The Savvy Aviator #28: Be Prepared

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The most exasperating aircraft mechanicals invariably occur between Friday night and Sunday afternoon when you're hundreds of miles from home. The difference between a minor annoyance and major trauma often hinges on whether you're prepared.

The Savvy Aviator

More than a dozen single-engine airplanes converged on Ocracoke Island airport on the North Carolina Outer Banks for the long-awaited weekend fly-in. The October weather was extraordinarily delightful, the camaraderie was even better, and a great time was had by all. The only fly in the ointment was that a couple of participating airplanes developed significant mechanical problems. One aircraft developed a brake-line leak and dumped most of its brake fluid onto the tarmac, while another developed a rough-running engine on departure due -- at least in part -- to contaminated spark plugs.

These problems could easily have ruined an otherwise great weekend for these two aircraft owners and their passengers. Ocracoke Island is very remote -- accessible only by air or boat -- and its airport (W95) is rather desolate, with no FBO, no fuel, and no mechanic.

Fortunately, another fly-in participant happened to be carrying a fairly comprehensive collection of tools and parts in the baggage compartment of his Cessna. He located a small, plastic bottle of MIL-H-5606 hydraulic fluid and a tiny funnel and refilled the first plane's brake reservoir. He also came up with an aircraft sparkplug socket and ratchet that enabled him to remove, clean, and reinstall the second plane's balky spark plugs.

Lucky thing he was there, too. None of the other fly-in participants had the foresight to carry much in the way of tools or spare parts.

Airplane problems are never fun, but they're infinitely 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 annoyance 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's the chance he'll have the parts and service manuals for your make and model? He might be able to lay his hands on a service manual for a Cessna 182 or Piper Archer, but if you're flying a Bellanca Viking or a Socata Trinidad or a Piper Mirage, rotsa ruck!

The parts and service manuals are among the most important "tools" you can bring with you on trips. There's nothing more frustrating when you need a part to get back in the air but can't come up with the part number. Also, even if you can find an A&P mechanic on Sunday, he can't legally work on your airplane without a service manual. Nor can you.

The best way to carry parts and service manuals with you in the airplane is on CD-ROM. For Cessna models up through 1976, you can purchase them very inexpensively from McCurtain Technology Group.

Nowadays you can get the parts and service manuals for most aircraft on CD-ROM, and that's a whole lot more convenient than lugging the binders around with you. I recommend you burn an "airplane copy" of the CD-ROM and stash it in the glovebox or seatback pocket so it'll always be there when you need it.

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 to be kept in a nice, safe place.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Another important thing to carry with you is a list of important telephone numbers. Your list should include the phone numbers of your favorite parts suppliers, especially the ones in Memphis who can take a parts order at 10 p.m. and get it on a FedEx flight for next-morning delivery. It should also have the home, cell and work numbers of one or more trusted A&Ps, and your type club's tech-support hotline.

Depending on your preference, you can keep these numbers in your cellphone's memory, or in a PDA (if you habitually carry one in your flight bag), or on a notebook computer (if you never leave home without it). If you're digitally challenged, you could even list these numbers on a piece of low-tech paper stashed in your wallet.

It's also not a bad idea to carry a copy of Trade-A-Plane in the airplane, even an old one. TAP tends to be a very handy reference, 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. By way of contrast, the survival toolkit I carry in the airplane has just 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 some vice-grip locking pliers. (It's amazing what you can fix with nothing but vice-grips, tie-wraps, and duct tape!)

In addition to these basic tools, the most important tools and supplies to put in your traveling toolkit are the ones that might be hard to find while on the road. When you're stuck in the boondocks with a mechanical problem, you can almost always come up with a #2 Phillips screwdriver or a 3/8-inch combination wrench at a local hardware store, auto-parts store, or Wal-Mart. But coming up with an aircraft spark-plug socket, safety-wire pliers, or exhaust gasket on Sunday morning in Sheep Dip, Neb., could be problematic.

Naturally, you'll want to tailor the contents of your survival toolkit to conform to your own mechanical aptitude and ambition, not to mention the useful load of your airplane. Because I fly a turbocharged twin and am an A&P mechanic, my kit is probably bigger than what most owner/pilots would want or need to carry along.

I carry my survival toolkit in a plastic "Stack-On" box like this one. My stash of parts and supplies is kept in another, identical, Stack-On box. Another good choice is a soft-sided canvas "fishmouth" tool bag.

I carry my kit in a pair of lightweight, plastic, "Stack-On" toolboxes, one for tools and the other for spare parts and supplies. Another good choice is a canvas "fish mouth" tool bag. Avoid metal boxes; they're heavy and can dent or scratch the airplane.

Once you've assembled your traveling toolkit, put it in the airplane baggage compartment and don't raid it! If you borrow tools from your aircraft toolkit, they might not find their way back. You'll find yourself stranded at midnight in Okmulgee with a desperate need for your needle-nose pliers, only to find that they're back home in the drawer next to the kitchen sink.

Toolkit Shopping List

Now let's get down to the real nitty-gritty and review what tools you might consider for your traveling toolkit. Serious wrench swingers like me tend to carry enough tools to accomplish almost any conceivable field repair. You might want to pare down the following list to conform to your own mechanical aptitude and ambition.

  • Screwdrivers: Get a screwdriver with interchangeable bits that store in the handle. Preferably a ratchet-action driver. I have a strong preference for Snap-On's lovely ratchet driver. I also carry a stubby #2 Phillips screwdriver for working in close quarters.

  • Pliers: Pliers are probably the most versatile tools in any survival toolkit, and you'll want to carry several different types. My toolkit contains seven: (a) 7" regular pliers; (b) 10" slip joint pliers; (c) 8" needle nose pliers; (d) 10" straight jaw vise-grip; (e) 6" needle nose vise-grip; (f) 6" diagonal cutters ("dikes"); and (g) 9" safety wire pliers.

  • Combination Wrenches: Combination wrenches are open-end at one end and box-end on the other. A quality set that runs from 1/4" through 3/4" will do nicely.

  • Adjustable Wrenches: Seems redundant when you have a good set of combinations, but they are useful. (What if you need two 7/16" wrenches: one to hold the bolt head and another to turn the nut? What if you need a metric size?) I carry 6", 8", and 10" adjustables.

  • Socket Wrenches: Buy a socket set that includes 1/4" and 3/8" drives. I also carry a long 1/4" extension and a set of 1/4" "wobbly" sockets, both of which are are invaluable for getting at exhaust nuts and intake bolts.

  • Spark Plug Socket: Get a genuine aviation spark plug socket, such as a Champion CT-907, about $25. An ordinary deep 7/8" socket may appear to fit but it can damage the plug.

  • Crows Feet: A 7/8" crows foot wrench that fits your 3/8" socket drive can come in handy when dealing with hard to reach spark plugs. If your engine uses a spin-on oil filter, a 1" crows foot is also useful.

  • Hex Wrenches: Also known as Allen wrenches. Get a set of long-arm wrenches in a pouch.

  • Flashlight: Any good D-cell flashlight will do. Make it part of your annual inspection to change the batteries, using date-coded Duracell alkalines. This flashlight is the item that most often walks away from the toolkit, so be strong in your resolve not to raid the kit.

  • Tire Pressure Gauge: Go to an auto supply store and get a metal truck tire pressure gauge that reads up to 90 PSI.

  • Valve Core Tool: This is used to remove the valve core from tire tubes, and can also be used to remove the Schrader valve cores from oleo struts. You can get one at any auto supply or bicycle shop.

  • Air Pump: John Frank carries a lightweight foot-operated bicycle tire pump. I don't, but one flat tire might change my mind.

  • Jack And Jack Pads: For a single-engine Cessna, you might consider carrying a small scissors or bottle jack, obtainable at any auto supply store. Usually a jack small enough to be practical to carry in an aircraft will have to be placed on something locally procured (bricks, blocks, etc.) in order to lift the aircraft sufficiently to get a wheel off. You also may need jack pads or a jacking adapter, depending on aircraft model. (If you fly a twin Cessna, fagedaboudit!)

  • Electrical Terminal Kit: Radio Shack sells a small plastic box that contains a wire stripper and crimping tool along with an assortment of crimp terminals. If you're a perfectionist, you should ask your avionics shop to replace the automotive-style crimp terminals with ones approved for aircraft use.

  • Digital Multimeter: This is a vital piece of equipment for troubleshooting electrical problems in the field. Anything that will read volts, ohms and milliamps will do fine.

  • Spark Plug Gap Gauge: A wire-type automotive gauge will work. Better, get the Champion CT-450, about $15.

  • Spark Plug Hole Chaser: A specialty tool to clean up the threads in cylinder spark plug holes. It can be a lifesaver in the field if a plug starts to cross-thread.

  • Pin Punch: An 1/8" diameter punch is essential for removing roll pins and stuck fasteners.

  • Battery Hydrometer: Don't buy this at the auto supply store, because aircraft battery electrolyte has a higher specific gravity than automotive battery electrolyte. Get a hydrometer for aircraft electrolyte.

  • Brake Rivet Tool: If your aircraft uses rivet-on organic brake linings, this little specialty tool is required to replace brake pads.

  • Hammer: If you have room, carry a light plastic-tip hammer.

  • Inspection Mirror: Get a telescoping one, about 1" in diameter.

  • Magnetic Pick-Up: When you drop a nut or bolt down into a blind spot in the cowling, you need one of these to fish it out. You can buy one at Sears or any auto supply store. The kind with a magnet plus mechanical fingers works well.

Parts And Supplies

In addition to tools, you'll also need to carry some parts and supplies. What you carry depends on what model aircraft you fly, your mechanical aptitude and ambition, and your level of paranoia. When Flying Magazine editor Dick Collins flies around the country in his Cessna P210, he carries spare vacuum pumps, spare alternators, and replacements for darn near every other part he's ever lost on the road in his baggage compartment. That's probably overkill for most of us.

If I could carry just a few items in my survival toolkit, these three would be high on my list: duct tape, tie wraps, and vice-grip locking pliers. Never leave home without them!

Take what you think you might need to get home. Keep parts and supplies in individual Ziploc bags. That way, the parts don't get mixed up and the consumables can't leak. I keep mine in a second plastic Stack-On box identical to the one that houses my survival toolkit -- one box is marked "tools" and the other "parts."

Your shopping list of parts and supplies to carry is quite model-specific, but as a starting point consider carrying the following items:


  • Alternator Belt: If your aircraft has a belt-driven alternator you definitely want to have a spare on board. If your belt driven alternator is front-mounted requiring prop removal to change the belt (most Lycomings are this way), the next time the prop is off have your mechanic install a spare belt put over the crankshaft flange and tie-wrap it out of the way. Then if the belt breaks in the field, you simply loosen the alternator, cut the tie-wraps, position the spare belt, and re-tighten the alternator.

  • Spark Plugs: Two new spark plugs of the proper type for your engine. The most common types are RHB32E and REM40E.

  • Exhaust Gaskets & Nuts: Carry the same number of spare gaskets as you have cylinders on your engine. Half a dozen exhaust nuts as well. You'll need them if your exhaust has to be pulled off for any reason.

  • Brake Linings: Carry enough brake linings to re-line one brake assembly, usually two or four pads for singles, six or eight for twins. If your brake pads are riveted on, your brake lining Ziploc bag should include the necessary rivets as well.

  • Tire Tubes: Spare tubes for your main and nose wheels. A good place to buy them is Desser Tire at 1-800-AIR-TIRE. About $25 or $35 each.

  • Lamps: Carry a spare landing light lamp and a spare position lamp. If your taxi lamp is different, you might carry one of those as well. Ditto if your aircraft has a rotating or flashing beacon. Also carry spare lamps for important cockpit lighting such as instrument post lights, landing gear annunciator lights, etc. (This is most important if your airplane has a 28-volt electrical system, since you can't substitute automotive lamps.)

  • AN900 Crush Washers: These are one-time use crushable copper/fiber gaskets used to seal oil drain plugs. (Don't bother with these if your engine is equipped with an oil quick-drain.)


  • Safety Wire: Stainless steel aircraft safety wire comes in three sizes: .020, .032 and .045. The .032 size is by far the most useful. Carry a three-foot length of each size, wrap them around a tongue depressor, and stash it in a Ziploc bag.

  • Hydraulic Fluid: This is the thick red liquid used in brakes, oleo struts, and hydraulic landing gear retraction systems. Use nothing but genuine MIL-H-5606 fluid; automotive brake fluid is a major no-no. Carry a pint in a plastic bottle protected by a Ziploc freezer bag, because if it leaks you'll have a real mess.

  • Spray Lubricant: Carry an aerosol can of LPS-1, a greaseless silicone lubricant. Good for rod ends, piano hinges, door latches, and other squeaky things. (Don't substitute WD-40, it should never be used on aircraft.)

  • Contact Cleaner: Pick up a small spray can of "Tuner/Control Cleaner and Lubricant" at Radio Shack. It's great for electrical connectors, switches, relays, lighting rheostats, volume controls, and the frequency-select switches on older avionics.

  • Pledge: Forget those pricey windshield cleaners. Good ol' Pledge is as good a Plexiglas cleaner as you will find. The wax in Pledge fills in minor scratches and helps make them disappear. Lemon Pledge used on inside surface of windows makes the cabin smell nice. Pledge is available in a non-aerosol trigger spray bottle, which is a much better choice for your toolkit.

  • Extreme Simple Green: A good, biodegradable cleaner and de-greaser. Pick up a small spray bottle at any auto supply store. (Never use Formula 409 on an aircraft, because it attacks aluminum.)

  • Paper Shop Towels: These are the soft blue "shop towels on a roll" you can buy at auto parts places, Costco, Home Depot, etc. (Don't use it to clean plexiglass windows; always use terry or microfiber cloth.)

  • RTV: Stands for "room temperature vulcanizing" silicone rubber sealant; also known as bathtub caulk. Invaluable for sealing leaks, making home-brew gaskets, and gluing things together. Buy it at any auto parts store. Comes in clear, white, and high-temp (orange) varieties under General Electric, Dow-Corning, and Permatex brand names.

  • Duct Tape: Don't leave home without it! It's amazing stuff that can hold airplane pieces in formation until you get home. Also useful for patching leaks, replacing missing inspection plates, and 1,001 other things. Get the genuine article, made of gray cloth with clearly visible threads. Don't be fooled by the imitation plastic junk that some stores will try to palm off on you. Available just about everywhere.

  • Tie-Wraps: These are those plastic bundle ties with a built-in ratchet fastener, and they are second only to duct tape in usefulness and versatility. Carry a dozen of assorted sizes.

A Mini-Toolkit For The Cockpit

In addition to the survival toolkit for the baggage compartment, I also carry a mini-toolkit in the airplane glove box for dealing with in-flight cockpit emergencies. My cockpit kit includes:

  • Miniature vice-grip pliers (invaluable if a fuel selector handle or panel knob breaks off in your hand at an inopportune moment)

  • Small jeweler's screwdriver (for tightening loose setscrews)

  • Some hex wrenches (for removing panel-mount radios from their slide-in racks)

  • Small adjustable wrench

  • Folding pocket knife

  • Miniature flashlight

  • Supply of alkaline batteries (AA and 9-volt)

I keep these items in a heavy-duty Ziploc freezer bag and store it in my airplane's glovebox. A seatback pocket is also OK, so long as you can reach it easily from the pilot's seat.

Where To Buy This Stuff

These days, everything you need for your survival toolkit, cockpit mini-toolkit, and parts/supplies stash can be purchased online. Here are a few sites you may want to check out:

Snap-On Tools

Craftsman Tools (Sears)

U.S. Industrial Tool & Supply Co.

Aircraft Tool Supply Co.

Brown Aviation Tool Supply Co.

Harbor Freight Tools

Aircraft Spruce & Specialty

Chief Aircraft

Sacramento Sky Ranch

Air Suppliers


Radio Shack

Newark Electronics

Your Mileage May Vary

By now you've probably figured out that I carry quite a bit of stuff in my Cessna T310R, but keep in mind that it's a complex machine and I'm an A&P. If you fly a Skyhawk and are mechanically challenged, you'll undoubtedly want to carry less. Each aircraft and each owner is different. Do what makes sense for you.

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.