Every airplane owner knows the feeling. You take your airplane to the shop once each year for the inspector to go over it with a fine tooth comb and find everything that is wrong, and try to guess what may go wrong with it in the future.
When your airplane heads in for the annual there is no way to know with certainty how long it will be down, and what the final bill will be. And we are talking potential disaster here. If a significant internal failure is discovered in an engine and it must be overhauled or replaced many airplane owners are staring at a $50,000 bill.
My experience over decades of airplane ownership is that when you have no squawks at annual time, look out. Just when the airplane and all of its systems seem to be working perfectly, the inspector will find some major problems you had no idea existed.
That was my situation for this year’s annual. The airplane was running great. The only maintenance issue I was aware of was a leaking nose gear strut.
A few years earlier I had the shop add Granville Strut Seal to the nose oleo and that bought time sealing the leak to very minor fluid seepage. Granville works to soften and swell the O-rings in the struts to hold the hydraulic oil and nitrogen in. The stuff is widely used in all types of aircraft and it works. If you have a seeping oleo strut ask your shop to add the Granville kit. It’s available from most suppliers like Aircraft Spruce.
But now the fluid leak was back to the point where the nose strut had to be serviced about every six months. The only practical way to disassemble the nose gear strut on a Beech is to remove the whole gear leg. The overhaul parts—O-rings—cost only a few bucks, but labor is going to be several hours for an experienced shop so you’re looking at a $500 tab at best.
The only other actual evidence of a maintenance problem I discovered on the day I opened the hangar door to fly to the shop. There was a fuel stain on the left main landing gear and tire. That hadn’t been there before. The fuel lines run through the wheel well so I hoped it was just a loose fitting. But the two-speed electric fuel pump is also in the well over the main gear. That pump is very expensive to overhaul or replace.
In short order the shop called to confirm my fear. The electric fuel pump was leaking. But, the shop also found a certified repair station that could overhaul the pump for one third the price of an exchange saving more than a thousand bucks. Great.
But in the same call I learned two cylinders were leaking too much around the piston rings to pass inspection. Not exactly a surprise as they had over 2,000 hours on them. Since my flying activity is not what it used to be I’d like to get a couple more years out of that engine so I told the shop to replace them with overhauled cylinders. The engine was running fine, oil consumption was stable and well within limits so nothing bad was going to happen suddenly, but the cylinders were worn beyond limits.
The other “surprises” were some small oil leaks around an alternator gasket and cam cover and seeping case spine bolts and that sort of thing. The inspector also found that my whiskey compass was out of whiskey. I guess I never look at the thing so I hadn’t noticed. Compass fluid has such a distinct smell that you usually smell a leak before it’s visible. But not this time.
There was also a problem with the lower rudder bearing. When the inspector moved the rudder he heard a loud clunk. I had moved the rudder on preflight and heard nothing. But when the fairings were off they could see the bearing had corroded and needed replacement.
As has been the pattern over the past decade or so the annual bill zoomed past five figures. It’s hard to believe so much went wrong in a year and just under 100 hours of flying. If there had been no annual would safety have been compromised? Not immediately. The fuel pump leak was not good because fuel outside the system is at least a small hazard. More importantly, if the pump failed totally I would have been stuck someplace because it is almost impossible to start the engine without the electric pump to prime it. The other repairs and replacements probably wouldn’t have created safety issues for many hours to come and would almost certainly have issued some obvious warning.
But there was one important discovery the shop made and fixed that was a very real threat to the health and safety of me and my passengers. The boarding step mount was cracked badly. The crack was under the edge of the fuselage where I would have needed to lay on my back to see it during a preflight so not a great chance I would have found it on my own.
If that step had given way while I was climbing up to the wingwalk, or even worse, broken when I was stepping down, the result would have been a fall with at least cuts and scrapes, if not broken bones. So, for $195 an immediate safety risk was found and corrected. As for the other many thousands of bucks, well, rules are rules, and annual anxiety will continue for all airplane owners.