Ramblings about flying for fun and profit.

Category: Aircraft Maintenance Page 1 of 5

Repairing and maintaining an airplane.

Time Flies but I Haven’t

Propless Hangared Swift.

Yes, there is something missing.

I just looked at my logbook today (yes, I still log every flight that I make) and was really disappointed at what I found. The last time I wrote an article here I described a flight I had in June to take part in Swift World Domination Day.

Believe it or not, that was the last time I flew my Swift. I knew it had been a while but I had no idea it was going on 6 months. I flew a couple of times in August in a friend’s Piper PA-28-180 and I got about a half hour in the EAA Ford Trimotor (see below) but there is nothing else noted in my logbook.  Pretty sad.

That isn’t to say that I have not been involved in aviation – I just haven’t been up in the air.

In January of this year I was elected as president of the Reno-Stead EAA Chapter (Chapter 1361). Taking care of those duties has taken a lot more time than I anticipated. The Chapter has made tremendous progress in growth and visibility during the year under the guidance of our new officers and board but the progress has come with a large time commitment. With help from the chapter members I expect my work load to ease a bit.

In July I drove back to Oshkosh and experienced AirVenture for the first time in about 30 years. It was the same and it was different. I’ll write an article about that soon.

In August I started on the annual inspection on the Swift. I took my time and was considering replacing the instrument panel in the process while making room for some sort of ADS-B installation. I looked the prop over then decided to take it to a shop in the SF Bay area to have it inspected. While the flight time on the prop was minimal, it had been 16 years since it installed on the plane. I ended up telling the shop to overhaul the prop. That process is still ongoing.  The length of time that the overhaul is taking is not a function of the ability or professionalism of the prop shop, it is merely a result of the need to come up with an unexpected amount of funds to pay for the overhaul. I should have it back on the Swift in December – assuming I can get back and forth over the Sierras during a winter weather break.

In September the EAA Chapter provided volunteers to operate the people-mover shuttles during the National Championship Air Races. I’ll just say that it was an unexpected and very tiring experience trying to keep all the volunteers going in the right direction.

During the Air Races our EAA Chapter received an offer from EAA to host their Ford Trimotor Tour at our home airport. I polled the members of the Board about their feelings toward the event and then gave EAA a thumbs-up for a stop in November. So as soon as we had cleaned up everything from the Air Races we began getting ready for the Trimotor. That seems like a long time between events, but the Chapter had never hosted that type of event, had no history of local area public relations and needed to start the process of obtaining a use permit for the event from the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. It was a true learning experience on all sorts of levels.

Back in November of last year (2015) the IMC-Club and EAA merged their efforts forming EAA IMC LLC, a subsidiary of EAA, Inc.,  to distribute IMC Club materials to any EAA Chapter that wants to establish a Club as part of their chapter. IMC Club is a guided discussion group of real-life IFR scenarios. The Scenarios are submitted by IMC Club members, massaged into an audiovisual presentation and provided to Club coordinators as discussion topics. Our EAA Chapter decided to form an IMC Club as a way to attract new Chapter members and to promote that EAA is not just about building airplanes. I took the club Coordinator training, found a meeting location and promoted the inaugural meeting.  We had ten people show up for the inaugural meeting, two joined our EAA chapter after the event and three more established Trial EAA memberships.

The Trimotor event went off in November as though we had been doing it for years. The weather was absolutely perfect for the entire 4 days – clear and winds no more than 10 knots. Rare for any time of year in Reno. The plane left for it’s next stop on Monday and Tuesday a front came through Reno with wind gusts to 60 kts., low ceilings and rain.  The Trimotor was a fun event, provided the airport users with another look at the activity of the EAA Chapter and brought in a few dollars for the Chapter (the hosting chapter shares in the ticket, merchandise and sponsor revenue). I ran the Chapter information table and signed up two more new members during the event.

And that finds us still trying to digest all the great Thanksgiving meals, trying to balance our checkbooks after the Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales and getting the snow plow in condition to handle the storm moving in tonight.

While I have had a real dry spell manipulating the controls of a physical airplane, I have been very aviation-active.

I will provide more frequent updates here whether I fly or not. I will also be publishing on our EAA Chapter website and am making a renewed effort to publish more frequently on my website design business website.

It is possible that I am spreading myself a bit thin but with a concerted effort at time management everything ought to work out.

Off the Injured List

ACK A-30 Altitude Encoder

ACK A-30 Altitude Encoder

My last post described my encounter with NORCAL Approach and a problem with the altitude reading they were receiving from my transponder/encoder.

I had, with the help of the local avionics shop (Aviation Classics), investigated the malfunction to the point where the altitude encoder appeared to be the most likely culprit. I had three options at that point and chose to send the unit back to the manufacturer, ACK Technologies in San Jose, CA.

I had talked with ACK about the problem before I shipped it off and found that they would test and repair the unit for a $100 fee plus the shipping cost ($12) to send it back. So, off it went. The ‘excellent’ timing put the unit in their hands the Friday before a 3-day weekend. So, I waited until Wednesday morning of the following week to call and see what they found.

I talked with their encoder guru (José) and found that they had been running it for 3 days and had found no errors in it’s output. He suggested that perhaps it was a wiring issue between the unit and the transponder. Hmm. When Aviation Classics came out for the initial troubleshooting they had with them an identical replacement unit that, when plugged into my system,  provided a correct altitude signal to the transponder.  Great. Now what? José gave me the option of sending the unit back to me at no charge or paying the service fee and he would put in a new  circuit board.

There was a possibility that the only problem was a poor connection between the plug and the encoder that was corrected when the avionics tech plugged in the replacement unit but there was no way to know if that was the problem or the unit was becoming intermittent after working for 6 years. I dug out my bank card and told José to replace the circuit board.

I had a box from ACK the next day. Apparently I finished the call just before their daily package pick-up. Rather than take the extra time to put a new card in my unit, the great folks at ACK just grabbed a new unit off the shelf and sent it to me. You can’t beat service like that.

The next day I went out to the airport, installed the new unit and took it for a short flight. I climbed up to 9000′ north of Stead and called NORCAL Approach asking if they had time for a transponder check. They gave me a squawk code, I plugged it in and they said everything looked fine.

A couple of days later I had the folks at Aviation Classics come out again and do a VFR transponder/encoder certification. The tech adjusted the altitude output by 100′ but everything else worked fine. So the transponder/encoder are legal to go for another 2 years. Of course, all this time the weather had been beautiful and we had been setting high temperature records.

The weather since then has been unsuitable for enjoyable flying. A few days ago we were recording winds at the airport gusting to 50 knots and gusts at the top of Slide Mountain (which I can see from my house) at 120 knots.  Then rain the past week has raised the water level of Lake Tahoe by 4″ – much needed but not really VFR weather.  It would really be nice to be getting snow like they are in the eastern U.S. – maybe next winter it will be our turn.

All that has cleared out now and the weekend is supposed to be nice so I’ll do my best to get up in the air again.

Currency and the Professional Pilot

A reader has asked me an interesting and somewhat complicated question concerning flying currency for both military and civilian professional pilots especially when coupled with the life expectancy of various airframes and allowable budgets. Wow. I don’t know, but I would guess that even a small part of that topic has been the subject of a number of papers at various Air or Naval War College sessions.

Airframe Hours

First a bit about the life expectancy of aircraft airframes. Manufacturers build aircraft with a life-expectancy in mind, usually expressed in cycles and/or flight hours. Cycles are usually taken to be one takeoff and one landing. It correlates to both landing gear operations and, for pressurized aircraft, the pressurization and de-pressurizing cycle associated with a single flight. Aircraft similar to the Boeing 737 that an airline like Southwest uses could see as many as seven cycles in a day while something like a Boeing 747, 777 or 787 flying internationally and making a takeoff  with a corresponding landing 8 – 14 hours later may only log a cycle every day and a half. For long-haul aircraft  it may be more appropriate to use flight hours as a gauge of aircraft age.

Most transport category aircraft are maintained using a periodic inspection process while smaller planes, especially general aviation planes, use an annual inspection. All of them receive the same types of inspections over the 12 months, but the transport category planes get to do it in a piece-meal fashion, possibly checking a specific list of systems each quarter. That allows the operator to complete the inspections during a long overnight at a one of its maintenance bases  rather than taking the aircraft out of service for several days.

Transport planes also have something called a ‘Heavy Check’ or a ‘C Check’ that takes the airframe out of service for an extended period while the maintenance facility essentially takes the plane apart, inspects everything, makes necessary repairs and then puts it back together. It’s pretty impressive to see a 747 up on jacks in a hangar with almost nothing inside it between the upper skin and the lower skin. And I can tell you from experience that the stuff that ends up in the bottom of an airliner is just plain gross.

If you take an airplane completely apart, inspect it carefully and professionally and put it back together again you , in effect, have a new airframe. That is why you see personal airplanes originally manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s still in operation. The ones that have been totally ‘restored’ are like-new or better than new because often outdated hardware and coverings will be replaced with modern materials (with FAA Approval, of course).

Military aircraft go through the same process and the inspections are probably more critical. The environment in which military aircraft operate requires many more hours of maintenance per flight hour than a civilian transport aircraft. Fortunately, for the military, there are many more maintenance technicians assigned to each aircraft, often assigned to a specific airframe, to make sure that the aircraft remains airworthy and operationally ready. Every airframe is different, just like every car does not drive/feel/operate exactly the same. Assigning one technician or one team of technicians to a specific airframe allows them to learn the aircraft’s quirks and to develop a pride in their work. At least that is what I found in my service experience. If you never knew who was working on the plane then when something didn’t work right the finger was always pointing at someone else.

It’s pretty obvious when looking at the Air Force fleet of B-52’s that the ‘expected’ airframe life can be extended with diligent maintenance, refurbishment and upgrades. I’m sure there are some B-52 pilots out there who listened to their grandfathers talk about flying the first models of the bomber. I remember seeing my first Lockheed C-5 on the ramp at Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam. Then ten years later I was flying it and continued to do so until I retired eight years later. The C-5 is still flying with our Air Force Reserve units around the country.

Do accidents happen because an airframe has gotten too old? Sure they do. In 1988, Aloha Airlines a Boeing 737-100 operating as Flight 243 had part of the top of the fuselage fail structurally. The plane had been built in 1969 and had 89,680 cycles (35,496 hours) logged. One of the findings was that the airline’s inspection and maintenance programs were deficient.

Could this happen again?  I doubt it. For one, the FAA has gotten more strict on the allowable cycles before an airframe must be retired. And the public just doesn’t like to fly on the older airplanes – shiny and new is always better, even if the plane is made of composites. Airlines are continually cycling new airframes into their fleet, usually because the life-cycle cost of maintenance and operation pencils out to be cheaper than the older airframes.


Flight Training, Currency and Budgets

So,  we have figured out that we can make commercial airframes last as long as is financially feasible and in the case of the military we can continue to rebuilt/refurbish/upgrade the airframes until Congress can be convinced that the military really needs something new.

Airline training budgets are penciled out to be as lean as possible. Even the classroom portions of the training are compressed into the minimum possible time so that the pilots get into revenue-generating mode as quickly as possible.  I just read a good article on the subject of initial airline training in the December issue of Flight Training Magazine (p. 40).  The training was described, in basic terms:

  1.  Airline Indoctrination – 2 weeks
  2. Aircraft Systems – 1-2 weeks
  3. Flight Training Device/Procedures Trainer – 1-2 weeks
  4. Simulator Training – 2-3 weeks
  5. IOE (Initial Operating Experience in the actual aircraft) – 25 hours flight time

Each phase has at lease one written/oral/practical evaluation. The longer phase times would apply for the larger, more complex aircraft types. Now that the FAA has mandated that airline pilots (Part 121 scheduled airlines) must have at least 1500 hours of flight experience and an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate one could assume that the flight capability of a new airline pilot would be well established and the training would amount to something like upgrade training to a more complex aircraft and operation. Only the airlines know for sure.

Airline pilots have the same currency requirements as general aviation pilots with an instrument rating. In most cases there is no need to do anything other than fly the monthly bid schedule to met the minimum currency requirements for landings and instrument approaches. That changes if the pilot is sitting on call ( has bid or has been awarded a ‘Reserve’ position ). Reserve pilots are on call to fill in when a scheduled pilot says they are too sick to fly, has misread their schedule and failed to show up for a flight or when weather interrupts the best-laid plans of the airline. Occasionally a Reserve pilot will not be used for a period long enough that they must make a quick trip to the airline’s training facility to regain their landing currency in the simulator. There are also recurrent formal training requirements dictated by the airline’s operating certificate. Some have an annual 4 or 5-day simulator session and a short refresher 6 months later. Others have a short simulator session every 9 months. It depends upon what they have presented to the FAA and has been approved.

Airline training budgets are factored into the cost of increasing or renewing the airline’s pilot population. Airline expansion plans, aircraft replacements and simulator purchases are all analyzed over and over to come up with the right mix to accomplish the airline’s goals. If the numbers don’t add up they either shelve their plans or find an additional source of funds to make the changes. Baggage fees, box lunches and seat selection fees seem to be working for them right now.

Military training is a totally different animal. The only way to become a military pilot is to go through the respective pilot training program. When I went through Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) it was one year long. They started in the Cessna 172, progressed to the Cessna T-37 and finished up with the Northrup T-38. Now I believe they split after the T-37 and send part of each class to the Beechjet ( Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk ) for multi-engine training and a follow-on assignment to transport-category aircraft. It seems like a really long time compared to the airline training but you have to realize that the airlines are not going to spend time teaching you low-level navigation, aerobatic or formation (2-ship & 4-ship) flying. After graduating from UPT the newly-minted military pilot will be assigned to an operational weapon system and will then move on to specialized training in that aircraft. The military follow-on training could be related to upgrade training for a new airline aircraft except that it would also include all of the mission-specific training associated with the weapon system. That would be things like low-level navigation, air refueling, air-drop, air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons delivery, etc.  I would imagine that there is someone in some small room in the bottom of the Pentagon who knows just how much it costs to graduate a pilot for each weapon system in the inventory. I doubt that my calculator has enough digits.

Currency for a military pilot is as complicated as the initial training. I remember taking multiple checkrides each year – there were VFR checkrides, IFR checkrides, Formation checkrides, Air Refueling checkrides, etc, etc. There were evaluations in every phase of flight that your aircraft was expected to fly. There were also associated currency requirements – landings of different types, day and night, air refueling sorties – light weight, heavy-weight, day and night, instrument approaches of various types and VFR landings of different types.

With all those different types of currency requirements how can you maintain a mission-ready status? I imagine that unit commanders lose a lot of sleep trying to figure that out. When the budget gets cut again and again and you can’t maintain a mission-ready status (which is required) I would imagine that your only option is to reduce the number of planes and pilots that you have to maintain.  I heard someone say recently that our military budget is approaching the level it was before WWII. With budgets at those levels and prices at our current levels how will the military pilots stay current in all the missions they are expected to fly? I have no idea. Maybe they are spending more time in simulators – and the simulators have been upgraded to permit landing currency events. I didn’t see that quality of simulation until I joined an airline. While flying the C-5 as an instructor/evaluator we were spending 4 hours in the traffic pattern with multiple pilots on board making sure that each one logged their minimum landing/instrument approach requirements. We did the same thing with air refueling training missions only those flights lasted 5-6 hours.

I have no reservations about airline pilots maintaining their currency and, more importantly, proficiency.  Military budget cuts and sequestration have me wondering how the military can continue at it’s required readiness level.

Maybe one of you out there can shed some more current light on the subject.


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