Self Anointed Kings and Bully Pulpits – Part 2
Opinion / Editorial by David H. Marion: In a lot of Mike Busch’s writings on the subject of aircraft maintenance, one of his most common and recurring themes is that, in his apparent opinion, aircraft get too much maintenance. As I said previously, I have 30 years of experience as a professional aircraft mechanic – and I have never seen an aircraft that had too much maintenance. Just the opposite in fact; I have seen innumerable aircraft that have been neglected or abused and in any case insufficiently maintained by their owners. I have a huge archive of horror stories of things that I have witnessed personally, but maybe I will save them for another time or future articles of my own. Suffice it to say for now that the FAA is right to worry about aging aircraft. Not until just these past few years have I ever had to tell an owner that he was better off scrapping his airplane rather than trying to fix it – not just once, but actually three times now.
I also know that when I got my formal aircraft maintenance training and A&P certificates at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, the so-called “Harvard of the Skies” from which I graduated cum laude (i.e. with honors) my instructors always emphasized to all of the AMT students the critical and almost sacred nature of their future duties and responsibilities as aircraft mechanics. That is how I have always approached my job and my responsibilities as a “real” aircraft mechanic.
One thing that they did not teach us at ERAU however was how to talk to customers about their airplanes. Ever since reading that very first article by Mike Busch and hearing about his aircraft maintenance management consulting business (Savvy) it has been my feeling that the only reason that he was ever able to get a toe-hold in the market and start that business in the first place was because “real” aircraft mechanics and repair shop managers generally speaking do not do a good enough job communicating with their customers.
In my opinion, aircraft mechanics and repair shops need to do much more and in fact everything that they possibly can to communicate with and educate their customers regarding the maintenance requirements applicable to their aircraft. That includes not only what is “mandated” by the FAA or by official airworthiness requirements and limitations such as those often spelled out in type certificates and/or Chapter 4 of an ATA-standard maintenance or service manual, but also what is just “recommended” by various airframe, engine, propeller, and component manufacturers. Maybe even more importantly, they need to explain why – because there are always good and valid reasons for those recommendations. They were not just made up out of the blue for no reason.
But it is a two-way street as well; aircraft owners absolutely must be willing and able to be engaged with maintenance issues – and that is another reason why I have a problem with Mike Busch’s business model in regard to his company, Savvy Aircraft Maintenance Management. By inserting itself in between mechanics and aircraft owners, Savvy not only enables but implicitly encourages aircraft owners to abdicate their personal responsibilities per 14 CFR §91.3(a) and 14 CFR §91.7(b); the pilot in command is “directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft” and the PIC also “is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight.”
The seeming ignorance of a lot of pilots with regard to maintenance issues and formal airworthiness requirements never ceases to amaze and frustrate me. Simple ignorance or inexperience is one thing, but willful disregard of maintenance as some kind of “necessary evil” or even contempt for or dismissal of mechanics as somehow lesser airmen is another – but such things are never acceptable. How many aircraft owners complain about the maintenance done on their aircraft, or about what A&P mechanics charge for their work when automotive maintenance shops usually charge much more per hour for labor? As far as I know, aircraft mechanics go through much more intensive and comprehensive training, are certified to higher and stricter federal standards, and do a job that is much more critical, but they too often don’t get the respect such work should be accorded. Why is that – is it just because their hands get dirty every day?
At a recent Inspection Authorization (IA) refresher training seminar conducted by the local FSDO, the FAA PMI’s conducting it ended the session with the question “what else would you like to see in these seminars in the future?” I told them that I don’t know how they could mandate it, but I’d like to see more pilots and owners attend these kinds of maintenance training seminars. I feel like it would give them a better understanding or insight into what aircraft mechanics face every day on the job. (Note that for me, attendance at that refresher training seminar was redundant and not necessary. I attended simply out of professional interest and easily qualified for renewal of my IA last March on the basis of the number of Annual inspections I had done in the previous 2 years – 15. I’d bet that Mike Busch has never been able to make a similar claim.)
Many mechanics with whom I have discussed these issues often feel caught in the middle between the FAA and OEMs who want things done usually one way in particular. And that one way is almost always without apparent regard for cost or time, yet aircraft owners all too often see or express concern for nothing but the bottom line of the cost. Until just recently when the focus of their compliance and enforcement policies changed drastically, FAA inspectors, just like mechanics, seemingly took pride in finding obscure discrepancies mechanics missed. Maybe some of them still do, too. My point is that it is not easy for mechanics to do their jobs and I do not know any of them who do it solely for the money – because there really isn’t all that much of that in it for them.
When I am faced with a customer who seems to be overly focused on the issue of cost to the exclusion of actual airworthiness for example, I like to pose a hypothetical question “would you maintain scuba gear this way?” I like to point out that much more so than is the case with a car, an airplane is effectively a life-support system to help pilots and their passengers survive in an environment in which they would not easily survive without it – or in the event of its failure. Enlightened owners treat their aircraft accordingly – and let their mechanics help them out with that as best they can.
Besides the fact* that he actually has no practical or professional experience as one, the problem with Mike Busch giving aircraft maintenance advice to pilots while representing himself specifically as an A&P mechanic and IA is that he seems to focus on what they want to hear. In fact, the majority of Mike Busch’s aviation experience is instead just as one more pilot and aircraft owner. In my opinion, to be a “real” aircraft mechanic means being able to tell pilots and owners instead what they don’t necessarily want, but in fact really need to hear – whether they like it or not.
(*As detailed in Part 1 with regard to Mike Busch’s own personal biographies as posted on Savvy’s Web site and on LinkedIn.com)
I can cite many examples – such as each of the three owners of the aircraft that I recommended ought to be scrapped that I mentioned earlier. They certainly did want to hear that, but they just as certainly needed to hear it. For another one, a recent customer – not just one person but actually a whole flying club – expressed serious doubt about the specific operating instructions that they were given for the break in of the freshly overhauled engine in their Beech Bonanza. Some members were afraid of damaging the new engine by operating it as hard and hot as they were told to do. Why do pilots so often question the advice, guidance, and instructions given to them by mechanics?
As a matter of fact, the members of that flying club are more likely to hurt their new engine in the long run by babying it too much early on. A new engine needs to be pushed hard and made to work in order for piston rings to wear in and seat properly. The members of that same flying club must have short memories too, because not so long before their Bonanza had its engine overhauled, they had the engine in their Piper Cherokee overhauled too – and their warranty did not cover it when they did not break it in as instructed either.
Instead of working it hard by taking the airplane on a series of cross-country trips at high, cruise-power settings, they all stayed in the local pattern with it practicing take-offs and landings, getting “current” again after its extended “down” time for the engine overhaul. For the most part, 75% of their supposed “break in” time in the Cherokee was spent at significantly reduced power settings. For 3 out of the 4 legs of each circuit they made of the standard traffic pattern, all except for the actual upwind take-offs, they had the power pulled way back, but that’s NOT how they were told to operate it.
To use Mike Busch’s own words, I have to ask are pilots “congenitally spring loaded” to distrust, disbelieve, disrespect, or ignore aircraft mechanics? Do they just automatically assume that mechanics are less educated, less experienced, and less knowledgeable than they are? Do they assume as well that the only reason A&P mechanics have for being in the aircraft maintenance business in the first place is to squeeze as much money as possible out of aircraft owners? If so, why is that? Was the t-shirt correct – that pilots have been looking down on other people since 1903?
In an ideal world, once again in my own opinion, owners and pilots would be the best of friends with aircraft mechanics rather than for want of a better word – adversaries. Don’t they all actually have a common goal and a common interest, or even passion – to keep airplanes flying safely? When was the last time you heard of an aircraft owner going out to lunch with his mechanic, or having a beer together after work – or even better, after flying together? Just as in recreation league softball, they may play different positions, but they are still on the same team….
The real “tale of woe” here as far as I am concerned is that more is not being done to make that kind of thing more commonplace. Aviation is generally known for camaraderie among pilots, but how much better would it be if that more universally included mechanics too? Because you know what, I would bet that most aircraft mechanics love airplanes and flying just as much if not more than the average pilot. After all, professional A&P mechanics all obviously chose aviation as a career or profession whereas a lot of pilots actually make a living in other, usually unrelated fields.
Of course, that would not be in the interests of Mike Busch’s company, Savvy. Whether or not it was a conscious or even explicit business consideration, Savvy literally counts on there being a rift between owners and mechanics. Consider this however – at the end of the day, it is the mechanic’s signature that goes in your logbooks (with all of the attendant legal liability) and it is their work too that the FAA may eventually review – not Savvy’s or anyone who works there. As far as I can tell, Mike Busch and Savvy have no real skin in the game other than profit. Consultants like the people at Savvy have no formal authority and no actual responsibility according to the FAR’s when they “manage” the maintenance of aircraft and act as middlemen in between owners and the people actually “turning the wrenches.”
There is an old saying that when it comes to consulting “If you’re not part of the solution, there’s money to be made by prolonging the problem.” The real problem is not that airplanes need a lot of maintenance or that mechanics and pilots or owners often have opposing perspectives on it. In my opinion, the real problem here is that mechanics and aircraft owners simply don’t communicate well enough with each other – period. I believe that they really need to communicate better, both qualitatively and just as importantly directly between themselves – without any kind of middleman mucking it up or filtering it.
In any case, it would make me a little bit happier if Mike Busch would just shut up and sit down long enough for somebody else to get a word in edgewise. Short of that, if aircraft owners and pilots would at least make a more concerted effort to discuss with their own mechanics anything that he tells them– and in the process actually learn something more about their own airplane and its actual maintenance requirements, then maybe we could really make things better out there.
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 other editors via E-Mail: email@example.com