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Safety Spotlight: Decisions, decisions

Accepting the risks—and consequences

Exactly where we are at any point in our lives is mostly a consequence of all the decisions—big and small—that we’ve made leading up to that moment. A simple observation that embraces the power of personal ownership. No one more than each of us is responsible for our current situation, and the outcome. It’s one of the fundamental principles that define aviation culture.

I reflected on that while ferrying a long-inactive 1993 Piper Super Cub out of Silver City, New Mexico (94E). I’ve bought and sold a few airplanes and learned that it’s rare (or expensive) to find exactly what you want, both getting all your preferences and avoiding all your undesirables. There’s usually an issue or two that makes you pause and test your priorities. With this airplane, the good and the bad was that it had been flown a total of 360 hours. Low time and low stress on the airframe and engine—good, but long periods of inactivity—bad, because that can result in corrosion issues inside the engine. The ideal used airplane has low time but has been flown regularly recently.

I decided to accept the risk of a low-time engine with recent periods of inactivity. I was delighted with everything else about the airplane. Frame, fabric, and interior were exactly as the seller described—almost immaculate, thanks to the dry southwest air where it rested. No damage and complete logbooks since it rolled off the factory floor. This airplane had a great history and good “bones” that I’d feel comfortable flying for a long time while tinkering with upgrades.

My personal observation about the tough and reliable Lycoming O-320 engine on PA–18s is that if they haven’t flown a lot, they often need a top overhaul about halfway to the 2,000-hour time between overhauls. I factored that into my offer, which meant I’d be fine financially if it needed a “top” in the near future—but if it needed a complete overhaul, I’d be behind the value curve. That’s how I assessed and managed the financial risk.

The safety risk was a separate calculation. Even though the airplane hadn’t flown much, the owner kept it in annual, and the cylinder compressions were strong and consistent. He reported no oil burn and clean oil filter inspections—all positive indicators. Still, I’m wary of unused engines. I brought along my borescope, just to have a look. Affordable and easy to use, a borescope reveals a great deal about the condition of the top of an engine. It’s not helpful in inspecting the bottom (crankshaft and other critical pieces), but it’s great for finding cylinder cracks and inspecting pistons, cylinder walls, and valves. Lighted, flexible borescopes are one of the great recent advances in aviation safety.

While the seller assisted, I borescoped the engine and found a suspicious line along the top of a cylinder. Three of four experts I sent the photos to assessed it as carbon flaking, but one—the most experienced Super Cub and Lycoming O-320 A&P I/A in the group—thought it was a cylinder crack. I advised the seller. He offered to pull the jug and if cracked, he’d replace it; if not cracked, he’d reinstall it and I’d pay for the labor. A fair approach. It would take the better part of a day to do the work. I had plenty of time, so that wasn’t a factor, nor was the few hundred dollars it might cost me to remove and replace the cylinder. My biggest concern was the intrusive field maintenance of pulling a cylinder on an engine that showed no other signs of duress and only one of four experts thought might have a crack.

Maintenance actions add risk. Humans make errors, and replacing a cylinder requires substantial work with small details that must be performed to exact specifications. The choice before me was to take the engine as is or take an engine with a cylinder newly installed or replaced in the field by someone I didn’t know.

I decided that—despite the assessment of someone I held a great deal of respect for—with confirmed compressions, no other signs of a crack, no indications of engine duress, and three of four experts believing the cylinder was fine, I would take the engine as is rather than risk intrusive maintenance in the field.

So it was that, at 8,500 feet msl over inhospitable terrain, I found myself reflecting on consequences. Whatever happened, I would be exactly where the confluence of my decisions put me. And I was perfectly OK with that. Such is a part of owning our destiny that is a beautiful imperative in flying.

Go fly.

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Richard McSpadden

Senior Vice President of AOPA Air Safety Institute
Richard McSpadden was appointed executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute in February 2017 and was promoted to senior vice president in July 2020. He currently leads a team of certified flight instructors and content creators who develop and distribute aviation safety material –free of charge— in order to advance general aviation safety industrywide. ASI distributes material through a dedicated YouTube channel, iTunes podcasts, Facebook, and a dynamic website. ASI material is accessed 12 million times annually. A native of Panama City, Florida, McSpadden started flying as a teenager and has logged over 5,000 hours flying a variety of civilian and military aircraft. McSpadden is a commercial pilot, CFII, MEI with SES, MES ratings and a 525S (Citation Jet Single Pilot) type rating. He taught his son to fly, instructed his daughter to solo in their Piper Super Cub, previously owned a 1950 Navion that was in his family for almost 40 years, and currently owns a 1993 Piper Super Cub. McSpadden holds a degree in Economics from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Public Administration from Troy University. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Air War College. Prior to joining AOPA, McSpadden had a successful career in the information technology industry, leading large, geographically dispersed operations providing business-critical IT services. McSpadden also served in the Air Force for 20 years, including the prestigious role of commander and flight leader of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds flight demonstration team where he led over 100 flight demonstrations flying the lead aircraft. Additionally, McSpadden currently serves as the industry chair for the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee.

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