Cheaper, or Just More Fun?

We’ve all heard it a hundred times, seems like.

“It’ll be cheaper just to buy a new one.”

This is what the Husqvarna chain-saw man told me the other day, cheerily prefacing it with, “My condolences, Dave. The old 357 has gone to meet her maker.”

This being the second scored piston / cylinder on that same saw in just over 18 months, this was not the news I was hoping to get. The diagnosis was piston and cylinder damage. I had been hoping it was a carburetor problem, which in fact it might be, and might have been all along, because an overly lean mixture will certainly fry a piston and cylinder. Insinuations that I had simply made the boneheaded mistake of running the two-stroke saw on unmixed gas did not help my mood. I had not done that, nor had anyone else done that. That much I know, since the saw failed while running right alongside another saw, both fuelling from the same jug of carefully mixed fuel.

What I had been doing, all last winter, was fiddling with the carburetor, trying to tune the mixture so the saw would run smoothly and take throttle without hesitation, at temperatures at or below the “not very smart to be running a chainsaw” mark.

Long story slightly shortened, lest I lose you, I made the choice to once again pay for complete repair to the saw, which is about as major as a chainsaw repair can get, and this time around I decided to up the ante by having a new carburetor installed.

And yes, I suppose it would have been cheaper to buy a new saw, in that strange form of math and accounting that assures us, like a mantra, that spending a thousand dollars is “in the long run” better than spending five hundred. A logic that time and again we acquiesce to, nodding wisely and walking the old unit – camera, computer, telephone, washing machine, pickup, whatever, out the door and off the premises, to become more fodder for the groaning, mile-high landfills and junkyards of our dear planet.

This chapter in chainsaw stubbornness reinforced suspicions I have, about where this thinking has brought us, and is still bringing us (whistling down the gangplank toward very deep water) and it made me wonder too whether my 40-year involvement with aviation and airplane components might have changed my personal viewpoint on obsolescence, repair, and replacement. In aviation you will almost never hear that opening line, with reference to anything bigger than a minor component, because repair is almost always the first choice that is considered. Cracked wing rib? Engine losing compression? Radio on the fritz? Landing gear leg, busted right off? First question is not how to replace it, but how to fix it.

Fact is, aircraft are so expensive “Brand New” that a typical pilot can work an entire career and never fly an airplane that was built within the past five or ten years.  It is really only insurance adjusters, viewing a photo of a burned-out smashed-up wreck high on the side of a mountain, who would say without a moment’s pause that “it’ll be cheaper to buy a new one.” (And they don’t mean new; they just mean a different used and similarly old one.)

Commercial aircraft, even little fart-cart bushplanes like the ones we fly at Hoarfrost River, are rigorously maintained and inspected, frequently refurbished and repaired.  The hours of use are tracked to the nearest tenth, and the hours between inpections and overhauls of everything from seatbelt webbing to propeller blades are bound by hard and fast rules. Not loose rules of thumb, but laws, as in break-it-and-lose-your-certificate laws.

And believe me, all of these limits and times and inspections, and all of the attendant record-keeping and paperwork, is a royal pain in the keester. But the history of the industry shows that it is a system that works, and that it helps even the lowliest dirtbag bush-pilot attain the daily goal of keeping the noisy end forward and the dirty side down, and delivering everyone safely back to where they had breakfast, just in time for dinner.

I have become more resistant to the knee-jerk application of “cheaper to just buy a new one.” Partly because I suspect that this “logic” also plays to the human animal’s innate laziness, and our deep-down magpie-like desire to acquire that shiny “new one” instead of gritting our teeth and keeping our less-shiny tools soldiering along. Feeling all sensible and logical and hard-nosed about how it is cheaper to go buy a new one just helps salve our consciences as we cart the carcasses of our myriad old ones off to the dump. 

The engine in our two-place Husky, model year 2004, is now coming right up to 4400 hours of air time, and this is its second TBO or “time between overhauls.”  There is no wiggle room on this impending limit, and no surprise.  At 2200 hours, the engine was removed and sent away for overhaul, and this time around, at 4400, it will be replaced by a “factory re-manufactured” engine straight from Lycoming in Pennsylvania. That is our choice.  Sometime in mid-winter I will fly the Husky down to the maintenance hangar in Fort Nelson, in its final hours before the cutoff, and the engines will be swapped out, pretty-much-new for pretty-much-old.  I wonder whether I will even see another TBO, 2200 hours ahead, as pilot of C-GTYC. Somehow I doubt it.

The difference between aviation and our day-to-day life with other mechanical contraptions is that there is a sizable value represented by the time-expired engine, which now becomes known as a “core,” to the tune of 16,000 U.S. dollars.  “This is an expensive game we play,” as a helicopter pilot said to me the other day out at our place. No kidding. The silver lining in such painfully expensive transactions is that there is not a “new one” anywhere in the picture, and that is good. It helps to debunk the “cheaper to just go buy a new one” mindset, and that is a mindset we all need to try to debunk.  Because in the long long run, it can be better to keep old stuff running than to run out the door, Visa card quivering, in search of something new.

Here’s to subverting the dominant paradigm.

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