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Owner assist: It’s not about the money

The black grease under my fingernails is never going to come out. It’s permanent. Ten tattoos. Thank goodness I long ago gave up those white pilot shirts with the epaulettes. Although I do miss the epaulettes….
Photography by Chris Rose
Photography by Chris Rose

I reset the torque wrench to zero and carefully return it to its case. Now, to reinstall the carburetor. Yes, I’m elbow deep in Race 53’s engine compartment like I’ve never been before, and I’m realizing that my vaunted systems knowledge of the airplane I’ve been married to for eight years doesn’t amount to diddly-squat.

It’s humbling. But I’m loving every minute of it. Well, minus the dirty fingernails.

I’m not in mechanic school. I’m midway through my first owner-assisted annual inspection, and it’s been an eye-opening, mind-expanding, completely amazing journey of new tools, new techniques, and a greater understanding of both my airplane and of the people who keep our airplanes legal and safe to fly.

What is it?

You know the drill. Every year we airplane owners need to pay a specially rated certificated airplane mechanic—called an A&P/IA for airframe and powerplant certificate with inspection authorization—to tear apart our perfectly functioning airplanes for the so-called annual inspection. For most pilot-owners, this involves delivering the airplane to their mechanic and waiting for a few days praying the phone won’t ring.

Yeah, those mechanics have a way of finding things during the annual you were previously unaware of, and that require expensive fixes. Which, frankly, is kind of the point. The finding, that is, not the cost of the fixing.

But there’s another alternative to the deliver-pay-pickup model of the annual inspection. You can be personally involved in the process yourself, to varying degrees, by participating in an owner-assisted annual.

Keeping it legal

“As long as it’s under the supervision of a licensed mechanic, anyone at all can work on an aircraft, anyone,” says Jeff Simon, an A&P/IA and founder of Social Flight. And that’s in the regulations. Welcome to Part 43, which is to mechanics what Part 91 is to pilots. Part 43 and its five appendixes lay down the operating rules for the maintenance of certified aircraft, including who can do what, what needs to be done in various inspections, record keeping, and much more.

FAR 43.3 (d) says that an un-certificated person can perform “maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations” under the supervision of a properly qualified and certificated mechanic. The reg specifies that the supervising mechanic has to personally observe “the work being done to the extent necessary to ensure that it is being done properly,” and that the supervisor be “readily available, in person, for consultation.” This reg allows for on-the-job-training of future mechanics, which is one of the two paths to becoming a certificated mechanic—the other is going to an FAA-approved school.

While largely a training provision, this reg makes it perfectly legal for a properly supervised pilot-owner to be involved in higher-end work on her airplane than the simple preventive maintenance tasks laid out in Appendix A, subpart c of Part 43—the part of the regs that allow pilot-owners to change light bulbs and install sheepskin seat covers (don’t you dare, airplanes hate those things).

Or does it really? This same reg also places one limit on the delegation of mechanic duties: It does not allow the inspection function to be delegated.

So how can the owner assist in an annual inspection? The devil is in the details, and the answer is: Because an annual inspection is much more than just an inspection. An annual inspection also includes a host of preventive maintenance and repairs. So, while the “inspection” part can’t be delegated under supervision, much of the rest of the associated work—both grunt work and skilled work—can be.

This is backed up by a 2015 FAA letter of interpretation prepared for Tim Amalong of Velocity Air in Arizona, which states that tasks “preliminary” or “incidental” to the actual inspection are delegable at the discretion of the IA doing the inspection. Not only does this letter approve assists, it even encourages them, noting that FAA inspectors “encourage” owner-assists because they recognize the educational value to pilot-owners of learning more about their aircraft.

Mike Busch of Savvy Aviation, an A&P/IA, thinks owners should “participate in all aspects of the owner-assisted annual.” He says owners “can do anything that the IA is willing to supervise,” and that, “the IA decides how much supervision is required.” And while the inspection itself cannot be delegated, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a role for the pilot-owner in the inspection. Said Busch, “Although the IA must do the actual inspection, I recommend the owner participate in that, too, by volunteering to carry the clipboard and write down any discrepancies that the IA finds.

“The more the owner participates, the more he will learn about maintenance in general, and his aircraft in particular.”

Flavors of assistance

So, apart from the inspection portion of the annual, it’s perfectly legal for an IA mechanic to delegate as much of the work to the owner as he or she is comfortable with. But there’s the element of time to consider. Time is money for the mechanic, and teaching you how to do many of these tasks takes more time than if the mechanic did it him- or herself—and if they are offering a discounted rate for an owner assist, as is common, then they will lose money on the deal. This is why an owner-assisted annual frequently involves nothing more for the owner than taking a screwdriver and removing the inspection plates, and then re-installing them later. That doesn’t take much skill, and supervision required is minimal.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I was blessed to find Terry O’Brien, a semi-retired A&P/IA who says, “Aircraft owners and pilots need to know what is beyond the throttle and yoke.” O’Brien, who feels strongly that owner-assisted annuals are essential to light aviation, was not only willing to let me assist, but actually insisted on my doing the bulk of the legally allowable work on my Ercoupe, and was willing to teach me the skills and techniques necessary.

This process didn’t save any money. In fact, the annual cost me many times more than annuals past, and it took longer than any annual in the history of single-engine piston airplanes, but I got my money and time’s worth out of it in vastly improved systems knowledge.

And perspective.

Lions and hyenas

Guilty as charged. I’m the guy who taught a FAASTeam program about owner/mechanic relations that I titled “Lions and Hyenas.” To my credit, I didn’t specify which aviation breed I thought represented which animal breed, but….

Since being fully immersed in the mechanic world, I’ve come to better appreciate the reasons behind why mechanics act the way they do, and insist on doing the things they insist on doing. In the past, as a non-mechanic pilot-owner, it always seemed to me that the mechanics were taking advantage of me and my dwindling wallet. But as an “apprentice” airplane mechanic, I came to better appreciate just how much can go wrong with our aircraft, the high standards to which mechanics hold themselves, the complex regulations they have to follow to protect their hard-earned certificates, the approved tools, techniques, and materials they must use—and the incredible responsibility they have.

It isn’t about the money

Simon says he’s a supporter of owner-assisted annuals, and other supervised maintenance, “as long as owners understand that they are still taking up a substantial amount of the mechanic’s time when they do this.” It’s not just the required supervision, points out Simon. Giving advice, answering questions, and even idle chatter eat into the mechanic’s valuable time. “So,” says Simon, “owners should expect—and insist on—paying the mechanic for their fair time in the process.”

So, it’s a myth that an owner-assisted annual is a great way to save money on the mandated yearly inspection. First off, as Simon points out, if you are going to take up someone’s billable time, you should expect to pay for it, although he does note, “With time and experience working together, trust will be built and the cost will go down.”

But that’s OK. Money saved is not where the value of the owner-assisted annual is. Instead, the real value comes from increased understanding of your aircraft and its systems that you gain by working on your aircraft on a deeper level. As O’Brien likes to say, “You can’t operate a machine properly unless you know how it operates.”.

William E. Dubois

William E. Dubois is an aviation writer who holds a commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating, and advanced and instrument ground instructor certificates.

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