Bird bath

One of the pluses of owning your own aircraft is you have the opportunity to really get to know the machine, its characteristics, and its quirks. The operative word here is “opportunity.” Just because you own the aircraft doesn’t automatically mean you will be any more aware of its operating parameters than a rental aircraft. You must be willing and able to take advantage of the ownership opportunity and put forth the effort.

It’s always amazing to me how many owners just jump into their (usually dusty and dirty) airplanes and put blind faith in the basic mag check, flight control flex, and a fast pass at the instruments before take-off. They fly along “fat, dumb, and happy,” maybe with the occasional glance at the engine instruments to see if everything is ok. It is to the credit of the engine, airframe and component manufacturers, as well as the majority of the mechanics out there, that this casual cockpit attitude works as well as it does.

As the New Year begins, the opportunity for aircraft owners to take a new, or renewed, approach towards really getting to know our aircraft should be first on our list of resolutions.

What I mean is the “up close and personal” stuff only an owner who is intimate with his or her airplane would know. So how do we do that? One of the most important things I do on a regular basis that has allowed me to catch more problems in the developing stage, and subsequently resolve them before they became dangerous, is the periodic airplane wash. This wash, however, must take place on a monthly basis and you must do it, not line service. A thorough cleaning means you rubbed over every inch of the airplane’s skin. Structural problems often start out as cracks or loose rivets, which leave a gray, powdery substance, otherwise known as smoking rivets. Leaking fuel will leave a noticeable stain, which is far easier to catch early on a clean airframe. Small developing cracks on the windshield or other windows are easy to spot during a wash, but often missed during a normal preflight inspection.

A thorough “bird bath” also means getting on your back and sliding under the belly. I don’t have a “creeper” in my hangar; but I do have a large piece of poly plastic that I lay under the plane and just slide around with ease. I look for things like: Does the exhaust stain under the cowling have a different color from last month’s wash? Is there a lot more oil on the belly from last month? Any crack developing at the bases of the antennas?

A good wash job forces you to take a close look for these and many similar items. And since you soon learn what’s “normal” for your aircraft, you are in a position to spot trends before they hurt you.

Another “must do” for me is the removal of the top cowling on a regular basis. Typically I try to change my oil and filter on a 35-hour cycle and the cowl is removed in the process. But I will often find plenty of hanging around the airport time to just “tinker” and if it’s been around 25 hours, I’ll pull the top cowl just for a look. Oil change time is also a good time to check battery levels, brake and landing gear hydraulics levels, and just have a good close look at everything you can see. My last oil change revealed a crack that had developed in my exhaust system.

Learn how your engine and engine compartment is supposed to look. You then have a barometer for each subsequent look-over. Even if you are not that mechanically inclined, you will soon learn to recognize what’s right and what’s not. And don’t do this as a specific preflight routine so you won’t be rushed. Do it when you can take your time. I have learned to enjoy my trips to the airport or the shop to change the oil, give the engine a close look and wash, clean the plane, then fly to dry it off.

My Cardinal RG is 29 years old. And my son was shocked the other day when we were flying and he asked me how many “car” miles it has on it. My answer was about 450,000 miles. But it sure doesn’t look like a car with 450,000 miles on it. Much refurbishing was required to put this plane in the condition it’s now in. And continued consistent and comprehensive maintenance practices will be required to keep it in good condition. The first and one of the most important steps towards an effective preventative maintenance plan is that “up close and personal” bird bath on a regular schedule.

Guy R. Maher has been actively involved in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours in general aviation airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.

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