Frugal Pilots Vs. Aircraft Mechanics

My article on aircraft maintenance that can be performed by the owner in Canada but not the U.S., stirred up a lively discussion among readers. Reader Greg W. summarized it best, noting that the owner of a U.S. standard category aircraft can maintain the aircraft, refurbish or overhaul all or part of the plane, install certified parts, install or replace many instruments or avionics, modify the aircraft (within limits), and even rebuild an aircraft out of service – as long as it is under the supervision and signed off by an FAA-licensed A&P/IA mechanic. "Finding a mechanic to work with you may take time, especially if you want to do a lot of changes. Give the mechanic time to trust your abilities and you will be amazed at what an owner can do."

The chances of the FAA changing the rules on owner maintenance anytime soon are slim. Meantime, we frugal pilots can continue the search for qualified aviation mechanics who will assist us in performing maintenance on our aircraft at our competence level. Even better, we can find mechanics who are willing to teach us to improve our mechanical competence and understanding.

But let me play the devil's advocate for a moment. As much as many aviation mechanics love aircraft, it is still a job. They must pay the rent, pay taxes, buy tools, pay for insurance, keep up on all the FAA rule changes and requirements, and maybe make enough to go flying once in a while. Oh yeah, and food. You can see why some mechanics see owner-assisted maintenance as cutting into their livelihood. Imagine your car mechanic letting you help with a brake job or an engine rebuild. It often is through their love of aviation that these mechanics allow owners to assist with the annual inspection and common repairs. In most cases, it is faster – and more profitable – for them to perform the maintenance and repairs themselves rather than supervising another, then signing off that the aircraft is airworthy.

As a reminder, a frugal pilot isn't cheap. We're not looking for the cheapest parts and labor. We're looking for value. We want to understand our aircraft better, but we're not ready to buy all our parts at Walmart and install them as best we can. We are drivers in the third dimension: pilots! We need an additional level of safety over two-dimensional car drivers. Our vehicles are more complex, they move faster, and they go places even cellphone signals don't. So it is smart for us frugal pilots who own their aircraft to seek out mechanics who are highly qualified to assist us in owner maintenance while they still make a living. There are many places in the flying budget where we can save money without being cheap.

So I suggest that if you wish to perform more of your aircraft's maintenance and repairs that you do so looking for value. Start by finding a qualified mechanic who will help you determine what you can safely do to your aircraft and what you should not. Don't expect to save much money at first as training is as expensive as doing. And your mechanic needs to make a living, too.

Where to start? Ask among your pilot friends. One pilot I know found his mechanic 300 miles away, which is just two hours in his aircraft. By doing a pre-inspection inspection at his home airport he can perform many of the basic maintenance steps without leaving home. Anything that requires a mechanic's sign-off is done with his friendly mechanic. Did I mention that the mechanic's airport is near a golf resort?

You can start closer to home, but you're not limited to your home airport. Seek out a mechanic who will work with you – and maybe even train you. Expand your comfort zone, but know your limits. If you don't do oil changes on your own car, you may not want to do them on your aircraft. Let your car teach you a few things about working on a vehicle including what tools and knowledge you need. Of course, cars and planes aren't the same (they both have their own Disney movie!), but they are sufficiently similar to help you build mechanical skills on your car before applying them to your aircraft.

U.S. owner-pilots can work within the FAA system, rather than just complain about it, to keep our aircraft both safe and cost-effective. That's what being a frugal pilot is all about.