Are you ready for your plane’s annual inspection? If you are a relatively new aircraft owner you may not be anticipating your upcoming (and, hopefully not too expensive) mandatory trip to the airplane doctor.
The regulations are pretty specific about the requirements, and they vary by type and use of aircraft for the recurring inspections needed to maintain your pride and joy’s airworthiness certification. For most general aviation owners, this is a minimum of an annual inspection. When was your last one? You have until the end of the month—twelve months later—to get a new one. If the last annual was, for example, dated November 2, 2019, you have until November 30, 2020, to get a new one or you cannot use the airplane.
Without that updated annual you are flying illegally and if a mishap occurs you are subject to FAA action on your pilot status—plus your insurance may not cover you. (There are a couple of one-off exceptions such as needing a special ferry permit to move the airplane to a location for the annual to be conducted, but that’s a topic for another article).
So how do you get ready? Here are a few steps. First, anticipate when you need to have it done. If it’s due in November: don’t wait until Halloween to try and get it scheduled. It’s an annual; you know it’s due. Lock in your servicing mechanic as early as you can—the mechanic knows how much time will be required based upon the type of aircraft, age, and preventative or deferred maintenance items to be addressed. The better a job you can do to get a date set, the better for both of you.
You can wait until Halloween—and your mechanic will take your pride and joy with a promise to make your last minute annual the “highest priority as soon as possible…” And maybe you’ll get the plane back by the end of September!
So how long will it take? If you’ve used the servicing location before, they are already familiar with both your airplane and others of a similar age and condition. How much time they will need will vary and not all annuals require the same amount of time. Also, the annual is a good time to get other needed maintenance items addressed. What’s on the gig sheet? What minor deferred items can be—should be—addressed while the plane is partially disassembled? What minor or discretionary service bulletins or other directives need to be done and how long will that take?
Make the time to go by and discuss these issues, then lock in the time window with your service provider. This not only assists them with timely parts acquisition, it helps ensure your pride and joy is at the top of their priority list with a predetermined completion date. Also, annuals—and other maintenance items you want done—aren’t cheap. Understanding the probable costs ahead of time is always good for budgeting.
So, awesome, a date is locked in, a probable cost is determined, and you have at least a couple of months to fly before giving up your plane for a week or two. But you aren’t done yet. Keep a gig sheet of any issues or concerns that come up leading to your annual and don’t be shy!
As you get to within 30 days or so of your annual, look at your flying time leading up to your turn-over date and carve out a couple of hours for your “pre-annual” check ride. If possible, have another pilot, your CFI, or even the maintenance person fly with you. Take the time to do a very precise and thorough pre-flight. I know you do great ones already, but make this one textbook. Even have your person flying with you assist if they have the time. Anything that is questionable, add it to the gig sheet.
Presuming you haven’t discovered something that down-checks the airplane, give it a good 90-minute flight. Check out all your systems. Every one of them. Depending on the sophistication of your avionics, that can be a lot to do. Change altitudes, power settings, etc. Your flight task is ensuring that everything works—or seeing what doesn’t. Your flying partner will see, feel, and hear things that you might have made into “background noise.” It’s good to have a fellow pilot try to find the things you aren’t noticing.
Once you’ve landed, finish up your notes. This will assist your maintenance person as well capture what you might forget. If this will be your last flight before turning your airplane over, or if you fly a bit more, there is still one more thing to do: clean out the plane! Other than your mandatory documents, everything else should be cleaned out and secured. Headsets, your own tools, normal load items you carry on each flight—take them out. You should do this for a couple of reasons: it makes removing access panels easier for the maintenance persons, it ensures nothing gets lost or inadvertently broken during the annual, and you’ve probably got more stuff in the plane than you realized and it’s a good time to address it. Also, it doesn’t hurt to use your cell phone and take pictures of the engine and systems data screens, as well as the internal and external condition of the airplane.
Now it’s time for your pride and joy to head over to its well-baby checkup and to address the other items identified. Make sure you have all the logbooks and any other prior maintenance records that were provided when you purchased the airplane. When you turn over the plane to your maintenance professional and review any new issues that came up, also address the checks you did that showed other systems are working correctly.
Don’t be surprised if, during your airplane’s stay at the maintenance hangar, you get a call or two letting you know how things are going. Usually the call will be “things are going well and nothing unexpected has emerged;” or “something severe has been identified that has to be addressed.” Time, plan of action, and cost will need to be agreed to before your maintenance person can continue, or the other “item or two that won’t keep you on the ground, but you need to know what was found.” With a little luck you’ll only get a call that things went well and when you can pick up the plane.
Your annual may, or may not, have included a maintenance check flight by a pilot/maintenance person. If not, no worries; if so, validate if there were any other issues or concerns noted. Review your logs and go over what was said in the updates. If you ever require maintenance done by someone else, or you sell the plane, it’s good to understand what is in the plane’s maintenance records. Take the time to visually inspect what was done, and the airplane overall. Make sure all the internal and external access panels and ports are re-secured, all the screws are in place, and no new “hangar rash” has appeared. Those pictures you took before turning over the plane? It’s good to ensure the engine and airframe hours stated in the updated maintenance logs correspond. Also, if there is any hangar rash, your “before” pictures can help with the conversations sure to follow.
Well, you’ve got your pride and joy back! We’re all good to go, right? Actually, probably not. Before you load the friends and family for the three hour flight to the beach I’d recommend you do two more things. First, it’s time for a post-annual check flight. All those items that you checked before the annual, plus the items that were worked on? Let’s make sure that all is in order and you’re happy as the PIC. If not, quickly get back to your maintenance person—a few days or a week to look at something is one thing; anything more than that can mess up a positive relationship. It’s not fair to your wallet and it sure isn’t fair to your maintenance professional.
Second, all that stuff you removed? Clean it, sort it, make sure you really need it and put it back on board in the right place; and put away your maintenance records and logbooks—somewhere easily accessible and easier to find.
Ok, that’s it. Load the friends and family and go have a safe year flying. A little pre-planning makes the annual get finished quickly, with minimal airplane opportunity time lost, and hopefully no huge surprises on the cost. And your pride and joy will fly the best it can.