How to handle aircraft maintenance when traveling

August 18, 2014

Having to deal with any form of aircraft maintenance when you’re far from home isn’t fun. Your resources are limited, you don’t necessarily know who you’re dealing with at the local fixed-base operations, and your options may be very limited. Therefore, when you’re away from home, it’s in your best interest to become your own maintenance manager and advocate.

Jeff SimonPilots, by nature, are control freaks. And, if you’re not applying those same controlling tendencies toward your aircraft maintenance, you should realign your priorities. No one cares as much about your airplane as you do, period. You may love and trust your A&P beyond words, but it’s not his or her airplane, it’s yours.

The one thing I long for most when I have to deal with unplanned maintenance far from home is my home office. That’s because I have all the resources I need close at hand to research parts, check notes for contacts and scour the Internet to find the best parts or service at the best price and timing. It’s hard to reproduce that while on the road, but you can try by making that go-to guide that we discussed earlier. Having all the manuals, industry contacts, and records at least gives you a leg up when you need to start working on an issue.

The most valuable resource you could possibly have is a good old-fashioned “maintenance buddy” back at home. This may sound a little goofy, but it can be invaluable to have a friend you can trust available to help you deal with an issue should it arise. All it takes is a simple agreement to be available to help support each other when traveling (I generally recommend this arrangement be made over a beer to seal the deal). What it really means is that you have someone you can call to say, “I’m stuck at East Nowhere Airpark with a flat tire!”

A good maintenance buddy will take on the challenge to save the day. In the case of the tire, your friend might call back in 15 minutes saying, “Don’t buy that used tire from the local shop. You’re there for a few days and I just found a place that will ship you two new tires and tubes overnight…and the tires are on sale! I’ve been telling you to replace those balding things for months anyway.”

The point is that you can do a lot more from the comfort of your own home and you might as well do it for others. That’s not to say that every problem is as simple as finding a part. You also should have an expert or two on speed dial, ready in advance because they know you’re on the road. Sometimes, aircraft maintenance and troubleshooting can be very subjective. You want someone experienced on your side, especially when in unknown territory and rushed to make a decision.

If you don’t have your own personal guru, I recommend checking out Mike Busch’s Savvy Aviator maintenance consulting service. I respect Mike a great deal, especially since we are both strong advocates of condition-based maintenance. This is especially true when it comes to any cylinder issues you may face during your trip. It’s important to have some guidance so that you implement the proper, measured response to the issues at hand.

For example, I’ve heard of pilots bringing an airplane in due to a rough-running engine while away from home and leaving the shop two days later with a set of new mags to go with the one bad sparkplug that was causing the issue to begin with.

Lastly, be sure to take some time at the major stops along your route to give the engine compartment, landing gear, etc. an especially thorough visual inspection. If you do this when you arrive at a planned extended-stop, you may be able to get any issues addressed without affecting your schedule.

Above all, I highly recommend that every pilot take the opportunity to use your aircraft to travel on some long cross-country trips to really see what adventures general aviation flying can provide when you leave your local comfort zone and see new things from the cockpit of your very own time machine. 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. Simon 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.