Lycoming's Rod Issue: A Crossroads
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.