Best practices from private aircraft maintenance departments.
By Owen Davies
In the 3 previous installments of this series, we looked at the maintenance contracts available from business aircraft and engine makers. In most cases, airframers offer contracts ranging from parts-only through nose-to-tail coverage.
Some programs cover certain aircraft but not others, or run out after a set period and cannot be renewed. Many companies offer contracts that cover bewilderingly different mixes of parts and services. Decisions about which program to sign up for, or sometimes whether to fly without one, can become complicated fast.
In this final discussion of maintenance contracts, we examine the subject from the operator’s point of view. Which contracts do they choose and why? How do they handle some of the issues that arise in the practice of aircraft wrenching? How satisfied are they with the result?
Corbantrade – Falcon operator
Jorge Lara, chief pilot for Quito, Ecuador-based Corbantrade, has 27 years of experience with Dassault Falcons, which he considers to be the best business aircraft available. He currently flies a Falcon 7X. Lara is a firm believer in the value of maintenance contracts. The company’s 7X is covered by FalconCare for parts only, Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC)’s Eagle Service Plan (ESP) program for the aircraft’s 3 PW307A engines, and Honeywell’s MSP program for the APU.
When the time comes for inspections or scheduled maintenance, he bypasses the nearest authorized service center and flies to Duncan Aviation LNK (Lincoln NE). He finds reliable service and efficiency there that can’t be had closer to home. At the obvious-choice local service center, a major inspection takes a full month and requires 1600 hours of labor. At Duncan, it’s done in 10 days and 1000 hours. Over 8 years, going with Duncan has saved Corbantrade an average of $100,000 per year.
However, this does not mean that the bills are small. FalconCare forbids parts repair. Anything that needs replacement must be swapped for a new item. Lara estimates that repairing brakes might cost around $25,000. Replacing them with brand-new parts can cost 10 times that. He considers it an extravagance when a repaired part would be required to meet the same standard of condition and presumptive reliability.
Many of Corbantrade’s flights are to destinations in Europe. For maintenance work there, Lara heads to Dassault’s nearest service center. For reliability and efficiency, he finds the European center easily up to Duncan’s standard.
Wilson Construction – Mixed fleet operations
Operating out of Canby OR, Wilson Construction has installed long-distance powerlines, local distribution systems, and electrical substations as far east as Pennsylvania, and from Alaska to Texas. Helicopters are an essential part of their work, and a few fixed-wing aircraft shuttle executives where they are needed.
At the moment, their fleet consists of 2 MD 530s, 3 MD 500Es (including s/n 0005E, the oldest flying E-model), an MD 500E currently being converted to an F model, and a Leonardo AW119Ke. The company recently bought Sacramento Executive Helicopters near Lodi CA. This acquisition brought 6 Bell 407s and 2 Bell 206L-3s into the company.
Wilson Construction’s fixed-wing aircraft include a 2011 Bombardier Challenger 300, a 2008 King Air 350, and a 2009 King Air C90GTi. The Challenger is covered by one of Bombardier’s Smart Service maintenance programs, while the King Airs are cared for under Pratt & Whitney’s EngineWise maintenance contracts.
Brett Vaughters is Wilson’s director of helicopter maintenance. Given the preponderance of rotorcraft operations at the company, he has 6 mechanics working under him. Tom Anders, director of fixed-wing aircraft maintenance, is the company’s sole fixed-wing mechanic. The helo mechanics help out when they can, but quite a bit of maintenance and repair work on the Challenger and King Airs is carried out by local service centers.
Maintaining Wilson’s helicopters, however, can be a complicated business. The shop follows manufacturers’ maintenance programs, replacing parts on schedule and making repairs as needed. The company has roughly $1 million worth of parts in stock at any time. “One of the most difficult issues we deal with is to anticipate what parts are going to be hard to get and how long in advance to start looking for them,” Vaughters notes.
When the helicopters head off to remote projects, maintenance becomes even more difficult. “We don’t bring helicopters home all the time, so we have trucks stationed all over the country with mechanics on rotation,” adds Vaughters. “They stay with the helicopters, providing ground support as well as handling maintenance and repairs.”
Wilson currently has 5 trucks in the ground fleet. One is being phased out, and 2 are under construction. “When it’s done, we will have one truck per helicopter,” says Vaughters. “The trucks carry quite a bit of inventory – as much as $250,000 in parts. They are connected through maintenance books and AeroNet maintenance tracking software. We can see where all the parts are within the company.”
Wilson’s is a relatively small shop with a big make-or-break job, but they get it done reliably and efficiently, despite the complications.
This Milwaukee WI-based company is unusual in several ways. It functions much like a standard fractional-ownership program, but it operates under Part 135, rather than the usual Part 91K. Jet OUT maintenance manager Gary Bavuso got the shop authorized as a Daher service center, but he and his staff work exclusively on the company’s own aircraft.
Then there is the rate at which the company planes turn over. Jet OUT operates a mix of Daher TBMs and Cessna Citation CJ4 Gen2 jets. In mid-2023, its fleet consists of 2 TBM 940s, 1 TBM 960, and 3 Citations.
The TBMs remain in service for 3.5 years and then are replaced with new aircraft, and the CJ4 Gen2s have been with the company for only a year, but plans call for their replacement after 5 years.
The TBMs are covered by P&WC’s ESP because parts are cheaper under the program. They are also covered under Daher’s Total Care Maintenance Program for their first 1000 hours in the air. On Jet OUT’s schedule, that runs out quickly. The company does not bother with a follow-on program. Its aircraft are under warranty through almost all of their time with the company.
The Citations are covered by Pro Parts contracts, but not for labor. This policy has served them well so far. “One of the jets has been through 3 or 4 fuel controls in just the past year,” Bavuso reports. “They are terribly expensive.”
Textron’s AOG service proved helpful for one of those incidents. “One of the Citations lost a fuel control in the Midwest,” he recalls. “So I phoned the Textron AOG team. They got the part from Wilson and had it shipped. It arrived in 6 hours on a Sunday afternoon.”
Tool control is an important issue for Bavuso. Calibrated tools are tracked electronically and recorded in a binder. Specialty tools are serialized and tracked similarly.
Yet it is the mechanics’ tools that concern him most. “After a few years in the trade, an individual mechanic can easily have $50,000 or more in tools in his box,” he points out. “Many are special one-off tools that have been modified or made from scratch here in the shop.”
Bavuso has mechanics profile their tools when they sign on. If one of the tool-shaped openings in the foam is empty, it’s obvious that something is missing. The owner hunts until he finds it.”
Rockford IL-based Kaney specializes in engineering and manufacturing for the aerospace, military, and medical markets. It operates a fleet consisting of a Raytheon Premier IA business jet, an Aérospatiale SA341F2 Gazelle, and, perhaps uniquely among small companies, a Northrop F-5A, which serves in the development of military equipment.
Jeff Kaney, founder and owner of the company, describes himself as an aviation geek. That seems accurate. In addition to his corporate fleet, he owns a Super Cub, the first airplane he ever bought, and a Pitts S-2S aerobatic mount. He has owned and passed on several other aircraft over the years, including 2 Aero L-39 Albatros and a MiG-21.
In-house maintenance is simple enough to eliminate worries about issues such as tool control and peer checks, as there isn’t any. “I wouldn’t put a wrench on my aircraft even if I were allowed to,” says Kaney. Inspections and maintenance are handled by local MROs.
Kaney has owned the Premier IA since 2018. It was a Hawker Beechcraft product when it rolled off the assembly line in 2011. These days, it qualifies as a Textron aircraft. However, the airframe is not covered by the manufacturer’s Pro Parts program. Maintenance and repair are pay-as-you-go.
The Williams International FJ44A engines are covered by the TAP Blue program. “Everything is paid for either by insurance or by Williams,” says Kaney. “If there is an airworthiness directive (AD), Williams even sends people here to take care of it.” adds Kaney.
The Collins Pro Line avionics are covered by a maintenance contract, but that work amounts to a once-a-year inspection. “Fortunately, the aircraft has been extremely reliable,” Kaney says. It probably helps that Kaney is the plane’s only pilot, which keeps air time down. “It is not in use constantly as business jets are at many companies,” he declares. “It averages about 150 hours per year.”
The Gazelle, on the other hand, flies without maintenance contracts. A local MRO takes care of it and is paid out of the company’s pocket. “The Gazelle is still in military use. Parts are easy to find,” points out Kaney.
Northrop does not offer an hourly-cost maintenance program for the F-5A. Maintenance contracts are also are unavailable for the General Electric J85-GE-21 engines and the avionics. Consequently, maintenance costs for the aircraft are paid by the company.