By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911
This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the January 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year.”
Alex nestled the RV-7 into the corner of the hangar after a two-hour flight over lakes and small Midwestern towns on a perfect flying day.
“You can do the condition inspection yourself, right?” Sandy asked.
“Yes, I have the repairman certificate. But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.”
Sandy laughed. “Are you kidding? You’re so methodical and want to get everything right. I’m not worried.”
“That’s good. But this first one just feels big to me — like the unknown is lurking in the corner and trying to make me miss something that will be a problem later.”
“I think you’re making more of it than you should. Why not get Ron to look over your shoulder?”
“That’s a good idea. As an A&P, Ron has probably seen everything. Thanks, Sandy.”
“In exchange for that brilliant idea you will have to take me flying again soon. Today was fabulous.”
“That I can do.”
Last month, I wrote about specific methods that aircraft builders can use to be more successful with their aircraft projects, from time management and quality assurance to preventing stoppages and abandonment. As I thought about this “blueprint,” I realized that most everything we do could use one. Just as the homebuilder uses the prints that the architect provides, we as aircraft builders and pilots can use methods to ensure quality and timeliness in everything we do.
Most guides written on condition inspections start with just that — the inspection. But the preparation and the mindset are every bit as important as the actual inspection. Just because we built the airplane does not mean we are adept at maintenance. We have to assume that everything will take longer — which is okay. There is also the assumption that since most of the airplane is still new there won’t be any problems. The newness certainly helps, but most new homebuilt systems are just settling in the first year. The statistics on accidents say that the risks are the highest in the first 100 hours.
Here are the top five things to concentrate on. If you need specific information on the regulations, such as the wording for your inspection signoff for your logbooks, an excellent resource along with EAA and the FAA is Van’s Aircraft website. It has detailed legal specifics for your inspection in a handy presentation that works for almost all homebuilts, and it contains a thorough checklist.
No. 1: Get Organized
If you built the airplane, then you’re in a perfect position to inspect it. However, you’ll be looking at things that you might not have looked at on the build. You’ll be developing new skill sets. Compression checks, spark plug cleaning or replacements, packing bearings, safety wiring, checking battery health, and other skills may be new to you.
Peace and quiet. I don’t know about the quiet part. That might be tough to find. But the uninterrupted part is really important. Find a dedicated place to perform your inspection where you won’t get constantly sidetracked.
Assemble everything you think you’ll need. I say “think” because there will always be something you forget. Especially on the first year’s inspection, you are likely to forget a lot of things up front and have to go back for them or stop what you’re doing and go get something you thought you had at hand. This is normal. Take your time and add notes to your checklist. Next year’s inspection just got a whole lot easier.
Documentation and research. Do the worst first. We need the manuals and logbooks that came with the aircraft, but also the service letters and bulletins the factory sent us. We also need the manuals and maintenance information for all of the accessory components in our aircraft, such as the emergency locator transmitter, avionics, fuel pump, etc.
Do airworthiness directives (ADs) issued by the FAA for type certificated aircraft apply to components on your aircraft? Since we’re inspecting for “condition for safe operation,” and we’re experimental without a type certificate, do we need to worry about it? While I don’t want to open a can of worms, I would advise you to read AC 39-7D page 4, paragraph 9(b) carefully for applicability to your specific aircraft. Also consider that ADs are issued for potentially unsafe conditions. I would argue (opinion) that any AD that has been issued for any component on your aircraft be complied with even if it is not a legal requirement. See more information about ADs via the links at EAA.org/Extras.
Extra tools. Consider buying or borrowing tools that will make your work easier. This includes a good differential compression tester and a borescope, for example. (Owning an airplane is always the best excuse for buying tools.)
Photos. Take before and after photos. You may not need them, but when you scratch your head and wonder what went where later, you’ll be glad you have the before photo.
No. 2: Get Some Training
Remember my favorite saying: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Take a look at the checklist of things you will be doing on your inspection. Just because you are a builder does not mean you are an experienced mechanic. Are you unsure about cylinder compression tests? You should have a helper when you do a compression test for safety reasons as well as for procedure.
Where else do you need training? Think about this ahead of time, and don’t be upset if it sets your schedule back. We all want to finish our inspection and get back in the air, but it’s better to be safe. If you need to go to the bookshelf, make a call, or go online to see how something is done, take the time. Your local EAA chapter is a great resource for this help, too.
No. 3: Time and Task Plan
Write out a schedule of what you’re going to do and how much time it will take. I recommend reviewing your existing inspection checklist that you’ve been adding to over the last year. (You have been working on your checklists over the last year, right?) Make sure they are thorough and easy to read, with plenty of room for checkoffs and notes.
As you go about your inspection, consider adding service information to it so it ends up being a true “service checklist” with, for example, the type of oil filter, spark plug specifications with torque values, etc. While your service manuals contain this information already, I like to add some of it to the list. This is up to you and how methodical you are. You don’t have to write it out. You can simply copy or photograph the info and add it.
Time tip. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need by about 30 percent. Crazy? Just wait until you dig into things. Wouldn’t you rather pat yourself on the back because you got everything done on time than to feel rushed or stressed? If you end up with more time, great.
No. 4: Get Help
We all experience times when we stop what we are doing and wonder if we’re using the right technique or the right information. When this happens, find someone experienced who can help. It’s also a good idea to have someone look over your work. Again, your local EAA chapter is a great resource.
No. 5: Test and Fly
Putting things back together and testing the aircraft should feel a lot like the final assembly and testing right after the build. Pretend that you are back in Phase I. You already know that anytime we disassemble something and then put it back together we risk missing things or changing something we didn’t want to change.
Do some taxi tests. When you’re sure all is well, make a trip around the pattern. After a few circuits, land and check everything one more time.
What’s great about your first condition inspection is that you’ll assemble all of the missing checklist items and improve your awareness. You’ll gain confidence and expertise. You’ll improve your preflights and post-flight checks. Give yourself a pat on the back.
Things We Miss
Here’s a list of things we might overlook on condition inspections.
- Does your aircraft use backup batteries in the avionics stack? Check condition.
- Do all the lights work? Outside and inside?
- Firmware and software updates for electronics.
- Have you recalibrated panel electronics?
- Inspect seat belts and especially anchors?
- Have you cushioned all the edges and protrusions in the cockpit?
- Has torque seal been reapplied to hardware you removed or retorqued?
- Are logs up to date and have you included service bulletin information?
- Is the weight and balance still accurate?
- Is your airworthiness certificate displayed in the cockpit, and do you have your weight and balance, operating limitations, and registration in the aircraft?
If you are not doing post-flight checks, consider adding them. Make a separate list for it. It will be shorter than the preflight and will only take you five or 10 minutes. The first time you discover a leak that dries up between flights, you will be glad you checked.
A Note on Checklists
Your checklists are your single most important tool on your inspections. I cannot emphasize this enough. If the checklist doesn’t feel adequate, spend time improving it or getting another one that is more detailed. While the minimums are, as noted in Van’s Aircraft’s guide to condition inspections, specified in “the scope and detail of FAR 43, appendix D,” you should beef up your list using information specific to your aircraft. Some aircraft kits have minimal to no condition inspection recommendations. If this is the case, then other builders should be able to help, as can the manufacturer if it is still in operation. This is one reason why, during the build, you want to document as much as you possibly can for use later.
In our digital world, having multiple checklists is easy. You can have several iterations of checklists and easily update them on the computer.
Check with your aircraft’s builders group for checklists that have been refined over time. Find out the trouble spots discovered by other builders on condition inspections and add notes and updates to your own lists.
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.