Frugal Flyer: A light bulb goes on

Warming up to a good idea

February 1, 2009

Starting a cold-soaked piston aircraft engine can seem cruel and abusive. The battery protests, the starter groans, cylinders fire reluctantly, and the needle on the oil pressure gauge takes its time coming to life.

All that metal-on-metal contact during the first few seconds of cranking can cause significant wear—some say as much as hundreds of hours of normal engine operation—and no one wants to face an early engine overhaul.

FBOs will gladly pre-heat your engine—for a price. The going rate in the Mid-Atlantic is $25 for a single and $30 for a twin (don’t ask why the disparity). A variety of propane, kerosene, and electrical aircraft pre-heaters are available for aircraft owners to buy and use themselves. Prices range from about $150 for a plug-in pad that connects to your oil sump; to $300 for a modified kerosene heater that blasts hot air into the engine compartment; to $470 for a small, cleverly modified, omnivorous camp stove that burns everything from Coleman fuel to avgas, is small enough to bring along, and doubles as survival gear in remote areas.

But for the ultimate in frugality, it’s hard to beat a light bulb.

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In an ongoing effort to squeeze more flying out of our aviation dollars, AOPA is seeking your tips on frugal flying. Have you found creative ways to operate your aircraft more efficiently? Better manage maintenance, training, hangar, tie-down, or insurance costs? Or buy aviation-related goods in bulk or at lower prices? E-mail the author at [email protected]

A fellow pilot in a nearby hangar has an old-fashioned desk lamp that he converted to an engine compartment heater by simply removing the shade (and adding a shroud to prevent the bulb from becoming a fire hazard). When he’s finished flying, he covers his airplane’s cowl with a thick blanket, plugs the air intakes, and positions the lamp so that its single, 125-watt bulb reaches up into the engine compartment below the oil sump.

By simply leaving the lamp on, heat from the bulb does a remarkable job of keeping the engine warm, even on freezing winter nights. And the next time he starts his engine, the oil is typically more than 20 degrees warmer than the outside air, and the oil pressure needle in the cockpit registers instantly. Even the cost of the electricity is covered as part of his hangar rent.

Of course, light bulbs are no match for the brutal winter temperatures in far northern latitudes. And no bulb works as well as a purpose-built pre-heater designed to raise engine oil temperatures 80 degrees Fahrenheit above the outside air. Lycoming says its engines should be pre-heated when the mercury falls to 10 degrees F (20 degrees for some models) or below. But why wait until it gets so frigid?

Winter mornings here in the Mid-Atlantic, for example, are often around the freezing point. If plugging in a reading lamp is enough to keep the engine oil in the 50s, it seems like a good idea.

In fact, isn’t a light bulb the very symbol of a good idea?

E-mail the author [email protected]

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.