I’m not into New Year’s Resolutions, except the time I resolved to have no resolutions. My skepticism may be due to the shallow nature of my past resolutions and general lack of commitment to them. But, when it comes to an airplane and the very high cost of ownership, my level of interest in self-betterment is directly proportional to the financial and safety benefits expected.
My wife, Helen, gets to hear me tell customers all sorts of things to improve the reliability, safety, and cost effectiveness of their airplanes. She’s heard these stories and suggestions so many times I’m sure she could repeat them with great confidence. Helen suggested the following list of ideas for all of us to consider for 2015.
Helen’s car is a 2004 model with 131,000 miles in service. It also has a very interesting feature that monitors the average speed of the car. Most of Helen’s driving is around town with occasional excursions on the interstate and the average speed is 32.7 miles per hour. I calculate that car’s 131,000 miles at an average speed of 32.7 miles per hour yields 4006 hours of operation. These 4006 hours were spread over about 10 ½ years, or 381.52 hours per year. This car is the “post Mom’s Taxi” vintage, so the miles and time is far less than that of the previous car, which was a minivan. This lower usage helps make the point that even a relatively low mileage car gets about 3+ times the driving time as the typical privately owned Cessna flies.
The frequent use of our cars, with down time rarely more than a day, keeps everything oiled and well preserved. Internal steel components never sit still long enough to develop any rust. Very active flight school airplanes often fly as much as 500 hours per year and benefit from the same dynamic.
It’s a long proven fact that frequent operation will extend the life of our engines. It doesn’t take a lot of flying to equal frequent flying. Just one hour per week is only 52 hours per year. Not only will your engine last longer, but you’ll stay current as well. I’m happy to send a signed letter to that effect to anyone’s spouse, if needed, to justify more family financial resources for flight time.
While you’re flying more frequently and extending the effective life of your engine, you might as well include those breakfast fly- ins, remote hamburger destinations, or even take your instructor along and keep your FAA Wings program participation up to date.
You’ve probably been thinking about that epic trip across country or to the out of the way resort. Expand your comfort zone, and put it on the calendar. Just preparing for such a trip is more fun than you might expect. Your plane will enjoy a good stretch of the legs, too.
Do Thorough Preflights
Good preflight inspections probably prevent more accidents and incidents than we’ll ever know. Particular attention should be paid after long periods of inactivity. For some reason airplanes are very attractive locations for wildlife attempts at squatter’s rights. Birds, mice, rats and others can create a dandy condominium or even apartment complex in very short periods.
About 25 years ago a local 210 owner called from a faraway airport to report an engine fire. He also noted higher than normal cylinder head temps and wondered what we had done at his last maintenance event that would cause this. A little checking showed that this was the first flight since an oil change performed about three months earlier.
A mechanic on the field was hired to remove the burned cowling and investigate the cause. He reported a massive bird nest packed in between the left side cylinders. During flight the nest restricted air flow causing the high CHT. After landing with no airflow, the very dry straw heated enough to burn. Fortunately, the fire didn’t start until after landing and only damaged the top left cowling. A quick preflight look in the left side cowling front air inlet would have prevented a lot of trouble.
It’s very important to perform detailed preflight after maintenance, any maintenance. No matter how trustworthy and professional you know your mechanic is, he/she is still human, just like pilots. That means we are all susceptible to making mistakes. There’s a big difference between an honest mistake and negligence, to be sure. It’s a continuous effort of checks and balances to prevent these mistakes. The last line of defense is your very thorough preflight.
Take Oil Sample for Analysis
I’ve heard some owners decline doing oil analysis because they just couldn’t see the benefit. They feel that regardless of what was found in the data, it wouldn’t cause them to take any action, either for maintenance or operational changes. I won’t list all the possible ways this thinking is wrong, but I will offer a couple of real simple examples.
Silicon is one of the elements looked for during oil analysis. I just learned it is the 7th most abundant element in the universe and 2nd most abundant in the earth’s crust. I don’t know how the researchers scanned the entire universe, but that’s what they claim. Suffice it to say Silicon is a very common element, and its most common compound is Silicon dioxide, more commonly referred to as sand.
Sand is very abrasive and can greatly accelerate component wear in a piston engine. Finding higher than normal levels of sand in one’s oil should prompt quick reaction on the owner’s part. The question is how would sand get into the oil? One way is setting the oil dipstick gauge on the ground while adding that quart of oil. Another is a poorly sealed induction air filter which allows silicon laden air directly into the engine. Both of these are very simple things to correct but would go undetected without the oil analysis.
High levels of gasoline in a sample could indicate over priming. Excessive fuel in the oil will lower the oil’s ability to do the several jobs it’s intended to do. Cooling the engine, protecting interior components from corrosion and lubricating are three important functions of the oil. Simply reducing the amount of priming during starts could be a big help, but you wouldn’t know without the oil analysis report.
Do Oil Filter Visual Inspections
A visual inspection of the engine oil filter is an excellent way to detect catastrophic problems before they actually turn catastrophic. Cutting open the oil filter should be performed at every oil change regardless of whether performed by you or your mechanic.
While oil analysis is looking for foreign materials in parts per million, oil filters are catching bits at parts per thousand, hundreds, and tens. When inspecting the filter, it’s important to use a small magnet and swipe over every fold of the opened filter. If the magnet comes off looking like Don King’s hairdo, you need to investigate right away. If the filter is covered with a dull silver colored glitter, you likely have some aluminum component coming apart inside the engine. This is another cause for further investigation.
Finding ferrous metals or aluminum in the oil filter isn’t an automatic cause for engine overhaul. The filter can be sent for analysis to determine the exact makeup of the debris which can help determine the source. One failing lifter or a piston pin plug might be all that needs attention.
Review Engine Data
Many aircraft owners have bought into the value of having a digital engine monitor for inflight leaning and engine operation monitoring. Unfortunately, many never take the time to learn how to download and view the data. Viewing the data in graph form is when the long term value of an engine monitor really pays off. There’s so much that can be seen graphically that you can’t see while flying. I suppose one could see it, but one would have to be watching the monitor 100% of the time, leaving little time for flying the plane.
For example, the engine data can often spot a leaking exhaust valve well before it is noticed via borescope inspection or compression check. On planes that fly more than 100 hours per year and only get compressions checked or borescope inspections during annual, this early detection could prevent a major maintenance event away from home. That’s just one of several potential issues to be discovered by reading the engine data.
Some feel that compression checks negate the need for borescope checks, the thought being that any problem found during borescope would eventually be detected by compression checks. My philosophy is very different.
Compression checks are only required by the FAA during an annual inspection. A minor leak past an exhaust valve can mature to burned valve and then departed valve in less than 75 hours. If the plane flies more than about 75 hours per year, it’s very possible for a chunk of valve to depart the engine prior to the next required pressure test.
A borescope is simple to use and requires no compressed air or concern about rotating propellers. Any owner can add pulling and rotating spark plugs to the routine oil change schedule, which makes doing a borescope look inside the cylinders a no-brainer. Visual evidence of leakage can be seen and condition of the exhaust valve noted. If all is good, one should have confidence that all the valves will stay at their assigned posts until the next oil change.
Update AD Research
It’s very important to know your annual inspection is performed thoroughly. The FAA says ensuring compliance with ADs is the sole responsibility of the aircraft owner/operator, so it’s well worth your time to be sure your subcontractor (Authorized Inspector) is doing a thorough job of it. For details on how you can check up on this effort, take a look back at an article I wrote on the subject in the Oct 2013 issue of this magazine.
There are many times when pilots are trying to describe an inflight problem but can’t quite put it into words. This is usually because they can’t remember the event well enough. Taking written notes while flying isn’t always the best option, but almost all of us carry a camera these days. It was quite an epiphany when I needed to document what I was seeing on a flight check and realized I could take a picture of it with my phone in less time than it took to find the pencil I’d dropped under the seat and a lot safer, too.
Never Have “GetHomeItis”
I found a fascinating safety study on accidents between 1991 and 1996 in France. It’s an older report, but I believe the human factor conclusions are very applicable today. Check it out at http://www.beafr.org/etudes/gethomeitis/ gethomeitis.htm
In the aviation world, it is imperative that we all keep our schedules flexible. It’s common to receive a call from a customer that weather is delaying his/her arrival for service but that they’ll get here as soon as possible. Our response is always that there is absolutely no urgency to arrive, and we’ll adjust our schedule as needed to accommodate their arrival. I never want anyone to push their limits just to make an appointment. Much better to arrive late than have anything exciting happen trying to arrive on time.
The warning goes extra for flight after maintenance, any maintenance. Regardless of how simple the work may seem or how reliable the mechanic has been, there is always opportunity for human error. One should never get pressed into making that first flight out of maintenance into marginal VFR, IFR, night flight, over the mountains or over water operations. Flight into these conditions is tense enough without the added risk of some maintenance induced problem.
Get to the Beach
Don’t plan maintenance just before an important trip. Invariably, something is found during maintenance that begs for attention, and the parts are an extra day away. It may not even be an airworthiness issue but rather just something that should not be left undone before flight. It’s a terrible thing to have to explain to the family that they won’t be splashing around in the water at the beach because you started a major maintenance event with an open ended completion date.
Use the Forums
One of the greatest benefits of being a member of the Cessna Pilots Association is access to the forums. Getting input from other owners around the world is an amazing ability. As old as some of our planes are, it’s very likely that whatever problem you’re having, someone else has already experienced the same and is ready to help out.
If you’ve been reading the Cessna Pilot’s Association magazine for any length of time, you’ve heard all of these recommendations before from all the contributing writers. Not that any of the ideas I’ve presented here are monumental or necessarily original to me, but all are valuable to your flying experience. Sometimes we just need a reintroduction or reminder to keep our interest level up.
We thought it would be a good idea to put these thoughts together in one place for your consideration. Just in case you’ve not made any New Year’s resolutions yet, feel free to pick any or all of the suggestions in this article. All are less effort than losing ten pounds and can have a much more immediate impact on your wallet.