Be Smart About Aircraft Maintenance

One things all airplanes need is regular maintenance, even ones that don't fly much. A frugal pilot knows how much of that maintenance he or she can legally do and comfortably do. What preventive maintenance an owner-pilot can legally do on an aircraft is outlined in FAR Part 43. In summary, you can service tires, landing gear struts, wheel bearings, and do some lubrication, make simple fabric and fairing patches, replenish hydraulic fluids, replace seats and safety belts, do simple landing-light maintenance, replace and gap spark plugs, replace non-hydraulic hose connections, clean or replace fuel and oil filters and service or replace batteries. Anything else requires direct supervision or work by a certified aircraft mechanic. Read Part 43 Appendix A (c) before starting. It also requires that you make powerplant and/or airframe log entries with a description of the work, date of completion and the name of the person doing the work. A certified mechanic will add their A&P certificate number; you as the aircraft's registered owner or co-owner will include your pilot certificate number.

Your maintenance comfort-level depends on how you feel about working on machines. If you're okay with changing your car's oil and filter and driving it afterwards, you'll probably be comfortable with many of the allowed maintenance jobs an owner-pilot can do. Even so, it's frugal to have an aircraft mechanic show you how to do it on your aircraft the first time. Take pictures and make notes. It may be months or a year or more before you do it yourself.

One of the primary advantages to doing your own aircraft maintenance – besides saving money to buy more fuel – is that you will more intimately know your plane. You'll feel more confident flying it, especially on cross-country trips where you're leaving the comfort of your home nest and mechanic behind. Also, it will make your preflight inspection more meaningful as you understand how systems work and what the signs are that indicate they might not.

Aircraft maintenance, just like maintenance on any machine, can extend its life – or at least let it live a full and productive life. No one can fully predict how long an aircraft engine will last, no more than a doctor can give a newborn a guarantee of a specific number of years of life. But by taking care of ourselves and our aircraft and other machines, we can get more value from them.

FAR Part 43 also outlines what is required for your aircraft's annual or 100-hour inspection. Before your next inspection, read it and determine if there are some of the jobs you can or want to do either prior to or during your mechanic's inspection. Many of us frugal pilots seek out qualified mechanics who allow owner-assisted annuals. We often save a little money, but we also get a valuable education. And we have a professional watching over us to make sure we get that new safety wire on correctly.

Another consideration in aircraft engine maintenance is TBO or time-between-overhaul. It certainly isn't a guarantee of a specific number of hours of service. It's the manufacturer's estimate of how long the typical engine that is run under normal operating conditions will probably last. Typical – normal – probably. Soft qualifiers that suggest that it's really just an educated guess. They don't know you, how you fly, how dutiful you are about maintenance and the skill level of the various mechanics you hire or the quality of parts you buy. Nor does the manufacturer know if you'll be flying your plane 25 hours a year or 250. So you'll hear about 1800-hour TBO engines that fail in the first 100 hours and others that have flown 2500 or more hours and still have compression in the high 70s. The TBO is just one small indicator of engine condition.

What you can count on is that engines that get more use, such as 100+ hours a year, typically (there's that soft qualifier again) last longer than those that only fly a couple dozen hours a year. That's because metal corrosion can cause more problems than wear. And quality preventive maintenance – your plane doesn't care whether it's you or a well-paid mechanic – can extend the useful life of an engine and airframe.

A frugal pilot can help maintain and even repair his or her aircraft. Saving money is part of the reason. More important is learning about the aircraft, how it works and how to avoid it not working.