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Maintenance for Dummies

By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Call it the Two Left Thumbs Syndrome. Most aircraft owners, averse to getting in over their head or screwing up big time, leave all maintenance to certified mechanics'even simple tasks that the FAA allows non-mechanics to perform.

This is understandable, given mechanics' enviable knowledge and skills set — truly, they are the unsung heroes of aviation — and the fact that "winging it" has no place in safe flying.

However, letting grease monkeys have all the fun on the ground is, quite frankly, a short-sighted view of the bigger picture.

Experts agree: Aircraft owners who studiously and routinely do some basic maintenance themselves, rather than waiting for the 100-hour or annual inspection, not only might save money in the long run by averting major repairs, but also reduce the aircraft's down time, fly more safely, and learn valuable information about their airplane, which makes them better able to detect and troubleshoot problems that arise during the preflight.

Appendix A in Part 43 of the Federal Aviation Regulations includes a long list of major alterations and repairs reserved for certified mechanics. Also listed there are 32 preventive-maintenance chores that certified pilots can tackle themselves as long as they own the airplane, it isn't flown commercially, and the maintenance doesn't involve "complex assembly."

These chores range from changing tires, servicing shock struts, and simple lubrication, to repairing broken landing-light wiring circuits, cleaning and replacing spark plugs, servicing and replacing batteries, and making simple repairs to cowlings and farings. If you do perform any such tasks, you must have the appropriate maintenance and service information at your fingertips.

In an October 2003 mishap in Alaska, the owner of a Cessna 195B might have prevented the left main landing gear from collapsing after loss of control during the landing roll had he or she spotted cracks in the landing-gear spring strut beforehand. According to the FAA, the Cessna maintenance manual for this taildragger specified that the landing gear should be inspected every 50 hours, not just during the annual inspection.

Perhaps the first step in self-maintenance is deciding to what extent you want to get your hands dirty. Using Appendix A in Part 43 as a partial checklist, referring to a sanctioned checklist for your particular kind of aircraft, or creating one of your own, you might start by scheduling yourself to do a disciplined inspection, say, every 50 hours, and refer fixes to the mechanic.

Or you might go to the next level and proactively replace things, such as spark plugs or a worn tire, that haven't yet reached their end of service but are nearing it. Find out if the manufacturer has issued any service bulletins related to the job at hand, and be sure to log the work'a description of it, the date of completion, and your signature and certificate number (see FAR 43.9 for details).

More-advanced levels include interval maintenance that is logged and under the supervision of a certified mechanic, and even participating in the annual inspection if your mechanic is amenable to supervising and signing off on your work.

Of course, like most aspects of aviation, self-maintenance requires sound judgment and knowing your limits. Be honest: Are you able to set ego aside and admit that a task is too difficult or has spiraled out of control, that you need expert help?

If so, there's plenty of help available. Aside from mechanics and manufacturer service manuals, resources include other, more-maintenance-savvy aircraft owners, type-specific flying clubs, printed materials, and videos and DVDs.

A bible for many mechanics is "Acceptable Methods, Techniques and Practices of Aircraft Inspections, Repair and Alterations," a lengthy advisory circular available at Aircraft Technical Book Co. (www.actechbooks.com), Amazon (www.amazon.com), and aviation bookstores. Aircraft Technical Book Co. and outfits such as AMT Book Store (www.amtbooks.com) sell a variety of other maintenance publications, as well.

For visual guidance, check out the videos and DVDs produced by Approach Aviation (www.approachaviation.com). Volume I of the "Educated Owner Video Series" is "Preventive Maintenance."

Having two left thumbs needn't be a handicap when it comes to basic maintenance. The question, as always, is whether you're willing to invest the time and effort to become a more knowledgeable aircraft owner and safer pilot.