Sunday morning came with bright sunshine, calm winds, and clear skies. I was being lazy, lying in bed, taking my time before getting up to feed the chickens, tend to the dogs, and make a large pot of coffee. Then my phone went off.
Time to get rolling.
One of my flying club buddies sent a message reporting that one mag on our C-182 was running rough, with a big drop in RPM, and the occasional backfire. As the club’s maintenance officer, those calls come to me. Not constantly, but it’s not a rarity, either.
Looking back on my flying career, I can’t imagine the full number of times I’ve had to ground a flight because of an issue that arose unexpectedly. It’s not enough times that I’d say maintenance issues have thrown a shadow over my career. But there have been enough incidents that they’ve left an impression on me.
As the old saying goes, it’s much better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.
I’ve had electrical system failures in flight, and two engine failures so far. I’ve had instruments quit working, and a radio or two become essentially inoperative due to a broken wire, or a blown speaker, or some other electronic voodoo gremlin that took up residence in the cockpit.
But that’s all stuff that happened in the air. When those situations arise my thought process is fairly simple. Can I fix this or can I not fix this? If I can fix it, what are my options? If I can’t fix it, what are my options?
Landing at the first suitable field may be a good idea, or it might not be necessary.
If a radio quits, but I’ve got another one that’s working fine, I’m inclined to continue to my destination. On the other hand, if I see oil pressure dropping and oil temperature rising, which has happened to me just once to this point, I’m going to put that bad boy down as soon as I possibly can. If the closest airport is too far away, my precautionary landing might well be in a field somewhere.
I haven’t faced an off-airport landing due to maintenance issues before. But I’m determined that if the situation ever arises, I’ll keep that option open and make use of it if necessary.
This latest issue is different. It happened on the ground. When in doubt, I’m a big fan of staying on the ground. There’s no point in launching off in an airplane only to find out that minor annoyance you discovered on the run-up pad has turned into a full-blown in-flight emergency.
My flying club buddy made a good call. Now it’s time for me to get dirty.
Now, lest you think me a superhuman with remarkable skills, let me be honest. More often than not my role as maintenance officer means I’m the guy who makes the call to the local A&P to arrange for trouble-shooting and a fix. My schedule is busy enough that I don’t get to personally roll up my sleeves as often as I might like. But when the situation calls for it, I do.
In this case, the situation calls for it. You see, the maintenance operator I used for a number of years moved to a new location, too far away to be of practical use to me now. The maintenance operator I used more recently has had a substantial turnover of mechanics lately, leaving them with none I find particularly appealing. And while I have a good relationship with a mechanic whom I’ve worked with in the past and think highly of, he’s no longer based at my airport. The administration won’t allow him to work on my airplane. I’ve asked and the idea has been summarily rejected.
So now, it’s down to me to be the fix-it guy.
You’ve very possibly faced similar circumstances over the course of your flying. It’s not a rarity by any means. And while some may find it an aggravation to have to break out the toolbox, pop the cowl, and start poking around at the innards of the airplane, others choose to see it as an opportunity.
I’d like to think I fall into that latter group.
My flying club chose to do an owner-assisted annual inspection this year, for just that reason. Some members had never seen the airplane with the interior removed, the cowl open, and the inspection covers off.
Pitching in to work with your mechanic, if he or she is willing to guide you through each task, can be a priceless confidence builder. Knowing more about what’s under the skin of the airplane you’re flying is far better than knowing less.
Not to mention owner-assisted maintenance can be an effective cost-saving measure that can make the difference between being able to afford an airplane of your own and not being able to afford one.
So, this afternoon, after I wrap up my work day, I’ll be off to the airport to pull the cowl off, run the engine up, and see what I might see. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the problem will be nothing more than a fouled spark plug. Or maybe we’ll end up sending a magneto out for overhaul. In the worst-case scenario, we’ll find a badly damaged piston due to those reported backfires actually being detonation.
One way or another, we’ll get to the bottom of the issue, fix it, and have a story to tell later.
Because things break. That can’t be helped. Fortunately, things can be fixed, too. That is the light at the end of the tunnel we all need to be thankful for.