Given the number of product recalls, airworthiness directives and service bulletins floating like confetti on New Years, the phrase “quality control” has a certain hollow ring in general aviation. Owners have become understandably cynical that few companies in the industry are capable of-or at least committed to-building quality parts, none more so than some recent buyers of Engine Component Inc.s Titan cylinder line.
As much as any single component line, Titan cylinders from ECI have allowed field
shops to remain competitive against Lycoming and Continental, who would otherwise own the market and could set prices accordingly. (They may be about to do that-see the sidebar on opposite page.) But the Titan product line ran into a snag last year and both the FAAs and ECIs response has left some owners steamed.
The FAA contends that a serial-number-defined range of Titan jugs is sufficiently at risk for barrel-to-head separation to require an AD calling for 50-hour compression test inspections. But ECI demurs on this, claiming theres nothing wrong with the Titan line, while conceding there have been at least 45 head-to-barrel separations in a population of about 16,000 cylinders. If the cylinders were defective-as the FAA seems to claim-ECI would presumably be on the hook for making customers whole in some way.
But ECI disagrees with the AD and says theres nothing wrong with the Titan line. Customers are caught in the middle-most get no help from ECI, but have to pay for compression checks at 50-hour intervals. Thats not a trivial cost, by the way. Forty AD checks are required over the 2000-hour life of a typical engine and at $150 per, that adds $6000 to the TBO run. Its essentially the equivalent of paying twice as much for the cylinders. One owner recently contacted us to point out aircraft equipped with the affected Titans have reduced market appeal-if not value-compared to those equipped with other cylinders.
How It Started
The Titan line has suffered a spate of cracking issues. The first were noticed in 2002 when ECI said Titan suffered about 18 head-to-barrel failures. Several of these resulted in catastrophic engine failures that put airplanes immediately on the ground. The problem was initially traced to improper heat treating of the heads and was corrected via AD. According to ECI, later failures in the product line surfaced in 2005 and were traced to a change in the way the head was threaded onto the barrel, causing an impingement in the aluminum head that led to stress risers, cracks and eventual failure. This was corrected in early 2006.
Theres some dispute about how many cylinders actually failed. ECIs Glen Golden told us the number is about 45 in a total population of more than 17,000. But two engine shops we spoke to told us they think the number is higher. “I cant give you an exact number,” said Allen Weiss at Certified Engines in Opa Locka, Florida, “but Id say its a couple of handfuls.” Penn Yan Aeros Bill Middlebrook agrees and says the cracking issue compelled Penn Yan to stop using ECI cylinders about four years ago.
The FAAs investigation of the Titan cracking problem yielded airworthiness directive 2008-19-05, which became effective in October 2008. It divides the cylinder population into Group A and Group B. The Group A cylinders (about 16,000) require a visual inspection and a compression check if the cylinder has 350 or more operating hours by the date of the AD, but fewer than 2000 hours. This inspection is required every 50 hours. Further, if the cylinder is removed for any reason, it cant be reinstalled but must be replaced.
Group B cylinders-a total of about 1200, says ECI-must be replaced if they have
more than 350 hours after the ADs effective date. ECI offered owners of Group B cylinders a pro-rated deal that gave customers new cylinders for $300 and ECI picked up the labor cost.
For a time, ECI offered Group A owners replacement cylinders for between $500 and $900, but that offer has been temporarily suspended due to the economic downturn. Golden said it might be reinstated if economic conditions improve.
The Titan AD has placed owners on the painful point of bitter contention between ECI and the FAA. While ECI concedes that the Group B cylinders were definitely defective, it argues that the Group A cylinders are not and that the AD requiring repetitive inspection is superfluous. At the core of the argument is what represents an acceptable failure rate.
“The FAA says the OEMs have never had a barrel separation, which we know is not true,” says ECIs Golden. He told us that the 45 documented head-to-barrel separations were about equally divided between Group A and Group B. By our calculation, that represents a failure rate of about .003 percent-a very small number. If the real number is four times what ECI will admit to, the failure rate approaches 1 percent.
“But,” counters Allen Weiss, who believes the AD is righteous, “we are talking about catastrophic failures here. Its an unsafe condition.” Although we agree with Goldens contention that OEM cylinders have also suffered head-to-barrel failures, weve been unable to put any kind of number on that, nor were any of the shops we spoke to.
The conundrum for customers is a classic case of pretzel logic. If the cylinders are good, why do they need to pay for 50-hour compression checks? And if theyre defective, why doesnt ECI just replace them at their cost, as a couple of owners have suggested.
“Thats a legitimate question,” says ECIs Golden. “If we could point to anything thats wrong with these cylinders, we would obviously want to do that. We dont have that situation.”
What Shops Say
Next to owners, shops who sell ECI cylinders have been most hurt by the Titan AD. Certifieds Weiss and Penn Yans Middlebrook have had a few show up white-faced after failures or near failures. Against that backdrop, youd think shops are steering customers away from ECI cylinders, but competitive pressures dictate otherwise.
“Its always my policy to stand up for what we do. We do our best to go back to the manufacturer of the cylinders and I have to say, ECI has stepped up pretty good,” says Alan Weiss at Certified. He fully understands customer ire both because of failures and the ongoing inspection requirement. But without ECI, there would be no competitive pressure on Lycoming or Continental to hold prices.
Penn Yans Middlebrook told us after his shop encountered a rash of failures, he traveled to ECIs Texas plant to see for himself what the company was doing to correct quality control issues. He described the pre-Titan AD situation as “doing ECIs testing for them.” What about now? “Our first choice for cylinders is Continental and Lycoming. Based on what Ive seen at ECI, I have a warm fuzzy feeling that the product is fixed. I would sell them. And we have,” says Middlebrook.
At Americas Engines in Collinsville, Oklahoma, Stephen Fowler told us his shop experienced no direct failures with ECI cylinders and he believes the FAA is making the problem larger than it actually is. “I think the AD is overkill,” he says. The shop reduced its consumption of Superior parts some years ago and relies on ECI for competitive pricing of parts. Now, with Superior likely to be out of the picture, Fowler says he counting on ECI to step up.
What to do? Although we havent directly received a large number of complaints about ECI cylinders, we have received some. One reader wrote to note that his Titan-equipped Cardinal has suffered loss of value due to the AD-hobbled cylinders and, in any case, the 50-hour compression test is a nuisance.
While we agree with that view, the alternative is worse. And that would be having only Lycoming and Continental as cylinder and parts suppliers. Shops consistently tell us these two companies are already unable to meet parts demand in a timely fashion and with Superior out of the picture and ECIs survival far from assured, having one less company supplying parts promises worse rather than better service.
In that context, even though we have concerns about ECI cylinders, we still think theyre worthy of purchase. None of the shops we contacted waived us off this conclusion. We understand the risk of future problems with the Titan line, but we also understand that many owners dont want to spend the additional money for OEM cylinders and having choices keeps prices competitive.