By James Brewer
Your guy on the inside at SEA
At the risk of sounding like the 11 o’clock news, there is (probably) something wrong with your airplane. It’s probably inconsequential and may or may not even be noticeable.
I’ve had the opportunity to work on quite a few aircraft in 27 years and very rarely have I seen one that did not have a small problem in addition to the discrepancy reported. Sometimes it’s a misrouted wire or wire bundle, sometimes it’s a missing nut or screw, sometimes it’s an open static line on a VFR airplane that came in for a radio squawk and yet sometimes it’s something so makeshift that rational thought lacks the capacity to describe that which can never be unseen.
I’ve spent many years trying to figure out how these things happen. It’s too common to attribute it to shoddy technicians or mechanics. Although I’m sure they exist, I have yet to meet a tech or mechanic that would intentionally leave anything in a condition reminiscent of Medusa’s head.
The next most obvious culprit is time. It seems time is always against us in everything we do. I mean that in a collective us, not just in reference to techs and mechanics. Look at your own hectic schedule. How many times have you completed a project with a deadline looming like an obelisk from Jupiter that wasn’t just good, but good enough? The same holds true in aviation. With the percussive beat of the second hand on the clock, a job can be completed that is good enough to meet the standards of aviation maintenance, and apparently occasionally less than the standards if empirical evidence is to be believed. Even if you were to take your aircraft out of service and do the work yourself to ensure everything gets done exactly as you want it, conforming to the most stringent interpretation of the regulations, and conforming to an aesthetic standard the likes of which Michelangelo would be jealous of, two years later your aircraft would still be in a hangar and you will still have taken a short cut along the way so that it was not just good, but good enough. Not that I speak from experience about that in any way (It’s only been a year and 10 months so far- this time).
That leads us to resources. The most common problem I see on an airplane is a repair or a work around that has all the signs of a lack of resources. For example; a floor panel that should have fourteen #10 screws in it has thirteen #10s and one #8, with Loctite. An instrument missing its clip nuts or a stripped brass screw is quite common. Rivnuts that have been broken and replaced with aviation nuts are my favorites. Especially when I have to figure out how the heck the person who put that nut there actually did it so I can perform a feat that would make MacGyver awestruck. The best resource (and maybe even time related) work around I’ve seen is black electrical tape used to seal a leak on a static line (I knew it was going to be a bad day as soon as I saw that).
After many accumulated man-hours of puzzled looks and utterances of “how the…” my “research” has led me to believe those are the primary culprits of less than acceptable repairs. They are problems that are universal and affect every person in every profession. With the ubiquity of time and resource scarcity being paramount to life in general, they are not easy problems to surmount. But there are ways to mitigate their effects. As it relates to your aircraft, using a more expensive shop can help with reducing the effects of time, resources, and technical aptitude.
When you ask a shop that charges $110.00 / hour for a labor rate how they can justify their rates, what is the answer you receive? Having been on the other side of that question, I have had to answer honestly: “We have quite a bit invested in technical data, parts stock, training, tooling, and experience. Because of that, we have a high level of quality that corresponds to that level of pricing.” That investment covers all three of the primary culprits of poor maintenance.
More importantly, that investment helps you get a better return on your maintenance dollars. Although all of the resources work in conjunction with each other, please allow me to address them individually to show how the customer can benefit from their availability.
The amount of technical data available at Southeast Aerospace is phenomenal. There is nothing that cannot be looked up and researched quickly and easily. Fortunately, much of it is digital, so there is a time savings of not having to search an entire hangar of print material. This gives me, the technician, more time to focus directly on your airplane. Even with a time crunch of a quick turn.
The parts stock at Southeast Aerospace is beyond compare. Hardware, radios (appliances), wire, tubing, and obscure “stuff” that I don’t even know what it goes to. More times than are countable, an instrument has a stripped nut or screw. It takes just moments to go to the traceable stock and have the part in the aircraft with everything as it is supposed to be. For troubleshooting, having the ability to put in a serviceable unit from Southeast Aerospace stock to test a theory saves hours probing and rigging up test points in the aircraft. In short, when I get assigned an aircraft, as a tech I know I have all the resources available to tackle the job, and most of the unforeseen things that always seem to crop up in any project.
The amount of training we do as technicians at Southeast Aerospace is far beyond what I have seen elsewhere. The awards from the FAA and AEA speak for themselves and cover a broad band of aviation maintenance. Aside from formal training, we have technicians with a veritable potpourri of experience on many different aircraft. As technicians, we like to talk about technical stuff with other technical people. With all that talking comes a level of training from others experience that cannot be measured or quantified but has a direct impact on the quality and time taken to perform maintenance on your aircraft. This impromptu transfer of experience, training and ‘tribal knowledge’ can be as simple as “Hey, when you’re working on that plane, don’t forget that the static bulbs are located behind this panel.” or “I worked on that airplane five years ago, the radio you’re looking for is behind the baggage and on the left side. And watch out for that wire bundle above it.” It is tips like these that cut time from a project and provide an overall higher level of quality.
Tooling is one of the easier aspects to quantify. It’s easy to see how having the proper tool to do the job speeds up the process and allows for the job to be completed properly. But there are unmeasurable aspects to having a large selection of tools as is available at Southeast Aerospace. For example: while performing a 91.411 / 91.413 inspection, the #1 radio sounds a bit scratchy on ATIS. Having a NAV/COM test set available, a quick check of sensitivity can be performed while the static system returns to ground level. No additional time has been added to the job, but another point of inspection has been performed.
All of these assets combined, reduce the amount of time directly involved in any particular aspect of aircraft maintenance and allow for things to be looked at more closely. With just an extra 10 minutes of savings from having an experienced tech pass on tribal information about a particular airplane, a #8 screw in a #10 hole can be replaced. With a serviceable parts stock that is beyond compare, two hours of troubleshooting can be cut just by replacing the suspected NAV radio for testing, vastly cutting down on a time and materials bill. Having technical data relating not just to the job at hand, but to something that “looks a little odd” unrelated to the task allows for a check of something that could turn into a pricey repair later.
The short version of this is for that $110.00 / hour rate, you’re getting far more than FAA standards on your aircraft maintenance. You’re getting the little details covered that can add up to major problems down the road. I’ll replace the worn screw on the instrument panel now so that later it won’t take an hour of billable time to drill it out and replace the hardware behind it. Or re-rout the wire bundle that is lying across a sharp edge, so that six months from now you don’t have an intermittent audio problem. Or take the black electrical tape off of the static line and fix it with the parts on hand while looking at an HSI discrepancy so your next IFR cert goes well and doesn’t have an extra four hours of labor for troubleshooting a leak. Those are some of the things that make a $110.00/hour labor rate a better return on your maintenance dollars.