Where Do You Start?
by bob pastusek
Do you need repairs or equipment upgrades to your Lancair experimental aircraft? Many are surprised to learn that the legal requirements for who can do this work are minimal, but that the practical issues with actually getting it done can be formidable—and expensive.
First of all, the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) place no restrictions on who may modify, repair or service experimental aircraft—a scary thought if taken to the extreme. You are still required to document all work in the appropriate airframe or engine logbook (more on this later), and certain modifications and repairs must be flight tested before returning the aircraft to operational service, but all questions regarding the technical competence of the person performing the work are entirely up to the aircraft owner. While the original builder would likely take on all but the most sophisticated engine or avionics repairs, fewer than half the current Lancair owners are original builders, so enlisting "outside help" has become the norm. I asked Brad Simmons of Airframes, Inc. to review this article, and his first comment was that folks who did not build one of these "Magic Carpets" generally have no understanding of their complexity or the level of systems integration invovled—and therefore don't appreciate the possibility that major disassembly, rework and associated changes may be required for even simple upgrades and repairs.
Who Do You Trust?
It's a given that your Lancair will require maintenance, and eventually upgrades...and you're legally allowed to hire even the local shade-tree car mechanic to do these things. Since you likely want to fly it again, possibly with your family and friends aboard, there might be a more prudent way to proceed!
The first task is to find someone competent to do the intended work; someone you can talk to easily; someone you will trust with your life. Although rare, these folks do exist! LOBO publishes a list of shops that do all types of work on Lancairs, and there are many other competent shops and individuals around. Because they are rare, however, finding someone where and when you need them can be problematic, with good shops often running a 4-6 month backlog for major work. I would counsel that finding the right person/shop is MUCH more important than the convenience of the nearest shade tree mechanic. You can contact LOBO, seek others who have had similar work done through the LancairTalk on-line forum, or come to a LOBO event and meet personally with a vendor you might be interested in. I have used all of these methods—and more—to secure competent, qualified assistance.
Define The Task
With respect to the actual work, the first thing to do, no matter the size or complexity, is to write down the work to be done—in detail. Major work will require disassembly/reassembly of the airplane and/or engine. What specifically is required; what is optional? Are you providing any of the parts or materials? What's to be done with any removed equipment or parts? Your airplane will almost certainly require ground or flight testing when the work is complete. Who will do the testing?
Next, get a cost estimate—in writing! There are several factors that can change the actual cost, but I can't ever recall a case where it was less than estimated. If the shop has not seen your airplane before, it's almost impossible to provide an accurate estimate for any but the most basic/standard work. Open and honest COMMUNICATION is absolutely required to get through this process. Don't forget your your amatuer-built Lancair is different from ANY other, so expect to pay for the shop time required for your chosen technician to educate him/herself about your specific aircraft. This means your technician may have to disassemble major portions of the aircraft to evaluate and determine a SAFE repair for what may appear to be a minor problem. Read on for some of the things that might reasonably alter the final bill; and remember, if you don’t have a validated starting point, the cost "is what it is."
How Long Is Too Long?
When reading through an estimate you should look for specific elements. Your technician should incude an estimate of the time required for the work, and to include an estimated completion date. Like work on a new home, complex airplane repairs and modifications take time and often don't run on schedule, but establishing a reasonable completion time, up front, will save considerable frustration while it's in progress. I've investigated a few complaints from owners upset when repairs were not completed on time "as agreed," but my investigation often found the timeline set by the owner was not achievable. It's okay to make demands, but keep them reasonable, especially for major repairs made by a shop that's never seen your plane before.
A more common occurrence is failure to set/discuss an agreed-upon completion date. Good shops/individuals are in great demand, and "emergencies" crop up from time to time, resulting in a tendency to prioritize smaller, quick-to-complete projects. This can result in delays for bigger, long-term projects. If you did not set an expected completion date for your long-term project, and communicate regularly with the shop to monitor progress, your work might be deferred for quick-and-easy jobs on other airplanes.
Another source for completion delays is owners themselves. My discussions with shop owners shows the biggest delays come from project creep, or the owner-demanded addition of tasks to an in-work project. Based on your unique knowledge of the aircraft and/or your intended mission, you may very well determine that some additional work is required to safely complete a project, but you can't expect additional work will be completed within the original estimate. "You might as well repaint the whole thing" is a real example of project expansion that delayed not only the project in progress, but several others as well.
A Shop Is Not Responsible For Your Personal Belongings
You should plan on leaving no more equipment and accessories in your aircraft than are necessary to safely ferry it to and from when you deliver your airplane to a shop. After a few weeks, neither you nor the technician(s) working on it will be able to accurately recall what came with the airplane; things are moved in, out and around the aircraft during work. If you can't take everything home with you, consider making a list of things you leave behind.
Did I Mention Communicate?
You should ask for periodic progress reports, and perhaps photo documentation, of work that will take more than a week or so. Major projects typically involve disassembly/reconstruction of airplane components and structures. As each Lancair is a unique, hand-built airplane, expect your repairman to find "non-standard" things that need re-work and that were not accounted for in his original time/cost estimate. To keep your sanity, consider it part of the freedom—and frustration—we enjoy (?!) in maintaining an experimental aircraft. When reviewing an estimate request an agreed-upon "shop rate" for any additional work required. Knowing what to expect is your best defense against sticker shock.
The FARs require—and you should confirm—documentation of ANY work in the appropriate aircraft and/or engine logbook. This FAR requirement is largely ignored by both professional shops and shade-tree mechanics. Failure to document work and the resulting condition of your airplane will absolutely cost you more money for work in the future—you're already going to pay for your technician to learn about your individual aircraft, you don't want to also have to pay them to figure out what previous mechanics have done. This can be especially expensive for wiring/avionics work. This "future cost" also applies to re-work and modifications. You should ask for any additional required documentation as well, such as equipment installation and operating manuals, and perhaps pictures of the work before the airplane is re-assembled. Pop quiz time: Does your logbook contain an entry for installation and testing of the ADS-B system in your aircraft (assuming it was installed after the aircraft was originally flight-tested)?
I Guarantee It!
If you expect a warranty on work performed or any newly-installed equipment, be sure to specify that in your agreement. It doesn't need to be complex, but it needs to be included. Like the expected date of completion, discussing a warranty after the fact is a very poor negotiating position. This is also where a "work completion" test flight will pay off handsomely. A comprehensive post-maintenance test flight report will allow the shop to resolve issues while you're there, rather than having to bring the plane back later, a costly and time-consuming process for most of us. Many issues will only show up in flight test, and some may require your skill and specific aircraft knowledge to identify. Fixing—or at least identifying—these problems before you depart for home is critical to being satisfied with the work, so don't show up Friday afternoon to pick up the plane expecting to make an evening dinner date! Did I mention the owner who was in such a rush to pick up his IV-P from the shop one Friday afternoon he failed to latch the door before takeoff? Did I also mention his airplane had been in the shop for a door replacement because he had failed to latch it on a previous flight? Two new doors in two months is an expensive lesson, but at least it was only his pride—and net worth—that were injured!
Lastly, consider insurance coverage for your airplane while it's in a shop, especially if someone else will be flying it. Few shops and almost no individuals have coverage for other than direct damage they cause. You should be sure that insurance coverage meets your needs during the time it's out of your direct control.
Hope this saves you some grief and frustration along the way. If history is a guide, these things will come up sooner or later, so be prepared!
For questions/comments on this post contact Bob via email: r.pastusek [at] lancairowners.com.