Out of the Pattern Part 8 of 12

Aircraft Care and Feeding 101

August 1, 2002

Adding to the owner experience

It was easier than you thought it would be. The loan was approved, and with lots of guidance from those helpful people at AOPA, you are now the owner of your first airplane. Congratulations, and get ready to learn!

New owners and old hands should always be striving to learn all they can about taking care of their airplanes. In the beginning, even the simplest tasks can raise questions — should I wash it, where do I wash it, and what type of soap should I use are basic questions that arise for new airplane owners. As owners gain experience and knowledge about the care and feeding of airplanes in general, more model-specific questions arise — how do I check the fluid in the brake system, and where do I get this fluid if I need to add a little?

For basic care questions the answers you need are in the owner's manual or pilot's operating handbook (POH). Yet, even simple tasks require some knowledge of aircraft systems. Take the washing question — owners need to know that they must keep wash and rinse water out of the static and pitot systems when washing their airplanes. One method is to tape a length of bright-orange surveyor's tape (obtainable from any hardware store) across the ports. This keeps water and tape residue out of the small ports, and the brightly colored tape acts as a hard-to-miss remove-before-flight flag (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Bucket Brigade," May 2000 Pilot).

As an owner's comfort level expands, the desire to take a more active part in light maintenance may arise. Owners are allowed to perform certain preventive maintenance tasks (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Preventive Maintenance Primer," October 2001 Pilot). Learning how to perform these light maintenance tasks always pays dividends in safety, utility, and economy, but only if you've got the right mindset. But we're getting ahead of ourselves — what about a list of basics for taking care of an airplane?

Airframe hints — stay out of the sun

The wood, fabric, composite, and aluminum materials that make up an airframe are all time-tested and have proven to be light enough, strong enough, and durable enough to safely transport people and cargo for decades — provided that they are protected from long-term exposure to the elements.

The sun's ultraviolet rays can weaken both synthetic and natural fabric covering and composite materials. I refinished a Beech D-17 Staggerwing one winter in Alaska. I was surprised to learn from Ray Stits (see " Pilots: Ray Stits," October 2000 Pilot) that the fading and peeling paint I wanted to replace could be safely removed from the fabric covering by chemical paint strippers. Stits said that the only thing that would damage the Dacron cloth was sunlight. This is true of glass and carbon fiber cloth and resins used in composite-construction airplanes.

The sun's ultraviolet rays also age acrylic windows; weaken tires; cause paint, vinyls, and interior fabrics to fade and crack; and bake avionics. The best preventive maintenance action an owner can take to protect his airplane (and investment) is to put it in a hangar.

No hangars at your airport? Anything that keeps the sun off an airplane is better than continuous exposure to the elements. If there is no permanent shelter available, investing in a fabric windshield and partial fuselage cover will pay dividends. The effects of the sun's rays are so costly that the initial cost of a cover is recouped in a very short time. So make a plan to protect your airplane.

Corrosion — insidious blight

Airframe materials — aluminum, wood, steel tubing covered with fabric, and composites — are susceptible to damage from mishandling and neglect. Steel tubing rusts and aluminum corrodes in the presence of moisture. Maintaining the paint surface (it's allowed under the preventive maintenance rules) along with topical applications of protective coatings designed to offset the effects of exposure (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Corrosion Control," November 1997 Pilot) will keep the blight at bay. Aluminum airplanes that have been based in a climate that's humid and hot (such as any coastal area) can be corrosion time bombs ticking toward expensive bills unless protection is applied and maintained.

Dirt that's nestled in corners of the airframe structure can create pockets for corrosion-causing moisture, so it's imperative to keep your airplane clean. Appendix D of FAR 43 is the regulation that outlines the scope and detail of items that must be included in annual and 100-hour inspections — item (a) on this list requires that the person performing the inspection thoroughly clean the aircraft and the engine before starting the inspection. Keeping your airplane clean will help ensure a thorough inspection at annual time.

The practice of cleaning and waxing an airplane will help an owner take a more active part in the upkeep of his sky cruiser simply because scrubbing and rubbing every square inch on a regular basis forces the owner to grow more familiar with the little things that are critical to airworthiness — a missing screw, a loose rivet, or a small leak is more likely to jump out at a pilot who is familiar with his airplane.

I discovered a blown exhaust gasket on my Cessna 182 when I saw gray discoloration on the clean fuselage aft of the cowling. If the leak hadn't been spotted quickly it's very likely that the inexpensive gasket replacement would have escalated into an expensive eroded exhaust flange on the cylinder. So keep your airplane clean, keep your eyes open, and ask questions when you see something that piques your interest.

Your engine and propeller

During engine certification stress tests, new designs must survive grueling test runs to ensure that the engines are tough enough to provide good service. It's been well proven that modern aircraft engines are dependable as long as they're flown often. Flying a minimum of an hour a week yields good results (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Your Engine — Use It or Lose It," November 2000 Pilot). Even moderate periods of inactivity will shorten an engine's life and lead to expensive repairs. Inactivity invites rust, and once the rust disease is established, engine life expectancy plummets. In this same vein, it's best to go ahead and use power settings of 65 to 75 percent unless there's an operational reason (such as extending flight duration) for babying the engine. So fly often and keep the power up.

Owners should learn to listen to their engines. One way to do this is to keep a record of fuel and oil consumption averages. If you notice a change, you've just heard your engine say "ouch." Further testing and diagnosis is indicated. The first step in diagnosing trouble is always a visual inspection of the oil filter paper media.

Short of keeping the blades clean and keeping an eye out for leaks, modern propellers don't require much attention (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Blade Watch," June 1996 Pilot) unless your airplane is based in a hot and muggy climate. If the leading edge of your aluminum propeller seems to grow "fuzzy" between flights, then you're seeing corrosion. A light coat of oil or a spray-on lubricant such as LPS-1 or -2 is easy to apply and works well. For better protection obtain a supply of Corrosion X or ACF-50 and apply it regularly.

Repairing prop blade nicks, dings, or other damage is critical to the safety of flight. If a new rock ding is discovered during preflight, don't even think about taking off before the damage has been repaired or approved for return to service by a knowledgeable mechanic.

Keeping your battery healthy is easy — keep the outside of the case and the terminals clean, and replenish the fluid level (with distilled water only) when necessary.

The small lead acid batteries in most general aviation airplanes (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Versed in Volts," September 1995 Pilot) should last at least four years — good battery maintenance, such as keeping the battery clean, keeping the electrolyte topped off, and keeping the terminals clean and tight, goes a long way to helping batteries last for a long time.

Like all airplane maintenance tasks, battery maintenance should only be undertaken after the owner has learned that battery servicing involves dealing with sulfuric acid and has the potential for explosive short circuits.


Aircraft windows are strong — they protect us from rain, hail, cold, and windblast — but they're also incredibly fragile. The surface of acrylic windows is surprisingly susceptible to scratching. Learning how to preserve and clean your airplane's windows (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Perplex'd," May 1999 Pilot) should be one of the first skills a new airplane owner masters. According to the experts at L.P. Aero, the windows and windshields of our general aviation airplanes should never be cleaned with paper towels. The best products to use are formulated for cleaning and protecting acrylic surfaces, and should only be applied with cotton flannel or a well-washed cotton T-shirt material. A semiannual application of carnauba-type car wax will help protect the window.

Fuel systems

This may seem like a no-brainer, but pay attention to your fuel system. Always know how much fuel is in your tanks, and determine exactly how much fuel your engine burns at each power setting. Before the advent of low-cost digital fuel-flow/totalizer instruments, prudent pilots (who knew that many fuel gauges are unreliable) would use dipsticks to determine the amount of fuel in their tanks before taking off.

The process of calibrating a dip-stick starts with empty fuel tanks and a level airplane. As each tank is filled in incremental (often 5 gallon) doses, a stick (an unvarnished dowel works fine) is marked. Exact fuel consumption figures should|be calculated by taking detailed notes of power settings, mixture settings, and quantity of fuel purchased at each fill-up.

Keep a sharp eye on fuel filler cap gaskets and O-rings — it's better to change these important gaskets regularly than it is to experience what it feels like when your engine ingests a big slug of water.

And speaking of water and fuel, make sure you know exactly how many fuel system quick drains there are for your airplane. This information is in the pilot's operating handbook. Take a sample from each one after the airplane has been refueled.

One of the best ways to learn about any airplane is to carry the POH out to the hangar and find each component on the airplane as you read the book. When studying the fuel system ask yourself tough questions: How many quick drains are there and where are they? Does my fuel-injected engine return vapor fuel to a wing tank? Which tank? How much fuel returns in an hour at cruise power settings? What effect does fuel consumption have on weight and balance?

Type clubs

These fuel-system questions may be a surprise for a new airplane owner because they point out that almost every airplane has oddities that set it apart from similar airplanes in the GA fleet. Does the presence of these peculiarities make an airplane unsafe? No, not as long as the pilot knows what they are. One of the best ways for owners to learn more about their airplanes is to join a type club (see " Airframe & Powerplant: The Techno-Fun Connection," June 2001 Pilot) and take any classes the club offers concerning the care and feeding (some also offer model-specific flight proficiency classes) of the airplane you fly. Start gathering the names of, and getting together with, club members who are willing to share their knowledge with you.

Since you are responsible for the care and feeding of your airplane, set up a method of tracking maintenance. Some owners create a computer-generated spreadsheet (see " Airframe & Powerplant: Checking Your List," February 2001 Pilot), while others are more comfortable with a handwritten record in a spiral-bound notebook. The point is to keep track of the maintenance that has been done and a list of time-related (such as biennial pitot-static system certification and four-month oil change interval) maintenance items and when they are due. Every piece of paper related to maintenance is critical so don't throw anything away.

Organizing and categorizing the important records into sections in a loose-leaf binder helps streamline record research when annual inspection time comes around. One section should include airworthiness directives (see " Airframe & Powerplant: ADs for the Owner," December 2001 Pilot). In order to make sure that pertinent ADs arrive in a timely manner, update the aircraft registration whenever an address change occurs. This can be done online ( www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/aircraft_certification/ aircraft_registry/change_of_address/) or by phoning 405/954-4206.

Learning how to care for and feed your airplane will pay big dividends. Some of the dividends are obvious — reliable, safe transportation and the satisfaction of being a good steward of your airplane and your financial investment. The less obvious dividends are a sense of pride in your accomplishments and the feeling of partnership with the machine you're counting on to take care of you.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Putting It Into Practice

Ownership lessons

Once in a great while at lunchtime I'll skip the usual hurried sandwich and sneak off to the hangar for a little bonding time with my airplane. It's one of the perks of having an office right on an airport. On these nice days, I'll futz with this or that, polish the leading edges, straighten up the interior, check the tire pressures, or just gaze admiringly at that wonderful piece of engineering that whisks me from here to there so effortlessly. These little meetings are good for the soul and the waistline.

I got a surprise during one such recent rendezvous. The bugs on the leading edge that I had intended to spend 30 minutes removing were gone — missing, outta here, not to be found. They had been there at the start of the flight a few days earlier; and then they were gone. Could it be rain? Sure, the last trip had been to and from Boston in solid instrument conditions with lots of rain. But rain doesn't remove bugs. Rain will remove paint from the leading edges and erode an aluminum propeller blade, but it doesn't remove bugs. But the bugs were gone.

Ah, yes, RejeX. I had applied a coating of RejeX soil barrier a few weeks earlier. The stuff is supposed to cause bugs and exhaust soot to just wipe off. I have tried lots of such supposed miracle products before, usually with unsatisfactory results. But RejeX really seems to work. The few bugs not washed away by the rain wiped off with a splash of water and a soft cloth. OK, add one more lesson to the owner experience. The aircraft ownership experience is like that — one lesson at a time you become ever more savvy about using and caring for your airplane. As Steve Ells suggests, one of the best ways to really learn your airplane is to spend time with it, especially assisting with the maintenance. One of the best ownership experiences I had was an owner-assisted annual inspection. You really get to know the airplane (and probably a few new words from your mechanic as well). I did nothing more than grunt work, such as removing the interior, gapping spark plugs, checking the ELT, changing the vacuum filter, and lubing the wheel bearings. I'm sure I didn't save any money, but I learned a few nuances of the airplane.

During one of my lunchtime hangar meetings, I was polishing the engine cowl and noted some faint exhaust staining of the paint near the cooling louvers on the lower cowl. Upon further investigation, the mechanics discovered a leak in the exhaust system that probably would have gone unnoticed for many more flights had I not taken the time to keep the airplane clean. Looking for exhaust staining there was one of the tricks I learned from an inspection clinic conducted by the American Bonanza Society. Such groups are an aircraft owner's best friend.

Unfortunately, not every maintenance issue is addressed so proactively. Another day we were in a hurry to depart because weather was about to become a factor. We loaded the airplane, everyone buckled up, I turned the key, and precisely two propeller blades went by before I heard silence. A call to the FBO brought a jump-start. The airplane started, but I could tell it wasn't charging properly. I was not about to launch into worsening weather with a questionable electrical system so I scrubbed the flight — much to the disappointment of my kids anxious to see their cousins. I later learned that the battery was nearly dry inside. It had been almost a year since the annual when the battery had been last serviced, and I had failed to routinely check it — lesson learned the hard way. — Thomas B. Haines