By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911
This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the September 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
The hangar doors rumbled on their tracks as Dave pushed them to their stops. The light rain had stopped, leaving the wet pavement shining brightly as the early summer sun started its journey through the sky. Dave took a deep breath, inhaling the moist sweet air. The mist began to dance on the apron as it met the warmth.
Smiling in contentment, Dave retreated to the corner where his RV-7 waited to go flying. He looked at the two other aircraft stabled there. He hadn’t seen either owner in weeks. They should get out here, he thought. What an opportunity.
As if reading his mind, around the corner of the building came Marcia, the owner of the Flight Design CT in the corner.
“Hey, Dave,” she said. “Looks like a perfect flying day.”
“You read my mind, Marcia.”
“Dave, I have a question. I’ve had the CT for almost a year now. Can I do the inspection and signoff? You know I’ve been working over at the FBO on aircraft maintenance, but I don’t have my A&P yet. As the owner, what can I do? I’ve seen Jeff working on his Sonex over there. Can I do the same?”
“It’s complicated,” he said. “Okay, your CT is an S-LSA, so you have to get an A&P or LSRM-rated person to work on it and sign off your inspections. The preventive maintenance you can do is listed in the handbook that came with it. But Jeff’s Sonex is an E-LSA, and he took the 16-hour class. So, he can do everything on it, including the condition inspection. My RV is an E-AB, and I built it, so I can do everything on it since I got the repairman certificate.”
Marcia stared at Dave in confusion.
“I can’t do repairs and condition inspections?”
“Ah, I don’t think I’m explaining it so you understand it,” Dave said, shaking his head. “Let me start over.”
“No, wait, it’s okay. I get that there are different airworthiness certificates. But it sure does sound confusing. Maybe I should go back to working on cars.”
Dave gave a hearty laugh.
“Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. Well, do you know that you can change the S-LSA to E-LSA and then take the 16-hour class? Then you could do everything on it.”
“Now you’ve really lost me, Dave. Let me do the research and figure out what I want to do. Eventually, I want to be a rated mechanic. But it sounds like there are so many choices.”
“Yes, there are. In the meantime, let’s fly before the sun gets much higher in the sky.”
I’ve received many questions from readers about the training and qualifications required to work on an aircraft. At first, it appears straightforward, but then it can quickly become confusing. It’s one thing to review what you, as an owner, can do on your own certificated (“TC’d”) aircraft. It’s another to determine what you, as an owner, can do on your light-sport aircraft or amateur-built aircraft.
What can you inspect and sign off? Can you do the preventive maintenance? What if you want to work on somebody else’s aircraft? What is the difference between LSRI, LSRM, repairman, and A&P/IA ratings?
One reader (a former jet engine mechanic with the Air Force) wrote that she really wanted to enter the general aviation light aircraft maintenance field but wasn’t sure what qualifications she would need to work on experimentals. “It depends” was a confusing answer when she checked around the airport. She wrote that she wanted to get training but was also confused by all of the offerings she found online. From Rotax and Lycoming schools to light-sport repairman, there’s a lot to consider in terms of maintenance.
What Do You Love?
If you have no experience and want to get it, I’d pursue an apprentice position or entry-level position working on your aircraft of choice. Whether that is general aviation light aircraft, helicopters, drones, or jets, go to the airport and see what you can get into. Talking to the mechanics and getting permission to hang out with them will give you a good sense of what’s involved. At that point, you can decide what training you’ll need.
It may take some time to sort out what you love the most. Keep an open mind. You’ll need to balance what you want with how much income you need. Sometimes this makes for thorny decisions. I believe it’s better to do what you enjoy and make the stretch time- and money-wise than to do something you don’t enjoy.
Take the time, as the former jet engine mechanic did, to write out goals, wishes, and desires. What do you see yourself doing in two years? Five years? Fifteen years? Write it down. Be bold. You can do anything on paper — and should because it’s flexible. You can always change it. Write down the dates. As you ponder the paths, your brain will begin working on how to get there.
Back to our jet mechanic. The choice is difficult because she’s a pilot for an airline now but wants to be a mechanic. You could be in a similar situation — with a good job but wanting to explore other things. This is why it’s so important to get your feet wet instead of jumping off the pier without a way back up.
Based on the inspiration readers provided, I assembled a “who can do what” chart that covers light aircraft. If maintenance is something you want to do, it simplifies figuring out what credentials you’ll need. If you want to start a business around aircraft maintenance, then you should go for the A&P/IA. But if you want to work strictly on light-sport aircraft, then the LSRM will give you what you need with a much smaller investment of time and money. The good news about LSRM is that this time spent working on light-sport aircraft can accrue toward your eventual A&P rating.
It’s important to remember that the airworthiness certificate for a specific aircraft carries with it a set of operating limitations. The operating limitations will tell you what you can and cannot do around testing, maintenance, and operations.
One reader sent a cornucopia of possible training classes. To determine what training you need, set your goals and then look at the requirements chart. You’ll be able to assess what the minimums are for you to get qualified.
Any training certification that you get is just the beginning. Even if you go all out and invest in an A&P certificate, it becomes the basis for going on to specific engine training, avionics training, and more detailed systems training. If you have the time and money to take extra classwork, it will enhance your skills and give you confidence.
The aviation industry is beginning its rebound from the pandemic monkey wrench thrown into it last year. Opportunities abound whether you are 18 or 78. If you love working on aircraft and want to do it full or part time, there is room for you.
Airframe and powerplant mechanics have told me that the amateur-built and light-sport areas of work were a lot of fun once they ventured into it. As a segment, light aircraft is growing, with more choices every day. S-LSA gyroplanes and additional electric powerplants are around the corner, as are expanded choices on the horizon with the Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates (MOSAIC) rulemaking initiative.
It’s Just Me
If you are simply building or working on your own experimental aircraft (E-AB, E-LSA), or working with a group on one, you can do anything short of signing off the condition inspection without credentials. It’s a lot. And correspondingly, if you’re maintaining your certificated aircraft, there is a very long list of items that you can do.
A note of caution: Even though you can do most everything without advanced credentialing, technical counselors, flight advisors, and designated airworthiness representatives continue to report that most builders and self-made mechanics would benefit from additional training. Trucks and airplanes are different. Get a technical counselor on board early and work with them on a self-assessment to ensure the quality of your work.
Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P, EAA technical counselor and flight advisor, and former DAR. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight, details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn more at DreamTakeFlight.com.