Maintenance: Improving aircraft performance, part 1

September 12, 2013

I’ve often commented that I enjoy working on my airplane as much as flying it. Swinging wrenches, cleaning, and improving an aircraft has a certain therapeutic quality to those of us gear-heads who don’t necessarily make it a full-time task. It’s a great personal escape that provides the tangible satisfaction that can only come from repairing or improving something mechanical.

That said, it’s the improving part of aircraft maintenance that can really get a gear-head’s blood pumping. I can still recall the day following the purchase of my first airplane: a 1975 Grumman Traveler. Safely on the ground back at my home field, I pushed it back into its new tiedown home, stood back, and thought, “That was fantastic! Now what can I do to make it even faster?”

Jeff SimonI’m certainly not alone, since an entire general aviation “performance enhancement” industry has emerged with all sorts of products to scratch the itch and squeeze out a few more knots from the airplane that you already have.  However, evaluating which modifications are the right ones for you requires a measured approach, including a touch of skepticism in order to get the most from your well-earned dollars. You’ll need to wade through all sorts of marketing claims, cost comparisons and, most importantly, safety and reliability issues related to applying numerous modifications to a single aircraft.

For certified aircraft, most modifications are available via the FAA’s supplemental type certificate process. The STC certification process is designed to ensure that the modification is safe to make to the aircraft. However, the STC process does not validate any performance numbers. So, it is still up to you to determine if the modification is worth the cost. The market for modifications to experimental aircraft offers advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include greater selection, more cutting-edge technology options, and lower cost. However, without the controls of the STC process, you’ll need to be very careful to ensure that the modification is safe and reliable for your aircraft.  Reputation is the key.  There are some very reputable companies that provide improved exhaust systems, ignition systems, engines, propellers, etc.  But, there are also a fair number of other companies advertising unproven mods that will have you working out bugs and performing the role of test pilot for the company. Caveat Emptor!

A recipe for maximum performance

If you want to improve the performance of your aircraft, you generally have three options: Tune what you have, add efficiency improvements, or add more power. It’s that simple.

During this five-part series, we will follow a four-step process to maximize the performance of your aircraft.  Every aircraft can benefit from some level of maintenance toward this goal. In some cases, good maintenance practices alone can improve performance.

The word performance in itself can be applied to a variety of goals, from slow-flight characteristics to useful load capabilities. That said, let’s indulge our wild-side and focus on what we can do to improve true airspeed in the quest to win you bragging rights as the fastest (insert your aircraft here) out there!

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 more than 5,000 aviation events. Free apps available for iPhone, iPad, and Android, and on the Web at www.SocialFlight.com.