The aircraft engine overhaul business certainly aint what it used to be.
For the past two decades, with the GA business in the tank, the engine market has become largely sacrificial. If any one segment gets more overhaul business, someone else loses it.
And the big losers have been smaller field overhaul shops, driven out of business by the factories who have replaced sagging new engine sales with a piece of the overhaul pie.
Costwise, this has benefited aircraft owners, exerting some downward price pressure on whats probably the most expensive periodic maintenance most will face.
On the other hand, finding a good shop to do the work is always a study in hand wringing. Although most overhauls probably sail trouble free to TBO, many encounter enough problems along the way to cause owners to ask, did I pick the right shop?
In an effort to spread a little oil on these troubled waters, we asked readers to send us their comments, recommendation and, yes, shrill warnings concerning overhaul shops. Herewith are the results.
Grain of Salt
First, a warning of our own. While we find reader surveys to be invaluable, they can be maddeningly inconsistent. While three readers may have a horrible experience with one shop, five others will sing its praises. This sort of thing is endemic in the aircraft services industry and we can only offer this feeble advice: When engine shopping, do your own homework and consider the pros and cons from other customers as just another datapoint. Often, both the raves and brickbats are due to unusual and extenuating circumstances that may or may not apply to you.
That said, there are some shops that seem to ply this market without upsetting a single customer, such as Mattituck Airbase, Penn Yan Aero, Lycon Rebuilding and G&N to name four, not to mention a host of smaller, lesser known shops.
Which leads us logically to the tricky business of defining customer satisfaction. What constitutes a good engine or a good shop? In a word, responsiveness. These days, most aircraft owners are sophisticated enough to realize that for reasons beyond the shops control, an overhaul might not make TBO. Or if it does, some mid-run tweaking will be required. Similarly, owners are also sophisticated enough to know-or at least suspect-when theyre being served a plate of bunk.
Shops that consistently get the highest marks from readers are the ones who stick to their quotes, deliver the work to the agreed-upon schedule (or explain why they cant) and, most important, answer and return phone calls.
The kiss of death is the shop which accepts a customers engine, gets behind schedule and then wont return calls querying about delays or problems. We wouldnt put up with such poor customer service and you shouldnt either.
Wrote Lyle Prouse, a Cherokee owner from Conyers, Georgia, I researched 20 to 30 overhaul facilities, read extensively and sent questionnaires out. Among those responding was Triad Aviation, Inc. of Burlington, North Carolina.
Prouse reports that the shop answered his calls and his questions and gave him the enthusiastic impression that it wanted his business. That was enough for Prouse and Triad got the work, producing an engine that runs great.
Over the years, our periodic engine shop surveys have identified their share of dogs, sweethearts and also rans. Sometimes one shop seems to merit all three descriptions.
This time, our Most Improved Corporate Image goes to Victor Aviation, a high-profile shop in Palo Alto, California well-known for its creative (and high budget) ads. We received a whopping dozen survey responses about this shop, every one a glowing recommendation.
Ah, but theres a catch. One reader informed us that Victor seized the initiative, sending our survey form to its customer list. Such ballot-box stuffing has happened before and is an unavoidable limitation of open-ended surveys.
Nonetheless, we give Victor credit for imagination and note that the shop still had to satisfy the customers we heard from. (In our last survey effort four years ago, Victor got mixed reviews.)
This time out, the customers who rang in gave Victor flawless marks for professionalism, good communication and smooth running engines.
Victor has a good, clean state-of-the-art facility with knowledgeable people, wrote Charles Horton, of Metairie, Louisiana. I race this engine and have the highest respect for Victors work. I got what I paid for and when I need another overhaul, Victor will be my choice again.
As in our last survey, another top-rated shop is Mattituck Aviation Corp. in Mattituck, New York, recently bought by Teledyne Continental and renamed Teledyne Mattituck Services.
In one of the odder business developments weve seen, Teledyne Mattituck pledges to build both Continental and Lycoming engines, a business theyve been quite successful at, judging by reader response to our howgoesit query. Mattituck generated eight survey replies, all but one positive. One owner complained of an engine failure in his Pitts which he said Mattituck was disinterested in hearing about. (No details were provided.)
As in our previous survey, we read comments like very positive to work with and well-deserved reputation. We know from direct experience that Mattituck has earned this reputation by stretching its stated warranty.
In other words, the company has repeatedly shown a willingness to work with customers who experience problems, even when out of warranty. Even the slightest consideration-a half-price cylinder or a break on labor-earns kudos from customers. Oddly, Mattitucks acquisition by Continental may not necessarily be viewed as salutary.
In praising Mattituck, one reader wrote he would use the shop again in a minute unless TCM mucks up an excellent shop. More on this later but for now, suffice to say that this is more a reflection on customer perception of TCM quality control than of Mattitucks reputation.
In the six-of-one-half-dozen-of-another category is a second shop that enjoys a reputation as sound as that of Mattitucks. Penn Yan Aero has been in the GA engine business for three decades and has evidently earned a loyal following, as described in survey reports from a half dozen readers. (One of these was a complaint that appears to be related to problems with Lycoming factory cylinders and overhauled components used on a Penn Yan engine. That customer said he would go elsewhere next time.) But in general, Penn Yan earned rave reviews from readers. I had a lifter problem which necessitated teardown and replacement of the lifters, cam and bearings at 238 hours SMOH. Penn Yan stood behind their work completely. No charge, said James Libiez of Canton, Ohio who had Penn Yan overhaul a TCM O-470 engine for his Cessna 182. Penn Yan, responding to intensifying competition, recently announced new extended standard warranties for its engines, which the shop says essentially puts into writing what it has generally delivered to customers anyway.
West Coast Shops
Not to suggest that Mattituck and Penn Yan have the entire domestic market nailed down. Far from it. The field overhaul business has traditionally been geographically biased, and with good reason. If you live in Massachusetts, buying a Penn Yan or Mattituck engine offers the option of flying it in for both the overhaul and any post-rebuild tweaking.
Major engine shops do support warranty claims by remote control but the process can be time-consuming and awkward. Frankly, if you can present the engine and its problems at the shops door, a quick-not to mention no-charge-resolution is more likely.
So if you live on the west coast, there are advantages to picking an overhaul shop on the west coast. Two that stand out in our survey-in addition to Victor Aviation-are Lynns formerly of El Monte, California now in Mohave Valley, Arizona and Lycon in Visalia, California, both shops that have consistently done well in reader surveys.
Lynns relocated from El Monte to Mohave Valley three years ago, but took its facility and staff with it. Over its many years in business, Lynns has earned a reputation for a personal touch and for delivering on time, sometimes on short notice. On-time deliveries seem to score big with aircraft owners, many of whom have been the victim of shops that overpromise.
Wrote A. Silverman, of Anaheim, California: I would use this shop again. Lynn Cooter runs a hands-on operation and oversees all work in progress. He also deals directly with the customer and was very flexible with me in a complete overhaul, including all accessories and new hoses. I really felt like I received more for my money since I was charged a standard rate for a complete overhaul and received the heavy crankcase and VAR crank.
Lycon Aircraft Engines of Visalia, California also received nods for several readers. One gushed that Lycon delivered the engine on time, kept him informed and delivered at a cost less than quoted. All things considered, you cant expect more than that when buying an overhaul. (Okay, so youll want to reach TBO.)
Two other shops are worth noting, one well-known and one less so. Ultimate Engines in Mena, Arkansas has been building high performance, balanced Continental motors, mostly for the Bonanza market. We heard from two customers; both were thrilled. Similarly, two customers liked the work done by G&N, a largish but not well-known shop in Griffith, Indiana that also fared well in our last survey four years ago.
Other Shops of Note
In the days when the field overhaul business was more diverse than it is now, Ma and Pa shops, often located in the adjacent hangar or across the field, enjoyed brisk demand.
These shops are far from extinct but there are many fewer of them than even a decade ago. Making a buck against cutthroat pricing by the factories-especially on engines with new cylinders-is tough for small shops, yet some survive.
And quite a few owners prefer overhauls done by small or lesser known shops, citing the personal touch such businesses offer. A number of readers cited long track records with a local shop and saw no reason to switch allegiance.
Quality people doing quality work at fair prices. Theyre small enough to give personal attention but big enough to do it right, says Fred Gillick of Poplar Grove Airmotive, Poplar Grove, Illinois, a shop mentioned by several other readers.
Other smaller shops of note:
Premier Aircraft Engines: All of my experience with this shop is good. They go out of their way to accommodate the customer.
Kline Aviation: Paul and Luke are very cordial.
-Edgewood Aircraft Service
Custom Airmotive, Tulsa, Oklahoma: Engine runs smooth, no problems.
Sea/Airmotive, Anchorage, Alaska: Top quality shop.
Central Cylinder Service, Omaha, Nebraska: Very professional and thorough. Their recommendations can be invaluable in choosing the right type of overhaul or exchange.
D&P Aviation, Madison, Minnesota: I have been using Dennis Zimmer at D&P for many years. He builds good engines and stands behind them.
Mid-States Aircraft Engines, Tulsa, Oklahoma: Good turnaround on unscheduled overhaul. Engine test cell used and test flights; corrected problems while I waited.
Zephyr Aircraft Engines, Zephyrhills, Florida: Theyre willing to see that you are pleased with their product. Fair, honest and knowledgeable.
Alaska Aircraft Engines, Merril Field, Anchorage, Alaska: A local shop-800 miles away for me-they provided a first class-engine with new cylinders for a factory price.
Its no secret that Lycoming and Continental have landed with both feet in the overhaul market. Lycoming offers factory overhauls, remans and new engines while Continental sells only remanufactured engines.
Both companies have pursued aggressive cost cutting and tout something field shops have a difficult time competing with: The promise of more newer parts and, for a small additional price premium over field overhaul prices, new cylinders.
Field shops have stayed in the fight with better warranties, occasionally offering multi-tiered warranties depending on price. Field shops have generally offered a more generous warranty than factory remans or new engines. Continental has lately started to offer extended warranties to blunt that advantage somewhat.
So how are the factories doing? Lycoming seems to generate a great deal of customer satisfaction with few or no complaints. We operate 11 Lycoming engines from O-235s to IO-360s and factory overhaul consistently reach TBO plus 20 percent. Their warranty response has been great, wrote the maintenance chief of the Navys Whidbey Island Flying Club in Oak Harbor, Washington.
Since our last survey, weve received a number of letters, comments and questions about Lycoming warranty performance but our files reveal no unsatisfied warranty claims.
Unfortunately, Continental didnt do nearly so well in our survey. Seven readers responded and the majority were unhappy. One of the satisfied customers complained that the engine used too much oil, another said he had only flown the engine 10 hours and had no strong feelings one way or another.
I am very disappointed with the TCM zero-time engine, wrote A. Witte, of Scottsdale, Arizona, who installed a TSIO-520 in his Beechcraft P-Baron.
Five of six cylinders replaced or repaired. Last repair included cam shaft, all new valve lifters and three cylinders at $9600, all in 700 hours. I have had a total of five TSIO 520s on various aircraft and this is the worst one, he added.
Youve heard it thousands of times, wrote another reader, Doug Williams, of Aguadulce, Texas. The cylinders consistently fail to make TBO or anything remotely close. On the 1980s vintage engines, we used to get 1600 to 1700 hours. One reader told us that his problems with Continental cylinders have lead him to conclude that TCM is the worst company Ive ever dealt with.
On the other hand, Donald Eskell wrote that his TCM factory remans-IO-470s in a 55 Baron-were running great at 1900 and 2200 hours, respectively. Both are well beyond TBO and havent required major repairs.
What It All Means
What to make of all this? Obviously, such reader surveys are but point-in-time snapshots of what buyers thought at the time. Although useful, the standard caution applies: We tend to hear from the wildly enthusiastic and the bitterly disappointed. The semi-satisfied middle may represent the bulk of the iceberg.
Based on our survey, we have few reservations in recommending the shops given good marks, especially Victor, Mattituck, Penn Yan, G&N, Lycon and Lynns.
These guys have been around for years and we believe if there were consistent problems with their engines or warranty problems, we would hear about it. (We do, after all, ask periodically.)
We think theres merit in buying an overhaul locally. If a Penn Yan or Mattituck is relatively near-an hours flight or so-its often a simple matter to have them fix something thats awry. If you buy a factory reman or overhaul, make sure theres an authorized service center nearby. It will make things easier.
Last, speaking of factory overhauls and remans. Lycoming seems to do well at this and although the vast majority of TCMs engines may be winners, there are enough complaints to give us serious pause in recommending a TCM factory engine. In its favor, TCM has recently extended its warranties on remans, giving it one of the best if not the best stated warranty programs.
Nonetheless, the companys recent fiasco with crankshafts-not to mention ongoing complaints about lack of cylinder longevity-hardly inspire confidence. Even though TCM ponied up and did the right thing in fixing the cranks, poor factory quality control caused genuine hardship and expense in the field that shouldnt have happened in the first place, in our opinion.
For that reason, we think a field overhaul with Superiors well-regarded Millennium cylinders may be the better value choice for a TBO-conscious Continental owner. We hear too many complaints of TCM cylinders not going the distance. TCM may again earn back its reputation for quality work, but its got some distance to go, if our survey is any indication.