Ownership: Oh, my aching back

Tug and tow solutions to move your airplane

May 1, 2013

Tugging airplane

When I passed the private pilot checkride in 2001, the designated pilot examiner didn’t send me off with sage flying advice. Instead, when she saw me take out a tow bar to maneuver the Socata Tampico into its parking spot, she said, “Don’t push it yourself. Always get help. Take it from me—you’ll ruin your back.”

That’s no idle warning. Flight instructor and writer Meredith Tcherniavsky says she strained her back while trying to reposition an airplane with full fuel. “There was nobody around [to help]. I thought I could do it; I gave it the old heave-ho, and it didn’t move. As soon as I did it, I realized I had really hurt my back,” she says. She required weeks of physical therapy after the incident.

When you rent an airplane, help to reposition it usually is just a phone call (or sometimes a waved hand at a passing flight instructor or line attendant) away. When you own an airplane, the landscape changes. Parking on a ramp generally isn’t a problem. But you might be in a hangar with a sloping or uneven floor. The pilot next door isn’t always going to be around to lend a hand. Even if he is, do you want to be known as that guy who always needs help with the airplane? The FBO at my airport recently instituted a fee for pulling aircraft out of hangars—$30 a visit.

Tugs and tows. Your back doesn’t have to be sacrificed. There are tugs and other devices on the market to do the job for you. Some are operated by battery-powered electric motors or small gas engines. At least one design (Redline) uses a cordless electric drill. “A Sampling of Popular Tugs” below runs down the vendors.

Expect to spend at least $700 for a brand-new tug, with some models costing three times as much. If you plan to keep your airplane for a long time, think of it as an investment in your back’s health. To save money, consider purchasing a tow or tug with one or more hangar neighbors, sharing the equipment and the expenses. Finally, look for used tows and tugs at reduced prices on Barnstormers, eBay, Trade-a-Plane, or other aviation websites.

Some models may not work with tailwheel aircraft, or on tricycle-gear aircraft with wheel pants; or they may require an attachment that costs extra. Always check with the tug manufacturer.

Used or new, you’ll likely get your money’s worth out of the equipment. AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Tom Haines purchased a gas-powered PowerTow in 2000 to maneuver his Bonanza A36 in and out of a hangar at Frederick Municipal Airport. Haines recently had to replace the tug’s engine, but expects to get many more years out of the equipment.

Do-it-yourself solutions. As with many aspects of GA, enterprising pilots have come up with less-expensive solutions. Ted DuPuis, president and chief pilot of Cloud Nine Rescue Flights, flew a Piper Aztec to transport animals to new homes. He purchased an 18-horsepower riding lawn mower for $100 through craigslist. He removed the 42-inch deck to ensure ground clearance and asked his brother-in-law, an iron worker, to manufacture a tow bar for him. Total investment (not counting some bartered engine work on the brother-in-law’s Subaru): $200.

“You don’t need [a lawn mower] with a deck,” he says, “since you won’t be using it for that purpose.” Cloud Nine’s current flagship aircraft, a Cessna T310P, is heavier, and DuPuis says that if there’s snow or ice on the ground it won’t budge the airplane—not even with chains. But it should work well enough for aircraft the size of a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee, he says.

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Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.