The dreaded day has finally come – your first annual. You know this was “going to be a thing” when you purchased your aircraft and it remained in the back of your mind when you were flying around during all those sunny days. However, you are now terrified about what is to come. What should you expect? You think your aircraft is up to snuff, but how do you really know? These questions, plus many more rattle around the minds of ALL aircraft owners. This is normal, but if you keep a few of these points in mind you can get through this with minimal damage to your wallet.
Make sure you find a reputable mechanic
Make sure they have a good track record. If one mechanic is doing five inspections during the day and then dabbling in CFI work, that might be an indicator to keep it moving.
Talk to other pilots, they can sometimes be your best avenue in selecting someone who will be both fair and thorough
Make sure you know what you are paying for
There is cheap, there is fair and there is outrageous. Keep it somewhere in the middle. Most shops will have a standard annual cost.
As with vehicle mechanics, look around the shop. If you notice that it is medical grade skip it. If you can’t figure out where the planes are, or it looks like 40 years of dust, dirt, grime and possibly a place where planes come to die, skip it as well. Both extremes have their issues and are most of the time not worth it.
If you can perform an item yourself and you are qualified (see maintenance post), do it before and communicate this with your mechanic. Most of the times, they can deduct an item from the annual – this is especially true if you are doing an owner assisted annual (see below). The most common item that would fall under this would be an oil change.
Be an inspector yourself
Even if you don’t know a wrench from a socket, you still know what something looks like when it is broken. Take a thorough look inside and outside of your plane and note if something looks amiss. Write it down and discuss this with your mechanic.
Be the assistant to your own annual!
There is a possibility that some shops will allow owner assisted annuals. This is where the owner of an aircraft performs most of the “grunt” work of taking off panels, seats and all of the other areas that take up a lot of time for the mechanic.
Not all shops will allow this, but if they do it will give you a deeper sense of connection with your aircraft. It will also be a learning experience and may give you the skills to do some maintenance items yourself.
BE AWARE – most shops that allow this will charge an hourly cost for the annual as opposed to a standard rate. This can be good, if you are the one performing most of the manual hours – or this can be bad, if you hold up a mechanic. The time starts and stops when the mechanic is working on your plane. Keep this in mind!
You know that every year your aircraft must be inspected and if you keep this in mind you can prepare. Annuals range from low $800 - $1,800 for a single engine aircraft (I know someone is going to say otherwise and this is fine – as it strengthens the point that these have a VERY wide range!) That is just the base annual figure, without replacement or repairing of any items.
Set some money aside every month to put toward an annual. This can be a regular savings account or a coffee can where you put change or an agreed upon monthly/weekly amount in.
It is such a relief when we pull from the “annual fund” as opposed to our savings or checking account. You know it is coming, so be prepared to take the hit.
Have the appropriate expectations
Just like automobiles or anything else that is mechanical, things break and wear, so do aircraft!
This is an opportunity to get ahead of something that could cause a catastrophic event in the air, so if something comes up in an annual don’t see it as the end of the world. Ask questions, do your research and get it fixed.
The most powerful tool in your toolbox before, during and after an inspection is to ASK QUESTIONS. If a mechanic is not willing to answer a question, something is amiss. Now, I am not saying ask before researching, but if you have a question after you perform your Google expeditions, ASK! It will be worth it at the end. You will have a better understanding of what you are being charged for, you will have a better understanding about the issue and you might be able to fix it by yourself the next time (see prior post regarding approved maintenance).
This list is NOT exhaustive and it shouldn’t be. I am only one pilot that can speak to my own experiences. Please take a minute to share your experience and tips so others can benefit from your knowledge!
Good luck, take a breath and you will be fine. Or not, either way – you can still take up fishing J