Before following expert advice, choose your expert with care.
We aviators are of necessity a trusting lot. We constantly trust other people with our lives, our safety, and our financial wellbeing. We trust nameless and faceless air traffic controllers to keep us from hitting anything. We trust our A&P to keep our aircraft safe to fly for ourselves and our passengers. We trust our engine manufacturer and overhaul shop to build an engine that won’t quit at night or in IMC over hostile terrain. We trust our AME to keep us out of trouble with the Friendlies in Oke City (at least until the Class 3 medical goes away, knock on wood), our broker to help us find an aircraft to buy that isn’t a lemon, our aircraft insurance agent to keep us out of hot water if something goes wrong, and the list goes on.
But how can we tell if these experts upon whose expertise we depend are genuinely trustworthy? How do we know they’re giving us good advice? Should we rely on what they tell us? Should we seek a second opinion? Maybe a third?
We don’t usually get to choose which air traffic controllers we depend upon, but we get to pick our A&P, overhaul shop, AME, broker, and insurance agent. How should we go about doing that? How much faith should be put in what they tell us?
Over the past three decades, I’ve had occasion to work with and advise many thousands of pilots and aircraft owners on a wide range of subjects: maintenance decisions, mechanic and shop selection, aircraft purchase, prebuys, insurance, litigation, and even occasionally medical matters. Often these have been victims of poor advice obtained from experts they trusted, who then approached me to help extricate them from bad situations.
Based on these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that pilots and aircraft owners frequently do a miserable job of choosing whom to trust.
Thinking without thinking
In his 2005 runaway best-selling book “BLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Malcom Gladwell talks about how often we make judgments about whether or not to trust people based on near-instantaneous first impressions rather than on careful logical analysis. Psychology researchers have amassed a large body of evidence showing how often our choice of everything from politicians to spouses are largely based on such snap-judgments rather than methodical due diligence. Their research shows clearly, for example, that our impressions of who is trustworthy and who isn’t are often unconsciously but instinctively and profoundly influenced by facial features such as the shape of cheekbones, eyebrows, mouth, jaw and ears.
Gladwell’s book cites a long series of highly entertaining anecdotes to make the case that such intuitive hunches often turn out to be more reliable than more rigorous and cerebral methodologies. While Gladwell’s stories seem at first glance to make a compelling case for the intuitive approach, a more critical reading reveals something that should come as no big surprise: The “go with your gut” method works reliably only for people who have lots of experience in the subject matter area in question. For relative newbies, it tends to fail miserably.
Imagine, for example, that your Bonanza’s engine seems to be running a little rough. You take the plane to a graybeard IA who has been swinging wrenches on Bonanzas for the past 40 years. He gives the engine a brief runup, then tells you that your engine “feels” like it has a dirty fuel nozzle, and proceeds to pull the nozzles for cleaning. What are the chances that this IA’s intuitive diagnosis is correct? Pretty good, actually, because his intuition is based on decades of accumulated wisdom obtained through troubleshooting such issues hundreds or thousands of times.
Now let’s replay this scenario, but this time imagine that the mechanic is a 22-year-old dude who just graduated from A&P school with the ink not yet dry on his certificate. How reliable do you suppose his intuitive diagnosis is? Probably not very. He might be smart as a whip (and hopefully is), but this newbie mechanic is most likely going to have to diagnose your engine issue the hard way—analytically—until he has enough accumulated experience under his belt so that his intuition is based on wisdom.
We’re newbies at this
Problem is that we aircraft owners never wind up gaining much of experience choosing or vetting A&Ps, overhaul shops, AMEs, brokers, and insurance agents. Most likely, we only make such choices a relative handful of times in the entire course of our aviation “careers.” So we never have a chance to accumulate much wisdom when it comes to selecting whom we should trust to advise us.
Not surprising, then, that our instincts and gut feelings about who is trustworthy are often far from the mark. We’re all newbies, after all.
Therefore, we need to be extremely wary of our first impressions of such folks. Much like that young ink-still-wet A&P we discussed earlier, we really need to choose who to trust the hard way—analytically. This usually means doing background checks, evaluating resumes, obtaining references, and all the other sorts of due diligence that we would do if, say, we were hiring a key employee or making a loan.
What does this mean? What kind of due diligence are we to do when choosing a trustworthy expert? What exactly are we supposed to be looking for, anyway?
Let’s start with the obvious: qualifications and experience. Those are certainly no-brainer prerequisites for any expert that we can rely on. But what kind of qualifications and experience are we looking for?
Suppose you’ve just moved to a new home airport and you’re looking for a trustworthy mechanic to work on your Cessna T210. You locate a shop on the field owned and operated by an A&P/IA, and you notice that his graduation certificate from Spartan School of Aeronautics (arguably the world’s largest A&P school) dated more than 25 years ago. You meet the shop owner and notice an inviting smile bookended by symmetrical gray around the temples of his brown hair. Clearly this fellow has been wrenching on airplanes for a long time. Surely he has the qualifications and experience to be trustworthy to work on your plane, right?
Whoa, not so fast! Maybe this fellow spent most of the last 25 years working for the airlines or in a Citation Service Center, and really doesn’t have much of a clue when it comes to your Continental TSIO-520. Or maybe he spent that time working at a Beechcraft specialty shop in Florida and knows Bonanzas and Barons like the back of his hand, but has very little experience with turbocharging. It might well be that rigging your Centurion’s notoriously cranky landing gear retraction system is way above his pay grade.
The point here is that when evaluating a mechanic, avionics technician, or other maintenance specialist, the person’s overall experience is far less important than their experience working on your specific make and model of aircraft or engine or avionics. Or to translate this into pilot-speak: Time-in-type is a whole lot more important than total time.
Even if you’re convinced that an expert has impeccable qualifications and experience, that’s not always enough to conclude he’s trustworthy. You also need to look carefully at his motivations and determine whether they are consistent or in conflict with your own.
Think about your motivations and those of your A&P. Are they the same? Different? In conflict? Can you trust him to do what’s in your best interests, or only to do what’s in his best interests? How much daylight is there between yours and his?
In one sense, aircraft owners and their mechanics want the same thing: an aircraft that’s safe to fly. You want your aircraft to be safe so that you and your passengers don’t get hurt. Your mechanic wants your aircraft to be safe so that he doesn’t wind up getting in trouble with the FAA or involved as a defendant in an air crash lawsuit. In this sense, one might say your motivations and your mechanic’s are different but consistent.
In another sense, however, aircraft owners and their mechanics want different things. If you’re like me, you want to maintain your aircraft in safe condition but on a reasonable budget that doesn’t max out your credit cards or decrease your FICO score. On the other hand, your mechanic wants to maintain your aircraft in safe condition whatever fashion he believes to be least likely to get him crosswise with the local FSDO or make him look irresponsible in a deposition by your widow’s plaintiff lawyer. In short, he wants to minimize his liability. Unfortunately, it’s rare for the least-cost (for you) approach to maintenance to be the least-liability (for him) approach. This creates an inherent conflict-of-interest in your relationship with your mechanic.
Realistically, this is something you need to think about before accepting any shop’s maintenance recommendations. Is the recommendation something that’s truly in your best interests? Or in their best interests? If you’re lucky, maybe the answer is “both.” Sometimes, however, it’s not.
A motivational tale
Just this week, for example, I received an email from an aircraft owner who found himself in an extremely disturbing and costly pickle. To make a long story short, he owned a piston airplane that he’d been trying to sell in order to upgrade to his first turbine. In preparing the plane for sale, he took it to his A&P and asked (among other things) that the mechanic find and fix a small oil leak in the engine compartment. While searching for the origin of the leak, the mechanic discovered a hairline crack in the engine’s crankcase, and advised the owner that the engine would need to be torn down for a crankcase repair.
This is just about the last thing that an owner trying to sell his airplane wants to hear, but sometimes stuff happens. The owner agreed to have his mechanic pull the engine and ship it off to a nationally-known engine overhaul shop for repair. The airplane was down for months while this was going on. Ultimately, the repaired engine returned (together with an invoice for tens of thousands of dollars…ouch!) and was reinstalled in the airplane.
The owner resumed flying the airplane regularly while trying to find a buyer. Then 30 flying hours later, the engine abruptly seized in flight. Yikes! The owner kept his cool, declared an emergency with ATC, and made a successful on-airport landing without scratching any paint. Good job!
The embattled owner called the engine shop to report what happened, and was told to ship the engine back to the shop. By now, the FSDO had become interested (after having been alerted by ATC after the pilot declared). Ultimately, the engine shop performed a forensic teardown of the engine (with a FSDO inspector in attendance) and concluded that the engine had suffered a crankshaft failure caused by “improper RPM adjustment resulting in detuning of the counterweights.” Based on this “blame-the-pilot” diagnosis, the engine shop declined any coverage under its repair warranty.
The owner—an experienced pilot and sole operator of the aircraft during the 30 hours in question—is absolutely certain that at no time was the engine operated at any RPM outside of the POH operating limits. He is absolutely convinced that the shop’s diagnosis is incorrect and self-serving, but at this point what are his options? Although this engine shop’s credentials and experience are unimpeachable, the owner now realizes that perhaps it was unwise to allow the same shop who repaired the engine perform the forensic teardown after the repaired engine failed catastrophically.
You bought a plane to fly it, not stress over maintenance.
At Savvy Aviation, we believe you shouldn’t have to navigate the complexities of aircraft maintenance alone. And you definitely shouldn’t be surprised when your shop’s invoice arrives.
Savvy Aviation isn’t a maintenance shop – we empower you with the knowledge and expert consultation you need to be in control of your own maintenance events – so your shop takes directives (not gives them). Whatever your maintenance needs, Savvy has a perfect plan for you: