The Savvy Aviator #10: Mechanicals On The Road

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Nothing is more exasperating to an aircraft owner than encountering a mechanical problem while far from home base. AVweb's Mike Busch offers some tips for dealing with such problems, and preparing for them ahead of time.

The Savvy Aviator

Aircraft problems are never fun, but they're 10 times more frustrating when they occur while you're on a trip, far from the security of your mechanic, toolbox and hangar. That goes double if you use your airplane for serious business transportation the way I do. I've flown at least several transcontinental trips a year in small planes for the past 35 years, so I've had a fair share of mechanical glitches away from home.

For some reason that I've never been able to explain, my on-the-road mechanicals always seem to occur in out-of-the-way places between Friday night and Sunday afternoon when parts and mechanics are difficult or impossible to find. I'm not sure whether I'm just unlucky in this regard, or whether there's some all-pervasive scientific law at work here. In any case, I've learned over the years that the difference between minor disruption and major trauma can hinge on being prepared to deal with such problems.

Service Information

Perhaps the single most important preparation you can make is to have ready access to the information you'll need to deal with a mechanical problem. Even if you're lucky enough to find a mechanic to help you on Saturday night or Sunday morning, what is the chance he'll have the parts and service manuals for your make and model? I've found that those two binders are the most important "tools" you can bring with you on away-trips, and have regretted it when I've neglected to carry them. Nowadays, some aircraft manufacturers and third-party publishers make these manuals available on CD-ROM, and that's a whole lot more convenient than lugging the binders around with you. If you can get the manuals for your aircraft on CD-ROM, consider burning a copy and leaving it in the aircraft permanently so it'll always be there when you need it.

The most convenient way to carry parts and service manuals with you is on CD-ROM.

If you own a Cessna with model year 1976 or earlier, you can get parts and service manuals on CD-ROM from McCurtain Technology Group for an extremely reasonable price (generally $25 to $50). For Cessna model years later than 1976, Cessna Aircraft Company provides manuals on CD-ROM, but at much less reasonable prices (typically over $200); contact Cessna Propeller Aircraft Customer Service (telephone 316-517-5800). Beechcraft manuals are available on CD-ROM from Raytheon Aircraft Company for about $50 each. I haven't been able to find CDROM manuals for Pipers or Mooneys yet, but hardcopy manuals for most aircraft are available from Essco Aircraft.

What about the aircraft maintenance logbooks? Although having them along might prove useful if the aircraft requires unscheduled maintenance away from home, I personally avoid carrying them in the aircraft for several reasons. For one thing, I don't want to risk them getting lost. For another, I'd really rather not have them with me in case I'm ramp-checked by the FAA. Finally, in the event of an accident, the NTSB would much prefer the aircraft maintenance records were kept in a nice safe place.

Another important thing to carry with you is a list of important "who-ya-gonna-call" telephone numbers. My list includes a bunch of favorite parts suppliers, the home and work numbers of several trusted A&Ps, and the tech-support hotline of my type club. I keep these numbers in three places: in the memory of my cell phone, in the PDA I carry in my flight bag, and on the notebook computer I never leave home without. (If you're not a computer junkie like I am, a paper list also works just fine.) It's also not a bad idea to carry a copy of Trade-A-Plane, because it has ads and phone numbers for a ton of parts vendors and specialty shops that you might need to call.

Survival Toolkit

If you can't find a mechanic to help you out, at least you should have access to some tools so you can help yourself. A decent aircraft mechanic's toolbox weighs at least 400 pounds and stands five feet tall, and obviously you can't carry that much stuff around in the airplane. What you need is a small "survival toolkit" containing only what you really might need to get your crippled bird patched together enough to get home. Everything in your survival toolkit should be small, lightweight and essential.

For example, the big roll-around toolbox I keep in my hangar contains 30 different screwdrivers plus a cordless Makita power-driver with two battery packs and a quick charger. The survival toolkit I carry in the airplane has only two screwdrivers: a ratcheting screwdriver handle with multiple replaceable tips, and a stubby #2 Phillips for working in tight quarters. Likewise, my roll-around has four entire drawers devoted to wrenches and sockets, while my survival toolkit makes do with a small socket set, a small set of combination wrenches, and (most important) a pair of Vice-Grip pliers.

In addition to basic tools, the survival toolkit should contain hard-to-find aircraft stuff that would be difficult to buy at the local hardware store. Mine has such things as safety-wire pliers, an aircraft spark-plug socket, and a special 7/16" offset wrench designed for removing and installing vacuum pumps. For dealing with electrical problems, I carry a crimp tool, an assortment of crimp splices and terminals, some aircraft-grade hookup wire, and a small Radio Shack digital multimeter. I also carry a roll of high-quality duct tape, and that's saved my bacon more times than I care to recount.

Naturally, you'll want to tailor the contents of your survival toolkit to confirm with your own mechanical aptitude and ambition, not to mention the useful load of your airplane. Because I fly a twin and do my own maintenance, my kit is probably bigger than what most owner/pilots would want or need to carry along.

A plastic toolbox like this Stack-On GMR16 is perfect for carrying tools and spare parts in your airplane. It's durable, lightweight, and costs less than $15. Another good choice would be a canvas 'fishmouth' toolbag. Avoid metal toolboxes.

I carry my kit in a pair of lightweight plastic "Stack-On" toolboxes, one for tools and the other for spare parts and supplies. My friend and hangar neighbor Chris carries his in a green canvas "fish mouth" tool bag. Avoid metal boxes; they're heavy and can dent or scratch the airplane.

In addition to the survival toolkit I carry in the left-wing locker of my Cessna 310, I also carry a mini-toolkit in the airplane glove box for dealing with in-flight cockpit emergencies. This contains a small Vice-Grip pliers (invaluable if a fuel selector handle or panel knob breaks off in your hand at an inopportune moment), a small jeweler's screwdriver (for tightening loose setscrews), and a few hex wrenches (for removing panel-mount radios from their slide-in racks). My cockpit toolkit also contains a small adjustable wrench, a folding pocket knife, a miniature flashlight, and a supply of AA and 9-volt alkaline batteries.

Spare Parts

My first airplane was a 1968 Cessna Skylane. It was a great airplane and a marvel of simplicity compared to the turbocharged known-ice-equipped twin that I now fly. But the Skylane used an old-fashioned vibrating-contact voltage regulator, and had the nasty habit of "eating" regulators on a fairly regular basis, always at the most inopportune possible moment, resulting in a complete charging system failure. I recall the time the Skylane decided to do this during a nighttime IFR departure from South Lake Tahoe airport, causing me to beat a hasty retreat back to the airport and to spend a most uncomfortable night on a hard wooden bench in the terminal building. The next morning, the mechanic on the field said he didn't have a replacement regulator and had to order one to be overnighted in, so I wound up stuck for another night.

After that unpleasant experience, I decided to buy an extra regulator and carry it in the aircraft. It cost a few hundred bucks, didn't weigh much, didn't take up much space, and was something I could change quickly using just a screwdriver. (Not legally, since I wasn't an A&P back then, but you do what you have to do.) I carried that spare regulator around in the baggage compartment for several years (until I ultimately sold the airplane and bought a retractable), but never actually used it because the airplane never "ate" another regulator after that.

After the Skylane threw an alternator belt, I started carrying a spare one of those, too. As it happened, I never actually needed that, either. I subsequently learned that there is a all-pervasive general principle at work here: If you carry a spare, you'll probably never need it. But if you don't, you'll surely wish you did. (I don't fully understand why, but I think it has something to do with General Relativity and string theory.)

The Cessna 310 I now fly uses solid-state regulators and doesn't seem to have an appetite for eating them. It also has gear-driven alternators so there's no need to carry spare belts. The 310 does have its own idiosyncrasies, however, so I do carry a fair collection of spare parts with me when I travel. Most important among these is a spare 442CW vacuum pump, since the plane seems to enjoy snacking on those from time to time. (It once ate a vacuum pump when I was flying into Sitka Island, Alaska, and ate another one the day before I was to make a two-hour overwater flight across Cuba to Grand Cayman Island.) My airplane uses the big 400-series pumps (needed to inflate the deice boots) and few shops keep those in stock, so I think it's worth carrying a spare. I also carry spare landing and taxi light lamps, an assortment of other 24-volt bulbs, an RHB32E spark plug, an exhaust gasket, a few AN900-10 crush washers, and a box of spare 3AG fuses.

I still don't look forward to mechanicals on the road. But now that I carry my parts and service manuals, my who-ya-gonna-call telephone directory, a survival toolkit, a few key spare parts and a big roll of duct tape, these incidents seem to happen less often and be much easier to cope with when they do.

See you next month.


Want to read more from Mike Busch? Check out the rest of his Savvy Aviator columns.