The Cheap Annual — A Dangerous Proposition

Ah, it’s that time of year again! Spring has rolled past, and with it have come blooming flowers, grass to mow, and finally tagging along for the ride, my annual inspection. While some pilots dread their annual inspection, I look forward to mine with great anticipation. The reason that I look forward to my annual is that I use it to make my plane safer and better.

WHY ARE YOU SHOCKED? If you are one of the pilots who are shocked to hear that someone looks forward to an annual, we need to talk for a moment. Remember, the annual inspection is the method that we use to make sure our airplanes stay airworthy. Qualified airframe and powerplant mechanics will closely examine our aircraft, looking for problems before they can develop into in-flight emergencies. If they do their job well, we will be able to fly for another year with few problems. If they don’t do their job very well . . . well, that is a completely different story, isn’t it?

THINKING OF “GOING CHEAP?” Some pilots I know have “gone cheap” on some annuals. In this case, they take their planes to a less than reputable FBO, that gives their plane a cursory inspection, and after receiving your check, signs off the logbooks for another year. This approach is also known as a “paper annual,” since the majority of the annual inspection time was spent looking at the paperwork, as well as the paper in your wallet!

ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT, CHEAP ANNUALS ARE NOT SMART. Here are the Top 4 Reasons Why You Should Avoid A Cheap Annual

  1. IT ISN’T LEGAL. Generally, a paper annual is NOT legal in accordance with the FARS. While some would argue that if the plane is signed off it is legal to fly, the regs require the plane be maintained in accordance with the associated inspection manual. The inspection manual for your plane will typically include inspections that take between 20 and 40 hours or more to complete.
  2. IT INCREASES YOUR CHANCE OF AN ACCIDENT. If your plane wasn’t inspected properly, that many more waking gremlins would have gone un-noticed. This promotes unexpected breakdowns and malfunctions. Perhaps the breakdown will be minor, such as a loose cover plate that vibrates and makes an annoying noise when you fly. Perhaps it will be more sinister, such as a bad fuel cap that breaks off in flight, and allows all your fuel to be siphoned overboard. Since you went cheap on the annual, you can’t tell what is coming.
  3. IT INCREASES THE CHANCE OF A MID-YEAR MAINTENANCE PERIOD. Planes are designed to be inspected and “fixed up” every year or so. They aren’t designed to run for several years with a minimum inspection, because that minimum inspection will miss checks on critical components. Parts wear and things need to be replaced. Say for example that your mechanic fails to inspect your empennage, and as a result, misses one of the control cable pulleys that decided to lock up last year. Your controls become sloppier and sloppier as the pulley wears and is cut by the cable. The end result is that you need a new pulley (cheap) and a new cable (expensive!) to resolve the problem, when you could have had a new pulley and tighter controls had you done the annual right in the first place!
  4. IT CAN CHALLENGE YOUR SKILLS AS A PILOT. If your annual is not as good as it should be, you are inviting multiple system failures. If you are flying VFR, and lose your alternator and your trim control, you will probably make it to the ground. If you are flying on instruments, that dual challenge may be enough to really screw up your day.

In this case, our pilot has gone cheap on several annuals in a row. His plane is flying all right. On one flight, a fuel leak develops from a loose fitting. The fuel sprays on to the hot exhaust manifold, resulting in an engine compartment fire.

Our pilot is fairly observant, and spots the fire as it flares out of his cowling. He immediately follows his emergency procedure, and shuts down the engine. However, when he goes to secure the fuel to the engine, the fuel selector won’t move — he has used it so infrequently, that it has seized in plane. Because he went cheap on his annual, his mechanic didn’t catch it either.

THE FLAMES ARE NOW ROARING IN THE COWL, because the prop is still windmilling, which turning the fuel pump and pumping 100LL into the fire. Our pilot starts to cough, so he reaches down for the Firewall Cutoff for his cabin ventilation. As he pulls the cutoff, it won’t move! THE CABLE FROZE UP OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS FROM CORROSION, but since he went cheap on his annual, his mechanic didn’t catch that either.

Our pilot now recognizes how deep his problems are, and starts to look for a place to land. He picks out a nice farm field, and sets up for a landing. He is able to land, and gets out of his plane with his fire extinguisher, only to be confronted with a FIELD FIRE! The burning fuel from the airplane continued as he landed, and he left a strip of burning, dry grass behind his plane as he landed. Our pilot runs for his life, as the field burns his plane to a crispy, toasty crunchy blob. The resulting brush fire burns for days and is stopped only by the “natural” firebreak of an eight-lane highway half a mile away … the one that our pilot hadn’t been able to spot through his panic.

BOTTOM LINE: Your annual is there to protect you, your passengers — and people and property on the ground. Take your plane to a good mechanic, and have your bird checked over properly. A good annual inspection is more than a good idea, it’s good for the aviation community (fewer accidents through better maintenance), but it’s also the law.