Take out your pilot logbook. Have you logged fewer hours this year? A slow economy will do that. Making the decision to pump that disposable income — don't you love that term? — into your airplane's fuel tank can be difficult, especially when the disposable-income pool isn't what it used to be. Yet if airplanes aren't flown, maintenance costs almost always increase. When money's tight, something has to give, and it's usually flying time.
"One of the most important things an owner can do to cut maintenance costs is keep flying or pickle the engine if it's not flying," says Phil Kirkham, a 25-year airframe and power-plant mechanic (A&P) who specializes in private-aircraft maintenance and is owner of Coastal Valley Aviation in Santa Maria, California.
Kirkham says that in the long run, inactivity causes maintenance costs to go up, mainly because it increases the likelihood of engine rust and because the seals in assemblies such as shock struts, brakes and fuel selector valves are more apt to need replacement.
One way to get more out of the flying budget is to get involved in hands-on airplane maintenance. I'm talking oil, wrenches, safety wire, green nitrile gloves, screwdrivers and safety wire. Federal aviation regulations (FAR) permit owners to perform and sign off on a number of preventive maintenance (PM) tasks on their own aircraft. Preventive maintenance includes changing the engine oil and filter, changing landing-gear tires, greasing wheel bearings, changing landing light bulbs and navigation light bulbs and lubricating the airframe.
Less obvious PM tasks include changing side windows, servicing landing gear shock struts with oil, air or both, making simple fabric repairs, patching fairings, cowlings and cover plates and repairing landing-light and navigation-light wiring.
Today's digital avionics systems store catalogs of navigation and communication data that IFR fliers must update every 28 days. Preventive maintenance rules allow owners to upgrade these databases.
Owners are also allowed to remove and replace (R & R) front instrument panel-mounted navigation-communication (navcom) units. This includes almost all modern navcoms and many GPS navigators.
Even the lowly task of cleaning saves money.
Cleanliness Is Next to Airworthiness
At each annual inspection, the regulations mandate that the airplane be cleaned. No mechanic likes this task, but it must be done before inspecting the airplane. Your mechanic will greet you with a smile, and the inspection phase of the annual will go faster when you show up with a clean airplane. Here's a tip for cleaning the belly. Head for a hardware or auto-parts store and get a tub of GOJO — the nonabrasive type, please — a creeper, a pair of safety goggles, a box of throwaway nitrile gloves and some rags. Then get under your airplane and do the "wax on, wax off" routine from nose to tail.
Avionics Money Savers
Don Dominguez owns San Luis Avionics in San Luis Obispo, California.
"One of the easiest things owners can do to take care of their avionics is keep the antennas clean," says Dominguez.
"I've had to repair more than one transponder because the antennas were so oil-soaked that the metallic components in the engine oil shorted the antenna to the airframe," says Dominguez.
Dominguez says that pilots should periodically turn all rotating avionics switches through the full range of travel. This wipes oxidation off the contacts on the wafer-type switches. This is especially true for VFR pilots who rarely move their transponder code knobs from the 1200 position.
Headset plugs should be cleaned when audio gets scratchy or when the ATC has trouble hearing transmissions.
"Just polish up the plugs with a piece of fine Scotch-Brite," says Dominguez.
Dominguez advises each of his clients to do his or her own avionics database's updates. All that's required is a computer with an Internet connection and a subscription to access downloads from the avionics manufacturer's website.
"I'll do it for them but it will cost $50 every time I do it," says Dominguez.
Updating databases will save owners hundreds of dollars each year. They will no longer have to spend time and money moving the airplane to and from an avionics shop for the update service.
Doing It Yourself
Learning how to and actually performing even four or five of the 32 preventive-maintenance tasks listed in Appendix A of FAR Part 43 does add to the challenge of aircraft ownership, but not without substantial rewards.
The first reward is the confidence that comes from knowing your way around your airplane. It's comforting to launch out on an hourlong weekend flight — or on a much-anticipated three-week flying vacation to Alaska — with the feeling that you're capable of managing minor maintenance glitches that crop up in spite of the most carefully laid plans. The second payoff (maybe it's the first) is saving money on maintenance.
You'll need to find a competent, understanding and patient A&P to teach you the skills needed to become a mechanically involved airplane owner. Ask around at your local airport. You're looking for a benevolent dictator-type mechanic. He or she must be dedicated to quality and be honestly interested in helping you. Once you have a couple of names, call and speak to your prospects, telling them that you want help learning how to safely work on your airplane. If they're agreeable, make an appointment to interview them.
When you arrive, take a good look around the shop. Is it clean enough and organized enough to give you confidence? If so, tell your prospect what you want. Most A&P technicians like working with willing and capable owners. But let's be clear — you're being evaluated too. I always enjoy working with owners, but that interest cools rapidly if I see that they don't respect my tools, maintain the cleanliness of my shop, exhibit good work habits or aren't willing to follow directions. The world of aero maintenance does require a willingness to do things by the book.