Mechanics are human, and they sometimes make mistakes despite the best of intentions and even good procedures and practices. In these cases, we can usually tie a mechanical failure directly to a recent maintenance event. However, a mechanical failure and an accident are vastly different things, and there’s a lot we can do as aircraft owners and pilots to prevent maintenance-related accidents.
Too many times, an aircraft owner will pick up the airplane after maintenance, barely preflight it, and head off on a long flight to his or her home airport. When I’ve queried those pilots I knew about this behavior, the answers I have heard include phrases such as: “He’s an outstanding mechanic and I trust him,” “He knows better than I do,” or “If he says it’s airworthy, I believe him.”
The truth is that you, the aircraft owner or operator, are the one responsible for the airworthiness of the aircraft. You have a legal obligation under the federal aviation regulations to take part in the transition of the aircraft from being declared airworthy to becoming airborne. This begins when you take delivery of the aircraft post-maintenance. There are some basic steps you can follow that will help you in the process.
- Always accept the aircraft back into service in person. Heading to your mechanic’s shop after hours to pick up the airplane with the “key under the mat” is a bad idea. You need to be able to ask questions and get answers before taking flight.
- Insist on a walk-through of the maintenance performed on the aircraft as part of the delivery process. Have your mechanic show you what’s been done. Get “eyes on” with new components installed or repaired. If they’re typically hidden behind inspection panels or the cowling, ask to be able to see the work before it’s buttoned up. You are a second set of eyes on the work, and your questions could lead to the discovery of something that needs attention. Look for safety wire, missing screws/bolts, and anything that simply looks out of place. You’ll also learn a lot in the process.
- Have a backup plan and be willing to use it. Picking up your airplane without an alternate means to get home is a bad idea. If you notice something wrong while doing your taxi or run-up, you should be comfortable heading back to the shop without the pressure of “get-home-itis.”
- Plan for a “shakedown flight.” In the nautical world, ships routinely engage in a shakedown cruise before entering service or after major changes, repairs, or overhauls. Shakedown cruises typically are not committed to any timetables or tasks until completed, so there is no pressure. You should do the same thing based on the maintenance performed. If it’s a simple oil change, consider a short hop in the pattern and back down to look for leaks. Major work, such as an engine overhaul, calls for hours of flight within safe gliding distance of an airport to break in the engine; it also gives any major issues a chance to surface in a safe environment before putting passengers at risk.
- Listen to your instincts. Never assume that your mechanic knows better than you do about how your airplane should sound, feel, or fly. If you think there could be an issue, trust your intuition and bring the airplane back, even if you can’t pinpoint what’s wrong. If something feels off, it probably is.
You represent an important checkpoint in the maintenance process and can be the key player in “breaking the accident chain.” So, let your curiosity drive a conversation, learn more about the maintenance performed on your aircraft, and, like our video series title, become an Educated Owner. Happy flying!
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 20,000 aviation events, $100 hamburgers, and educational aviation videos. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.