Worthy or Unworthy Maintenance

Mike Busch knows his stuff. List his education and accomplishments, and you’ll consume half this column. Well-known in aviation for his respected writing and teaching, over the last two decades he has become a guru on the subject of aviation maintenance. His seminars, as highly in-demand as they are highly attended, are conclusively insightful, with advice that is always readily applicable.

“Useless Maintenance” is one of the many topics of his popular lecturing. In belt-tightening times, avoiding extraneous costs is what anyone, aircraft owners included, will strive to do. “Maintenance is a necessary evil,” asserts Busch. “Sometimes we have to do it, but we don’t want to do more than is necessary.” Thus, deciding what maintenance to have done, and what can wait till later, can keep your aircraft flying on the fuel it burns in your tanks, not the hole it burns in your pockets.

The purpose of maintenance is twofold, says Busch. “You want to make the airplane safe, and you want to make the airplane reliable.” More maintenance, however, is not always better for your aircraft: it doesn’t necessarily make it safer, nor more reliable. And, as Busch points out, the best-intentioned of mechanics can “frequently break things.” It’s a natural hazard of the job.

“Make sure that the risk involved in doing the maintenance is worth it,” says Busch. Also, be aware that manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations are sometimes excessive and costly. Be cognizant, too, of what a manufacturer recommends that you to your aircraft versus what they require you to do. Manufacturer recommendations, says Busch, are “often over the top,” and are just as often based on worst-case scenario failures that aren’t a reflection of real world concerns.

Mechanics, understandably, don’t want to expose themselves to liability, comments Busch. Hence, don’t expect them to say “No” to maintenance, especially if it’s work “that the manufacturer says to do.” Telling your mechanic that you don’t want certain maintenance work done – and doing so in writing – removes any potential liability from hanging over the mechanic’s head.

What kind of maintenance can be deemed as unnecessary? Consider ignoring a manufacturer’s time-based recommendations; for example, “Replace Part X every 2 years.” Instead, replace or repair that “Part X” only when an inspection shows it to be necessary. Conducting maintenance on such a condition-based schedule is a cost-efficient practice: you’re deciding when to spend the money, not your aircraft’s manufacturer.

But saving yourself expenditures shouldn’t be the primary driver of your policy on maintenance. Safety should be. Think about the consequences of maintenance gone undone, says Busch. Fix a part before it fails, if its failure is liable to get someone hurt (or worse). If, on the other hand, a maintenance matter only carries the fallout of a dent in your wallet – for example, a flaky Comm 2 Radio – fix it only when it fails.

“Do not overkill a problem,” says Busch. Never replace if a rebuild or overhaul will do. And, never rebuild or overhaul if a repair will do. “Inspect and repair as necessary,” he says. “Do what needs to be done, then stop.” Be prepared for the expenses when you open the book on an overhaul. A whole host of things are required to be done in an overhaul, and your subsequent costs will reflect it.

Never say “No” to maintenance resulting from airworthiness directives (ADs), annual inspections required by regulation, or anything an inspector says is an “airworthiness issue.” Some inspectors are ultra cautious, says Busch, and they’ll call almost everything an “airworthiness discrepancy.” If a maintenance report on your aircraft doesn’t sit well with you, get a second opinion if you need it.

A host of items can be maintenance to defer. Fix items like fuel drain valve seals, gascolator seals, and batteries when they’re failing, not on a timetable recommended by the manufacturer. And, says Busch, some things are better left alone; for instance, fuel injectors often fail only after mechanics have taken them apart for inspection and, in so doing, have allowed dirt to slip into the system.

Busch is an FAA-certified Airframe & Powerplant Mechanic with Inspection Authorization, and was the FAA’s Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year in 2008. He can tell you a lot about saving thousands of dollars as a result of saying “No” to unnecessary maintenance. Just never, he will obviously say, cut corners that will compromise the safety of your aircraft.