Leading Edge: Customizing Your Aircraft

A look at ways to make your aircraft your own.

Airplane cup holder
My cupholder idea, easily eclipsed by another, more capable inventor.Ben Younger

Like many before me, as a child I wedged a baseball card (that’s what doubles were for) into the spokes on my bike to make it sound like a motorcycle. The result, from what I am told by those that had to listen to it, was expertly annoying. But it was an auspicious moment in that it marked the first modification I ever made to a machine. Engineering the card to remain in place using a clothespin and a rubber band felt like a minor triumph. No: major triumph. Elon Musk, SpaceX-size triumph.

So began my life as a customizer. After the card trick I went on to install a rear rack on my Schwinn. Next came the generator headlight, its dynamo mounted on the rear frame so that it made power by rolling against the tire. I read the instructions so closely that it probably looked like I was defusing a bomb. My mechanical aptitude was limited. My desire to personalize was not. This urge to customize is a human one that cares not about demographic or variety of gearhead. We want and strive to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack.

The other massively important thing that customizing allows for is the opportunity to put your hands on your aircraft. This deserves a column in itself, but anything that makes you touch, examine and smell your airplane is a good thing. Whether you are mechanically inclined or not, you’re absolutely a diagnostician when you own an aircraft and putting your hands on it will help you notice the day something is not right.

In the mechanical world, sometimes modifications have measurable benefit while other times they are merely cosmetic. Occasionally the latter masquerades as the former.

Look at the automobile aftermarket. Go to the Specialty Equipment Market Association show and you will find a rear wing that sits high enough off the trunk to hang your laundry from. I imagine this adds more drag than downforce to a Honda Civic. But now it is your Civic.

General aviation weeds out the pretenders on two counts. The first is cost. Most things that go in and on your airplane must be approved or certified. This is a time-consuming process, which means these parts are not cheap; which in turn means they must be effective, not just pretty. The second is weight. Anything that goes into or onto the airplane diminishes the useful load. This explains the unending diet we keep our airplanes on. To make the grade, a new part had better be worth its weight in gold. Or in our world, 7075 aluminum.

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But even with the limitation of budget and the restriction of weight, the desire remains. We customize where we can in aviation. Paint and interiors are the obvious choice to make your mark, albeit they are expensive endeavors. I did a full interior on my last airplane and the process was incredibly satisfying. Meeting with all the artisans who did the work, choosing the leather, deciding on the stitching. I loved every minute of it. My wallet, less so. It was that interior that made me buy back the airplane as a salvage after the accident I had last spring. More than anything else, it was what made that airplane different, made that airplane mine.

For most of us, the expense of designing a new interior makes it a once in a lifetime event. To scratch the itch day to day, we focus on the small stuff. We fuss incessantly over the type of cradle we will use for our iPads. Go online and you’ll find pages-long treatises on the benefits of yoke-mounts versus suction cups. We discuss ad nauseam which cigarette lighter charger delivers true 2.1-amp charging. Sheep-skin versus leather seat coverings. What color LED strip lighting to use. We engage gladly because no matter how small the item, it adds to the greater experience of owning an aircraft.

airplane hangar flooring
My dog, Seven, is not particularly impressed by my hangar handiwork.Ben Younger

This behavior transfers easily to hangars where there are far fewer rules and restrictions. I recently installed overhead LED lighting and a composite floor in mine. I do not own the hangar. I will never get the money back from these improvements. Why then? Yes, I needed the brighter light for maintenance and the no-slip floor to combat the leaky ceiling. But if I am honest with myself, it is more than that. It was the hourslong process of lining up every graphite-colored floor tile so that the contrasting orange tiles would end up framing the Bonanza’s landing gear to help guide her in after a flight. The feeling? Again, SpaceX with none of the math. Well, a tiny bit of math. There is satisfaction in making the modification alone.

The center armrest in my airplane has a slot for what was once a handheld mic. In what has become the crowning achievement of my DIY/customizing efforts, I have repurposed it as a cup holder. (That most legacy aircraft do not come with one—and that air conditioning is a $30,000 add-on—is puzzling to laypeople. Nobody said aviation makes sense.) I bought a $20 plastic “Liquid Caddy” from a marine-supply store online. This is a cheaply made cupholder with a rudimentary gimbal to keep your drink from spilling. I removed the suction mount it came with, revealing a metal screw.

Then, I attempted to weld a washer onto the screw. It wasn’t pretty. The screw heated up, instantly melting the plastic arm it protruded from. I wrapped the plastic in a wet towel and finished the welding. It held. Now the washer slots perfectly into the armrest. I can have a cup of coffee in the airplane and not have it spill as I bank. (Standard rate only—no steep turns.) Moving on from Musk, the satisfaction this gave me was on the order of what I imagine Pasteur and Einstein felt when they had their penicillin/relativity moments, respectively.

I was online last week on Beechtalk, a forum dedicated to my marque. In this particular example of customization, it turns out that a fellow named Chad one-upped me. He 3-D-printed a cupholder that slots into the same location.

It’s a beautiful piece of work. No gimbals means no turns, so he can only use his en route, but still, I found myself smiling and kicking myself at the same time. Why didn’t I think of that? Like Private Pyle said, This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.