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I have been a Private pilot for many years, flying on and off as time and money allowed. As I approached retiring from the company where I had worked for 25 years, I knew that I was going to buy a plane to use in my new venture and fly a lot more. I had narrowed the choice down to a Cirrus SR22 which was against the advice of the flight school I was using. They suggested a Cessna 182, which is a great plane but still, a Cirrus is all glass and new and really cool with the chute and all.

While looking for the right plane to buy, I had also asked around to other pilots about a general aviation (GA) repair shop in the area that they would recommend. Several people I knew and trusted said “Shop A” (name withheld to protect the shop from any errors I make). So, I went to Shop A and asked if I could look around and also so that I could ask a thousand questions about the planes they were working on. The shop had great people who were maybe a little wary of my walking around but I got to see planes in various stages of repair and learned more about GA aircraft. I did this a few times and I think the Director of Maintenance got a bit concerned as I had to tell him each time that I did not, as of yet, have a plane but soon to come!

I then enrolled at L3 Haris Aviation Academy because they had Cirrus SR 20s to fly and as “Cadet Hayes” I could get used to the airframe and avionics at L3. I had a great instructor (thanks Connor) and I flew SR 20s about 25 hours and felt pretty comfortable in the Cirrus platform. Then the call came that a 2007 Cirrus SR 22 Gen 3 was on the market (thanks Gary Black of Aerista  for the call) and I arranged with Savvy Aviation to manage the pre-buy inspection and later, my airplane maintenance. A few minor items needed to be fixed and I made the offer. It was accepted and I owned an airplane!

airplane in hangar

My new to me 2007 Cirrus SR 22 Gen 3

After a few weeks, the pre-buy shop completed the needed work I wanted and Connor, my wife and I went to pick up Lady Hawke to bring her home from South Carolina to Central Florida. The issue about getting a hangar and the necessary tools/toolbox is for another day, but I was learning about aviation life, meaning my wallet was getting real light.

Shop A was my choice to work on Lady Hawke and first thing back I took the Cirrus to them and said “go through and check everything out.” They did as instructed and I felt better once a few more squawks were fixed. Anything that was needed on Lady Hawke meant a trip to Shop A from my homefield airport. I got to know the people working at the shop and they allowed me to learn more about GA aircraft.

Some may be familiar with the term “Participatory Journalism” coined about George Plimpton as he entered into the life of various sports teams to write about the experience. Well, after about two years of ownership, and working with Shop A as a customer, I had the wild idea of asking them if I could work one day a week in the shop as an unpaid intern. My goal wasn’t to become an A&P mechanic, but for the learning experience. To my surprise they said yes! For about four months I worked one day a week in the shop (until my annual and the AD on the Continental 550N engine I had bought factory new allowed me to work a full week in the shop).

airplane engine

For about four months I worked one day a week in the shop.

This proved to be a great experience and also I learned as much about airplanes as I did about how A&Ps and those with inspector authorizations think and work. I am really fortunate for this experience and I, like Mike Busch, think every owner should get to know the people in the shop who work on their planes and also help in the yearly guessing game of the dreaded airplane annual inspection.

My duties each Wednesday started with taking out the trash accumulated in the various large trash cans in the shop. I picked up the soiled shop rags and restocked the toolboxes with new shop rags and I pushed a broom around the hangar floor from time to time. I also worked on a King Air, removing all the interior and glareshield. I got my arms stuck in the wing access holes of a Cessna 206 trying to remove the autopilot servo. I helped get planes ready for the dreaded annual inspection, learned how to mount tires, and worked with the A&Ps on a few oil changes.

Cutting open oil filters and inspecting (under supervision of an A&P) the oil filter was interesting as I got to see the metal caught in the filters but not too much metal you hope! Other tasks were performed and all were interesting and frankly, a lot harder work than I expected.  To be clear, anything I did was supervised and checked and under the direct observation of an A&P.

And then the AD for my Continental engine was coupled with Lady Hawke’s annual inspection and the installation of pulse lights in the wing recognition lights. For the AD and annual, my job was to remove all the parts and pieces so that a trained A&P could do the real work. Continental allowed 18 hours for the AD. It took almost that amount of time for me to try and take all the parts and pieces off to allow the A&P to pull the two cylinders and check the retaining rings. There were so many parts (all hard to get to) and fasteners to remove, bag and write where the parts/fasteners were used.

After we verified that the retaining rings were in the right way, poor “Matt” had to put all the stuff back in the right place and make Lady Hawke airworthy. I am amazed he was able to put it all back together! But Lady Hawke is running fine and I am far more knowledgeable than before I started this intern life.

Things I learned:

  1. Duck – until you hit your head repeatedly on the trailing edge of a Cessna wing and get the diamond marks on your forehead, you are not a real shop rat. I have the marks to prove it.
  2. Why do most A&P’s don’t wear hats – see note above. A hat, as I learned, blocks your view of the wing you are about to meet face to wing.
  3. Stand on your feet for eight plus hours, contort yourself over, under, in and around an airplane and you will appreciate what an A&P does all day. The first day I was so sore and tired that I had to go home, make a large rum on ice, and take a long hot shower as this was real work!
  4. No matter what tools you think you have, an A&P needs more, along with a better toolbox. But there are tools so special that a surgeon would be envious. Those small areas, nooks and crannies and almost impossible-to-get-to areas require both singular knowledge and very specialized tools.
  5. A&P’s love Snap-On tools like a teenage boy loves the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. I mean that truck comes in and they are off to look at the latest in double offset ratcheting multi bit wrench with driving handle and the cost is like buying a new car!
  6. I met and continue to meet so many great people in aviation and in the shop. This is a great community and so generous with their knowledge! Ask questions and listen and learn. There is a tremendous body of knowledge to learn from, use it.
  7. When you bring your plane in for repairs and especially the dreaded annual, for hecks sake, take all the headsets, old oil jugs, spare parts, tools, manuals and etc. out of your plane before bringing it to the shop. Why waste the A&P time to clean out your plane. Plus you will most likely store all that stuff better than the A&P does.
  8. There is a reason that aviation mechanics are in short supply, it is hard work. You have to go to a special school or a long term apprenticeship in a shop. You also have to buy all those tools (and a great toolbox) and take a test, get licensed and then be liable for your work and any fool pilots mistake. Then to get the inspector authorization (IA) requires an additional three years of work and then another test and license. The pay scale needs serious upward movement for maintenance technicians. These A&P’s have our lives in their hands and the compensation needs to be increased to attract new people into the profession. Go to any shop and you will see a lot of gray haired people (like me) and not as many young people that are needed desperately to maintain our aircraft.
  9. A&P work is a solitary profession. The work is most often done alone and requires concentration and focus. Most A&P’s I have met are proud of what they do but think of their work as FM (freaking magic) that they perform alone and unheralded. Think: leave me alone, let me do my job and you will be happier if you do not watch! Think of sausage making and politics and airplane repair as activities best not done under close observation. Plus the A&P’s have some big wrenches if you get in the way.
  10. Whatever you think might be needed to fix your plane is only part of the issue. There is the parts system that is medieval and also as complicated as a union contract to navigate. Every part takes longer and then it has to be inspected because some manufacturers quality control is…let’s just say not good. And I know of parts sent in that were either defective or the wrong ones and that is after weeks of calls and waiting.
  11. Whatever any item or part costs on the open market, you will need to buy it from your airplane manufacturer (Cirrus in my case) and the price just doubled and it will take longer. I have personal knowledge of that one!
Cessna maintenance

I walked away from my  time as a Shop Rat with a better understanding of airplane mechanical systems.

I walked away from my  time as a Shop Rat with a better understanding of airplane mechanical systems and true admiration for the people that keep our planes running. You will also if you can take the time to experience what these skilled people do day to day, such as during an owner-assisted annual.

I feel I am a better pilot for what I learned and I have a greater appreciation for the skills and talents of A&Ps and I know that the contortioning that the A&Ps go through every day to get to the parts that make our planes go “varoom” is almost like yoga on a shop floor. I am thankful I did not see any A&P in yoga pants!

David Hayes
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2 replies
  1. Alexander Sack
    Alexander Sack says:

    In high school, during the summer, I worked at an auto-shop running parts, counter, inventory, and basic stuff (oil change/wiper blades). I learned more about cars in one summer than most do in their entire life. I’m envious you were able to work even one day a week at your local maintenance shop. You learn a ton! Since you are already a Savvy customer, I highly recommend Mike Busch’s lecture series on YouTube. Before you know it, you will be borescoping your IO550 soon!

  2. David Diehl
    David Diehl says:

    I have long been thinking about doing this. One question: did you have to pay for insurance to be able to go into the shop?


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