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Aircraft maintenance is a topic filled with controversy and, FAA rules notwithstanding, is an issue that is blurry at best. As is the case in any profession, there are some mechanics that are better than others. There are also some mechanics who will take advantage of a situation. Some cut corners. Some are too strict. Some are downright illegal, signing off work done by people who may not even be mechanics, on airplanes they have never laid eyes on. I’m sure there have been annuals completed over breakfast at the back corner booth at Denny’s.
The rules for maintenance are well intentioned, but are they effective? A few years ago, right after the Payne Stewart crash, I was at the shop that did our work, conducting some other business with a colleague. The discussion turned to the crash. “Aren’t those planes required to be inspected?” my colleague asked. Pointing to a 182 just inside the hangar, Gene, one of the owners, replied, “You see that plane? It just came in here for a pre-purchase after just getting an annual signed off.” He named the location, which will remain nameless to protect the guilty. “The inspection plates had not been off in so long we had to drill the screws out. When we got in the tail cone, there was a pair of wire cutters that had been there so long they were rusted shut.” Was the airplane legal?
From a paperwork standpoint, yes. The logbooks had been signed off. I’m sure there were details about what was done. But obviously an inspection had not really been completed for many years. Did the owner know this? He may have, and he may not have. But whichever was the case, an airplane that had been signed off as legal was clearly not safe, and really not legal if all the facts had been investigated.
In another incident, my brother was considering purchasing an airplane and was looking at an older Bellanca Viking based at a small town field about 60 miles away. He asked me to go with him to look at it and picked up a local A&P as well. The airplane was rough at best—high time engine, old radios, needed paint. The mechanic asked if the owner had the logbooks. He produced them, and as the mechanic looked through them, he asked, “Who does your annuals?”
The reply was, “Oh, I do them myself and have (mechanic name) sign them off for me.” Was the airplane legal? The logbook said so, but in reality, it was neither legal nor safe. As we drove away, the mechanic shook his head and said, “Welcome to the country. This happens all the time out here.”
I’m sure he was right. How many airplanes are flying around with no logbook entry at all? How many are marginal because the owner didn’t want to spend the money for a good annual? How many annuals that supposedly were done correctly by shops that charge for good maintenance were done by sub-par mechanics because that’s all they could get?
Having owned part of an airplane for more than 30 years, and having been the one in charge of maintenance, I know full well the feeling when the ¾-inch envelope from the shop arrives in the mail. I know that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you open it and look at the amount due, knowing it will be four-figures and hoping it isn’t five. It can be brutal. But the bottom line is, at least in my opinion, that if you’re not able or willing or both to pay to have an airplane maintained correctly and safely, you have no business owning an airplane.
There are lots of people with their name on the registration who are probably in that situation. Maybe those are the ones you see with airplanes for sale with engines 800 hours over TBO who are trying to sell them with the assurance to the buyer that the engine “runs strong” and has “good compression.” The bottom line is that they probably can’t afford the overhaul. I’m not saying that engines can’t be run over TBO, but if the only reason you’re doing it is because you don’t have the huge funds needed to overhaul it, then maybe you do need to sell it. But please understand that condition should impact price, regardless of how strong it runs or how good the compressions are.
Our Bellanca was nearing TBO. It was running strong and didn’t use oil. The compressions were good. We asked our mechanic whether we should overhaul it. His opinion was that we could continue to fly it, but with a caveat. He said, “If this were a Lycoming, I’d feel better about it than it being a Continental.” We didn’t press as to why he felt that way, but knowing he had overhauled hundreds of engines, we decided to go ahead with the overhaul. When he tore the engine down, one of the main bearings was spinning. Had we not overhauled, there is a good chance a catastrophic failure could have been in our future.
I understand there are risks anytime an engine is torn down. I’ve seen the remnants of a low time factory overhauled engine with a grapefruit-size hole in the top of the crankcase where a rod when through. It happens. We’re dealing with machinery. It breaks. Mechanics make mistakes. I’ve seen plenty of those too. We take the risk that something will go wrong any time we take off. But if there is an obvious problem, it needs to be addressed. A friend bought an old Cessna 210 once. I’m sure there was no pre-purchase done. After all, he bought it from a customer. The airplane sat in a community hangar with a constant puddle of oil underneath it. When I mentioned the oil, he took a blasé attitude about it. It was no great surprise when I heard on the evening news that it had caught fire and crashed. Fortunately he walked away from it, but it could have been much worse.
There are reasons for the maintenance rules, although many rules may well have little to do with safety. Maybe that farmer did do an adequate inspection of his airplane, but that’s not how the rules read. And I’m glad that’s how they read. Are they perfect? Hardly. But I still feel safer following them than trying to cut corners.
It’s probably a testament to the quality of aircraft and engine design that more of them don’t crash because of maintenance. When I was in charge of arranging maintenance on our airplane, the attitude among all of us was, “If it’s broken, fix it, and do it right regardless of the cost.” Was it expensive? Sometimes. In fact, probably most times. But if you can’t afford good maintenance, you have no business owning an airplane. Ownership is not for the faint of heart or the short of money.
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