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Aircraft Maintenance: Tame Old Man Winter with hangar tech

This is the time of year that I can routinely be heard complaining about the cold, as if it’s a surprise that I had no idea was coming. In my defense, it’s fair to say that getting more than a foot of snow Thanksgiving weekend is a bit much, even for Boston.

Etekcity 15-watt outdoor, dual-socket smart plug. Photo courtesy of Jeff Simon.

It’s easy during the dark and cold months of winter to let weeks slip by without flying, which isn’t healthy for the airplane or the pilot. Adding to the challenges of winter weather are the advance planning and steps involved with getting the airplane ready. I’m fortunate that my shoveling days are behind me now that I have a hangar, but making a trip to the airport to plug in the preheater can make spontaneous flying impossible, until this year.

This year, our airport got Wi-Fi; and with it came all sorts of options to remotely control getting the airplane ready for flight. I had experimented a little in the past with cellular-based switches to control the aircraft’s preheater. However, cell service at my local airport is spotty at best and nonexistent with the hangar door closed. I toyed with a remote antenna, but in the end opted out of the experiment based on reliability (at my location), as well as the high cost of the switch and the requirement to maintain an ongoing cellular data service for the switch.

Wi-Fi availability opens myriad options with products from the consumer electronics world. Based on some tests with my phone, I determined that I had a very weak Wi-Fi signal inside the hangar. Nonetheless, I decided to run an experiment. For less than $50 online, I picked up an Etekcity 15-watt outdoor, dual-socket smart plug and a Wyze Cam smart camera. I set the switch up to control the engine preheater and an LED shop light.

In the past, I still had to go to the hangar to plug in the engine heater the night before a flight. The new Wi-Fi switch allows me to turn on engine preheating a few hours before I plan to fly. The camera lets me keep tabs on everything.

After a few technical challenges getting the apps downloaded, accounts created, and devices activated, I was absolutely amazed at the results. I now have almost instantaneous surveillance and control over the aircraft’s heating from anywhere. The camera even has night vision and two-way audio, which may come in handy when my boys complete their flight training and eventually achieve their goal of being able to say, “Dad…can I borrow the Bonanza?”

Until then, the camera is mostly there as a verification that everything’s working properly. But, it’s also a comforting way to check in on things and make sure that all is well during bad storms, year-round. For example, we’ve had cases of water infiltration during winter melts and summer storms. Now, I can check on things without having to drive to the airport.

Wi-Fi at the airport is a luxury that’s not available to everyone, but it’s getting more common. And, even if it’s not available, the cost of setting up your own Wi-Fi hotspot is becoming a great alternative to a dedicated cellular switch. If you do decide to add some Wi-Fi tech at your hangar or tiedown, here are a few tips:

  • Use outdoor-rated hardware.It’s inexpensive and adds a level of durability, even if you’re indoors.
  • Ensure that your switches are rated for more than the power you’ll be using them for.
  • Most switches and cameras won’t work on 5 GHz Wi-Fi.Plan to use the standard 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi connections.
  • Most switches and cameras require a password-protected network.If your airport Wi-Fi doesn’t require a password, you may need to add your own Wi-Fi gateway with a password.
  • If you can’t get a signal inside a hangar or out at your tiedown, see if the airport will allow you to setup a Wi-Fi extender somewhere between the Wi-Fi source and your aircraft.

With a little creativity, you can turn the world of “home automation” into “hangar and tiedown automation.” The options are nearly endless, easy to use, and remarkably inexpensive. I’m guessing it won’t be long before I’ll be able to tell my airplane to pull itself out, preflight, and be ready and waiting with a red carpet for me. Until then, I’ll take a warm engine and smooth winter air for my next adventure. Until next time, happy flying!

Jeff Simon

Jeff Simon

Jeff Simon is an A&P, IA, pilot, and aircraft owner. He has spent the last 17 years promoting owner-assisted aircraft maintenance and recently certified the FlexAlert Multifunction Cockpit Annunciator. Jeff is also the creator of SocialFlight, the free mobile app and website that maps over 20,000 aviation events, $100 Hamburgers, and educational aviation videos
Topics: Maintenance, Ownership
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