Parts of the Problem

Rear cockpit.


Building airplanes involves a lot of stuff, as we all have noticed by now. There are the special materials and finished goods required by an airplane, along with the tools to put those materials together and a roof to keep everything under. And as we’ve been discovering lately, some of this stuff is in short supply.

You’ll hear several reasons why we can no longer expect to have whatever we want delivered overnight, but the big issue seems to be the fallout from so many COVID-mandated shutdowns. Whole economies were shuttered, people were let go and the lights turned off. Demand was supposed to fall but it didn’t, and now the world is playing catch-up.

Just how much catch-up is in play depends on many things, but certainly the more complex the item the longer you might expect it to be delayed. To pick a rather complex item, RV-10 kits are 12 months to as far out as 18 months according to the Van’s website. Need a standard Lycoming to go with that? Best to order that six months before you need it, and a Thunderbolt is a year from your doorstep.

Perhaps a little more prosaic would be an oil filter to fit that Lycoming engine. A pretty standard item, and they seem to be available, but some of the big mail-order houses really only want to sell you just one or two filters these days. The bulk packs are available to shops we’re told, but to keep the gust locks on the hoarding instinct, there appears to be a slowdown from the retailers.

Another shortage making the rounds at our press time is Lycoming cylinders. We talked to engine builders about this, and they confirmed Lycoming hasn’t shipped cylinders out of their factory in many months. The situation is largely due to some back-and-forth decisions on building cylinders in-house or via vendors; COVID shutdowns came at the wrong time, and now Lycoming is just filling their own in-house needs but well behind feeding the rest of the service and rebuild market. Obviously, Lycoming will get production up eventually or we’re all going to be in deep kimchi or flying behind a Rotax. But for now delays are the norm.

Compounding this is unexpectedly strong customer demand. A good example is engine builder Ly-Con. Thanks to a strong performance profile and already fair size, it continues gaining market share as smaller shops dry up in the face of tightening margins. But as the engines keep coming in for rebuilding and the parts aren’t there, the wait grows. It’s tough on customers and murder on cash flow for shops caught between demand and parts shortages, so patience is appreciated.

During such times the engine shops’ hoard of core engines takes on special value. If new cylinders aren’t available, customers start asking about rebuilding core cylinders, but you have to have good core parts. So, the pack rats among us who have been stashing engine parts might have a windfall on their hands.

Furthermore, the parts in short supply vary. Cylinders might be rare today, but as that situation improves it will be something else, such as spark plug gaskets. They seem to be in limited supply right now, too, and after them maybe it will be acid brushes or #5 grease. In short, it’s pretty much impossible to predict what might be the hang-up a month or so from now.

Dealing With Delays

Outfits like Ly-Con, who are at the end of the supply chain and require all sorts of parts to produce their product, can really feel the pinch. But so can we in our own shops. If you’re building an airplane, you need an even wider variety of parts than Ly-Con. So what can you do about it?

Not much, I’ll admit.

You and I can’t just whip out a vernier control cable or a set of tires; we have to have those parts manufactured for us. So all you really can do is get as far ahead of the purchasing curve as your imagination, planning, budget and storage space allow.

Communication is a good place to start, and the time spent calling or emailing suppliers well before you absolutely must have some part will at least give more accuracy on how your project can be expected to progress. This might let you reschedule the build order of your airplane or let you take care of some honey-dos with minimal angst because you figured out you weren’t going to get anywhere on the airplane that week anyway.

After researching the situation, the most effective strategy is to buy ahead, if you can. That is, get as much of your airplane in-house before starting to assemble it. Clearly this can only go so far, but to the extent you can have parts and materials on the shelf, the faster and more satisfying the building part ought to go.

When the inevitable delay comes, it would be smart to immediately set about doing something else you can do instead of taking a building break. You might not need wing cradles yet, for example, but if you can’t be building the wings just this moment, getting something put together you can use later on is still an excellent use of time. Human nature being what it is, doing anything to keep you in the shop and turning out even basic airplane parts is far superior to walking away from building, as it can be so difficult to get started again. You have a lot tied up in airplane building; don’t let the project go dormant over a few missing washers.

Inventory Shrinkage

Getting back to what is causing supply or retail shortages, some of it has little to do with COVID or snarled supply-chain logistics and is more a consequence of our unusual times. This was driven home to me recently while shopping at a well-known big-box hardware store. I was looking for a 1/4-inch-drive ratchet, but there were none hanging on the appropriate pegs on the display board. Furthermore, I couldn’t help but notice major gaps in the store’s combination wrench inventory. Perhaps a quarter of the wrench bins were empty and many more had just a few tools in them. I asked what turned out to be the tool department manager if he had any more ratchets in back, to which he whipped out his scan tool, read the bar code and said, “No, but I’m getting more in a week.”

“Supply-chain issue?” I asked.

“No, we can get all the tools we want. The problem is people are stealing them as fast as we put them out.” Scanning the 10mm combination-wrench bar code (there were no wrenches in the bin), he said they had last sold one of those wrenches two weeks ago, and the next-to-last wrench sold had been six months before that. “And we buy those wrenches in packs of 10, and I’ve put out three packs in that time.”


If that wasn’t enough, the manager then said, “In just this department, not the whole store, but just the tool department, we lost $538,000 worth of inventory to shoplifting in 2021.” He chalked it up to the 2014 revision of California state law that makes shoplifting $950 or less from a store a misdemeanor and therefore apparently not worth the effort to pursue legally. Thus, the store policy is to simply watch people walk out the door with an armload of stuff or perhaps a wrench or two in their pocket.

Better buy what you can, when you can, and keep on building!


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