From the Flight Deck: Zen and Aircraft Maintenance

From the Flight Deck: Zen and Aircraft Maintenance

From the Flight Deck: Zen and Aircraft Maintenance

First published in 1974, and now dutifully placed in the philosophy section of bookstores and libraries, Robert M. Pirsig’s novel, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a modern classic. Likened by The New York Times to Thoreau and Melville, the odyssey is a philosophical adventure about love and fear, growth, discovery, and life’s most critical questions…. like motorcycle maintenance.

The story revolves around a summer motorcycle trip across the U.S. by a father and son. Among its many contemplative and philosophical discussions, the story explores how the main character deeply understands and enjoys performing maintenance on his motorcycle, including manufacturing components from everyday materials such as a soda can, if required. This is in contrast to a traveling companion who hates not only the physical act of maintenance and repair of his own motorcycle, but also the painful and confusing mental gymnastics required in order to understand the workings of machinery. The dichotomy provides fodder for many argumentative debates about life’s choices.

Overly Simplistic

A recent pop-quiz in another aviation magazine included the following questions: If the battery dies, will the motor quit; what color is 100LL; what does a fuel quick-drain do; how many magnetos does the average aircraft engine have; and how many spark plugs does a four-cylinder engine have? The questions seemed overly simplistic. Then I contemplated the reason for the basic level of knowledge sought by the questions. We are all different in our abilities, interests, level of mechanical aptitude and experience, like the two characters in the book. That all pilots enjoy, or at least understand, machinery is not a valid assumption. There are pilots that ignore the subject unless it’s needed to pass a test, comply with a regulation or save their bacon.

When young, I was a GA worker bee – mowing grass around the FBO, plowing snow from ramps, washing airplanes and accumulating maintenance apprentice experience toward an A&P certificate. I learned amazing things while out on the airfield. The detail of things, for example: the shape and size of the taxiway, runway lights and the design and spacing of VASI’s. The details of a taxiway stripe – how the paint has thickness and the edges are rough; nothing at all as they appear when you taxi or fly past, oblivious to their details. As a maintenance apprentice, I made the same observations about machinery. This revelation of “detail” gave me an appreciation for the mechanical redun-dancy, reliability, complexity and artistry of airplanes.


It’s this art-istry where “Zen” enters our story. The details of a simple nut, as in nut and bolt, serve as an example of the contemplation of detail. There is no steel in nature; all nature has is a potential for steel. First, you must create the type of metal you need, based on shear and tensile strength, heat-treating and elasticity; then drill a hole in the selected material, then use a lathe to make the threads – finally recognizing the shape of the nut that has been created. The function and relevance of the hardware becomes overshadowed by the very elegance of the part itself. This manufacturing process is repeated hundreds, or thousands, of times in the creation of a machine. It gives you a deeper appreciation of the adage: “Even the most complex flying machine is just a collection of man-made parts, flying in close formation.”

Dizzying Nightmare

In the aviation field, we have the same dichotomy as explored in the motorcycle adventure, as it relates to aircraft maintenance: some of us like to get hands-on, others hate it. Most that are averse to performing maintenance are lacking in time, desire or knowledge. As in the motorcycle adventure, however, maintenance is a dizzying nightmare to some. Conversely, there are those that have the time, desire and knowledge, who would rather take an airplane apart and put it back together than to fly it. For all of us, though, getting involved shows us why maintenance can be time-consuming and costly, and it helps us to better understand aircraft systems. If you are still disinclined to participate, consider this: you are responsible for not only the maintenance of your plane, but proper logbook entries as well. To wit, the FAR’s:

91.403(a) The owner or operator is primarily responsible for maintaining the aircraft in an airworthy condition.

This means that it’s our responsibility to fix things that break, to know what inspections are required and when, and to comply with mandatory service bulletins and AD’s (airworthiness directives) as well – AD’s are those letters we get in the mail from the FAA. We all hire an A&P or IA to do these things, but it’s our neck, both physically and legally, that’s on the line for the correct and timely accomplishment of the work – and its documentation.

91.405(b) Each owner of an aircraft shall insure that maintenance personnel make appropriate entries in the aircraft maintenance records indicating that the aircraft has been approved for return to service.

This one means that, even though most of us have no clue what the log entries are required to legally say, we are responsible for making sure they are correct and that they include the words “approved for return to service”. We are bound by this FAR to be informed and involved.

And finally, Paragraph 6 of the Airworthiness Certificate aboard all U.S. certificated aerospace vehicles says:


“Unless sooner surrendered, suspended, or revoked…… this airworthiness certificate is effective as long as the maintenance and alterations are performed in accordance with Parts 21, 43, and 91 of the FAR’s as appropriate….”

Unless we make sure that all maintenance has been performed in accordance with the FAR’s and logged properly (neither endeavor of which we have much knowledge), the Feds can revoke our airworthiness certificate. So, once again, we hire someone to comply, and trust them to know the rules and document their work properly.

Use the FAR’s, Luke

You probably shouldn’t jack your G550 and change the tires and re-pack the wheel bearings yourself, or have your droid do it either, but your shop may allow you to supervise. It would be a great opportunity to see the “details” of the nuts and bolts of the landing gear assembly, and it may encourage you to reflect a bit before you slam on the brakes during the next landing. To get deeper still into its components, and become one with your machine, use the FAR’s to guide your journey:

“The holder of a pilot certificate issued under Part 61 may perform preventive maintenance on any aircraft owned or operated by that pilot, as long as the aircraft is not used under Part 121, 127, 129, or 135. If you do the preventive maintenance authorized, you must make an entry in the logbook documenting the work and the entry must include: A description of the work performed, the date of completion, the signature, certificate number, and kind of certificate held by the person performing the work.”

There are just over a dozen maintenance items that we, as the owner/operator pilot, are allowed to accomplish. The list includes things like changing the oil and filters, changing air filters, cleaning and gapping spark plugs, changing tires, cleaning and greasing wheel bearings and servicing or replacing the aircraft battery. In addition to the maintenance procedures authorized, there are over 90 “checks” on the engine, cabin interior, landing gear, wings, empennage and propeller that we are allowed to accomplish. Basically, these checks are all things that you might perform during an extremely-thorough preflight, run-up and test flight.

I invite you to substitute airplane for motorcycle in this quote from Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part in a motorcycle and never will be, but when you come as close as these mechanical instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way.”

Way Outside The Box

The EAA conducts its annual gathering of inventors, builders, technicians and aviation enthusiasts this month in Oshkosh. It’s an inspirational gathering in which people are encouraged to think outside the box in the design, manufacture and maintenance of aircraft and components – often, way outside the box. With the advent of 3-D printing, the reality that materials and parts like the nut, that have no shape or function except in our minds until we manufacture them, has been placed into the toolbox of dreamers. Any person can now transform a thought into a physical, functional component – even a completely operational device. We have only to recognize nature’s potential elements in order to create materials with the chosen properties and then “print” a component or mechanism with the desired capabilities. Perhaps with this type of technology, a Zen-like appreciation of materials, and in the hands of a hard working visionary like VanGrunsven, Poberezny or Rutan, another quantitative leap of discovery awaits. With a newly kindled interest in aircraft maintenance, the visionary could be you.

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