The Specter of Upgrade Fever

Much like with bicycles, aircraft ownership can lead to an enjoyable journey toward a perfect spec sheet.

Since 1903, bicycles and airplanes have shared many characteristics, including an ability to infect their owners with severe upgrade fever. [Courtesy: Jason McDowell]

As the Wright Brothers and their talented mechanic Charlie Taylor would enthusiastically contend, the parallels between bicycles and airplanes are numerous. Both are engineered to strike the optimum balance between strength and weight. Both must be precisely tuned to function properly. And both provide an immensely satisfying means of translating tactile, physical technique into transportation through myriad environments and natural elements. 

From an owner’s point of view, the two forms of transportation share another important characteristic—they can both infect their owners with severe upgrade fever. I first experienced this malady as a student in junior high school. Rather than studying relevant, lesson-related material in class every day, I could invariably be found building custom mountain bikes on graph paper, meticulously listing each and every part along with its corresponding cost and weight down to the last gram. I’d build exquisite titanium masterpieces in theory, and then save my pennies to upgrade my decidedly more modest bike part-by-part in practice.

In those days, I was what was known as a shop rat. Any time not spent working and earning upgrade money was spent loitering at the bike shop, annoying the employees with endless questions, and drooling over the latest high-end componentry and suspension forks. Just one shifter upgrade or set of tires would be the hard-earned result of weeks or even months of research and work, and when the new part was finally installed, my bike would become that much more magical.

Fast forward to the present day, and things haven’t changed much. Life has become cluttered with more complications, such as a full-time career, medical bills, and the unanswered question of what state I’ll call home a year from now. But for better or worse, the specter of upgrade fever remains firmly perched on my shoulder, criticizing my current setup and urging me to upgrade just one more part on my beloved Cessna 170.

From the beginning, I’ve recognized and acknowledged that the weakest element of the equation was the one seated at the controls. Whether I was straining to climb steep hills so easily dominated by my decidedly more fit riding buddies, or carefully planning flights only to airports with crosswinds within my meager personal limitations, it has always been clear that I am the part most badly in need of replacement. Still, analyzing and upgrading my pride and joy has proven to be as addictive as it ever was.

Both then and now, I’ve found myself wondering how much more enjoyable my machine would be if I were provided with unlimited funds; how much more fun I’d have if I could swipe a magical credit card and instantly transform my steed into a showcase of perfection. From Nuke Proof carbon fiber handlebars to Lycoming IO-390s, I imagine how much more fun it would be to own and utilize a fully tricked-out, custom machine with nothing left to upgrade. 

I’m fortunate to have made that journey in the far more affordable world of bicycles, because doing so taught me an important lesson. It taught me that when it comes to upgrading one’s machine, it’s actually far more rewarding to do so gradually, part by part. Only in this manner can one take time to absorb the difference…positive or negative…that the latest change has made in terms of the overall experience.

Professional mountain biker Reece Wallace knows upgrade fever well, and has had his bike custom painted to match his 170. [Courtesy: Liam Wallace]

I’ve also been fortunate to have leveraged social media (separately from my work here at FLYING) to establish partnerships with a handful of companies. In exchange for honest evaluations of certain products on my most popular social media platform, they’re providing me with products for free or for a reduced cost. As an everyday airplane owner with piloting skill that is in no way remarkable or impressive, my feedback provides them with a correspondingly real-world view into how their products serve a decidedly average customer.

As it happens, the key to an accurate, unbiased review is no different than the key to getting the most enjoyment out of each upgrade—the gradual introduction of each element separately, so each can be independently evaluated and appreciated. Thus far, the formula has worked beautifully.

For example, I decided to get familiar with my 170 on small, high-pressure tires before upgrading to big, low-pressure Alaskan Bushwheels. I reasoned that if I were to upgrade right away, I’d never have a reference point to properly evaluate the real-world effect of the big tires. Nearly a year later, I bought some used 26-inch Bushwheels and subsequently had a blast discovering how they change takeoffs, landings, and even taxiing. Had I installed them at the time I purchased my airplane, I’d never have been able to fully appreciate the difference they make. I’d have taken their benefits for granted, and I would never have been able to explain them thoroughly to readers.

Similarly, I opted to fly on my well-worn stock propeller for a couple of seasons before pursuing a sponsorship for a new one. My old prop had around 2,000 hours on it since overhaul and produced a level of thrust nearly as anemic as that produced by an old broomstick strapped to the crankshaft. Takeoffs from short strips with obstacles were exciting in all the wrong ways. But like the tire upgrade, my recent switch to a factory-fresh McCauley seaplane prop has taught me a tremendous amount about how such an upgrade can completely transform an airplane.

In my younger mountain biking days, I found the long waits between each upgrade excruciating. I hated having to settle for basic, entry-level components for so long while I saved my pennies to replace them with the parts I ogled in magazines. But looking back, that experience was hugely valuable. It taught me to savor each upgrade and enjoy the gradual process of making my machine into the machine I want it to be. It taught me that the journey toward a perfect spec sheet is far more enjoyable than having the perfect setup from the beginning.

Jason McDowell is a private pilot and Cessna 170 owner based in Madison, Wisconsin. He enjoys researching obscure aviation history and serves as a judge for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association. He can be found on Instagram as @cessnateur.

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