Money vs. Maintenance

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When I do research on maintenance and aircraft ownership issues, I often hear a comment like this, from a shop owner or manager or an I&A: “The owner just didn’t want to replace [name of component]; he just didn’t see the value.”

I understand the sentiment. Maintaining an airplane is so expensive that owners have always felt that proactive replacement of a part that hasn’t failed yet is just money down the drain. I think this established trend is worse than ever now because owners are flying less and it’s my distinct impression that many have less money that they’re willing to devote to the airplane. The cost-value relationship that existed 20 years ago is different now, although not for everyone. There’s a small, moneyed core of owners who never scrimp on maintenance and who are still doing the $50,000 avionics upgrades. But on balance, I’d call the overall condition of the fleet pretty beat down.

In an engine shop I toured recently, the owner showed me a Continental IO-550 in for overhaul with a cracked case, a nasty fissure running perpendicular to the top mating line. I didn’t measure it, but it looked perilously close to the 3.5-inch limit for weld repairing of cracks described in AC 33-6. The shop owner said there was no way they were sending the case out for repair and re-use, so the aircraft owner was confronted with the choice of a repaired case from the pool or a new one for about ten grand.

In the context of not wishing to waste money, what to do? Pushing to weld the crack, to my mind, would be the wrongest of possible choices. The repaired or refurbished case from the pool strikes me as the high-value option; a new case as the premium choice. For an airplane worth maybe $250,000, that’s just not a bank breaker.

That kind of decision making goes to the psychology of safety related to maintenance decisions. If the welded case saves the owner $10,000, that’s not trivial. It’s a little more than what he might spend on gas to fly the airplane for 100 hours a year. What’s the impact on safety? There’s no data worthy of the name to make a probabilistic judgment. The shops I’ve talked to say that it’s rare for a cracked case to fail at the point of a repair, but it’s not unusual for them to develop new cracks. What’s the probability of either of these developing into catastrophic failure? Again, no data, but it’s certainly not zero. I’ve seen engine-failure accidents involving cracked cases and cylinders and there are many more incidents that don’t cause accidents.

The argument that stitching a case together with big welds is perfectly safe is just as valid as saying that is isn’t. The dividing line is the money. It’s really a between-the-ears, comfort-level kind of thing. Since there’s rarely any real data to support the decision, you spend the money if it will make you feel good, you don’t if it won’t.

I confronted this with the Cub engine three years ago. One of the cylinders went soft and the others were OK, but not spectacular. We had a discussion about just replacing the bad cylinder and flying it for another year or two. After all, the A65 is just a glorified tractor engine, what could go wrong? Just to assure myself, I yanked the bad cylinder and happened to give the connecting rod a wiggle. It had discernable end play on the crank journal and I explained to the other owners that as far as I was concerned, the engine should be overhauled, not topped. Still, one of the partners wanted to replace the cylinder and fly on. To me, this made no sense. We’re talking about a $12,000 overhaul and with four owners, 25-cent dollars to get it done. By my calculus, that removed money as a determining factor in the equation.

Why? Because if owning an airplane is so economically marginal that I’m scrimping on basic maintenance or even avoiding the major things with Band-Aid fixes to limp along for another few hours, I’m simply not in a position to own an airplane. If I can’t absorb and recover from a financial hit equivalent to some percentage of the airplane’s total value, it’s time to get out. (This is one reason I’ve always owned in partnerships.) The same equation applies equally to owners of $30,000 and $300,000 airplanes. I get that the guys who own the latter didn’t accumulate all their money by wasting it, but there’s a thin line between frugality and blithering idiocy when it comes to fixing and replacing things that are broken. I’d rather waste a little cash than alight in a muddy field—or worse—for not having replaced a ratty fuel hose or a frayed throttle cable.

Owning and operating an airplane is a financially irrational activity given how much most of us spend compared to owning an asset that’s used for less than 1 percent of the available hours in a year. It’s sunk money, so sinking a little more for good maintenance—some of it preventive—seems like a no-brainer to me. It’s better to just do it than wring your hands over whether it’s right or wrong.

Comments (25)


Posted by: jay Manor | April 13, 2017 3:31 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if these airplanes might be better maintained if their owners didn't have to hassle with having to see an A&P for maintenance. Having built and now maintaining my own airplane, the fact that one can't maintain a "factory-built" is beyond mind boggling. These machines are very simple in design and construction (for good reason) and are very easy to work on. Maybe some day the FAA will mature past their Stone Age mentality and we'll get an owner-maintenance program up and running. Then again...

Posted by: Ken Keen | April 13, 2017 5:00 PM    Report this comment

Ken Keen, I agree.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 13, 2017 6:02 PM    Report this comment

Well, you just answered the reason that so many owners aren't equipping with ADS-B 'out.' That's a lot of dough to lay out unless you're flying in airspace that requires it.

And Ken is right, too. I'm fortunate, I possess an A&P. If I didn't, I couldn't afford or justify owning an airplane. But even if you didn't have an A&P, there's still a fairly long list of items an owner can deal with and -- if they find a reasonable IA -- they could do more under supervision. The darned FAA has 'scared' so many people over maintenance that many just roll over and pay OR do what you described. For a Baron, it's one thing. For a Cub or a low end GA machine, it's another.

I'm not sure I'd scrimp on an engine but everything else ... paint, avionics, interior and the like can usually be limped along for a while. Problem is, either you pay a little bit at a time OR you pay a lot all at once when it becomes time to pay the "Piper." (pun intended)

Unlike you, I DON'T like the idea of partnerships. There's always one guy who beats the airplane up, others who are "cheap" and it's just not worth haggling to me. Also, usually one owner hogs the airplane. Besides, the best way to ruin a friendship is to argue over money or usage. When I park my airplanes, I don't have to wonder what shape they're in next time ... if there aren't any fluids on the hangar floor, it's the same airplane I last flew. In a sharing arrangement OR a club, you have to pour over the things pretty closely. And anyone who's ever flown in a military club environment knows the paperwork hassle THAT entails. Doing my own maintenance makes up for the added cost. But -- admittedly -- it's getting old FAST.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 13, 2017 9:05 PM    Report this comment

Realistically, most GA accidents are due to pilot error, not deferred maintenance! If an A&P will sign off on a repair, then it's just as airworthy and just as valid as any other path that an owner can chose to have done. Heck, I've had brand new parts fail within a few hours (so the idea that new is better is not realistic).

Point being is that people are not out there crashing and dying because of their maintenance choices. Just because YOU approach it differently does not mean much. As for my plane, she may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 13, 2017 9:16 PM    Report this comment

One change that I have observed over many years of ownership is the relative shift between parts costs and labor rates. Labor rates have increased proportionally much quicker than parts costs. My A&P is old school and will usually offer to repair or overhaul a part to fix something on the aircraft. It may not extend to big ticket items like an engine case, but I often have to dissuade him from fixing stuff like brackets, fuel drains, and small stuff because at his hourly rate it is never worth repairing a $50 part - just throw it away and put in a new one.

Posted by: ANDY DAVIS | April 14, 2017 4:39 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Keen is dead on the money. That changing the oil or replacing light bulbs or tires is pushing the boundaries of what certified aircraft owners can do is absurd. Do we *really* need someone with two years' full-time experience and qualification for light aircraft, airliners, helicopters, turbofans, radials, etc. just to maintain an old 172?

It's past time for an owner-maintained category. Contrary to what the FAA at least claims to object on (the belief that aircraft values would fall if maintained by their owners), I think a factory airplane in their proposed "Primary Non-Commercial" category would actually be worth *more* than a standard category one. Let's be realistic--almost nobody out there is going to take a privately-owned 20+ year old airplane, buy it up, and press it into commercial service.

There are many out there like me who wouldn't own a certified airplane if you paid us to take it off your hands, because the maintenance costs are insane. Let me work on that 172 just like I could if I bought a secondhand RV-10, and install a Skyview and electronic fuel injection and some drag reduction mods, and maybe we'll talk.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | April 14, 2017 5:08 AM    Report this comment

Could be that the change, especially with engines, is because automobile engines have become so reliable.
As long as the oil has been changed, and after 7 years, the timing belt changed, they are as reliable as they day they left the showroom.
The days of head gaskets blowing, or knocking cams, valves burning out or alternators / generators going on the blink are past, unless you are very unlucky. (Most mechanics are convinced the big improvement came with robotic assembly, but I digress.)
If you no longer have to keep an engine reserve for the car, it must be a shock for the younger ones when the aero motor starts getting cracks and wobbly bits. And when they get the bill, the reaction is no way.

Posted by: John Patson | April 14, 2017 5:10 AM    Report this comment

My attitude is preventative and proactive on just about everything I own. Home, cars, tools it doesn't matter, I'm focused in on preventative, proactive maintenance to the extent that many think I'm throwing money away. I don't care. I'd rather be on the safe side of the maintenance curve than the other. When it comes to planes, I just don't like getting close to the edge. I do what I can legally do and I am always working with my AP just so I see exactly what is taking place. I want to know what is going on. I ask a lot of questions and I think my AP charges for that. I don't care, he explains well and I like that. I want to know what is going on. Airframe and power plant carry equal weight as far as primary attention. As long as I know the airplane is solid for flight I can deal with the rest later as required. Don't get me wrong, I put a lot of weight on avionics and paint. Both have their place in the pecking order. If you ever saw my plane you would understand. You know what they say, "a well maintained plane is a happy plane and a happy plane is a fast plane."

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 14, 2017 6:11 AM    Report this comment

Many A&Ps won't allow it, but for those that do, owner-assisted annuals make airplane ownership much safer IMHO. At 'Airplane Camp' (as I like to call it) you learn what Paul is saying here: don't skimp on fixes. The reason: you're in the trenches when this stuff gets discovered and its staring you in the face. Pencil whipping is also much more difficult. No, you aren't saving money (unless you work at McDonalds), but stomaching these troublesome discoveries is somehow much easier to handle. You also learn real quick complex, high-performance airplanes are exponentially more a P.I.A. to maintain than simple airplanes.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | April 14, 2017 8:02 AM    Report this comment

Lots of shops and A&Ps allow owner assist or supervised maintenance. Then again, many do not. For the Cub engine, I removed it for overhaul and after it was shipped back, I trimmed, hung it and hung the prop with supervision. For the determined owner, these are options to reduce costs.

I'm doing less of it now because I just don't have the time. If you do have the time, not doing this sort stuff is perhaps due to lack of skills or motivation. I've owned several airplane in several places and never had a problem finding a helpful A&P/IA. Let's stop blaming the FAA for all of it.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 14, 2017 8:06 AM    Report this comment

I have always wanted to get A&P certification to work on my own plane, but can't put work on hold for two years to get the experience requirement...despite having largely memorized AC4313 and other references! With an engineering background I tend to do things "by the book" and have even sometimes annoyed my IA with rigid adherence to engineering specs that sometimes get overlooked. It's my butt on the line so I want it done right. So I would welcome the owner-maintained system as they have in Canada but I doubt it will ever happen here; it makes too much sense. EAB is the way to go if you can find the 3000 hrs to build one...

Posted by: A Richie | April 14, 2017 9:02 AM    Report this comment

FAR 43 is short and talks about Maintenance, Preventative Maintenance, Alterations and Rebuilding. EVERY A/C owner ought to look it over and use it to save themselves some $$:

43.3(d): "A person working under the supervision of a holder of a mechanic or repairman certificate may perform the maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations that his supervisor is authorized to perform, if the supervisor personally observes the work being done to the extent necessary to ensure that it is being done properly and if the supervisor is readily available, in person, for consultation. However, this paragraph does not authorize the performance of any inspection required by Part 91 or Part 125 of this chapter or any inspection performed after a major repair or alteration."

43.3(g): "Except for holders of a sport pilot certificate, the holder of a pilot certificate issued under part 61 may perform preventive maintenance on any aircraft owned or operated by that pilot which is not used under part 121, 129, or 135 of this chapter. The holder of a sport pilot certificate may perform preventive maintenance on an aircraft owned or operated by that pilot and issued a special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category. "

Appendix A (c): "Preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance is limited to the following work, provided it does not involve complex assembly operations:" (It's a long list, take a look) ...

There are 29 SPECIFIC tasks which are listed in Appendix A(c) that a private pilot or above may accomplish legally under 43.3(g) on an aircraft they OWN or OPERATE. IF they find a willing mechanic, they can accomplish more items legally under 43.3(d). Mike Busch puts on an excellent webinar on the owner operator preventative maintenance issue ... I recommend it.

The preventative maintenance or maintenance performed must make a maintenance record (logbook) entry. A private pilot IS authorized to sign logs for items of preventative maintenance.

Paul was legal to do his engine because he was "under supervision" per FAR 43.3(d) but he is NOT allowed to sign the logbook for items of maintenance ... ONLY preventative maintenance.

MOST mechanics welcome owner participation because opening an airplane up is a mundane task that takes time and adds little to safety ... although most will do a cursory walk around to spot issues first.

As an A&P, I am NOT authorized to perform annual inspections, however, what I do is find a willing IA who will work with me. I open the airplane up, do all the work, inspect and repair as necessary and do the AD research. In a manner similar to a para-legal, I "present" the airplane to the IA who then repeats much of the inspection work. Finally, I button it up, run it up and sign off a 100hr inspection "in advance of and in conjunction with an annual inspection." The scope and content of a 100hr and annual are the same. This way, I am responsible for all maintenance and preventative maintenance performed and the IA only does the inspection. This has worked for me for 40 years.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 14, 2017 9:47 AM    Report this comment

One other note. I fly to the level of maintenance that I set and can afford which far exceeds the legal requirements. I'd love to own and fly a turbocharged pressurized aircraft. However, it's not going to happen. The true additional costs (insurance, fuel, turbochargers and related accessories, pressurization, down time) in maintaining a turbocharged pressurized aircraft far exceed that which I am willing to or able to finance over a normally aspirated plane. For me maintenance is the driving cost of what I own, not the initial capital expense. Buying a plane is easy, keeping it in stellar condition is where the money is. When things break, they have to be fixed or replaced immediately. Deferring anything is the beginnings of a disaster. That's just the way I see it.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 14, 2017 11:03 AM    Report this comment

I'm a Mike Busch kind of guy--"take charge of your own maintenance." I've operated FBOs (including maintenance shops) for over 40 years.

Like Busch, I don't believe in "hard time" TBOs. I learned to fly in 1962, and we were flying a 1961 Cessna 150 for our night time. The instructor said "we don't want to get too far from the field--this engine is almost at the 800 hour TBO." I mention this because the TOTAL TIME for airframe and engine was 775 hours--laughably low by the standards of today. The TBO on the O-200 is now 1800 hours--the ENGINE hasn't changed, but the EXPECTATIONS have.

I believe in "preventive maintenance" for things like hoses--I can't tell you how many owners have come in with 15 year old hoses on the engine--but nobody ever mentions that. TBOs are more affected by usage than hours--everyone knows about a 2000 hour TBO, but they forget the 7 year portion of the recommended TBO. An engine flown often will usually make TBO and far beyond--we've taken O-320s and 360s out to 4000 hours with no problems.

I also don't believe that "new" is necessarily "better"--I've had 9 engine failures in 30,000 hours of flying, and the HIGHEST time engine that failed had 660 hours on it. Three of the failures were on turbines--one of the failures were caused by a defective disc--the other two by mis-installation by factory mechanics. Four of the failures were on Part 135 airplanes, where TBO compliance and 100 hour inspections are mandatory--each engine was either "factory" or "name shop." That leaves only 2 failures on "ordinary" airplanes--an old hose (a failure I won't repeat again) and a carburetor failure.

I've been a lifelong subscriber to the sister publication "Light Plane Maintenance" up until they recently ceased publishing. The value of LPM was not only how to maintain your airplane, but how to do it correctly and economically. LPM served to debunk so many hoary old hangar tales on maintenance--I really miss it. I would hope that Aviation Consumer picks up some of the issues formerly covered by LPM.

In the meantime, Mike Busch and his "Savvy Aviator" have picked up on ways to save money on maintenance--how to conduct maintenance, where to buy. For a fee, Busch will provide consulting for your aircraft--it's good to have a guy like him in your corner.

Posted by: jim hanson | April 14, 2017 12:55 PM    Report this comment

Regarding owner-performed maintenance on non-commercial aircraft--Canada has that now. Owner-Maintenance category applies to single engine aircraft of 4 seats or less and under 4000 pounds--used for non-commercial purposes. See Canadian section CAR 571 for privileges and limitations on owner performed maintenance.

An owner may maintain all or part of his aircraft, and may sign off the aircraft as airworthy. He may install new/used parts, CERTIFIED OR UNCERTIFIED (CAR 571.07). CAR 571.13 states that "owner maintenance aircraft are excluded from the requirement that only those parts specified in the type design of the aeronautical product are eligible for installation on that product."

CAR 605.84--"Owner Maintenance aircraft are not compelled to comply with airworthiness directives or to operate in accordance with airworthiness limitations applicable to the type design for the aircraft although they may voluntarily do so."

These are only the highlights. For those worried about the resale value of an owner maintained aircraft, here's a BIG item--the aircraft may be returned to a conventional maintenance program by having the aircraft inspected for compliance.

Given that no government bureaucrat likes to stick their neck out for something new--here's a template for them to copy.

Posted by: jim hanson | April 14, 2017 1:19 PM    Report this comment

They're waking up in Canada and UK but not in DC ... SAD! Quick ... somebody give me a hammer!

I'm with you on the O-320 and O-360 engines, Jim. I call them "the iron dukes of airplane engines." My PA28-140 is exactly 50 years old this month with 2175 hours on it's ORIGINAL engine ... still running strong (long story). I have a saying ... "if an engine's parts get happily married ... don't mess with 'em." Just put new accessories on the basic engine, as you say, and keep on flying until it uses or leaks oil excessively, can't pass compression or a filter check says, "it's time." I have three O-320's that have never had a jug off of them.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 14, 2017 3:21 PM    Report this comment

My wife and I built an experimental and do all the maintenance on it. We do owner assistanted annuals on our certified plane and keep a close watch on everything. Then you have this type of owner: A Cessna 140 showed up at our home drome with a for sale sign. Friend of mine was looking for a low cost tail dragged so he looked into it. The current owner has not had the plane annualed in 18 years. He swapped out the engine and prop himself without the proper paperwork or A&P IA supervision. This will pose very expensive problems for the next owner if he finds one who does not do a proper prebuy inspection.

Buyer beware.

Posted by: Ric Lee | April 14, 2017 10:24 PM    Report this comment

What is becoming more apparent and was previously touched upon is, as the existing fleet of aircraft continue to age, it is becoming more necessary to replace fuel hoses, hydraulic hoses, wiring, rivets and other components that while they appear to continue to perform as intended, they are approaching an age (30, 40, 50+ yrs.) where imminent failure can and should be expected. Nothing lasts forever even if it's still working. Structural inspection of airframe components based on fleet history of known problems should be thorough including and not to diminish inspection of the overall structure.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 15, 2017 7:29 AM    Report this comment

The same calculus is true for ADS-B out. What to do? Spend gobs of money on new avionics or just get by with the cheapest solution. If you have a basic airplane, what is the cheapest solution?

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | April 15, 2017 7:44 AM    Report this comment

The cheapest solution is to avoid airspace in which ADS-B is / will be required. Of course, that option may not work for you...
There's still almost three years left. The Levil BOM actually encourages me about future possibilities. Hang in there!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | April 15, 2017 7:57 AM    Report this comment

The FAA is playing hard ball with the mandated ADS-B implementation date. In order to function as planned, the NextGen system is depending on almost everything in the air to be equipped. So as usual we have two different groups within the agency that are really not talking to each other. If many of the bug bashers out there are not equipped by the deadline, which they won't at current prices, then FAA will have to adjust accordingly. ATC will not be happy and exert pressure on certification and obstruction groups to yield to more affordable solutions.

Some of the electronics manufacturers realize that this is a not an overly complex problem to solve with an affordably priced solution. They are working on product designs now to be ready to capitalize on future demand. Love the free market. These businesses are betting that after the 2020 deadline the FAA will be at a disadvantage due to low use of ADS-B. They will have to stop the Bravo Sierra and allow affordable systems to be used on certified aircraft.

Yes, hang in there.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | April 15, 2017 8:23 AM    Report this comment

I'm convinced that ADS-B is good for the gander. The reg should apply to all airspace. Equip now!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 15, 2017 9:12 AM    Report this comment

ADS-B out lets every airport (and every taxing authority on the planet) send you an automated bill to your home address. Hint: the possibility for safety improvement dwarfs in comparison to gains in enforcement and taxing and data collection by less-than-ethical people.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 15, 2017 9:36 AM    Report this comment

The FAA could solve the ADS-B In problem for small aircraft very easily. Simply do away with the requirement for a device produced under TSO approval and let them equip like experimentals.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | April 15, 2017 11:38 AM    Report this comment

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