The object of an annual inspection is to determine that the aircraft is in condition for safe operation and complies with the type certificate. Here are some practical suggestions from an A&P/IA.
I am often asked by aircraft owners, “What can I do to reduce the cost of an annual inspection?” and I will offer some suggestions and observations in this article. The key lies in preparation for the annual.
Owners performing maintenance should coordinate their efforts with their mechanic/inspector. Check with your inspector prior to changing the engine oil and filter, as it is likely that the oil filter will be cut open and inspected for metal contamination during the inspection process—even if you just changed the filter five hours ago.
It has been my experience (and in my discussions with other inspectors, we all generally agree) that owner-assisted annuals may not really offer much reduction in cost, but are more like a training event for the owner. Owners shouldn’t be discouraged by this. Their participation in the annual inspection along with year-round preventive maintenance will pay off in the long run.
Unless the aircraft owner is experienced with the particular aircraft and has enough tools to do the work (removing inspection panels and seats, for example) without direct supervision of the inspector, there will be no real savings.
Regardless of whether the owner assists or not, it is important to understand that only the inspector is allowed to actually perform the annual inspection and may not delegate this to anyone. What this means is that an aircraft owner or mechanic can prepare the aircraft for annual and perform maintenance functions such as cleaning and greasing wheel bearings, but may not actually perform any inspection function.
Many times I have worked with owners and had them remove seats, clean the aircraft, remove inspection panels, even drain the oil and cut open the filter. Sometimes these operations went smoothly, and other times they did not. I have had owners actually damage their aircraft while attempting to remove seats or even when attempting to replace a navigation lightbulb.
Airplanes are delicate pieces of equipment and care is always necessary, so spend a moment or two contemplating just what you are trying to do. Consider the possible problems you may get into, and come up with a plan of action.
Rusted screws are a problem that can be dealt with in several different ways but one of them is not to use an impact driver on an aircraft screw that secures an inspection panel. Many times the removal technique depends on what the screw is attached to and of what type of material the screw is made.
Even more important than removing a screw is how to prevent a rusted screw from being difficult to remove in the first place. Cleaning your aircraft and keeping it clean can make the screw removal process much easier. Anyone can twist a screwdriver or pull the trigger of a screw gun; it takes a little knowledge and experience to prevent the screw from stripping in the first place.
If the screw slots are filled with paint, dirt or debris of any kind, it is likely that the slots will strip because the screwdriver bit cannot fully engage the screw while it is being turned out. Keep the slots in the screw head cleaned out and use a quality screwdriver in good condition, and it is likely most all the screws will come out without a problem.
Inspectors performing an annual inspection must have access to all of the aircraft, engine and propeller records. AD note compliance information is often recorded in the logs; major repairs as well as modifications to the aircraft may also be recorded in the logbooks.
In addition to an inspector’s access to the logs, the information should be easy to read and properly identified. This can make an annual inspection go smoothly without additional cost of trying to determine if an AD note has been accomplished, or when the next inspection is due.
Not only are clean logbooks necessary for maintenance, they also help with the resale of an aircraft. I have had the opportunity to speak with several used aircraft dealers and always the subject of maintenance records comes up.
If you want to get top dollar for your aircraft, have clean maintenance records. Not only is it a plus not to have damage or accident history, but detailed records are also necessary: when the last annual was done, what was done, and by whom; when the engine was last overhauled, by whom, and what was done.
How about all the AD notes? Are they all accounted for? Are there any due? Are there repetitive inspections required, or is there an action that will terminate any further inspections?
What about the transponder and altimeter checks? When were these done last, and by whom?
Propeller records can also be important. As strange as it may seem, some propellers installed on classic aircraft are as valuable as the entire aircraft. Without records of AD notes and compliance data on the propeller, an aircraft could be nearly valueless.
As an aircraft owner, you are responsible for maintaining your aircraft’s records and this would include: 1) AD note listings for airframe, engine, propeller, and accessories such as radios, magnetos, and wheels; 2) Current weight and balance data; 3) Equipment listing that reflects all the installed equipment on your aircraft and any modifications or removal of equipment; 4) Flight manuals, modification records (such as 337 forms), instructions for continued airworthiness, flight manual supplements, placards, and markings on your aircraft.
As aircraft age, many of these paperwork items may be inadvertently destroyed, no longer legible, or missing. An inspector engaged in an annual inspection may not allow your aircraft to pass if this documentation is not available.
Get all of this information consolidated and in a format that is easy to access. Thanks to the Internet, free info is available from the FAA web site regarding AD notes, and a listing for your specific aircraft can be viewed as well as any ADs for the engine, propeller and accessories.
While you may not be able to sign off AD notes, an aircraft owner can make a complete listing of these and identify where in the logbook there is evidence that each one has been complied with or does not apply. Even if the AD does not apply, it is necessary that someone with the proper authority make a statement that it doesn’t apply—don’t just leave the corrective action information blank.
Does your aircraft require a flight manual? Do you have this manual on board your aircraft, and is it the correct one for your aircraft by serial number? This may be the one place that all the correct limitations are described and required placards are identified.
Many aircraft are in dire need of preventive maintenance, yet few owners take the time to learn about what needs to be done, how to do it, and when to do it. Some of the things that are allowed to be done by owners to save money on an annual inspection are replacement or repairs of items such as seatbelts and shoulder harnesses.
Seatbelts must be kept in good condition without tears, cuts, or frayed material, and buckles must not be worn, cracked, or have elongated holes. Each and every belt or harness must be identified with a Technical Standard Order (TSO) tag. A TSO is a minimum performance standard for specified materials, parts, and appliances used on civil aircraft,” according to the FAA web site. —Ed.) It is possible to send seatbelts out to a company that specializes in repairs and often belts can be re-webbed. (Keep in mind that it may be cheaper to purchase a new seatbelt if the buckle or attaching components require replacement.)
Another task that will assist the inspector is for an owner to make certain that all required placards and markings (including the compass correction card) are installed, are legible, and are correct. Required placards are listed in the Type Certificate Data Sheet and additional information may be associated with AD notes and aircraft flight manuals.
Every fuel filler area must identify the type of fuel required and the quantity. Check your flight manual and type certificate data sheet (available on the faa.gov web site) for this information and make certain that the data is in fact correct for the serial number of your aircraft. A few numbers can make a difference.
Keeping your aircraft clean is probably the single most important action that an owner can do. It not only makes the airplane last longer, but also eases maintenance and can even prevent costly maintenance in the future. Clean up spills on the carpet, dry out the upholstery, and if your plane has water leaks, replace rubber door/window seals as necessary. Wipe off and rinse with fresh water any bug remains on your aircraft to include propeller, airframe, and engine as the residue can be corrosive.
Keep the seatbelts clean (use only gentle soaps or detergents) and wipe the oil off the belly on a regular basis. Oil, exhaust, dirt, and water mix to make an ugly mess on the belly of your aircraft and corrosion will take over if left there for extended periods.
The cost of an annual can vary greatly and so much depends on what happened during the previous 12 months. How you operate the aircraft, where it is parked or hangared, where you fly, how much you fly, who flies the aircraft and for what purpose all impact the cost of an annual inspection and associated maintenance and repairs.
The pilot’s habits—both good and bad—can be apparent during the annual inspection. I visited a repair shop recently and was discussing stabilizer repairs that were being made to a Piper Arrow. In this case, the pilot/owner had disposed of a soda bottle out the window and dented the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer.
Another maintenance item that involves operation of the aircraft is abuse of the aircraft by extending flaps (or landing gear) at higher than allowed speeds. Even if you are extending flaps at the maximum allowable speed, this does impact the longevity of the flap tracks, the aft portion of the wing, and the flaps themselves. Take it easy, use good judgment and as pilot in command, make the decision that is correct for the situation. Go around, extend the landing pattern, and/or let ATC know you need more time or space if necessary.
Landing gear maintenance is another issue that is very important to consider. When was the last time you performed a full servicing of the nose landing gear? It is commonplace to add nitrogen in the strut to bring it up to the proper extension, however, the amount of hydraulic fluid in the strut is also very important.
Air/oil struts must have the proper amount of fluid in them to dissipate shock loads to the airframe and these units should be serviced using nitrogen, not air. Moisture in compressed air can corrode internal parts requiring expensive maintenance and can interfere with the operation of the strut, especially in cold temperatures. If the strut is leaking fluid or air, have it repaired quickly, as replacing a few seals is much cheaper than repairing a damaged firewall.
Retractable gear aircraft have the additional demands of grease at the proper intervals. Grease that gets mixed with moisture and dirt/dust is especially hard on moving parts and typically contamination occurs while the aircraft is parked for extended periods. Not only is wear increased with dirty grease, there is a good possibility that contaminated grease, cold temperatures and a weak electrical system can combine to spell problems in the form of a gear-up landing.
Aircraft that are rarely operated can have additional maintenance requirements, particularly if they have retractable landing gear. Waiting for annual servicing of the landing gear may not be the most economical plan.
I have in past articles written about preventing damage to an aircraft while it’s parked or during ground operations. If your aircraft is tied down outside, are the flight controls protected from banging against the stops during high winds? Are you parked near a runup area so that your aircraft is blasted with prop wash, dirt or stones?
Are you careful about where you do your runups and how your aircraft is positioned? The nosewheel should be straight, not turned, during a runup. The surface where you do your runup should be free from stones and gravel that may damage the propeller, and the nose strut should be properly serviced.
Do you take care in towing your aircraft, and are you always vigilant in not exceeding the towing limits on the nose landing gear? Not being careful during all operations can be very costly at annual time. Enjoy your flying, but be very mindful of what you are doing. Is your technique a recommended practice, or are you just doing your own thing?
Keeping the cost of an annual under control depends a lot on what you as an aircraft owner do during the months before the annual. Operate your aircraft occasionally or preserve it if you aren’t going to fly for a while. Keep your aircraft clean, and properly secure and protect your aircraft to prevent weather damage.
Keep the paperwork in a safe place. That will help in preserving the important records.
Finally, repair defects right away rather than waiting until the annual to correct something that is malfunctioning. If your airplane has even a hint of an exhaust leak, get it repaired immediately, as waiting could get expensive—or worse, cause carbon monoxide to circulate, poisoning you and your passengers during flight.
All of these things I have written about are easy to correct during the course of a year. Waiting until the last minute to prepare for the annual can get ugly and expensive. Do your homework, develop a plan of action, and communicate with your maintenance inspector as to what is needed. Most of all, enjoy your flying.