Taking Wing: Under the Hood

On the virtues of dirty fingernails.

The master mechanic, the inveterate tinkerer, the skilled craftsman who works magic in wood and metal and fiberglass: I am, sadly, none of these things. I know many people who are naturally handy, and I envy them. My own father, a carpenter and then a general contractor for 25 years, is one of these folks, but his aptitude was apparently not hereditary. The opportunity was certainly there, as I accompanied him to work and pounded nails many times, but I learned curiously little from the experience. I was too much of a dreamer, my head always in the clouds; I bored easily with manual work. Worse, I was (am) somewhat clumsy and didn’t particularly enjoy getting my hands dirty. I loved learning how mechanical things work, just not necessarily making them work. When my dad built the house that he and my mother now live in, I didn’t contribute much to the actual construction — but I did draft the plans, at age 16, plumbing and electrical schematics included.

Despite my natural ineptitude for handy work, I have had occasion to gain mechanical skills, mostly through the good fortune of being dead broke for a number of years and developing a mean cheap streak that endured long after my financial prospects improved. I drove rusty old clunkers and couldn’t afford to take them to a repair ­garage, so I bought a Haynes manual and a basic set of tools and learned to work on cars. When I acquired an old BMW motorcycle years ago, I discovered there weren’t many mechanics around still familiar with it, so again I made do with my own imperfect skills and gradually learned.

As a homeowner and landlord, I muddled through all the projects that would have come easily if only I’d paid attention to dear old Dad in the folly of my youth. And now as the liveaboard owner of an older cruising sailboat, I am suddenly my very own plumber, rigger, carpenter, electrician, diesel mechanic and, yes, sanitation engineer. These days I find my nascent handyman skills being continually challenged and honed.

Before any of this, however, I enjoyed working on ­airplanes. In my teens, I partook in the time-honored tradition of working as an FBO line boy in exchange for flight time, and besides the usual duties of fueling, washing and waxing aircraft, I was occasionally called to assist the resident A&P on some task or another. I loved that. A few years later as a flight instructor, I’d occasionally wander out to the hangar during lulls between students to watch the mechanics, pester them with dumb questions and turn a wrench as needed. I always learned something new, and, occasionally, the knowledge proved valuable to my professional life aloft.

When Dawn and I bought our 1953 Piper Pacer, I ­decided that I would work on it myself as much as possible. This was partially a consequence of that lingering thrifty streak, but also because I wanted ownership to be an ­opportunity to learn new skills and become intimately familiar with one aircraft type. There are a surprising number and ­variety of tasks that an aircraft owner can do ­completely free of adult supervision: all are technically classified as preventative maintenance and are enumerated by FAR 43 Appendix A. Some of these are rather complex and should be undertaken only with the proper manuals, tools and knowledge; prudence suggests getting professional ­advice the first time you do these. Even fairly simple, routine tasks like cleaning up spark plugs or changing your oil can result in aircraft damage or inflight risk if done improperly. I will note that even preventative maintenance performed on one’s own aircraft must be properly documented in your airframe, power-plant and/or propeller logbooks. Each entry should contain a description of the work performed, your signature and your pilot certificate number.

There are a surprising number and ­variety of tasks that an aircraft owner can do ­completely free of adult supervision.

If you’re as mechanically disinclined as me, or if you’re merely new to wrenching on airplanes, it makes all the difference in the world to work with an A&P who ­encourages owner-assisted maintenance. I was fortunate to know Bill Halpin of Hummingbird Aviation at my home field, Flying Cloud Airport (KFCM) in Minneapolis. Bill has a Pacer of his own that he is currently rebuilding, so he was familiar with the type and fully supported my desire to work on my own airplane. The first time I performed any preventative maintenance task, I took the airplane over to ­Hummingbird and had Bill walk me through it. The use of his tools and supplies also showed me where my own collection was lacking.

Furthermore, I was able to do a number of nonpreventative repairs under Bill’s supervision; this is perfectly legal under FAR 43 (it is, indeed, how noncertified mechanics gain the experience required for their A&P certificates). It is especially important in this case that your mechanic instructs you beforehand and thoroughly inspects your work afterward before signing off on it. As an example, I rebuilt my Scott 3200 tailwheel and was rewarded with a greatly enhanced understanding of how steerable tailwheels work, what their weak points are, how to recognize worn internal parts, and the importance of keeping them greased and at a proper castor angle — but it was Bill’s careful inspection that caught a critical cotter pin that I had improperly bent.

Bill also invited me to participate in the annual inspection. Of course, as an inspection authorization holder, he is required to personally inspect each specified item, but I was able to watch over his shoulder. Furthermore, I saved several expensive hours of menial labor by opening up the airplane (removing inspection covers, cowlings, seats, carpeting and so on) and putting it back together afterward. I was also able to repair, with Bill’s instruction, several of the discrepancies discovered during the annual. In these cases, my work didn’t really reduce the number of billable hours — but it did increase my understanding of my airplane and my confidence in working on it. Over time, I found it easier to describe problems to Bill and other mechanics by speaking their language, and I also better learned what questions to ask.

Perhaps, like me, you are not terribly handy, and the idea of working on your own airplane intimidates you. Perhaps you have been blessed in life and can well afford to leave the care and repair of your house, cars and airplane to the professionals. The good thing is that this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition; you can start with easy tasks and get more ambitious as it suits you. Even a little extra involvement will yield increased familiarity with your aircraft — which is, after all, the main point.

This isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition; you can start with easy tasks and get more ambitious as it suits you.

Here’s an easy first task to get you started, one that I performed on the Pacer soon after bringing it home. Most aircraft of a certain age have fairings and inspection ­covers secured by mismatched, worn and slightly corroded fasteners. Good-quality stainless-steel machine or sheet-metal screws can be procured easily and cheaply, and replacing your existing fasteners makes for an easy afternoon project. While the inspection panels and fairings are off, use a flashlight and small mirror to inspect the seldom-seen corners of your airframe. Wherever there’s a question about what you’re seeing, jot it down for the next time you’re chatting with your A&P.

The next easiest step is likely learning to change your own oil. Once you have the right equipment and system, it’s not nearly as dirty of a job as you might think. Knowing how to do it yourself will keep you from the temptation to stretch your oil-change interval when your A&P is otherwise engaged. Regular oil changes are one of the most critical things you can do to ensure the longevity of your engine. I also pulled my spark plugs at each oil change to clean and inspect them. Having clean, strong-firing spark plugs makes a discernible difference in how smoothly your engine runs.

During the 18 months that I owned the Pacer, I came to really enjoy the time I spent working on it. I got to know the airplane intimately, which increased my enjoyment and confidence in it. Without such familiarity, I would have been hesitant to take it on far-flung adventures to the Bahamas and Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Of course, those ­pilots who have built or restored their own aircraft enjoy the greatest familiarity of all. There was a time when I would have blanched at the idea of such a daunting ­undertaking, but now I could see myself taking it on. In fact, I suspect such a project may well be in our future once Dawn and I have finished sailing the Caribbean.