Often the concept of legal versus safe arises in terms of applying the regulations to flight. The classic example, of course, is instrument currency where legal doesn’t necessarily equate to safe. However, one can also apply this to aircraft maintenance.
My motivation to write this right now is that my Cessna 340 is at the shop getting its annual. This year I chose what is arguably the best Twin Cessna maintenance facility in the world, TAS Aviation in Defiance, Ohio. Yes, Defiance is a long way from my Santa Fe, New Mexico home base—about 1100 NM and two legs, in each direction—but, I chose this shop for good reasons having far more to do with safe than just legal.
We’ve all heard the stories, or maybe even lived them, of an extremely cheap annual that failed to catch something simple like a loose wheel or a failing landing gear link. While I like a bargain as much as the next guy, there are some things where cost should at best only be a secondary consideration. Safety-related concerns are at the top of that list. There’s a reason things are cheap; the challenge is to balance inexpensive with acceptable quality.
And that’s where most of us struggle. For example, if my local mechanic would charge me, say, $1000 less than a top shop charges for the basic annual inspection, which is better? It should be no surprise that the answer begins with, “It depends…”
If my local mechanic is competent and diligent and at least passingly familiar with my aircraft type then I’ll get not only a legal sign off, but confidence that nothing big and ominous is wrong. But, at that bargain price, he might not be spending enough time to catch some nuance needing attention, or experienced enough to find it. Is this good enough?
I’m actively involved in my aircraft maintenance. I study Aviation Consumer diligently and have clear choices about the types of battery, tires, spark plugs, oil, filters, etc. that I want in my airplane. I want things maintained for the long haul, not just to get by cheaply until the next annual. But, having chosen what I think is best, I do try to get it at the lowest reasonable price.
So, who’s best? In my case, I try to alternate inexpensive-but-safe annuals with annuals at the nothing-slips-by specialist. Perhaps in one year I’ll do my annual locally, confident that there are no big problems. But, the next year, I’ll go to a shop like TAS Aviation, who know and see nearly everything because they’ve spent the last 40+ years working only on these aircraft types. In fact, I want them to find everything, so that my off-year, more economical annuals leave me more confident.
Sure, it’s much more expensive. A top shop will notice and squawk little things like missing anti-chafe tape, wrong placement or routing of hoses, wires, or fasteners, etc. Each of those items costs money to correct, but when I get the plane back, I feel really good that there’s virtually nothing wrong with it at all, no little problems working in the background to become big problems later. That great confidence far overshadows the ache from my much lighter wallet.