Summer vacation flying: Maintenance tips for smooth trips

Part 1: Pre-trip maintenance planning

July 8, 2014

One of the most satisfying things about owning an aircraft is the freedom it provides to take epic adventure-vacations across the United States or around the world. We have made it an annual family tradition to make an airborne trek each summer to somewhere new, interesting, and sometimes even challenging. My two boys, Jake and Ben, have literally grown up thinking that this is simply a “normal” thing to do for every family. I, however, am constantly aware of how fortunate we are to be able to have the unique experiences and memories that only general aviation can provide.

Jeff SimonFor Debbie and the boys, the trips consist of packing, hopping in, and setting off into the “great blue yonder.” But any pilot reading this knows that a trip of any reasonable distance beyond the local $100 hamburger requires careful preparation and planning. Expanding that to a series of cross-country flights spanning a week or more and covering thousands of miles adds another level of complexity in planning: maintenance planning.

In this series of articles, I will pass along some of the insights that I’ve gathered during my travels, as well some pearls of wisdom I’ve learned while helping other pilots on their own adventures—the most important lesson being that any successful, maintenance-free, cross-country trip requires careful maintenance planning well in advance of the first leg of the trip. This includes planning for en-route maintenance options, preventive pre-trip maintenance, and maintenance management during the trip.

Maintenance planning for your trip

We are all familiar with the basics of cross-country trip planning, including strategies to manage the length of each leg, fuel availability/price, and weather. However, when is the last time you evaluated a stop along your trip based on the availability of maintenance services?

Just as you might alter your route to avoid inhospitable terrain or find cheap fuel, you should consider what options are available should you require maintenance during your trip. I’ve found some epically inexpensive fuel during my travels, but it’s often accompanied by a ghost-town of an airport with a lonely self-service pump and the occasional tumbleweed blowing across the runway. (In one case, the fuel pump had nothing more than a metal box with a price and a slot for cash/checks.)

Given the price of fuel these days, it’s hard to argue with fuel-centric flight planning. However, it gives me pause to consider that something as simple as a low tire could have left me stranded at one of those airports with few options. At the very least, I recommend making a point of planning to have maintenance services available at every other stop along your route. And be sure to do a very careful preflight inspection each time you depart for an airport without maintenance services.

Another key to success is to create your own maintenance “go to” guide for help when away from home. This should include your own quick-reference guide of maintenance contacts, parts suppliers, and component overhaul facilities for your aircraft type. The guide should also include the part numbers and serial numbers for the components on your aircraft most likely to “take a vacation” during your vacation. This includes the starter, alternator, magnetos, vacuum pump, gear/flap motors, major hydraulic components, and most consumables.

Lastly, if you have the ability to take along an electronic copy of the maintenance and parts manuals for your aircraft, that could make the difference between a short and a long stay at a shop along the way. It’s not uncommon to find a friendly local A&P willing to help get you back into the air. However, the mechanic might not be especially familiar with your aircraft type or have the required manuals handy when you arrive in need of help.  

Simply knowing where to find the right part, or what facility can do a quick component exchange/repair, can put you way ahead of the game in the event you find yourself stranded.

Next time, we’ll talk about getting the airplane ready for the trip and a few things you should consider packing to help get you out of a jam along the way. Until then, pull out those world aeronautical charts and start planning your next cross-country adventure! 

Social FlightJeff Simon is an A&P mechanic, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 14 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance as a columnist for several major aviation publications and through his how-to DVD series: The Educated Owner. Jeff is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps over 10,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.