Lycoming's Rod Issue: A Crossroads

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When I plopped my weary butt into a chair for Continental’s presser at AirVenture last month, what’s the first thing I see on the show-and-tell stand? A couple of Lycoming roller tappets and an angle-valve cylinder. Uh-oh, I thought, really bad timing for Lycoming. And it relates directly to what’s going on with the current Lycoming mandatory service bulletin (SB 632) requiring inspection and potential replacement of connecting rod bushings.

To refresh, here’s the news story on SB 632 and in summary, it requires owners of Lycoming engines overhauled in the 2015 to 2017 time frame to check their engines for use of off-spec small-end connecting rod bushings. When installed, the bushings have an effective outside diameter that’s too small, allowing the piston pin and piston to work side-to-side, accelerating wear to the point of failure. And there have been some failures, although Lycoming isn’t saying how many. (Thusday morning addition: the company's latest FAQ says five known in-flight failures have occurred.) Two engine shops I’ve spoken to said they were aware of the problem during the period when Lycoming was shipping the parts and one, Ly-Con Aircraft in Visalia, California, sent at least 160 parts back to Lycoming. Penn Yan Aero also says they found problem bushings.

The SB requires an onerous inspection process involving cylinder removal, testing the bushing with a calibrated tool and reassembly. Lycoming thinks 1300 or so factory engines are involved and my educated guess is that another 1000 engines overhauled by field shops might be affected. At this point, no one seems to have precise numbers and the SB is almost certainly going to morph into an AD.

Not that it matters much, since the inspections really need to be done. For engines built by Lycoming, the factory will cover the inspection and repair under warranty. For field shops, Lycoming will provide the parts, but the company is being noncommittal about labor support. Obviously, this is not sitting well. At all. Essentially, Lycoming sold defective parts that shops installed in good faith and now they must make good with customers on their own warranty programs.

This is anything but a trivial amount of money. Lycoming budgets 12 hours for the inspection for a four-cylinder engine and 16 for a six-cylinder. Shops say this is at least 20 percent too low, but if you add up the gaskets and other parts needed for assembly, it will cost $1500 per engine on the low side, but probably closer to $2000. Multiply that times 100 engines and you can see why a field shop can’t afford to absorb it. Moreover, the inspection is intrusive enough to inject some risk due to reassembly errors.

Many shops use Lycoming parts because they believe the quality is good and that the company will stand behind any defects, as it has in the past. In that regard, SB 632 is a departure. Ly-Con’s Ken Tunnell told me, “On an issue like this, they’ve got PMAers out there wanting to take business from them. I’ve always been under the impression that if I stand behind the OEM, they would stand behind me.”

So that puts Lycoming at a crossroads here. As evidenced by its expanding catalog of Lycoming PMA parts, Continental is aggressively going after Lycoming. And the ad copy practically writes itself with regard to after-sales support, which is the root of my comment about bad timing for Lycoming. I can’t see how Lycoming can avoid making an accommodation of some kind for field shops as a minimal bulwark against Continental’s challenge. Moreover, Continental is actually PMAing entire Lycoming engines and planning to certify them, so the competitive challenge is all the more intense. If Lycoming issued a full-throated commitment to backup shops with labor support, it would be turning lemons into lemonade.

The larger issue is the health of engine manufacturing as a whole. As we’re coming down from the sugar high of an exceptional AirVenture with glass panels dancing like sugar plums, the fact remains that demand for new airframes is anemic and innovation in powerplant technology, although in evidence, ignites but a trickle of sales and interest. Like every manufacturer, Lycoming uses vendors for some parts and if it chases another one away by suing for losses, it’s just another nick in the engine building ecosystem that does no one any good. It’s already difficult enough to find vendors who don’t run screaming into the night when the word “aviation” appears on a purchase order.

So while SB 632 is a big deal for owners and shops, how Lycoming handles it going forward may have real impact on both its competitive stance and the overall health of the engine industry. A market that’s lopsided with a dominant supplier is, in the long term, undesirable, in my view.

Comments (19)

Any engine manufacturer that ships bad parts and then refuses to make it right by standing behind the responsibility they have to correct "THEIR" mistake is not worth supporting. Im watching what Lycoming does very closely. I will not purchase another Lycoming engine if they don't support the shops/owners that they sold bad parts to.

Posted by: greg wyatt | August 8, 2017 5:29 PM    Report this comment

"Continental is aggressively going after Lycoming. " This is like trying to change democrats into republicans. However, it won't help Lycoming to stone wall the present issue.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 8, 2017 5:40 PM    Report this comment

In the end, we the consumer will lose; it is the way of big business.

Posted by: bruce postlethwait | August 8, 2017 9:12 PM    Report this comment

Modern selfish CEO theory is displayed here for all to see; it's "I'm too cool to admit our mistakes and own up to it, so screw the customer".

The greatest generation would stand behind their products and take responsibility when warranted, thereby creating lifelong loyal customers. Not so with the latest crop of slick MBAs.

Posted by: A Richie | August 9, 2017 7:16 AM    Report this comment

Lycoming really should be reimbursing engine shops that installed these parts in good faith. When the Archer I previously co-owned needed an engine repair (which turned in to an overhaul), we went with an engine overhaul shop because they were well known and respected, and offered a better warranty than a factory Lycoming engine. Since they're mentioned in this blog, it was Penn Yan.

It sounds as though Penn Yan and others identified these bad parts and rejected them. I also heard from one of my former co-owners that they spoke to Penn Yan and they were pretty confident that the bushings they installed were ok, given that they basically performed the testing Lycoming specified during their rebuild of the engine. But with this likely to be an AD, they'll be required to tear down the engine and inspect anyway. To me, it sounds like they did everything right, so they absolutely should be reimbursed from Lycoming.

Anyway, two thoughts come to my mind: 1) This really does put a bad taste in my mouth regarding Lycoming, 2) I'm glad I'm not an aircraft owner any more.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 9, 2017 8:44 AM    Report this comment

Lycoming needs to do the right thing and stand behind their product. If not, the whole mess will wind up in court, where they will most likely lose anyway. But, that would also destroy their reputation and probably kill the company. Even if it becomes an AD they will still face legal action for defective products.

The thing I can't seem to grasp is why it took them so long to recognize and address the problem. If shops like LyCon, Penn Yan and probably others were returning a significant amount of off-spec bushings, why did Lycoming not realize they had an issue? That does not speak well for their quality assurance program.

Posted by: John McNamee | August 9, 2017 11:53 AM    Report this comment

John, the problem with too many quality systems is that they only rely on a piece of paper saying that the part is good. Most of the people involved in out sourcing are clueless as to what it takes to make a good part and ensure that the parts received are truly to specification. Sadly, management has been drinking the ISO9000, Six sigma etc koolaid.

Very few companies actually perform physical incoming inspection, they just look for a piece of paper. In days of old, depending on the criticality of the parts involved, thee could be 100% inspection or some level of sampling. Yes this is expensive, but we are paying for this level of quality assurance when we buy airplane parts from the OEM. The MBAs have figured how to skim a few more $ off of each part by just doing a check the box inspection.

During my days in the aerospace industry, I saw many paper perfect parts end up in the scrap or rework bin. Some came from vendors known for producing quality parts and many from vendors known (at least by the engineering staff) as less than honest. The procurement juggernaut within the company, would just keep on buying from the low bidder. It is an interesting internal organizational battle.

Lycoming should do the right thing and assume the financial burden for their error. They also need to take a serious look at their whole parts procurement process. The question is will they?

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | August 9, 2017 12:17 PM    Report this comment

I had my engine (Lyc O540) overhauled by an excellent shop in socal at the end of 2015. When I heard about this SB I panicked and called them up. Their response was excellent: First, no, I am not subject to the inspection as the ship date of affected parts was prior to that in the SB. Second, they immediately detected the batch of loose bushings upon receiving them. In his words, "I find
it funny that factory Lycoming sent so many bad ones out. I mean they were obviously loose on installation what a shame we were not the only engine shop at the time that ran into issues with them."

The bigger issue here is field shops noticed and rejected these parts. It seems Lycoming just kept installing them. Seems like a good argument for field overhauls vs. factory to me.

Posted by: James Hayes | August 9, 2017 1:16 PM    Report this comment

A minimum wage worker at Lycoming with a $25 digital caliper could have found the problem during a sample incoming inspection. If they did one.

Lycoming usually builds a good engine, I have one in my Beechcraft. My engine is not on the list. I feel sorry for owners who have do deal with this scandal.

Posted by: Chris Kilgus | August 9, 2017 1:26 PM    Report this comment

Leo is correct. Various quality programs over the years have emphasized "partnerships" between vendors and users where quality assurance responsibility is supposedly shared, thus reducing the inspection burden. But these programs require an ongoing dedication to keeping the system under control. All it takes is one new procurement manager with a zeal for cost-cutting (and perhaps ignorance of the larger system) to derail the process. I have seen it happen many times in the electronics industry and it continues today. But the process consultants that initially sold the quality system have long since cashed their checks and are probably basking on a beach in the sunny Caribbean :-)

Apparently the process failed here and no one was awake enough to notice. And note there have been failures (lets hope not in the air). I wonder if the available PMA'ed parts actually have better quality control than OEM parts! Good grief people, we are talking about people's lives here, not a TV set!

Now, where did I leave my TQM manual?

Posted by: A Richie | August 9, 2017 2:26 PM    Report this comment

"The bigger issue here is field shops noticed and rejected these parts. It seems Lycoming just kept installing them. Seems like a good argument for field overhauls vs. factory to me."

Indeed. The irony is that a factory Lycoming engine (which was assembled with bad parts) will be covered, but field overhauls (which, at least from the reputable shops, discarded the bad parts) will not be (and could probably be excluded from the SB/AD). Lycoming really should pay up, especially since those overhaul shops returned them so many bad parts.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 9, 2017 3:27 PM    Report this comment

How did no-one building engines at Lycoming not notice?
This surely is the best case yet for arguing to let robots build motors.
The whole line just stops either when a faulty part is detected or if it is not detected later on when suspicious movement is detected in an operation further down.
Humans just think of the disruption to going home time.

Posted by: John Patson | August 10, 2017 2:56 AM    Report this comment

The gist of many comments above seems to be: "Lycoming may lose customers if they don't 'make this right.'"

A fair question is whether anyone at Textron cares if they lose us as customers. The legacy piston engine business that we breathlessly watch is close to a round-off error in the total Textron conglomerate revenue stream. Just for those who don't know ... Lycoming engines is buried in the Textron Systems division and lumped in with an assorted array of seemingly random lines of business. The total revenue for that combined line of business, "Simulations, Training and other," was only $417m for 2016. Even the total line is a mighty small contribution to the net $13.79B Textron net revenue. The engine business is a small and unclear slice of that $417m.

Here for details if you care: www.textron.com/assets/FB/2016/systems.html

Maybe the folks operating the actual Lycoming engine business care, but I doubt there is much of a business case for worrying at any higher level in the organization about market share etc. Given the economic realities of piston GA that Paul regularly writes about, we are minor legacy business that can be supported along with push for advanced piston systems for UAV and other applications that actually have future financial growth opportunities for Textron. When our cost:benefit ration slips enough, I could see Textron leaving the GA engine business, but keeping aspects related to UAV and other applications. Note that the Textron Baron G58 uses a Continental IO-550.

Posted by: DON HUDDLER | August 10, 2017 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Is Lycoming negotiating in bad-faith?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 10, 2017 11:06 AM    Report this comment

MSB 632B has now morphed into EMERGENCY AD 2017-16-11 !!

I have a 50 year old Lycoming with 2175 total hours in one of my airplanes. When people balk at that, my response is that the engine has proven itself, the parts "got married" and unless it gives me grief, I ain't replacing it with a new engine that might be subject to a poorly produced parts or assembled incorrectly. I take precautions to minimize corrosion in my engine and that's that.

Beyond that, Lycoming KNOWS that taking a multiple cylinders off of an engine isn't good practice. They have very expensive torque plates to attach to an engine where multiple cylinders will be removed and relaxation of the case halves might become an issue. I don't see their use anywhere in MSB532B. And, the allotted maintenance times are RIDICULOUS!

If I were negatively impacted by this new AD, I'd be speaking with a lawyer !! Lycoming better tread VERY carefully with this one !! And now that its an emergency AD, you can't blow it off as a Part 91 operator.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 11, 2017 5:00 AM    Report this comment

Larry, please elucidate. Are you stating that perhaps Lycoming is aggressively and arrogantly indifferent?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 11, 2017 7:01 AM    Report this comment

Raf ... draw your own conclusion. The infamous mechanic Mike Busch is adamant about not taking off more than one cylinder from an engine at a time. HIS position is that any time more than one cylinder is removed, the engine needs to come out and be disassembled on an engine stand. I agree. I sat thru the Lycoming engine disassembly show-and-tell at Airventure and they showed the plates they use to re-tighten the case halves when I cylinder is removed. And, they talked about how you could make your own out of an old cylinder(s). So if their folks are saying this in a class but the MSB doesn't dictate their use ... sumpthins wrong !! Lycoming needs to bite the weenie on this one and do the right thing. People trusted them and they let their customers down.

When it was time for an engine overhaul for my Cessna, I agonized over it and finally decided that buying new was the way to go. The 'brand' name and reputation of the Company vs. most field shops made the difference. NOW ... faced with this fiasco ... and the fact that reputable field shops detected the problem via their incoming QA systems but Lycoming didn't, I wouldn't do that. I would question why the FAA isn't coming down harder on them for a failed QA system on subcontractor produced parts. It isn't much different than the big airlines contracting out heavy maintenance to "Joe's 747 Repair" in BFE to save a buck.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 12, 2017 8:22 AM    Report this comment

Oh how I do love those Franklin engines.

Posted by: Richard Montague | August 13, 2017 1:52 PM    Report this comment

Unfortunately, Franklin did not survive.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | August 14, 2017 7:10 AM    Report this comment

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