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Aircraft Maintenance: Coping with COVID-19 supply chain challenges

As we enter the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been fascinating to look back at how the world of general aviation ownership and maintenance has evolved in a very short time. In May 2020, I wrote an article about the importance of keeping your aircraft flying and supporting your local FBO and maintenance shop with preventive maintenance. The simple act of flying solo was controversial, and many people were at risk of losing their income, especially those who make a living in GA.

The dawn of 2021 brought with it a complete re-evaluation of the importance and value of personal aircraft. Aircraft values began to soar, and with them a boom in sales of aircraft and aviation products/supplies. All this growth was happening against a backdrop of a supply chain crisis that continues to mount.

As we enter 2022, it’s more important than ever to plan ahead regarding any maintenance and upgrades you may be considering. Based on my recent experience with suppliers, here are a few thoughts to help you get ahead of the curve and protect your investment as well as your summer flying season.

Routine maintenance supplies and consumables

So far, frequently needed supplies such as oil and filters have generally remained available. Supply varies by manufacturer and is changing regularly. For example, a recent check showed most Champion oil filters out of stock, while Tempest filters were still available for immediate shipping. Given the unpredictability of the situation, and that oil changes are important to keep you in the air, I’d recommend maintaining a reserve supply of oil and filters to cover one to two oil changes. Spark plug supplies are in worse shape. Many fine wire plugs have been unavailable for some time now with no ETA about when that will change. And, while most massive plugs have remained in stock, my sources say that lead times are quickly increasing and those may also be in short supply soon. I’d recommend that anyone whose plugs are near the end of their service life consider placing an order for a new set now. If you know you’ll need them eventually, even just keeping a spare or two on hand could be in your best interest. Depending on what you need, it may be some time before your order is filled.

Jeff Simon will be upgrading to the same Hartzell Navigator propeller that Adrian Eichhorn used on his Bonanza during his polar flight. Photo by Adrian Eichhorn.

Tires and tubes

The aviation tire supply chain has been one of the earliest and hardest hit by the crisis. As soon as lockdowns began, tire manufacturers shifted manufacturing away from aviation tires and toward truck tires in order to support the enormous growth in online purchase deliveries. In the extremely niche market of aviation tires, these staffing and supply changes have made a short-term recovery next to impossible. Tire availability has been hit or miss, depending on the size you need. This means that your choices are generally limited regarding the brand, model, and ply rating available for your aircraft (and prices have increased as well). Fortunately, tires are easy to evaluate and wear is somewhat predictable. So, it pays to take a close look at your tires and decide if you’ll need a new set in the next 12 months. If the answer is yes, place your order now.

Avionics

If there’s a single phrase that embodies pandemic-related supply chain issues, it must be the “global chip shortage.” Unfortunately, the type of chips that are in shortest supply are also integral to most GA avionics systems. The shortage has resulted in delays and price increases across a variety of manufacturers. The good news is that there are still options, depending on what you need and who you need it from. Flexibility is your ally. Although there are some great fully integrated systems out there, I have always been biased toward a panel made up of a variety of avionics from different manufacturers. One of the reasons for my preference is that there is a strong motivation for those manufacturers to create products that openly integrate with all other avionics. A side benefit during the supply chain crisis has been that this approach also allows you to shop around for a product that meets your needs, is readily available, and remains affordable.

Upgrades

At a time when your aircraft is more valuable than ever before, it often makes sense to look for ways to improve it, instead of repairing it. I recently decided to upgrade my propeller, rather than plan for another overhaul. I’ve had a bad case of “prop envy” ever since my good friend Adrian Eichhorn upgraded his Bonanza to Hartzell's new Navigator, a three-blade advanced structural composite scimitar propeller. His reported performance improvements and smooth operation during his recent polar flight had me quickly doing the “prop swap” math and getting my order in the queue. Like all manufacturers, Hartzell has a long backlog of orders to fulfill. This translates to a fairly long wait before I’ll be writing about my upgrade experience, but I’m excited to get the call when it’s ready to ship. The bottom line is that prices on upgrades such as this are likely to continue rising along with delivery times. So, it’s actually a good time to plan ahead and make an investment in your aircraft.

It’s been a long time since GA has been valued as much as it is today. However, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the value of personal aircraft travel. It has brought both challenges and opportunities to our little “aviation corner of the world.” With some careful planning, you can make the most of your aircraft in the months and years to come. Until next time, I hope you and your families remain safe and healthy, and I wish you blue skies.

Jeff Simon

Jeff Simon

Jeff Simon is an A&P, IA, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 22 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance and recently certified the FlexAlert Multifunction Cockpit Annunciator. 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 www.SocialFlight.com.
Topics: Aircraft Maintenance, COVID19
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