My Piper Saratoga has an absurdly expensive engine. A major overhaul will cost upwards of R700,000 – and that’s on a first-life engine.
When I bought our Saratoga, ZS-OFH, I considered an older ‘Toga that had been repossessed by the bank. An ancillary drive gear had broken its crankcase and the owner didn’t have the funds to repair it. So it had sat on the ground for years until the bank repossessed and then auctioned its bird dropping covered engineless hulk.
Dennis Jankelow Insurance Brokers had successfully pioneered engine insurance for turbine engines, which are even more expensive than the ‘Toga’s TSIO-540. So, when Dennis told me that they were extending Turbinesure to piston engines, I reckoned it was good idea.
And then of course I didn’t claim – for three years. Just when I was getting tired of paying premiums and thinking of cancelling Pistonsure, I flew the Saratoga to Port Elizabeth. It was an uneventful flight with all temps and pressures in the green. But when we landed it needed a surprising three quarts of oil. I put it down to the tail down angle at which she was parked.
The next day we flew to Cape Town to meet the Vintage Air Rally arrivals at Stellenbosch. To make things interesting, we had the alternator belt break en-route, and as we arrived at Stellenbosch the battery finally died. I had to lower the gear manually and, without radio calls, do a flapless landing – on a strange airfield in front of a large crowd. Being flapless I added a bit of extra speed over the fence – and floated past the taxiway. As the wheels touched I took power to go around – and was horrified by the lack of performance. We staggered back into the air and the watchers sucked their teeth as we turned right to avoid the high ground off the end of Runway 19.
The next landing was okay and I let it roll to the end of the runway to leave the plane at local AMO Stellair, so they could replace the belt and investigate the lack of power. Then I noticed that the tail was covered in oil. I looked underneath and it seemed that the entire rear fuselage was dripping oil. I pulled the dipstick and was dismayed to find that there was no oil on it at all. Suddenly I was grateful to be back on the ground, and for the Pistonsure cover. I just hoped it would cover what might be terminal damage.
I was not prepared to fly her out of Stellenbosch without a proper engine power check that included blow-bys, and there was nobody around to look at it, let alone fix it. It was Friday 16 December, a public holiday – and Stellair had closed for Christmas. Mark Jackson, a Huey pilot and owner of Nelspruit AMO Leading Edge, kindly rigged up a battery charger in the Working On Fire Ops Room.
Fortunately Sean Curran from Morningstar’s Side Slip aviation was on the airfield. The next day we met at his maintenance hangar at Morningstar and then drove to the amazing Dr Frans Grotepass’s house. Doc Grotepass is a world-renowned maxillo-facial surgeon, but his first love is planes. He flies the Red Cross PC-12 professionally and invents things like electronic fuel injection for Rotax and Lycomings as a hobby. Best of all, he has a fully kitted out van for field maintenance, which he graciously let us take to ZS-OFH at Stellenbosch.
When we removed the cowls, there was no obvious sign of what was wrong, other than the broken alternator belt. Importantly, there was no sign of damage from too much heat, the number one enemy. Replacing the belt required the removal of the whole prop and we didn’t have a spare, so we left it till later.
We couldn’t see where the oil was coming from, so Sean cranked up the compressor and we pulled the plugs and tested the blow-bys. At 55/80, number 1 wasn’t great; number 3 was terrible at 25/80. The rest of the blow-bys were poor at around 65.
We drained what was left of the oil, managing to find just 2.5 quarts, and filled it again with fresh oil. We retrieved the recharged battery, hooked it up and started the engine. It ran fine – but was blowing smoke like an old locomotive from the crankcase breather. Clearly it had damaged piston rings, presumably at #3 and maybe #1. Still it ran-up okay, and there was no point in leaving her outside Stellair for the duration of the Christmas holidays. So I taxied out, did a careful full power run-up and took off. She jumped into the air and I had to power back not to bust the 2,000 ft TMA lower limit. I didn’t fancy having to lower the gear manually if I didn’t have to, so left it down and still had the battery die on me as I lowered the flaps in the circuit at Morningstar. I dropped it in over the trees on Runway 20 and found my way to Side Slip’s impressive hangar.
Returning to work after the long weekend, Sean first did a borescope inspection and it showed clear ring damage to #3, including damage to the inside of the cylinder and piston head from a broken piece of ring, which had been pulverised until it was bounced past the exhaust valve. It would need a new piston and a rebore of the cylinder.
The quote for the work was around R25,000, so I called Dennis Jankelow and Associates to tell them I might have a claim. The case was handed to Paul Leaker of Aircraft Assessing Company, who had done a full pre-purchase investigation on the plane before I bought it. “No problem”, he said. “It’s covered.” That was a relief, because I thought the cover might only kick in for a catastrophic failure, not just a broken piston ring. “And while you’re at it, pull number 1 as well,” Paul said.
Good advice. It turned out that the #1 rings were also breaking up. So, there were two cylinders to be done.
“If two are bad, how do we know the others aren’t about to fail?” I asked
“I agree,” Paul said. “There’s no point in doing half a job. Pull all the cylinders.”
I was more than impressed, and their prudence paid off when it was found that #2’s rings were also cracked. My initial R25,000 claim was rapidly becoming a top overhaul with new rings and honed cylinders all round. Yet Santam as the insurers had not argued a single point, and even more remarkably, they were not going to charge me the aggravation of betterment. Yet there was more to come.
“I’m worried about the turbocharger,” Sean said. “The bits of broken ring must have gone through it. We should open it to check for damage.”
The quote to open the turbo was another R25,000, as it meant it might as well be overhauled as well. “Okay, we’ll cover that too,” Paul replied. My flabber was now completely gasted. I had expected the insurance company to have put up at least token resistance to this endless litany of extras.
By now we were into the new year, and once everyone was back at work the search for parts began. The Lycoming 540 is one of the most common aero engines and, as it is another two cylinders on the even more common 360, it must have the most common cylinders and pistons in the aviation world – yet we couldn’t find the right piston in SA. How far has divestment in stock by the key agents and suppliers gone? The piston had to be ordered from the USA.
I had hoped to have OFH back in the air a month after our arrival in Stellenbosch. But in the end, it took six weeks just to get all the parts. The cylinders had been sent to Base 4 at Cape Town to be honed, the new piston eventually arrived from the USA, and in February reassembly began. The turbocharger had been sent to Apco at Wonderboom and was the last item to be reassembled. The team of three engineers and Sean as the hands-on boss worked until 11.30 pm some nights to get it finished.
Finally it was time for the test flight. I was impressed when he insisted we fly together and brought a clipboard to record engine parameters. It’s great to have an AMO who eats his cooking.
Takeoff was great. All the horses were back and we headed north at 80% power to bed in the new rings and cylinders. It was also nice to have someone to show me the Cape Town VFR air space. The snags were minor. The turbo’s absolute controller needed adjusting and the Turbine Inlet Temp sender was intermittent.
It was more than R200,000 worth of work and all it cost was the R10,000 excess, without a peep of protest from Santam. It’s great to know that you can still get more than you expect in this tight-assed world.