September 1, 1999
MARC E. COOK
Aircraft owners have been known to literally brace themselves for the annual inspection. So much, it seems, can go wrong - from actual mechanical maladies and schedule mixups to financial travails and personality conflicts. At the very least, aircraft owners have come to expect some downtime once a year while their winged pride and joy is prodded and jostled in some dank hangar across the field. Based on comments we've received from callers on AOPA's Pilot Information Center, many owners also feel that they must prepare for a financial thrashing over which they have little or no control.
In many cases, the perception of economic mayhem outstrips the reality of the situation. Shop owners and mechanics occasionally say that some pilots are just plain cheap and, although they'd never say it to their customers' faces, probably shouldn't own airplanes in the first place. While that sounds harsh, there's some truth to it: Airplanes are not as inexpensive to maintain as automobiles or washing machines. One more item: There is no such thing as a cheap annual. Sure, you can have a string of so-called tailgate annuals that check the obvious items, but it's likely that you're only deferring more work for someone else or another shop.
Owners should prepare themselves for another dose of reality. Airplane parts have always been comparatively expensive - blame it on certification, paper trails, or low volume, take your pick - and it's a situation that's not likely to improve. As the fleet ages, airframe parts that heretofore had needed little attention may soon be ready for overhaul or replacement. We're talking about pretty mundane items here, too, such as fuel selector valves and control-system pieces.
Phil Kirkham, general manager of Coastal Valley Aviation in Santa Maria, California, says, "One of the big variables we've noticed is the cost of parts. I can get pretty close in estimating the labor for an annual, but depending on which parts we need, the final bill can be all over the board."
In the months preceding your annual, take scrupulous notes on the airplane's performance and discrepancies. On a typical flight, once the airplane has stabilized in cruise for a while, write down every gauge indication - from fuel flow to pneumatic vacuum air pressure. A good, clear photograph of the panel in flight also would suffice. This will help you to answer one of the technician's initial questions: How has the airplane been running? If you can say that the oil pressure's 50 psi at 190 degrees Fahrenheit but the vacuum reading falls below four inches at 6,000 feet, you'll have given your technician a tremendous head start. If you have a multiprobe engine monitor, that's even better, and one with integral data logging is better yet. A great many small engine problems are noticeable in the data before they become large problems. Perform as much testing and troubleshooting as you can before the airplane gets to the shop, and the entire annual process will be that much further ahead.
Make notes on the items that you'd like to replace or upgrade. You're much better off either sourcing these parts yourself or working with your shop to get them well in advance of the annual. Take the time to chat with your shopkeepers regarding long lead-time items such as cylinder assemblies, propeller overhaul services, or fuel bladders. You may want to place the order well in advance of the annual to ensure that the parts will be there when you need them.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of the annual inspection concerns the paperwork, specifically your aircraft's logs. Remember, it's up to the mechanic who signs your logs to certify the airplane as airworthy; it is then the mechanic's responsibility to be sure that everything on the airplane is legally installed and that all the parts conform to the type certificate data sheet. They're responsible, in essence, for all the work that's come before them - good and bad, high-caliber and shoddy. (It is this detail that usually bites the owner who has been getting along with cheap annuals.)
So you'll be doing yourself and your shop a huge favor by having your logs and associated paperwork in order. Go through the logs carefully and tally such items as airframe, engine, and propeller total time and time since overhaul; last pitot-static and transponder inspections; and the status of any recurring airworthiness directives. Says Kirkham, "For an airplane I'm seeing for the first time, I'll spend quite a bit of time re-searching the logs to determine compliance. Any amount of logbook organization that eases this task will save the customer money." This is one reason to avoid changing maintenance facilities yearly, although if you don't feel you got your money's worth, or the work performed was not up to your standards, by all means shop around.
Maintenance supervisors love to see organized logs. "I really try to impress upon our customers the importance of good logs," says Mike Pavao, owner of Clarksburg Air Repair in Sacramento, California. "If we have to go back and reconstruct logs or dig for compliance with airworthiness directives, it'll add to the cost of the annual, no question. We'd rather be working on the airplane than digging through the paperwork."
One way to help reduce unnecessary annual-inspection costs is to become involved. For some owners, this means doing as much work as the shop or supervising technician will allow. "We do a lot of owner-assisted annuals, and it's usually a good education for the owner and is often less expensive," says Kirkham.
Most owners end up doing the grunt work the first time - removing the access panels or stripping the interior, for example. Consider it all a learning experience. Depending upon the type of airplane that you own, you may never again question the hours charged for preparing the airplane for the inspection. (You might also find that you like chasing PK screws and rummaging around in the cabin.)
Regardless, make sure you have it worked out ahead of time how your efforts will reflect in the cost of the annual. Many shops quote a straight rate for the basic annual, adding only for remedying discrepancies. If you've done some of the work normally associated with the annual, you should get credit for it. Understand, also, that if you're being supervised closely, you can expect to pay for the technician's time. Usually, the first owner-assisted annual with any given shop is not much cheaper than if you'd been off at the movies, but as the guys on the floor gain confidence in your abilities, they'll be more inclined to leave you alone.
But a lot of owners lack the mechanical aptitude, desire, or time to be part of a multi-day effort. That's OK. These owners then should be available to either stop by the shop periodically to check on the progress or at least to be available by telephone for consultation. Make it clear to the maintenance supervisor that you want to be informed of unexpected work and unexpected squawks. This is the only way that you'll save yourself from the shock of picking up with the airplane a bill for many more greenbacks than you'd budgeted.
Most shops are reasonably flexible on the issue of deferred items. Although the airplane is supposed to come out of annual in as-new condition, the reality is that not every squawk found on every annual is addressed. Be reasonable with your shop. If, for example, you've put off rebushing the nose gear for a year or two, don't jump up and down when the techs say, "It's time."
Perhaps no part of the annual is as controversial as owner-supplied parts. You can pore over Trade-A-Plane all day and see how much your shop is "gouging" you for parts. At least it seems that way, until you look at it from the shop's point of view. First, remember that the shop and the technicians are responsible for the airworthiness of the airplane. If you walk in with a box of parts, how are they to determine the pieces' pedigrees or paper trails? "I get nervous when a customer brings in parts from an unknown source," says Kirkham.
"We mark up parts a nominal amount over our cost," says Pavao. "And it's for a good reason. We then warranty those parts. Let's say you get a bad spark plug. If we put it in, then we are responsible for removing and replacing it under our warranty. Our markup covers our liability as well." This markup also pays for freight costs, core charges, and other paperwork details that amount to hidden costs to the owner.
Not all shops share this philosophy, so it's worth your while to broach the subject beforehand. "I don't have any problem with owners bringing in parts that they will be installing on an owner-assisted annual," says Kirkham. "But if that part fails, I have to charge the customer to troubleshoot and fix it."
There are exceptions. Often, shops get so busy that it's actually helpful and expeditious to have the owner track down unexpected replacement parts. Your time on the telephone is essentially free - apart from the loss of productivity from playing airplane hooky. It'll also give you a fresh appreciation of how difficult it can be to source good parts.
In the end, it's up to you to develop an amenable relationship with your shop and to stay on top of the annual process. With a bit of foresight and open lines of communication, you can trim the costs of the inspection by eliminating duplicated efforts and wasteful paper shuffling. Your ultimate goal should not be to get the cheapest possible annual, but to get the best annual for the money.
Links to more information on annual inspections are available on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9909.shtml).
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