Airplanes can live forever. It’s one of the many things that set them apart from so many other material possessions that become part of our lives. Engines get replaced, avionics upgraded, interiors and exteriors refurbished, and parts of the structure repaired or replaced over the years; but the aircraft itself remains as timeless as we choose to make it.
That choice to preserve and restore such a high percentage of aircraft throughout the years comes largely from the emotional attachment we have to them. Gliding your hands across the cowl or wing seems to connect us to its entire life history. The simple fact that they are designed to slip through the air necessitates the curves and flowing lines found in even the most basic of trainers. Stand close to almost any aircraft and the urge to reach out and touch it seems almost irresistible.
My personal mission has always been to help connect pilots with the inner workings of the aircraft they fly. Understanding our aircraft ultimately makes us safer pilots, builds confidence, and reinforces the need to preserve the fleet of general aviation aircraft. I have always been a strong proponent of aircraft ownership; not for the economics, but for the experience itself. I have literally seen the experience of aircraft ownership change lives.
Becoming a pilot is a serious and challenging undertaking that never truly ends. Every achievement is simply a license to learn more, and few would contest the fact that the experience builds as much character as it does knowledge. My proposition is that we consciously promote aircraft maintenance and restoration as part of that continuum.
The formula is simple: It starts with encouraging pilots to get to know the aircraft they fly through hands-on mechanical experience. It can be as simple as having students welcomed to a “plane wash” at the FBO. Having a pilot hand wash every square inch of an aircraft provides a more detailed examination than any checklist-guided preflight inspection ever could. More often than not, it also sparks a connection to learn more.
The next step is a guided tour of the aircraft during its annual inspection, when the cowl, fairings, and interior are stripped off, exposing the inner workings of every system. It’s a wonderful opportunity to examine, learn, and ask questions about how everything works. It also can provide a greater appreciation for the challenging work that mechanics do to keep the aircraft flying safely.
The final step is the opportunity to work alongside licensed mechanics to become part of the entire maintenance and preservation process. Nothing compares to hands-on experience. And, something magical often happens as a byproduct of this process. People who may not have considered themselves mechanically inclined develop confidence; people normally consumed with the stress of daily life discover the relaxing satisfaction of fixing something mechanical; and ultimately we all become safer pilots with a new level of understanding about the inner workings of the aircraft we fly.
Perhaps it’s just the warm weather finally arriving after a particularly painful winter that has me waxing poetic about something as seemingly basic as aircraft maintenance. But, I’ll take a warm day, an open hangar, and a wrench in my hand any day as refuge from the four walls of an office. And, if I can reach just a few new people to do the same, there’s no doubt that more aircraft will remain on the flight line, ready to connect with the next generation.Happy flying!
Interested in aircraft maintenance? View the archives of Jeff Simon’s Aircraft Maintenance series.
Jeff 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 20,000 aviation events, airport restaurants, and educational videos, including many how-to videos for the subjects of these articles.