The Big Deal: Pilot-performed maintenance and other horror stories

A few weeks ago, while sequestered in my D.C. cubicle, and trying to tease some common sense out of notes left over from the "brainstorming session" the day before, I got my first irate phone call of the day at 8:46 a.m.
My caller told me that he was a GA mechanic who works in California. Doing the time zone math, I came up with three hours difference. I hastily picked up my pen and notepaper and was ready to copy because I knew this call was important. How so? I will bet you a dollar to a donut that no mechanic in any time zone has ever arose at 5:46 a.m., just to call and say what a fine job the FAA is doing.
"Mr. O'Brien? I got a bone to pick with you," he said in a slow, controlled voice that could only be uttered through clenched teeth. His issue was that the FAA was allowing pilots to work on their own airplanes at a GA airport that will remain nameless. He claimed a lot of this illegal work was done in the owner's hangars on the weekends behind closed doors. The main gripe was that pilots were not only doing the preventive maintenance called out in appendix A of Part 43, but everything else including engine swaps, sheet metal work, radio and STC installations.
I told him that I would contact the local FSDO and ask them to step up the weekend surveillance work at the airport. Also, I told him I would recommend to the FSDO's Aviation Safety Program manager that he give some Aviation Safety Programs on the privileges and limitations of pilot-performed maintenance. If nothing positive happened in a month, then he had the right to call me back and give me hell. He seemed satisfied with this telephone pact with a DC devil and we parted on good terms.

What's the Big Deal?
There are two recurring, major problems with pilot-performed maintenance. The first problem is the pilot usually does not have the proper tools, the current data, or the expertise to do the job. The second is that pilots rarely make a maintenance entry in the aircraft's logbook even though it is required by the regulations.
Now pilot/owners reading this will say: "What's the Big Deal? It's my airplane, it's my hide on the line," or "I know what I can do or not!" and also, "Why sign a logbook and give the Feds the rope to hang me?"
My response is: Regulations and workmanship aside, the Big Deal is what happens to the people you leave behind. When there is an accident, especially a fatal one, and maintenance is determined to be a factor, the FAA inspector performing the accident investigation always goes to the last entry in the logbook. Many times, the last entry was an Annual inspection - up to six or seven months prior to the accident. In addition, the aircraft could have 50 to 60 additional hours on the Hobbs meter.
Imagine you are working in your hangar and a Fed shows up, takes you aside, and quietly tells you that an airplane you worked on six months ago has crashed and three people are dead, including a nine-year-old boy. While that bit of horrifying news is sinking in, the FAA inspector then asks you if he could see the work order for the aircraft in question.
Despite a well-deserved reputation mechanics have for being stoic individuals in a very demanding career field, when the work order is handed over, no mechanic has ever failed to ask me "Do you know what went wrong?"
I usually can't answer him right away. I heard his question just fine, but it's his haunted eyes that steal my attention. Those eyes are screaming at me, "Did I make a mistake? Did I kill those people?"
Many times, with the help of eyewitnesses, I have gathered enough facts to indicate that the pilot did perform additional maintenance on the aircraft, despite never recording anything in the logbook. As such, we don't know what work was actually done, so we have an unknown. Other times, the investigation shows that the aircraft was operated for a considerable number of hours, so the accident might be caused by an operational incident like a hard landing or high G loading. So, the triggering factor that caused the maintenance-related failure could have happened hours prior to the accident, but again we are not sure, so we put it down as another unknown.

Fear of the unknowns
These are worst-case accident scenarios, the unknowns. It's bad because the mechanic is left with the nagging doubt that he could have screwed up. He might be responsible. Mechanics tell me that this cold feeling of "maybe it was my fault" never goes away. The worry always lies just below the surface.
Yet, even the deepest buried, nagging doubt can come roaring back into one's life when the memory is triggered by seeing a similar make and model aircraft as the fatal, taxiing up to the hangar door. These flashbacks give a mechanic a small taste of hell, and so pilots, that is why mechanics consider it a Big Deal that pilots who work on aircraft should follow the rules and record that work.
In the interest of safety and my sworn duty to explain and defend the Federal Aviation Regulations, I have developed a chart (Please see page 64) that explains to pilots what they can and cannot do when they hold a wrench. All a mechanic has to do to partner with me in this pilot educational process is to hang this chart anywhere pilots gather such as the airport restaurant or pilot's lounge. If you are up for a walk on the wild side, perhaps you can hand this chart out at a FAA pilot's safety meeting and answer maintenance questions at the same time. There is the chance that you might get verbally beat-up by an irate pilot, but education is not a risk-free business.
A final word to those mechanics who suffer from feelings of doubt similar to what I have just described: Be at peace my friend. We are not granted the power to change the past, but we can influence the future. Talk to other mechanics, or friends, or clergy about what you feel and get it off your chest. I am sure that it will help a lot.
But, if you feel uncomfortable about talking about this to your friends or peers, give me a call. Just say when I pick up the phone that you want to talk about a Big Deal. I will not ask for your name or where you are calling from, but give me a second and I will put my FAA badge in the drawer, and from then on, it will be a conversation between two mechanics who share a similar experience.

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