Owning an Aircraft: Airplane Maintenance You Can DIY

By Andrew Myers

June 15, 2020 Educational

Aircraft maintenance costs can be high. Handling some of the preventive airplane maintenance yourself can significantly reduce your annual cost of owning a plane.

The most important factor is knowing what maintenance items the FAA regulations allow you, as a pilot, to perform on your airplane. Maintenance is imperative to maintaining your airplane's fair market value.

We are going to show you what maintenance you can do as an aircraft owner and pilot. Keep reading to learn more!

Airplane Maintenance You Can Do Yourself

You, as a pilot, are allowed to perform some preventative maintenance on your airplane. The exception to this is if you are operating the plane under FAR Part 121, Part 129, or Part 135.

If Plane Is Not Being Flown

To keep maintenance costs down, you need to fly your airplane regularly or preserve the engine. Engine preservation is a term that refers to preparing the aircraft for long term storage. Preserving the engine includes things like installing desiccant plugs and fogging the cylinders with oil to prevent corrosion.

Preventative Maintenance By-The-Book

The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Title 14, Chapter 1, Subchapter C, Part 43, Section 43.3 allows owners to work themselves and sign off on some preventative maintenance. Maintenance, a pilot, is permitted to do includes:

  • Change engine oil and filter
  • Change landing-gear tires
  • Grease wheel bearings
  • Service landing gear shock struts with oil, air, or both
  • Change light bulbs and navigation light bulbs
  • Lubricate the airframe
  • Grease wheel bearing
  • Change side windows
  • Change side windows
  • Easy fabric repairs
  • Patch cover plates, fairings, and cowlings
  • Repair navigation light and landing light wiring

In addition to the above, the catalogs of communication and navigation data stored by digital avionics systems must be updated by IFR aircraft every 28 days. FAA rules permit owners to upgrade those databases on their own. Aircraft owners are also allowed to remove and replace the navigation communication units, and GPS navigators mounted in the front instrument panel.

Getting Started

It is best to work with a licensed A&P mechanic willing to serve as a mentor when you begin working on your airplane. To find someone, ask around the airport or other pilots, you know.

When working under the guidance of a licensed A&P mechanic, be respectful of their shop and tools. Exhibit good work habits, listen and follow directions. You cannot skimp on airplane maintenance; it must be done by the book, plus not following the rules can get you killed. When in doubt, do not walk in front or near any prop.

FAR Regulations

It is imperative to read and follow the FAR rules when performing maintenance on your aircraft. FAR Part 43 specifies who can do what types of maintenance, what is considered minor repairs and alterations, and what is classified as major repairs and modifications. This is also where you will find out what record-keeping is required after maintenance is performed.

FAR 43.3(d) allows you as a pilot to perform any work on your airplane that an A&P may perform, provided you are doing it under direct supervision. The A&P must watch the work being performed to the extent necessary to ensure it is being handled properly. Many pilots do almost all the tasks required in an annual inspection.

The performance rules are provided in FAR 43.13, which requires work to be done using the methods, techniques, and practices listed in the manufacture’s maintenance handbook. Further, each person who works on the airplane must perform quality work and use materials that are the same quality as the original.

This means that if something such as a replacement bolt is needed during a tire change that the pin must be identifiable as aircraft quality. You cannot only run out and grab one from the corner hardware store.

Basic Items

By learning to handle even a few simple items out of the 32 listed in the preventative maintenance tasks in Appendix A of FAR Part 43 can save you a considerable amount of money on maintenance. Knowing your way around your aircraft and knowing that you can handle minor preventative maintenance will boost your confidence as both a pilot and an aircraft owner.

Good Starter Maintenance

Clean the Belly: Visit your local hardware or auto-parts store and purchase a tub of the nonabrasive type of GOJO.

You will also need a creeper, a pair of safety goggles, throwaway nitrile gloves, and rags. You are going to work under the airplane from nose to tail doing wax on, wax off cleaning.

Avionics: There are four areas of avionics that pilots can easily do routine maintenance cleaning

Keep the antenna clean. If the antenna becomes, oil-soaked the metallic components in the engine, oil can short out the antenna to the airframe, requiring a replacement.

Rotate all avionics switches through the full range of travel. This is done to wipe off oxidation from contacts on the wafer-type switches. This is especially important for VFR pilots who rarely move their transponder knobs from the 1200 position.

Headset plugs need to be cleaned whenever the audio becomes scratchy or when the ATC has trouble hearing your transmissions. This is quickly done by polishing with a piece of fine Scotch-Brite.

Database updates can quickly be done with a computer that has an internet connection and a subscription to access downloads from the avionics manufacturer’s website. This prevents you from having to move your airplane to the avionics shop for updates and also saves approximately $50 per update.

The best safety measure when starting is to have your work inspected by a licensed A&P mechanic. Aircraft safety is achieved when the second set of eyes examines your work.

Annual Inspection

The aircraft must be cleaned before the annual inspection can be performed. If you arrive with a clean airplane, the licensed A&P mechanic will appreciate it, and the inspection will go faster.

The annual inspection is when a licensed A&P mechanic services the components and inspects the airplane for its airworthiness in areas of security and operation of systems. This can take anywhere from 6-8 hours for a small 2-seat Cessna 152 or Piper Club to 20-40 hours for a complex electronic twin-engine Cessna 340 or Beechcraft King Air.

Maintenance Records

You want to make sure you maintain excellent aircraft maintenance record logs. FAA 43.9 requires signoffs after each maintenance item is performed.

This includes the kind of inspection performed and a description of the work done. The entry must consist of the date the work was done, who performed the job, and the type of certificate and certificate number of the licensed A&P mechanic.

Maintenance Increases Airplane Value

Proper airplane maintenance is not only crucial for safety, but it also increases your airplane's residual value. Aircraft value is profoundly affected by the engine condition, airframe condition, modifications, and pedigree of maintenance.

If you are interested in having your airplane’s value assessed or need additional information, contact VREF Aircraft Value Reference, Appraisal & Litigation Consulting Services at (844) 303-VREF, ext. 700. You can also contact us today or reach out to Jason Zilberbrand, ASA, directly.