Bells and Whistles and Pretty Paint

BellsImage courtesy and copyright Dave Marion

Bells and Whistles and Pretty Paint

Written by Dave Marion – Years ago, I worked on a simple Cessna 172 for a customer who had just bought it for his flight school. At first glance, the airplane was quite pretty with a relatively recent paint job with bright orangey red stripes. It got interesting however and really piqued my curiosity when I went to do the very first oil change on it. Something about it did not look right when I went to remove the engine cowling. The lower cowling at least and the carburetor airbox were not correct for that particular model.

As a 1976 Cessna model 172M with a 150 hp Lycoming O-320-E2D engine, it was supposed to have an unusually long, combined carburetor airbox and induction air filter assembly that was rigidly mounted underneath the engine, and which free-floated relative to the lower cowling but never actually connected to it. The lower cowling was supposed to have only a rectangular opening in front of and surrounding the filter on the front of the rigid airbox.

Instead, this particular aircraft had a seemingly later-style, short airbox and carburetor heat valve assembly which connected via a flexible duct to an induction air filter assembly fastened directly to the lower cowling – of the type used on the subsequent Cessna models 172N and 172P with their 160 hp Lycoming O-320-H2AD and O-320-D2J engines respectively.

When I read through the maintenance log books, looking for some evidence of an approved major alteration (in the form of an appropriately executed FAA Form 337 or some kind of STC) I found instead something else that was very curious – an unexplained 10 year gap in the maintenance records. On one left-hand page, there was a sign-off for a basic Annual inspection in the spring of 1983 and on the facing, right-hand page, there was another sign-off for another Annual inspection – but it had been done in 1993. It was also essentially routine, boring, and similarly unnoteworthy.

That 10 year gap made me even more curious and so I did some research on the NTSB’s aircraft accident Web database. Sure enough, I found a record of an accident involving this particular aircraft; it was dated a few months after the Annual inspection in 1983. Of even more concern to me, it contained a description of apparently extensive damage that had been done to the aircraft:

THE ACFT COLLIDED WITH THE MUDDY BANK OF THE INTERCOASTAL WATERWAY DURING THE 2ND OF TWO LOW PASSES AND NOSED OVER WHEN THE NOSE GEAR DUG IN.

The thing is, there was absolutely no record in the maintenance logbooks of any subsequent major repairs of any kind. Based on that description however, I can easily imagine that it would have needed extensive repairs to the nose gear, engine mount, firewall, and of course the lower cowling and airbox at the very least. Depending on just how far it “nosed over” it also could have flipped over onto its back and incurred damage to wings, roof, and especially the vertical stabilizer and rudder. But there was no record of any such major repairs.

The carburetor and “short” type induction airbox on a Lycoming O-320 engine on a Cessna 172.

Just to be thorough, I also checked the engine logbooks – and found out that the engine “currently” on the airplane at that time most likely was not the same engine that was on it at the time of the riverbank crash. In spite of that, the news was still not good – because I found another suspicious 10 or so year gap in its records too – and once again with no particularly noteworthy or unusual maintenance documented there; just the same old, boring, routine Annual inspections each year since the end of the otherwise unexplained gap.

I traced that particular engine back to a different Cessna 172, a 1971 model 172L to be more precise. And then I found that it too had been involved in a completely different accident that presumably resulted in significant damage of its own. According to the NTSB;

THE PLT RPRTD HE LANDED IN WINDS WHICH WERE GUSTING TO 20 KTS. AS THE ACFT TOUCHED DOWN, IT BALLOONED & THE PLT APPLIED SOME POWER TO MAINTAIN CONTROL. AS HE CONTD THE LANDING, THE ACFT BEGAN TO DRIFT TO THE LEFT. THE PLT ATTEMPTED A GO-AROUND, BUT HE WAS UNABLE TO GET THE ACFT AIRBORNE. SUBSEQUENTLY, THE ACFT CONTD OFF THE RWY, WENT OVER ROUGH TERRAIN & HIT A CHAIN LINK FENCE.

In my professional opinion, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that that engine was required to have a “sudden stoppage” or “prop-strike” tear-down inspection afterward – but there was no record in its logbooks of anything like that. According to them however, it had nothing more than routine oil and filter changes, its spark plugs gapped and tested, and otherwise insignificant Annual inspections ever since and including the first Annual after the multi-year gap following the date of the landing accident.

Going one step even further, my research into the records of that particular aircraft showed that it had left the Cessna factory with the “Skyhawk II” trim package, which included among other things the little red and white map light mounted on a swivel on the left door pillar for the pilot’s use at night. But the aircraft no longer had any such map light installed – and no weight and balance or Equipment List revision to account for any of the missing equipment and trim.

But the airplane in question had a beautiful paint job!

I actually ended up quitting the job I had at that time because nobody else there shared my concern for the obviously and potentially dangerous “unknown” condition or status of that airframe and engine and the repairs that had or had not been done to them. That just did not sit well with me and I didn’t want to be party to any such apathy or willful ignorance. My supervisor and employer just shrugged it off as a “what can you do” situation and so did the aircraft’s owner. So did the FAA as well; they’re only suggestion or “help” was to offer to give us a “field approval” for the incorrect lower cowling and carburetor airbox.

The inspectors from the FAA told us that they could not force us to remove, tear-down, or inspect that engine – in spite of the fact that there was no logbook record of maintenance that was considered to be mandatory and necessary – and the “official” absence of which was obviously an airworthiness and safety issue. Because the standard is – if it isn’t in the logbooks, then it didn’t happen.

Maybe it was something of a different time when that happened almost 20 years ago. When I recounted this exact same story much more recently to some different Principle Maintenance Inspectors (PMI) and Airworthiness Safety Inspectors (ASI) from my local FAA FSDO, they all agreed that everyone else back in the day had handled that situation incorrectly. One of them in particular it so happens also went quite white in face as the blood drained out of it. He grudgingly admitted that he had later learned to fly in that very same airplane, after it was later sold to a different flight school. The thought of what he hadn’t known about its history still scared him even then after many years had gone by.

I know for a fact that it also was repainted at least twice since then and I can only hope that at some point, someone eventually tore down, inspected, and presumably re-overhauled that engine too.

A quite pretty, yet also quite old Piper Arrow – the paint on which belies several more serious issues “below the skin.”

Just as with a fresh paint job, in my professional experience too many pilots and aircraft owners are overly and unduly impressed by the “bells and whistles” of new avionics. While there have been some truly remarkable achievements and advances in that field over the past 20 years, just as with AOPA’s recent issue poll about which I commented last week, I feel like they are too often missing the point. New paint and flashy avionics, especially as related to “glass cockpit” graphical displays, are “beautiful” but as the saying might also go – “beauty is skin deep but unairworthy is to the bone.”

By that I mean that pilots and owners too often seem to focus on the wrong things. I had another recent customer who questioned and almost only grudgingly approved repairs to his Piper that included replacing worn out seat adjustment parts, a cabin heat control cable, and a rotten, foam-core floorboard assembly that kept his middle row of seats out of his flight control cables, fuel selector plumbing, and other critical systems and components mounted inside the spar box carry-through structure underneath.

On the other hand, he had been almost happy to have just spent many thousands of dollars on new avionics for that airplane. He was even more so to “hand-me-down” some of the older equipment that he had just replaced in his first airplane to have it re-installed in his second airplane – a process which was expected to require the fabrication and installation of a whole new instrument panel. For those bells and whistles he was happy to spend a lot of money, but for the not-so-flashy, basic airworthiness and maintenance issues with his airplanes, not so much.

My point is that pilots and owners ought to constantly assess and evaluate their priorities when it comes to how they maintain their airplanes and how they allocate their precious money and other assets to care for them. While a good paint job can be important in terms of corrosion control, especially on seaplanes, it seemingly too often is also used to hide a plethora of problems underneath.

Instead of fixing things that need to be fixed, owners sometimes just have them painted over, especially if they are trying to sell the airplane. Because too often as well, once again in my own experience, buyers do not get a good and thorough “pre-buy” inspection. They also too often take the word of the seller’s mechanic or maintenance shop who did the supposed “fresh Annual” with which their new airplane was advertised instead of having a trusted mechanic of their own or an at least neutral “third-party” and type experienced mechanic check it out first.

When you look past the pretty paint or the “bells and whistles” of the avionics package, there are many more important and fundamental things to check on an airplane that should be used to judge its actual value and its all-important “airworthiness” instead. For too many years, the FAA did not do a very good job of explaining the meaning or significance of the concept of “airworthiness” but finally in about 2007 or so, they added a working definition to the Federal Aviation Regulations under 14 CFR §3.5(a):

Definitions. The following terms will have the stated meanings when used in this section: Airworthy means the aircraft conforms to its type design and is in a condition for safe operation.”

Pilots and owners would do well to realize that the legal implications of that definition go way beyond simply whether or not it can fly – that was never the actual standard for determining airworthiness. With so relatively few new aircraft coming on the market these days and the average age of the general aviation fleet almost constantly increasing, the fact of the matter is that most GA aircraft types are well known by most mechanics and they have a good idea what kinds of problems each of them typically have – so go ask one of those mechanics before you go out and buy one of those airplanes with the pretty paint and the flashy “bells and whistles” in its instrument panel.

Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at Seaplanemagazine.com. As A&P and IA with 30 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, he is also a Commercial Pilot with Airplane, Single & Multi-Engine, and Instrument ratings. He has a BA from Colgate University in 1984 and also graduated cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (DAB) with a BS in Aviation Technology in 1990. He can be reached along with all of the editors via E-Mail: editor@seaplanemagazine.com

Next: The Quest Kodiak – 10 Years and Counting

1 Comment on "Bells and Whistles and Pretty Paint"

  1. What’s the solution to the “Aging Aircraft” problem?

    Most every vehicle over 40 years old is going to have a history of changes and repairs. Many of the changes and repairs make the vehicle safer and some just the cheapest fix. Aircraft are unique because the changes and repairs need approved and recorded. So often the cost of approval is mathematically not worth the change or repair. Cessna doesn’t offer a trade in option so, I guess, the owner just flies it to the junkyard and get out of aviation?

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