In the zone

My Cardinal RG recently returned to service after a pretty extensive annual inspection. The 12 months leading up to that annual were good because not one trip was canceled due to maintenance problems and only one trip was delayed.

In fact, on that particular trip, to Mt. Washington, N.H., I actually had two “mechanical” problems.

During my post-flight routine after arriving in New Hampshire, I noticed that the right cowl flap was open – even though I had closed them before exiting the airplane. It turned out that the cowl flap cable broke and so my morning included a quick and simple field repair that allowed me to open it when needed, and then it would just float when I closed the lever. (Actually, I really liked the set up because it kept my #3 cylinder 10° cooler with no speed penalty.)

From New Hampshire, my wife and I went to Groton, Conn., to take a ditching and water survival course. Once completed, we were ready to return to our Rowan County, N.C., base.

On that trip home, I elected to stop in Millville, N.J. (MIV). The lack of cooperation from New York ATC regarding route and altitudes, and weather and winds that were worse than forecast, made it apparent that I’d be getting into my personal fuel reserve minimums by the time we reached North Carolina.

We had stopped at Millville on the trip to New Hampshire and it was a nice experience – reasonable fuel prices, good food on the airport, as well as an FSS, so we elected to return.

After an ILS approach and visit to FSS, I wanted to reposition for fuel and food. After two swings of the prop, the starter locked up cold.

Fortunately, I was directed to Bruce Corey, manager of Aviation Support Services, located on the field. He towed us to his shop, located a replacement starter, loaned us his car at lunchtime, and handled the repair. He even fixed a few other small eagle eye details while he was under the cowl. He was friendly, detail oriented (I watched), and very fair with his pricing for the job. We were on our way three hours later. (We were expecting an overnight stay when it quit.)

That was the sum total of trips impacted by mechanical problems during a year where I put 165 hours on the RG and met important business obligations as far away as western Kansas. To be sure, I had some small squawks here and there, but they were caught during my normal routine of periodically pulling the cowling, airplane washings and oil changes.

To realize the maximum level of safety and reliability out of our planes, especially since the typical airplanes most of us fly have considerable years on them, we must consider the airplane as a “work in progress” project.

It’s never “done.” My plane was a mess when I bought it and it’s gone through a complete airframe, engine, prop, paint, interior and avionics refurbishing since I took title seven years ago.

One might think that, with this kind of work, it should be a simple matter of just putting gas and oil in it and go flying. And in truth, that’s how this plane usually operates when needed. But it’s not a simple matter. This is where the work in progress comes in. I’m not one to buy trouble or arbitrarily fix stuff that ain’t broke. However, I do believe in being aggressive at following a preventative maintenance plan that goes beyond just look and see. This is why each year I try to focus on a specific area for specialized attention beyond what’s required to pass an annual. It’s like a progressive maintenance “zone inspection” that the big boys do with their Jet-A burners.

For example, this year was landing gear and flexible hydraulic line year. One other year it was the tail section brackets, bushings and cable tensioners.

Does this guarantee me a trouble free year to come? No, but it does satisfy me in the endeavor to balance cost of operation and reliability. And most important of all is that doing the “zones” assures me that I’ve done all I can to feel safe and confident each time I roll down the runway.

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