Aircraft Owners: Summer Care Is Essential!

Depending upon where you live, “summer” may be a relative term.  After all, “summer” in Phoenix is a little different than “summer” in Anchorage.  In either case, however, summertime preventive maintenance tends to get thrown to the wayside in favor of taking advantage of the great weather and mobility that a pilot has at his fingertips.

Many people think of taking care of an aircraft in terms of only fixing what is broken (or about to break) when needed, but a little preventive maintenance will go a long way.  The term “preventive maintenance” is actually defined by FAR Part 43 as a number of different actions–any of which a pilot is legally allowed to do.  It includes servicing, repair, and replacement of landing gear tires;greasing or servicing bearings with their required lubricant; servicing landing gear shock struts with air, oil, or both ; replacing elastic shock absorber cords on landing gear; replacing defective safety wire or cotter keys, and the list goes on.  A pilot is allowed to perform any of these actions without having to enlist the help of a certified A&P.  (A small sidenote, however–do not leave your safety wire tails like they are in this photo–they are most likely to be caught on someone’s skin, metal inside of fairings, or fluid lines if left as they are shown.  Fold them over at their ends so the wire is smooth and professional looking, and you will prevent later injury and damage due to chafing.  When done properly, this is called a “pigtail.”)

Obviously, it is critical to keep up with things like making sure tires are at their proper pressure, and windshields are clear and free of scratching or crazing.  But there is one thing you can do that will save you time and money, and breed pride and respect among those who happen to meet you on the flight line:  Keep your aircraft clean.

It is easy to let things like the finish of your aircraft go–after all, it’s a giant pain to scrape bug guts off your leading edges after every flight–but here are some easy and quick tips to prevent those guts and other junk from building up on your leading edges.  Some people simply use water and a Scotch Brite pad–a bad idea if you like your leading edges to be shiny. A small spray bottle filled with a diluted degreaser (such as Simple Green) and water does the job of cleaning off those bugs without having to put much elbow grease into it.  This also preserves the finish of the leading edges, which will dull over time with constant, abrasive scraping.  A quick walk with the bottle after each flight will prevent buildup, and negate having to get a belt sander to clear off the hardened and petrified bug guts.  Simple Green also works well if you have oil leaking constantly down your aircraft’s belly–dilute it in a bucket and go at the mess with a sponge and rags.  It takes some time and isn’t fun, but it will save you money in the long run because a clean aircraft finish will provide an immediate indicator of the source of a leak, saving your mechanic time during diagnosis.  Also, multiple leaks may be present that you are not aware of.  While small leaks from some places are considered “normal” or acceptable, even the smallest leak from other places could turn out to be catastrophic if not immediately addressed.  If one leak covers over the other, your initial indicator of the problem is lost.

Once the cleaning is done, the preservation begins.  Whether you use leading edge tape on your wings or not, it is a good idea to keep your aircraft’s finish clean and shiny.  Cleaning bugs from a clean, shiny leading edge is far easier than from an already-dirty and porous one.  Your aircraft will thank you in the way of looking great and standing proudly on the flight line if she (they’re always a “she” with me, I don’t know why) is polished and looking great, and the more slippery her finish is, the less drag there will be on her during flight.  You may even eek out an extra knot or two simply by keeping your plane waxed.

There are many different wax and aluminum polish products out there which can be applied either with a buffing wheel or by hand, but no matter which method you choose, remember these tips:  ALWAYS clean the area of dirt and debris first.  No sense scratching your finish while trying to make it shiny.  When applying wax or aluminum polish, move in a circular motion, and do not linger over one spot more than any other (particularly when using a buffer to apply).  Once, when I was hand-waxing a Beech 18 part-time to get through A&P school, I noticed a small change in the aluminum’s color in one particular area–I assumed it was dirt in the metal, and cleaned and polished even harder.  What I hadn’t realized was that the highly polished aluminum skin was made of Al-Clad, and I had rubbed through the pure aluminum (which makes up the top 5% of the skin’s thickness, and shines most brightly), and I was looking at the slightly different color of the aluminum alloy beneath it.  It could happen to you.  Don’t linger in one area too long.

Most waxes are applied the same way any automobile wax is–“Wax on, wax off”–but occasionally different materials require different methods or preparations.  Always make sure you read the directions of that particular product.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the finish of your aircraft will speak volumes about you before you ever get the chance to.  A clean, highly polished aircraft says that, even if you don’t maintain that finish yourself, you care enough to make sure that every detail of your asset is cared for.  That is the type of person people naturally choose to associate with–the clean, collected, professional person.  Make a great first impression by giving people exactly what they can expect from you, and it will pay dividends when the time comes that they actually meet you.

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