“I think we’ve exhausted our common interests.” That’s the line a friend of mine used recently when she broke it off with a new guy after a few dates. Frankly, I thought it was brilliant. Certainly better than the old “It’s me, not you” saying that translates: “It’s you.”
As pilots and aircraft owners, we tend to easily fall into long-term relationships. Whether it be instructors, aircraft, or mechanics, we find our guy or girl and never look back. That’s great in terms of building a long-term relationship, setting expectations, and building trust. However, there are some downsides to never stepping out of your comfort zone when it comes to the people who inspect and maintain your aircraft.
Most mechanics will admit that they spend a lot more time inspecting a new-to-them airplane compared to one on which they routinely perform inspections. This makes sense, in that the airplane is a completely unknown entity to them and issues may be lurking around every corner. In contrast, when your airplane comes into the shop they already know the status of things from the last annual, what’s been postponed, is likely to need work this year, etc. However, I’ve seen that same familiarity cause problems when things are assumed to be good, but are not.
Most of the time, the issues arise from inspection items not on the traditional annual inspection checklist. If you want to know what’s being glossed over, just listen. Most of the items get mentioned in conversation during the inspection: “Did we check the vacuum pump wear last year?” “We pulled that nose strut last time, so no need to do it this year…”
Be wary of any of these types of discussions. While it’s true that most wear can be predicted, sometimes it can’t and two years (or more) is too long to go for most of those “optional” inspection items.
Most shops cater to a variety of aircraft, which takes a wide range of skills and knowledge. However, there are shops that specialize in a single aircraft make or model. These mechanics have a level of experience that simply can’t be matched by someone splitting their time across aircraft types. They can draw from their own body of knowledge about failure modes, wear trends, rigging issues, and more. They also may see big ticket items coming down the road for you and have cost-effective ways of dealing with them now. And, they often have excellent advice regarding operating tips to help you manage your risk of future maintenance headaches.
Every mechanic has his or her own “hot list” of things that they spend a little more time on regarding inspection and maintenance. This comes from their personal experiences. Some may have seen a rash of exhaust valve failures in their life and have since acquired the tools and experience to do very in-depth inspections and may even have a lower threshold for reaming valve guides in an effort to prevent the failures they’ve seen. Others are keenly sensitive to corrosion and routinely recommend corrosion prevention that they have expertise in applying. Sometimes, these personal bias can be wasteful, but more often they are truly valuable to their customers. Individually, these mechanics’ bias only benefits one system or item on the aircraft. But, collectively, many parts of your airplane can get that “special treatment” if you give another mechanic a chance to take a look.
None of this is to say that you should run out and switch mechanics. Quite to the contrary; you should stick with someone you trust for the long-term assuming he or she is skilled and thorough. That said, there is significant value to getting a fresh pair of eyes on your airplane every so often.
Consider making a pilgrimage every five years or so to a shop that specializes in only your type of airplane. Get an annual and a thorough type-specific inspection of every aspect of your aircraft. This is also a great time to have the airplane rigged by someone who probably has all the necessary tools on hand for the job. You’ll probably come out of the experience with a list of other items to watch for the future, in addition to the work done. Then you can return to your regular mechanic and you’ll both have learned some things that you can use for the next four years.
Rehearse the lines before you call the shop: “It’s not you. I just think it’s time for a change for this year. I’ll be back next year…” The conversation might be difficult, but you and your airplane will be better for it.
Jeff 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 15,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.