane to service.

It's even possible for an owner to approve the aircraft for return to service himself -- provided that the items on the IA's discrepancy list are all "preventive maintenance" items (as defined in FAR Part 43 Appendix A[c]) that the FAA authorizes an owner to perform without A&P supervision. This includes such items as replacing tires, servicing oleo struts or wheel bearings, fixing seats or seat belts, changing light bulbs or hoses, servicing or replacing spark plugs and batteries, installing side windows, making simple non-structural repairs, painting, and lots more.

The discrepancies and unairworthy items listed by the IA during an annual inspection must normally be corrected before the aircraft is returned to service, but even that's not an absolute requirement. The FARs allow for certain items to be "appropriately deferred" pursuant to FAR 91.213, which permits an aircraft to be flown with certain inoperative instruments or equipment if they are not part of the aircraft's required equipment list and if they have been deactivated and placarded as "inoperative."

Ferry Permits

If an annual inspection results in uncorrected discrepancies or unairworthy items, the owner may wish to fly it to another airport for maintenance. This is usually no big deal -- the owner simply has to ask the local FSDO to issue a "special flight permit" (a.k.a., "ferry permit") that authorizes the flight even though the aircraft is out of annual.

You'll need to fill out FAA Form 8130-6 (only sections II and VII need to be completed), describing the ferry flight you want to make, explaining why the aircraft does not meet applicable airworthiness requirements (e.g., "out of annual, nose landing gear idler bellcrank cracked"), and what restrictions (if any) are necessary for safe operation (e.g., "landing gear pinned, shall not be retracted").

In most cases, a ferry permit can be approved via phone and fax -- it's usually straightforward and often can be approved in one day. In extraordinary cases where there's a serious question about whether the aircraft is safe to fly, the FSDO might want to have an airworthiness inspector come up and look at the aircraft before approving the ferry permit, but that's rare.

Yes, But ...

If none of this sounds remotely like the annual inspections you're used to, that's quite understandable. In the real world, most annuals are done a bit differently, and the distinction between inspection and maintenance are blurred to the point that the owner doesn't realize that they are different.

In a typical annual, the shop has a mechanic open up the aircraft (preventive maintenance), then has an IA inspect it and generate a list of squawks (inspection), then has a mechanic correct those discrepancies (repair) and do routine servicing (preventive maintenance), then has the IA sign off the inspection declaring the aircraft as airworthy and approved for return to service (inspection). In small shops, a single individual (A&P/IA) may perform all these functions, alternating between wearing his inspector's hat and his mechanic's hat.

So it's easy to see why most owners conclude that "annual inspection" means the whole kit 'n caboodle -- opening, inspecting, fixing, servicing, and approving for return to service. But that's not how the regs read, or how the FAA views it.

To the FAA, an inspection is one thing, repairs and preventive maintenance quite another. An IA inspects an aircraft and if there are no discrepancies (yeah, right!), then the IA can approve the aircraft for return to service. But if there are discrepancies (and there always are), the IA's job is to make a list of them and present it to the owner. Then it's the owner's responsibility to have a mechanic correct the discrepancies and approve the aircraft for return to service.

It's important for owners to understand the two-phase nature of the inspection/repair process and recognize that the repair phase is the owner's responsibility, not the IA's. If you understand where the IA's responsibility ends and yours begins, then you won't feel powerless when you and your IA don't see eye-to-eye. It's your airplane, and you do have options.

See you next month.


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