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Aircraft Maintenance: Warm panel, cool wallet

Jeff SimonIf you live in the northern climates, especially if your aircraft is parked outside, you are probably experiencing some severe temperatures this winter. Living in the Boston area, I recently saw the thermometer swing from a slushy 34 degrees Fahrenheit down to a brittle, bone chilling -5 degrees Fahrenheit within a single 24-hour period.

We tend to focus quite a bit on the preheating required to ensure safe engine starts during this kind of cold weather. However, when you think about it, more than 30 percent of your aircraft’s value is often tied up in your panel. In addition, the interior plastic, switches, levers, etc. are all very expensive individual components that are vulnerable to severe weather.

There are three ways that damage can occur to the avionics, instruments, and interior components of our aircraft.

  • Scuffing and excessive wear during initial motion of components that do not have the proper lubrication and tolerances present due to the cold.
  • Excessive forces placed on components that are exceptionally brittle or difficult to move in extremely low temperatures.
  • Stress failures due to rapid and repetitive expansion and contraction with extreme temperature swings.

I can distinctly recall climbing into my Grumman one finger-numbing morning a few years ago. Everything went well settling into the cockpit (looking like an arctic explorer with a huge coat, mask, gloves, etc.). Then, while sliding the canopy shut, I heard a nauseating “crunch” as my hand went through the plastic surrounding the interior of the canopy, shattering it into what looked like a pile of cornflakes on the floor.

The point is that we must pay attention to heating the interior of the aircraft as much as we do the engine compartment. Thankfully, there are some simple, low-cost ways to do this if you have power available nearby.

We need two things to keep our interior warm on a long-term basis: a safe heat source and a reliable thermostat.

For a heat source, it only takes a very small ceramic space heater to do the job. Ceramic heaters are much safer than traditional space heaters because the source temperatures are lower. Be sure that it has “tip over” shut off protection and overheat protection built in. Also be sure to mount it to a board or something that absolutely ensures it can’t tip over inside the airplane cabin.

Next, we need a reliable way to control the temperature. The best solution I’ve found is a digital temperature controller used for hydroponic heat mats, made by a company called Hydrofarm. For about $40, you have a simple, portable digital controller that you can set for something like 68 degrees directly under your aircraft panel.

With the small ceramic heater on low and the temperature sensor close by near the most sensitive equipment, the rest of the aircraft interior should still remain above freezing. In my experience, the heater cycled on and off normally even in the most frigid temperatures. Best of all, when I got in to fly everything worked flawlessly and even the door handles turned smoothly and without excessive force.

If you’re one of the brave and intrepid aviators who live up here in the “new arctic,” a few enhancements to how you store and maintain your aircraft can have a major impact on the quality, safety, and cost of your flying experience. As an added bonus, the thought of an inviting, warm interior may just get you to fly more as well. Isn’t that the point? Happy flying!

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 Apple/Android app and website that maps over 20,000 aviation events, airport restaurants, webinars, and educational videos, including many how-to videos for the subjects of these articles.

Jeff Simon
Jeff Simon
Jeff Simon is an A&P mechanic, IA, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 22 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance and created the first inspection tool for geared alternator couplings available at Jeff is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps more than 20,000 aviation events, hundred-dollar hamburger destinations, and also offers educational aviation videos. Free apps are available for iOS and Android devices, and users can also visit
Topics: Aircraft Maintenance, Weather, Ownership

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