Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Caring For Your Aircraft

Part I: Advice from the top engine shops

Allen Smith of RAM Aircraft (, which specializes in TCM 520s and 550s, says, “We do a lot of things in the factory that other shops don’t always do,” citing the use of exclusively new cylinders with nickel bores as one example, and its proprietary cam grinds as another. They also make things easier for the customer with a round-trip crate—the new engine arrives, the customer can then survey what fittings, etc., he may need to retain, and the old core can go back to RAM, properly protected.

Bill Middlebrook, President of Penn Yan Aero (, has some tips: “Strange oil leaks can be indicators of serious trouble, but it’s important to understand where the oil is coming from. Under a cylinder or around a through stud—that definitely bears investigation.” Preroller Lycoming cams especially, he says, are subject to wear and, “As the cam wears, the engine may get hard to start, or ‘pop’ through the intake.” He adds that, “Anytime you pull a cylinder is a good time to inspect the cam.”

Victor Sloan of Victor Aviation ( builds engines and provides specialty services for all fields of high performance (Sloan is a former pro motorcycle racer, among other things), and builds each engine as if it were going into combat, where performance and reliability are the overriding objectives. He employs ASE-certified Master Machinists, and uses special techniques like micropolishing on cranks. This process is unique in the industry to Victor engines, and it creates an isotropic finish even in the fillets, effectively eliminating grinding-induced stress risers; it also makes oil cover the surfaces better. Victor also is a master at cryogenic nondestructive testing for improved durability of parts. For beauty and long-lasting good looks, he uses powder coating where possible. Victor’s website contains a lot of philosophy and background that’s extremely useful in understanding why your engine needs work, and what you should look for in its repair (whether a local parts replacement or a total remanufacturer). Victor also performs testing and inspections on incoming new parts. “We don’t take anything for granted here,” he says.

At Western Skyways (, co-owner David Leis notes that a lot of private owners just run their engines until they break. “Face it—there’s going to be wear, somewhere. Pilots fly way past TBO… then some little thing gets loose, clogs an oil galley or plugs an oil passage, and a rod freezes up—and then it’s really expensive, especially if you’ve ruined your core. ‘Serviceable’ means ‘usable as is!’ Please read the conditions wherever you go. We say ‘repairable,’ by the way, and we have ‘change orders’ that require customer approval, if any nonstandard operations are called for. If you have to buy big parts, the price of the overhaul pretty much doubles.” Western Skyways works on 40-50 engines per month, and is more than happy to work on nonfactory (e.g., Superior or ECi) parts, too. The high-quality videos on their website have a lot of good footage of repair procedures and plenty of tips.

All of the top shops have specialty offerings. Firewall Forward ( has an STC that puts oil directly on the high-wear cam follower through a hole in the cam face. Victor features cryogenic treatments and special coatings and balancings; RAM offers nickel surfaces; Penn Yan has new digital test cells and a history of family ownership dating back to the 1940s.

Geography, too, can come into play. Many pilots feel it’s more comforting to deliver and pick up their engines in their own trucks, rather than send them off under the care of a cartage line. Though virtually all shops make some exceptions, most don’t really want customers in the work areas, so don’t count on hanging around and learning how to rebuild your engine by watching the pros do it.


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