Eating the elephant: Become an educated owner

April 23, 2014

Become an educated aircraft owner.

In our last article, I hopped on a soapbox to preach the virtues of aircraft ownership as a life experience and as the next logical step in your “aviation career.” So, let’s assume that you’ve taken the leap off the high dive and focus on how to make it a positive learning experience instead of a belly-flop.

Jeff SimonWe learn what things in life are possible from our mentors. The second mentor in my aviation life was Jon, a man of many talents with a world education that included fluency in eight languages, artist, pilot extraordinaire, avionics technician, A&P, and IA, who unfortunately passed away at only 40 years old (the word “renaissance man” certainly comes to mind).

I connected with Jon by networking with the American Yankee Association as I began inquiring about what it would be like to own a single-engine Grumman aircraft. After convincing me to take the plunge and buy a 1975 Grumman AA-5 Traveler, Jon offered to do the pre-buy inspection at his home in Ohio, along with an invitation to come out and work with him on the “pre-buy turned annual inspection.” For three days, I worked under Jon’s direction getting my first lessons in maintenance of the aircraft I would own for the next 10 years. The message to me was clear: It’s your aircraft, and it’s your responsibility to understand it and maintain it.

When you set out on a mission to learn about your airplane, it’s amazing how many people step in to help. I did all of my maintenance with Jim Casey, of Casey Aviation in Mansfield, Mass., largely because he insists that his customers participate in every annual inspection. You can’t learn about your aircraft by simply reviewing the bill from the maintenance shop. 

Fortunately, some of the most talented mechanics I’ve met also love to teach. They encourage owners to get dirty in the shop, do owner-assisted annual inspections, and understand how to make good maintenance decisions. It pays dividends for both the mechanic and the owner. After all, spending even a single day hanging upside down under the panel, or bruising your knuckles in the engine compartment will give you a whole new appreciation for the work of a mechanic. As time goes on, you will make educated maintenance decisions together, and the overall cost of keeping the airplane airworthy will decline as you are able to invest “sweat equity” more and more.

These shop lessons also help prepare you for opportunities to perform maintenance all by yourself as an aircraft owner. The FAA encourages owners to participate in preventive maintenance of their aircraft, and lists 32 specific tasks that owners can perform and sign off in the logbooks themselves in Part 43, Appendix A of the federal aviation regulations. These tasks range from oil changes to spark plug maintenance, tire replacement, and even interior refurbishment. As long as you get an A&P to teach you the proper techniques (and use the manufacturer’s maintenance manuals), there is a lot you can do to control maintenance costs, while improving the safety and reliability of the aircraft. My first foray into aviation as a business was the production of “The Educated Owner Video Series,” which taught aircraft owners how to do many of these tasks, step by step.  It remains one of the most rewarding endeavors of my career, due largely to the feedback I have received over the years from viewers whose future aviation track began with that simple step of being shown how to begin.

What doesn’t occur to most owners is that they should be carefully logging every hour and task of work they perform in their own "maintenance experience logbook," because you just might need it for our next discussion. Until then, happy flying!

Social FlightJeff Simon is an A&P mechanic, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 14 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance as a columnist for several major aviation publications and through his how-to DVD series, The Educated Owner. Jeff is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps over 10,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.