Airplane maintenance for the DIYer: First Steps

Airplane maintenance for the DIYer: First Steps


A&P Jacqueline Shipe discusses why and how you can get started working on your own plane.

Owning an airplane is usually the result of years of hard work and planning. For many, it is a fun and rewarding experience—the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. 

Although airplane ownership is a big source of joy, it can also be an expensive and responsibility-filled endeavor. In fact, cost is the number-one concern that most pilots have when it comes to owning a plane. 

The initial purchase price of a plane is only one part of the equation. Insurance, fuel, storage, maintenance, avionics upgrades and any updates to the paint or interior can add up to be far more than the initial purchase price over a period of time.  

One way to lower the operating costs is to be actively involved in your plane’s maintenance. In addition to cleaning the plane, there is a surprisingly long list of maintenance actions that an owner may legally perform on his or her aircraft, provided it is not operated under FAR Parts 121, 129 or 135. 

The benefits of DIY maintenance

There are several benefits for owners who decide to do a lot of their own maintenance. Long-term, it does save on labor costs, although initially there are some expenses for tools and supplies. 

In addition to the cost savings, working on a plane gives a person the opportunity to get a better understanding of how different systems operate and how things on their aircraft are put together. This translates into a better understanding of the readings on the gauges in the cockpit and may allow the pilot to detect potential problems more quickly. 

Owner-performed maintenance also helps a pilot know how to operate the plane in a prudent manner that is easy on mechanical items. 

Owners also typically aren’t as pressed for time as mechanics working in a shop. This means that they can take the time to address cosmetic issues as well as maintenance issues. Little things like repainting removed items, fixing cracks in plastic or fiberglass trim pieces, or replacing rusted panel screws with stainless ones not only makes a plane look better, it adds to the resale value.

Preventive maintenance 

FAR 43 Appendix A, section (c) lists the maintenance tasks that an owner with a private pilot certificate is allowed to do and legally sign off. These all fall under the category of preventive maintenance, and the list is pretty extensive. 

A few of the items listed include tire changes, landing gear strut servicing, greasing wheel bearings, oil changes, fuel strainer cleaning, replacing or servicing the battery, and (with the exception of the control surfaces) even repainting a plane. 

Although these tasks are legal to perform, some of them are a little complicated, and the consequences if a mistake is made are high. Specialized tools and maintenance manuals are required for a number of the procedures. 

It is best for owners who decide to tackle some of these maintenance tasks themselves to pay a mechanic to show them the ropes for the first time. It is also a good idea for any owner to buy the latest revision of the parts and service manual for the specific make and year model of the plane he or she owns. 

Even folks that aren’t interested in maintaining their planes themselves can still benefit from a parts and service manual so they may look up part numbers, compare parts prices and have the information available in case the mechanic they work with doesn’t have it. (Mechanics have extensive libraries, but it is nice to supply them with complete paper copies that are easy to access.)

The necessary tools

In addition to the manuals, there are a few tools that are required for preventive maintenance. Most folks already have a general tool set for home use. The same items needed for tinkering on a car are needed for a plane: socket and wrench sets, screwdrivers, etc. 

A good ratcheting screwdriver that has separate bits works well for removing panels. The DeWalt brand Phillips drywall bits are great for removing stuck screws because the end is rounded so that more of the bit sinks into the screw head, making it easier to break the screw loose and less likely to round out the head. 

Screw guns really speed things up, but aren’t a necessity. A 7/8-inch socket made just for aviation spark plugs is nice to have also, and can be purchased from almost any aircraft parts distributor. 

Safety wire pliers and a can of .032 inch safety wire are handy to keep around. The oil filters and most of the bolts that require safety wire utilize this size. The pliers vary in price—from over $200 for high-quality ones, to around 20 bucks for a cheaper set. 

The better quality pliers are designed so that the teeth won’t gouge into the wire and weaken it as the pliers are clamped down. Safety wire can be twisted by hand; it’s just a little more difficult to do if you’re working in a tight place. 

Jacks and a tail weight

The biggest equipment investment that an owner who is really serious about maintaining his or her plane might want to consider investing in is a set of jacks. 

Planes with retractable landing gear need to be completely raised on jacks periodically for gear servicing or tire changes. Jacks can range in price from around $300 to a couple thousand dollars per jack, depending on the style and quality. 

The better ones have a long metal tube that slides over the hydraulic piston. This tube has holes drilled in slight increments along the length to allow a safety pin to be installed to prevent the jack from accidentally lowering if it loses hydraulic pressure. This type of jack is the safest, but it is a little more expensive than others. 

In addition to two jacks, a tail weight will be needed. These are fairly easy to make with some steel tubing and an old galvanized tub filled with concrete. The jack manufacturers also sell tail weight kits that are easy to assemble and fairly inexpensive; one just has to be sure the weight is heavy enough to counterbalance the heavy nose as the plane is lifted. 

Any time a plane is jacked, use caution to ensure it is being raised evenly on both sides. If the work is being done outside, make sure the wind is not forecast to get too high. Significant damage can occur to a plane if it falls off a jack.

Fixed-gear Cessna planes are the easiest planes to jack as they generally only require that one leg be raised at a time. A simple bottle or floor jack works well on the main gear legs. Some models have jack pads on the gear legs under the step; others require a removable jack pad. A jack pad is also pretty easy to make out of a heavy piece of angle iron. 

Logbook entries

After purchasing the proper tools and manuals, and with a little guidance, a person is well on his or her way to performing a variety of preventive maintenance items. 

Once a particular task has been completed, a logbook endorsement should be made stating the date, tachometer time, a description of what was done and the reference material that was used for completing the task. It is good to also include the part numbers for installed items. 

For example: “September 15, 2014; 2245 tach time; removed and replaced landing light bulb part number XXXX in accordance with Cessna Skylane service manual; operational check good.” The signature and the pilot certificate number of the person completing the work is what returns the airplane to service. 

Once a pilot gets started working on their plane, he or she may find it almost as rewarding an experience as flying it. The benefits for owners that learn to do a lot of their own maintenance can be well worth the initial investment in tools and materials.

Note: In future issues of Cessna Flyer, Jacqueline Shipe will be discussing specific preventive maintenance items step-by-step. 

Jacqueline Shipe grew up in an aviation home; her dad was a flight instructor. She soloed at age 16 and went on to get her CFII and ATP certificate. Shipe also attended Kentucky Tech and obtained an airframe and powerplant license. She has worked as a mechanic for the airlines and on a variety of General Aviation planes. She’s logged over 5,000 hours of flight instruction time. Send question or comments to .

Steve & Papa's Summer Trip Part One: Eastbound

Steve & Papa's Summer Trip Part One: Eastbound


I'd been attending AirVenture—“Oshkosh”—every year since 1994, but always by a public conveyance. For three years I had been speechifying about flying my 1960s-era single engine aircraft, Papa, to KOSH, but every year I found that the airplane wasn’t quite ready, so it was to the airlines (again). 

Not so in 2015. 

By early July of last year I had installed the Electronics International CGR-30P and -30C, two very sophisticated engine and systems monitoring instruments. (For more information about the installation, see “Trading Six Instruments for Two: Cluster Gauge Replacement” in the August 2015 issue of Cessna Flyer. —Ed.).

I had completed the wiring to my new Aveo Engineering Ultra Galactica wingtip navigation and strobe lights system; installed new tires from Desser Tire; and repacked and serviced the landing gear struts. My portable oxygen system manufactured by Precise Flight was filled and tested.

The night before the trip, I was striving to remember everything. I would be away from my local airport for nearly three weeks: did I have the oil, tools, supplies and emergency equipment I would need? 

The launch

The next morning, I pulled my car into the hangar after I had loaded Papa with tools, a suitcase, an overnight pack and a few other essentials. (Only later, when I landed in Pierre, S.D., did I realize that I had failed to throw in my canopy cover!)

As I roll out, I review my plan. It’s 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. I am due in Waupaca, Wis. (KPCZ) to deliver a seminar at the Cessna Flyer Association’s annual pre-OSH get-together (The Gathering at Waupaca) on Sunday, July 19. (I figured I would start early enough to make the 1,700-mile trip over three days; if the weather blocked my progress, I still had a couple of days of wiggle room to make it to KPCZ.)

I work my way down the items on my before-takeoff checklist. I’ve checked the fuel level in both tanks and entered those totals in my monitoring system. I’ve checked to make sure there’s no water in my tanks. My camera and survival gear is at hand. The windshield is clean. I’m strapped in. 

As I start moving, I realize that I am finally going to be flying my airplane to AirVenture in Oshkosh. 

I taxi out to Runway 01 and check the time. It’s 6:40 a.m. The hour meter on the CGR-30 reads 213.5. Throttle in; noise increases; speed increases; at 65 mph I raise the nosewheel and I’m officially in the air and on the way to Wisconsin.

Across the desert 

I’ve flown from my home airport in Paso Robles, Calif. (KPRB) to Las Vegas often; I know the way. KPRB to Palmdale (KPMD) near Edwards AFB (the West Coast landing spot for the Space Shuttle); then to Daggett VOR (KDAG) to avoid the military airspace near Edwards before I intercept the I-15 highway to the Salt Lake City area where I plan to turn east and cross the Rocky Mountains by following I-80. 

Two-and-a-half hours after launch, I fly over the Las Vegas area and then continue for another hour to Cedar City, Utah (KCDC), elevation 5,622 feet MSL, where I stop for fuel ($4.99/gal).*

I buy 35 gallons of Avgas; dividing that by 3.5 hours gives me a 10 gph fuel consumption figure. I’ve flown over 450 statute miles; the air has been smooth and I’m happy. 

But it’s getting later in the day, and the air over the desert is heating up.

A bumpy leg

I checked with some veteran flyers before launching and was advised to start flying as early as possible each day when the air is cool and the winds haven’t yet awakened. 

I was also told that the ride in my little airplane would continue to deteriorate due to thermal lifting. If I continued flying after noon, it was also likely that I would have to maneuver around afternoon convective activity. 

I wanted a no-stress flight, so I planned to follow this up-early, stop-early plan.

Not long after taking off from Cedar City, I realize that I’m in for a whuppin. The wind speeds have picked up, and it’s blowing at a good rate. 

Turbulence increases and I tighten my seatbelt as I’m thumped, twisted and shaken for at least a full hour before I finally give up the fight and land at Provo, Utah (KPVU), elevation 4,497 feet MSL, for the night. 

I’ve gained another 164 miles of progress, but it’s been hard-won. 

The northerly route

Before my departure from Paso, I talked to Dennis Lyons, a local retired airline pilot, about routing. Lyons has flown his single-engine airplane to AirVenture many times. 

I could have taken a southern route following U.S. Highway 40 through Barstow, Flagstaff, Gallup and Albuquerque, but Dennis suggested I cross the Rocky Mountains farther north by following I-80 as it crawls east up through Parley’s Summit (7,120 feet MSL), the mountain pass east of Salt Lake City. 

I took Dennis’s advice and was headed that way when I landed at Provo Municipal. Even though it was just past noon, I was through for the day. 

First night

I didn’t really know much about Provo except that it had a good airport and sold Avgas. I bought 14.7 gallons at $5.80/gal. TAC Air PVU is the FBO in Provo. 

I unload my overnight bag, my laptop computer and other essentials before I brief the line crew on fueling Papa. The tach reads 218.1.

TAC has a good deal with a local motel and in less than a second, Carly had called the Hampton Inn. A van arrived and zipped me to a nice room. I asked if it would be possible to be driven out to the airport at 5:30 the next morning. After a little checking, the staff said Jon would be willing to come in early. 

Day two

Jon showed up on time at 0530. As he dropped me off in front of TAC, he thanked me for helping him—he said he had some work he had wanted to get done and appreciated the early start to the day!

Under clear skies and calm winds, I launch just before 7 a.m. I circle above the airport until I level out at 9,500 feet, then head up toward Salt Lake City, hugging the west side of the Wasatch Mountains until I am able to turn east. 

85P is ready for the task and pulls strongly as I look out. I look to the western half of the Utah which is flat and desert-like; then, within seconds, I look out at the mountains to the east. More than a few of these peaks top 11,000 feet MSL. 

The air is smooth and the views are spectacular. I can’t help but smile. This is what I love about flying. 

I head east, looking into the sun. I switch fuel tanks from left to right every half-hour for two reasons: 85 Papa flies on rails in cruise, so I need something to do; and to keep him flying straight and level I work to keep the lateral balance as even as possible. 

I note the changes in sequence along the right margin of a 5x7 notepad on my kneeboard. Along the left margin I write every frequency change from ATC. (See the sidebar on page 61 about flight following. —Ed.) 

I’ve got a good tailwind; I note a 166 knot ground speed during this leg. 

I fly over Rock Springs (KRKS, 6,764 feet MSL); Rawlins (KRWL, 6,816 feet MSL); Laramie (KLAR, 7,284 feet MSL) and Cheyenne, Wyo. (KCYS, 6,159 feet MSL) before crossing the border into Nebraska. I got a big kick out of the topography in Wyoming; here the hand of man is very light on the planet. 

My 180 hp aircraft is a pretty good performer at lighter weights and has a good high-altitude wing, but I had been concerned about the possibility of high winds in the Provo-to-Nebraska portion of my trip. I breathe a sigh of relief as I crossed the border into Nebraska and watch terrain drop away below me. I’ve entered the High Plains. 

Where to?

Taking into account my ground speed and range, I start trying to determine where to next land. As a pre-digital flyer, I break out a WAC chart (!). I use my Garmin 96 handheld GPS to determine the distances. 

I switch on the Fuel Prices page on the Seattle Avionics’ FlyQ EFB software I have loaded into my iPad. I run through the following airports: KYKN (Yankton, S.D.), KOFK (Norfolk, Neb.), KBFF (Scottsbluff, Neb.), KANW (Ainsworth, Neb.) and KAIA (Alliance, Neb.) before I settle on Pierre, S.D. (KPIR, 1,744 feet MSL). 

As I crossed into Nebraska, I altered my course to the northeast, and after another 270 nm land at Pierre, S.D. after 4.4 hours and 586 nm. The tach reads 222.5.

Pierre, S.D.

Jennifer at Mustang Aviation welcomes me. I buy Avgas (44.4 gallons at $5.23/gal) but more importantly, I meet Ed and Marsha Mason, a pair of lovable and fanatical fliers. 

The Masons are flying their Vans RV-9A to AirVenture from their home in West Linn, Ore. And they, too, are at the end of their flying day. 

Ed, Marsh and I make a plan. We rent a car—Jennifer gives us a half-day rate on the car and secures rooms at the local Days Inn—and talk about flying adventures as we hang out together. 

They are delightful companions. On their first date, Marsha insisted Ed take her for a ride in his airplane. She didn’t know he flew an open cockpit, wood and fabric, low and slow Pietenpol Air Camper. She didn’t care. 

That flight down the Willamette Valley south of Portland, Ore. sparked Marsha’s long-ago dream. She would become a pilot. The Pietenpol was donated to a museum; Ed built the RV-9; and Marsha went on to get her private pilot certificate at age 60. Their lives together rotate around flying. 

Day three

Ed, Marsha and I eat the free breakfast, pile into the car and get to our airplanes just as the sun is rising in the east. There’s a little discussion about the weather between KPIR and KOSH, with ground fog and some low scattered clouds along some of the route. 

Marsha and Ed choose to take a more southerly route, while I decide to head east and monitor conditions was I go. 

I don’t need to fly as high when I’m east of the Rockies, so I climb to 5,500 feet, set my power and lean the mixture. I again toggle the Fuel Prices overlay on FlyQ, and after 2.3 hours aloft decide to land at Faribault, Minn. (KFBL), just south of Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

I buy 27.2 gallons of 100LL ($5.05/gal) and walk up and down the ramp to stretch my legs before I again check the weather. The tach reads 224.8. Conditions are improving, so two hours later, I launch again. 

The final leg

KPCZ is only 184 nm away and 85 Papa covered those miles in 1.4 hours. 

When I land in Waupaca, Wis., the tach reads 226.2. (I wish I’d flown a much longer leg when I discover that 100LL is only $4.17/gal from the FBO, Plane Guys Aviation.) It’s taken me 12.7 flight hours to get to Oshkosh following my indirect routing. 

I had reserved a car from Enterprise out of Stevens Point—no jacked-up OSH prices—and it was delivered to the airport within an hour after landing. 

The CFA get-together is always a good time. On Sunday, I stand up in front of everyone and tell them about ADs. They’re gracious and thank me. 

I’m glad I finally made the trip; I’m really happy that the weather cooperated and very happy that 85P ran so well. Next month, I’ll tell you about the trip back home.

*Fuel prices are according to the author’s notes from July 2015. They have not been adjusted to reflect current pricing, and should be considered only as general information. 

Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 44 years and is a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as associate editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation ( and lives in Templeton, Calif. with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to

Products CGR-30C & CGR-30P gauges

CFA supporter

Electronics International, Inc.


Aircraft tires

Desser Tire & Rubber Co.


Aviation oxygen systems

Precise Flight, Inc.



Seattle Avionics, Inc.


Ultra Galactica 3-in-1 light

Aveo Engineering Group


Pilot information




Mustang Aviation (KPIR)


Plane Guys Aviation, LLC


Nothing Else Quite Like It: The Cessna 404

Nothing Else Quite Like It: The Cessna 404


“There are no comparable models in the late model piston cabin-class aircraft,” said Ron Caruso, founder of Maine Aviation Sales, Inc. in Portland, Maine. “This aircraft literally has no competition in its class.”

Caruso should know. He’s been maintaining 404s since they debuted, and has been selling 404s along with 402s and other corporate and commercial aircraft since 1981. 

This family-run business owns two 404s and three 402s, and all six of the staff are enthusiastic about the solid design and exceptional utility of the incomparable 404.  


In 1973, Cessna executives began discussing an aircraft with a higher payload than the popular 402, and thus began the development of an unpressurized piston twin that was to become the 404.  

The aircraft is clearly an outgrowth of the Model 402B, but with noteworthy differences. The biggest of these is its useful load: at just under or just over 3,000 pounds (depending on type), the 404 is 30 percent greater in ton-mpg than its predecessor. 

Engineers also improved the low-speed stall characteristics for the 404 and gave it a smooth bonded metal three-piece wet wing as a standard feature. “Some [aircraft] attach outboard; this aircraft is attached engine-to-engine at the center section of the wing,” Caruso said. This design is structurally sound and incredibly strong.

They pirated some features from the by-then-proven Model 421, too, including the nosegear. However, engineers gave the 404 a brand-new trailing link main landing gear (only minimal rigging is required) and large four-piece semi-Fowler flaps. 

The 404’s flaps, landing gear and wet wing would all be used on future Cessna aircraft including Citations. This stable airplane received a vertical tail that spans 7.6 feet, and the rudder trim tab has 4:1 servo.

The Titan was fitted with two 375 hp GTSIO-520-M engines, with no intercooler or cowl flaps. Its fuselage forward of the cockpit is almost identical to the Cessna 402, and the hydraulic system is based on the 402C. 

Testing and marketing

The process from testing to certification was relatively quick. The prototype Cessna 404, N5404J, began flight testing in early 1975 and Type Certificate A25CE was issued in July of the following year. First deliveries of this business/commuter/cargo aircraft were in October of 1976. 

Cessna initially offered two models of what was at the time its largest piston twin: the 10-passenger Titan Ambassador, and a cargo/passenger version called the Titan Courier. 

By the early 1980s, a third model, the Titan Freighter, was also on the market. The Freighter was a reinforced cargo-only version of the 404.

With the Titan offering such a substantial payload increase over the 402, the aircraft was ideal for air cargo and air taxi markets—just as Cessna had suspected. Between October 1976 and January 1977, 17 were delivered. 


With a ceiling of 26,000 feet and a range of more than 1,000 miles, the unpressurized 404 can fly both high and far—as long as you don’t mind wearing an oxygen mask. And it can fly in icing conditions. 

“This is an excellent Known Ice aircraft,” said Caruso. “It can be dispatched into the same conditions as a Boing 737.” 

Fuel capacity is 348 gallons, with 340 usable on the two mains. There are no wing locker tanks. Maximum takeoff weight for the 404 is set at 8,400 pounds, while its maximum landing weight is 8,100 pounds. 

The aircraft can carry 700 pounds more than its closest competitor, the Piper Navajo Chieftain—and quite a bit farther, too. 

You’d better believe this comparison with the Chieftain was a major selling point in the Cessna marketing materials from the early 1980s. 

Flight characteristics

As far as flight characteristics, Caruso calls the 404 very dorsal. ”It has excellent flight characteristics,” he explained. “It feels like a heavy 402C.”

For takeoff, the flap configuration is 10 degrees (inboard) and eight degrees (outboard). The maximum deflection of the inboard flaps is 35 degrees, with 23 the maximum for the outboard deflection.

“The 404 has small throttle movements like a turboprop,” Caruso said. “We have certain training on the engines that we pass on to our customers and buyers. The engines run real nice, if they’re set up properly.”

If needed, the 404’s hydraulically-actuated landing gear can be extended in flight up to 182 knots, and the aircraft does have an emergency gear extension blowdown bottle with 1,700 psi.

Finally, the Titan, despite its name, is not very demanding on the runway. According to Caruso, the plane has great short-field performance. “It can operate out of 2,500-foot strips,” Caruso said.

The average buyer

The typical seller of the 404 has used the aircraft either for a charter or a freighter, according to Caruso. Sellers can be either corporate or personal flyers. “The average buyer,” he continued, “is looking at the 404 because of its cost of operation/range payload,” Caruso reported. 

But not all buyers are corporate and charter ops. One other important—and perhaps unexpected—use of a 404 is for surveillance and photography. With such good flying characteristics, Known Ice capability and a strong airframe, the 404 has a niche.

The plane is also starting to pop up for private individuals’ use. “A 404 can fly to its destination and have enough fuel on board to return home. It hauls the most fuel of the piston-powered twins,” Caruso explained.

“This airplane makes a great charter, or a personal large-family aircraft—at a lot of cost per hour savings over a turboprop,” he said. “We’ve flown our family to Key West, Fla. from Portland, Maine—nonstop,” he added.

“Compared to a C-90 King air, the 404 is one-third the cost to operate—and it’ll haul more. Yes, it’s a little slower—bring lunch and dessert—however, maintenance cost is about half. It’s a good alternative.”

Maintenance and costs

“The 404 is 30 percent the same parts as the 402 maintenance-wise,” Caruso explained, “and similar to working on
a 402C. 

“Also, serial number [of a 404] does not guarantee a better aircraft. A plane’s history, including its usage, maintenance and where it has been operated is much more important.”

“The 404 has no major ADs,” Caruso continued, but one AD buyers should be aware of is AD 2000-01-16, the 12-year or 2,500-hour overhaul on the exhaust. “A lot of mechanics overlooked the 12-year and reverted to the 2,500 hour,” explained Caruso. 

The typical 404 will likely have older radios and avionics. Many Titans were owned by government entities and are on the market as basically stock aircraft with an average 10,000 to 20,000 hours TTAF. 

A popular modification on the 404 is a camera hole installation for use in aerial surveys. Maine Aviation Sales holds the STC, which meets most countries’ certification requirements. 

Purchase cost of a 404 can range from $200,000 to $500,000, depending on an aircraft’s condition and options. Annual maintenance expenses are between $15,000 and $25,000. (Operations costs are listed on a table on page 45. —Ed.)

Solid, safe and service-oriented

The 404 definitely isn’t the plane to zip around the patch in, but it has its place—both in Cessna’s history as well as in today’s globalized market. 

The Titan may not be fancy, but it’s solid and safe. And it can haul a whole lot of people, fuel and cargo. Even in today’s ultra-connected world, we still need to get people and products from Point A to Point B the old-fashioned way, and the 404 Titan Ambassador, Courier and Freighter are up to the task.

Heather Skumatz is managing editor for Cessna Flyer. Send questions or comments to .

Special thanks to Cessna twin specialist Jerry Temple for the wealth of information he provided.


Cessna marketing materials c.1980.

“Cessna’s Big Twins: the 400 Series” by Jennifer Dellenbusch, Cessna Flyer, July 2014.

“Cessna Wings for the World III: Development of the 400 Series Twins” by William D. Thompson, Maverick Publications, Bend, Ore., 2000.

Maine Aviation Sales, Inc.


Jerry Temple Aviation, Inc. 


Q&A: Eliminating the Source of Headset Noise and Installing a Davtron Clock in a C-150B

Hi Steve,

I am sick and tired of the static noise in my headset. I have been putting up with it only because I had gotten used to it, but the other day I rode in my friend’s Cessna 210—and was I surprised! His radios were clear and loud; no background static. 

What do I need to do to cut out this annoying noise in
my plane?

—Static Sally

Dear Sally,

You shouldn’t hear any static—also called radio-frequency interference (RFI) or electromagnetic interference (EMI)—if every component is in good shape and the wiring is correctly installed. 

But it does occur; sometimes you’ll notice static in the headsets after maintenance, and sometimes it can be due to component breakdown. It can even be caused if two wires are rerouted or have sagged and become too close to each other. 

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to determine the source. 

Static noise problems require a special kind of sleuth. I know avionics techs that are always “too loaded up with work” when approached to work on a static problem—unless they installed the avionics or components themselves.

If you’re experiencing static noise only when flying in rain or near convective activity, you’re experiencing precipitation static (P-static). Obviously steering clear of intense convective activity is the first step. 

Installing static wicks on the trailing edges of the ailerons and elevators, and installing electrical bonding wiring or braiding between the control surfaces and the wings and horizontal stabilizers provides a path for the electrical charges to dissipate. 

P-static can build to the point that navigation and communication radios become ineffective, high-pitched squeals are heard, and St. Elmo’s Fire (corona discharge) is seen on the windshield. I’ve talked to Cessna pilots that have gotten quite a shocking surprise from moving their hand or arm too close to the windshield-mounted compass or OAT probe when flying under P-static conditions. 

One way to narrow down the source is to attempt to isolate the noisy circuit. You can do this by turning off circuits one at a time to see if the noise goes away; press the on/off switches (left magneto or right magneto; strobe, beacon, etc.). 

Further narrowing can be accomplished by pulling individual circuit breakers. If the noise goes away, you’ve isolated the noise-producing circuit. That’s a good start—but since there may be a number of circuits on that circuit breaker, you haven’t yet pinpointed the source. 

Once the noise-generating circuit is located, look for broken shielding connections, loose wire connections and other wiring problems. 

If your airplane has an alternator, it can be a source of static. Another common source of static is the magnetos, and a third common source is a leaky ignition harness. 

However, your noise problem can also be caused by something as small as an improperly insulated headphone jack or because the shield of the magneto P-lead is improperly grounded or has broken. The P-lead (for “Primary”) is the wire from the magneto to the Left/Right/Both switch in the instrument panel.

I recommend this first: make sure that the headphone jacks are properly insulated. Each jack should have two small plastic washers—one with a raised shoulder, and one plain—and these should be in position to prevent the body of the jack from touching the metal of the panel. 

Magneto-generated noise is generated by Bendix magnetos. If only one of your magnetos is the source of the noise, this can be detected by switching off the magnetos—JUST ONE AT A TIME—with the engine running. 

If one magneto or both magnetos are the source of the RFI, there are external filters that are easy to install. These filters cost $70 to $100 each. (Note: Installing one of these external filters on a Slick magneto will cause magneto operational problems.)

The same on/off troubleshooting can be used to determine if the alternator is producing noise in your headset. If the noise goes away, there are filters designed for alternator noise and they cost about the same as magneto filters. 

Lone Star Aviation in Mansfield, Tex. is one well-known manufacturer of these filters. In addition to its magneto and alternator filters, the company produces an Eliminator filter that’s advertised to remove noise from the DC power feed line. All Lone Star filters have FAA PMA approval for installation.

Aircraft manufacturers go to great lengths to design systems that are noise-free. However, most GA airplanes today have been subject to many equipment and wiring changes. Wiring aircraft systems does require a working knowledge of proper systems and component power, as well as grounding and shielding techniques. 

Do some troubleshooting to determine the source of the noise; take steps to eliminate it, and—if you have to—install a filter to remove the noise. 

Happy flying.

Static wicks on the trailing edges of the ailerons and elevators also help.
Electrical bonding straps between the control surfaces and the wings and horizontal stabilizers provide a path for electrical charges to dissipate

Hi Steve,

I am the happy owner of a 1962 Cessna 150B Anniversary model. I love my fastback model 150. 

I received a real nice Davtron 811 digital clock on my birthday, and although I rarely need a clock while flying, I want to install it. Isn’t it a big deal to make any kind of change to my 150?

I am very happy to just fly my simple little 150 around, so I haven’t installed any upgrades or done anything except for annual inspections and changing worn-out parts since I bought it 17 years ago. What do I need to know?

—Worried Will

Dear Will, 

Don’t worry, Will. In 2010 the FAA sent a letter to Kevin Torresdal, president at Davtron, stating, “We consider the installation of replacement clocks (including timers and stopwatches) in non-transport category airplanes to be minor changes in accordance with Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) section (~) 21.93(a). 

“Per CFR S 21.95, copies of this letter may be given to installing mechanics as evidence that this installation is considered minor. The installation should be documented using a maintenance log book entry referencing this letter.”

The reference code for the letter is 100S-GA-10-53. (See Resources for a link to the CFA forums where you can retrieve the PDF. —Ed.)

I have a Davtron M811 clock with the elapsed time and flight time features in my airplane. Installation directions can be found on the Davtron website after selecting “M811” under “800 Series – Clocks” in the drop-down menu on the left. All that’s required is a power wire, a ground wire and a one-amp fuse. I believe Cessna installed a one-amp fuse in your airplane to provide circuit protection for the clock circuit. 

Flight time can be turned on by connecting the blue wire from the plug to an air switch, but that adds another layer of complexity. If you want the clock to provide an approximate flight time, you can connect the blue wire to the master switch. 

Each M811 clock has a small memory (“keep-alive”) battery to provide power when the airplane power is off. Davtron recommends replacing the memory battery every two years, but one way to determine if the battery is exhausted is when the flight time feature no longer works. Cost for a new battery is around $28.

Happy flying.

The M811B digital clock by Davtron is considered by the FAA to be a minor change for non-transport category aircraft. A logbook entry referencing the letter serves as sufficient documentation.
Lone Star Aviation produces an Eliminator filter to remove noise from the DC power feed line.

Know your FAR/AIM and check with your mechanic before starting any work.

Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 44 years and is a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as associate editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation ( and lives in Templeton, Calif. with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to

Noise filters
Lone Star Aviation
M811 clock
Davtron, Inc.
Clock installation reference letter
Letter 100S-GA-10-53

Left Coast Pilot Visits Van Nuys

The Left Coast Pilot visits Van Nuys…and learns a few things along the way.

It’s been a while since my writing has appeared in these pages—and there’s a sad reason for that. Two days after Christmas, my wife and copilot Kate lost her battle with ovarian cancer. 

As full-time caregiver for her last few months, I had no time for flying, much less writing about it. In fact, her last flight—an air tour of our hometown just a few weeks before the end—was with one of our partners rather than me. I simply had no business flying at that point.

One of Kate’s last wishes was for me to get back in the air. I got off the ground for touch-and-goes just three weeks into the New Year, and followed that up with a biennial flight review (BFR) and instrument proficiency check (IPC). I also accepted an offer to join my longtime flight instructor Larry Askew on a trip to Reno, Nev. in the turboprop he flies for a local almond rancher.

During the BFR, Larry asked me to do a soft-field approach and landing. I hadn’t done one (or thought about it, for that matter) in quite some time and didn’t remember the technique. A short-field approach with full flaps resulted in a less-than-soft landing, so he had me try again. 

The second time around I limited myself to 30 degrees of flap and carried a little power to grease the landing. I’m going to make a point of practicing soft-field landings and see if I can’t make my landings consistently good in N4696K.

With the BFR and IPC complete, I felt ready for a trip to the Los Angeles area over the Valentine’s Day weekend to attend an annual meeting of the American Aviation Historical Society (AAHS) and a fund-raising dinner for Mission Doctors Association (MDA). 

I also loaded the baggage compartment with unused medical supplies left over from Kate’s in-home hospice care for delivery to Liga International. These supplies can be used at charity clinics in Sinaloa, Mexico. 

As a fun break—and helpful distraction—I paid the whopping sum of $99 for a Valentine’s Day ride in a vintage Douglas DC-3. 

From a flight planning perspective, the trip involved three legs: first, from my home base at Modesto (KMOD) to Van Nuys, Calif. (KVNY), where I’d rent a car and drive to the AAHS and MDA events; then a repositioning flight from Van Nuys to Long Beach (KLGB) where the DC-3 ride would take place, and where I’d rent another car to deliver the medical supplies and visit an old friend; finally, I’d return from Long Beach to Modesto.

Since I’m instrument rated, my plan was to file all three legs as IFR flight plans—which makes it much easier to get around in Class B airspace. Instead of constantly worrying about whether you are or aren’t in the Class B area, you just follow ATC instructions. And while flying in some of the world’s busiest airspace, I like having a controller help me spot other traffic.

Of course, for any cross-country, the first concern is weather. Fortunately, both the aviation forecast and long-range outlook from Weather Underground showed nothing to worry about other than heavy haze in California’s Central Valley. Once again, my instrument rating pays for itself—heavy haze is pretty much a nonissue when you file IFR.

The flight down was mostly uneventful, although as usual, ATC amended my route—at which point I missed having my trusty copilot Kate to keep the airplane flying while I figured out the amended clearance. (The autopilot helps, but doesn’t have eyes to look out for other airplanes.) 

As seems to be common in Southern California, ATC kept me high until I was almost on top of the field and I found myself diving onto the localizer at 1,500 fpm. That’s not a recipe for a stabilized approach, but I managed. 

I had a small screwup after leaving the taxiway and entering Signature Aviation’s east ramp: I started to turn down a vehicle road thinking it was a taxiway, but one of their line people caught it and got me pointed the right way before I got too far.

I had a very enjoyable time at the AAHS and MDA events, where I met up with old friends and made new ones. I was up so late Saturday night that on Sunday morning I decided an extra hour’s sleep was more important than flying the airplane from Van Nuys to Long Beach and decided to drive instead, arriving in time for what turned out to be a delightful experience of classic airline aviation. 

The particular DC-3 I got to ride in was ordered by TWA for delivery in 1943 as an airliner, but instead was impressed by the Army Air Forces which used it as a C-53 paratroop transport during World War II. It was returned to TWA after the war and converted back to airline configuration, which it retains today. 

Passengers—which included about a dozen aviation history buffs—were given a preflight briefing by the crew and asked to stay seated with our belts fastened for engine start, warm up (which took five to 10 minutes), taxi and takeoff. 

Once we leveled out at our 1,000 MSL cruise altitude, we were free to get up and come forward—a few at a time—to the flight deck. Like everyone else, I did that, stayed just a minute or two and got out of the way so others could share the experience.

But after a while I noticed that nobody other than the pilots was up front, so I took the opportunity to park in the crew chief’s jump seat until he evicted me as we approached Long Beach on our return. 

That was a real treat and very special for me, as my dad was a flight mechanic and crew chief on C-47s, a military version of the DC-3 with a slightly larger cargo door. Kudos to pilot Dan Wotring and his team from Aviator Flight Training based at Cable Airport (KCCB) in Upland, Calif. 

All too quickly, the tour came to an end and I spent the rest of the day visiting with MDA folks and revising my flight plan. 

With no need to visit Long Beach, I decided to save myself another car rental by flying to Oceanside, between Los Angeles and San Diego. That would be close enough for my friends Jim Forbes and Jacki Hanson to come and meet me—and in Jacki’s case, pick up the medical supplies for Liga. After lunch in Oceanside, I planned to fly home to Modesto.

The weather forecast on Monday included a high wind advisory which worried me a little, particularly crossing the mountains on my way home, but for the leg from Van Nuys to Oceanside (KOKB) I wasn’t concerned—the wind was pretty much straight down the runway for takeoff, and would provide a nice tailwind for the short flight. 

I turned in the rental car, settled the bill (Avgas at Signature isn’t cheap, but they do provide excellent service) and had a normal engine start, taxi and runup with no apparent anomalies. Then I got distracted; ATC assigned a departure procedure I wasn’t familiar with, so I found myself in the runup area studying it.

Something in the corner of my eye caught my attention: the JPI engine analyzer in N4696K’s panel was flashing a high oil temperature warning. I looked over at the analog gauge in the panel and confirmed that it was below redline—but too high. CHT looked a little high too, and I confirmed that on the JPI. 

I checked to make sure the cowl flaps were open. It was a little warm (the OAT was more than 80 degrees F) and I didn’t have the airplane pointed into the wind. 

I called ground control and told them I needed to turn the airplane; did so, retarded the throttle a little and both the oil and CHT came down, so I decided it wasn’t anything to worry about and went back to studying that pesky departure procedure. 

When I had the procedure figured out, I called the tower and told them I was ready for takeoff, IFR. The controller said, “Hold for release.” A few minutes later, I was cleared for takeoff. 

I taxied onto the numbers, turned into the wind, started to advance the throttle—and the JPI started flashing its warning again. This time, when I looked at the analog gauges I saw something that made me swallow hard: low oil pressure. 

I’ve seen that once before, and it is not good news. 

I retarded the throttle, told the tower I was aborting the takeoff and taxied back to Signature’s ramp. By now I’d had a chance to look at the CHTs, which were also high—over 400 degrees F. 

My first thought was that I’d developed a major oil leak, so as soon as I got off the taxiway and onto the ramp, I shut the engine down and got out to take a look. No sign of a leak, but the dipstick was too hot to touch. One of Signature’s line people helped me push the airplane out of the way.

I wasn’t about to fly the airplane until it was checked out by a mechanic, which wasn’t the easiest thing to arrange on Presidents’ Day, and it took some time to find one. (Thanks again to the folks at Signature who put me in touch with Mike Maisch from Continental Aviation.)

While arrangements were being made to tow the airplane to Maisch’s hangar, I unloaded my bags and all the medical supplies, put them in yet another rental car, and made arrangements by phone to drive them to Jacki’s house in Mission Viejo. I’d have to visit Jim (who lives near Oceanside) another time.

After confirming the engine had oil in it, Maisch’s first move was to remove the filter, cut it open and check visually for signs of metal, which would have indicated an oil pump failure. 

Finding none, he recommended checking the oil pressure relief valve, and then running up the engine with a shop pressure gauge attached. That wasn’t going to happen until morning, so I spent an extra night with the MDA folks.

Tuesday morning I drove back to Van Nuys and spent an hour or so reviewing the POH and engine operation guides while Maisch installed the shop gauge, refilled the crankcase and put on a new filter. Then he had me do a quick runup. All appeared normal. 

Maisch’s opinion (backed up later by my own mechanics at home) was that most likely a small piece of carbon caused the oil pressure relief valve to stick. That would explain the symptoms I experienced. 

I bought lunch while he removed the shop gauge and put the cowling back on, then—at his suggestion—started the engine, called ground control and asked to stay in the pattern to make sure everything was working before departing for home. 

It was a clear day with light winds, so I filed a VFR flight plan to Modesto. As you might imagine, I paid close attention to the JPI analyzer and engine instruments throughout the flight—but had no problems at all.

John D. Ruley is an instrument-rated pilot and freelance writer. He holds a master’s degree from the University of North Dakota Space Studies program ( and is archivist for the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) operational history project. Ruley has been a volunteer pilot with and, two charities which operate medical missions in northwest Mexico and provide medical patient transport, respectively. Send questions or comments to .

Aviator Flight Training


Continental Aviation


Signature Flight Support,

Van Nuys, Calif.


Weather Underground


Full Circle: A Controller Speaks, Part 3

Highlights from “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller” by David Larson.

This month I’ll be continuing a series that highlights the interesting and entertaining memoirs from an FAA air traffic controller (one of the aviation-themed audiobooks that I’ve produced and narrated), David Larson’s “Spinning at the Boundary: The Making of an Air Traffic Controller.” 

“Spinning at the Boundary” is an insider’s view—with lots of iconoclastic observations and irreverent opinions—from an experienced controller’s career path and the ATC happenings during that long (and often tumultuous) period in our aviation history. With the author’s permission, here are more highlights from his years in the Miami (KMIA) tower and radar facility.

The old airplanes that flew out of the northwest corner of the Greater Miami International Nuthouse hauled more than just pigs and chickens around the world. Sometimes they hauled race horses, and sometimes they hauled other exotic animals from one zoo to another.

One day we’re going about our air traffic control thing in the tower and the guy working local had rolled a DC-6 off 9L. 

“Hey,” the controller said as he flipped his radio to speaker mode, so everyone else could hear it. “This guy keeps whispering to me. Can any of you understand him?”

“Say that again,” he said to the pilot, as we all listened intently to the radio.

“96BL needs to come back and land,” the pilot said in
a voice so soft we could barely hear him with the radio on
full blast.

“96BL, enter a left downwind, cleared to land Runway
9 Left,” the controller said. “What’s the nature of your

“Cleared to land,” was the whispered response. 

“What is the nature of your emergency? Say your fuel remaining, and souls on board.” (We always asked how much gas they had and how many people… or souls. There is a lot of speculation as to why we were required to ask that, but at Miami we assumed that it was because the fire department wanted to know how big the fire was going to be, and how many bodies and survivors to look for. Consequently, supervisors would tell the controllers to ask the captain for bodies and burn time every time they worked an emergency. We never put that out on the air.) 

There was no immediate answer. “We are going to need an animal handler,” the pilot eventually whispered.

“What did he just say?” the controller asked.
“Say again, 96BL.”

“We… will… need… an… animal… handler… Out.” 

We all got that message loud and clear. He had no more to say. 

We got everybody out of his way, called the fire equipment out, told them the “animal handler” thing, and sat back to see how things played out. 

The DC-6 made a giant, slow, gentle turn to final and touched down on the runway ever so gently. Even as the plane turned off the runway he was shutting down all four engines. As the big silver dinosaur slid to an almost imperceptible stop, the escape hatch opened, ropes uncoiled down to the pavement, and the whispering crew climbed down to the ramp. 

As the story goes, this particular DC-6 was taking a giant anteater—along with other cargo—to a zoo someplace in the Midwest. At some point as the plane sat on the ramp getting ready to leave, the Vermilingua extricated itself from the cage and ambled up front to spend some quality time with the crew. 

Oddly enough, as soon as it got in the cockpit it crawled up on the pedestal (the console between the pilot seats that has the throttles sitting on top of it) and fell asleep. The crew was whispering because they didn’t want to wake up the giant long-nosed dog that had three-inch razor-sharp claws. 

While we’re on the subject of flying wrecks at Miami, several stories come to mind. My wife, Christy, was working south local one day. The south runway on an east operation at Miami is usually only used for arrivals. Some of the cargo hangars were fairly near the approach end of that runway, and you might get one or two of these departures in the course of working that position.

One of the things that you need to know about the wonderful world of air traffic control is that almost all of the rules were written by lawyers after some type of heinous crash or screwup. Way back in the day, our rule book was known as the ANC, or Army, Navy, Civilian—and it was about 10 pages long. 

Then a few years passed, a few pilots died along with a lot of passengers, and the ANC became the ATP or Air Traffic Procedures. This book was several hundred pages long. Today, this book is called the 7110.65. I keep a copy next to my bed to knock intruders unconscious.

Among other stupid things that have arisen from having bureaucrats make rules is the odd fact that we can’t tell a pilot what is happening to his/her aircraft without first saying “it appears.” That led to a hilarious story about a Cessna 402 that took off without having the door latched correctly. The copilot went back as they became airborne—and the door fell open just as the guy grabbed it, dragging him out into the atmosphere with it.

“Ah, it appears your aft door is open, and someone is hanging onto it screaming.”

Another story is that a cargo DC-8 taxies to the approach end of 9R, and calls ready to go. Christy waited for a gap in the arrivals on the final, and then puts the DC-8 into position, telling him to be ready to go. Once the runway was clear, takeoff clearance was given, black smoke rolled up behind the big jetliner, and it slowly started creeping down the runway.

Just past the tower the wings on the big DC-8 generated enough lift; the nosewheel lifted off the ground, followed closely by the main wheels, and the eager craft was committed to the commerce of aviation. 

That was when one of the engines fell completely off the aircraft, slammed into the runway, and slid down the centerline like a Japanese torpedo at Pearl Harbor.

“It appears you’ve lost an engine,” Christy told the pilot as she watched the engine lazily come to a halt on the runway.

“I know,” said the pilot. “We’re trying a restart but we want to come back and land.”

“No,” she said. “I mean, it appears you have LOST an engine.”

“I know that!” he said, obviously irritated. “We’re coming back.”

“Roger,” she said calmly. “Cleared to land Runway 9L; Runway 9R is blocked by your engine. I suggest you look out the window.”

The scary part is that when the airplane got back to the ramp they found that when the engine flew the coop, it hit the engine next to it, knocking that one loose from its pylon, and it was swinging freely in the breeze just waiting to make a break for it at the earliest possible moment.

Here’s another story. As I said before, we worked a lot of really old airplanes back then, and one of the biggest examples was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. I admit that working this flying museum was pretty cool, and there was no place else in the United States that you could actually see this many working examples of this type of aircraft moving in and out of a major airport. 

The downside was that these aerial crates were really starting to show their age, and anytime you saw one crank up on the ramp, you knew it was just a matter of time before you had some type of emergency on your hands.

This was the case late one night—well, actually, early one morning—on the midnight shift. An inbound B-377 called the approach controller, and shortly after that declared the not-so-surprising emergency of having one of its engines out of service. The radar controller got the “bodies and burn time” numbers from the pilot and passed the information on to the tower controller.

At some point prior to the aircraft getting to the airport, the crew tried to lower the landing gear. Aircraft with retractable gear have a series of lights (usually three) that show green when the gear is safely down, and red when the landing is going to be really noisy and the pilot will need full power to taxi to the ramp. 

The indicator lights in this aircraft showed the crew that the nosewheel was being timid and refused to come out of the safety of its little house under the flight deck. The pilot informed the approach controller; the approach controller informed the tower controller; and the tower controller informed the crash equipment, which immediately raced out to the runway and waited.

The pilot lined up his eager craft on final approach to the runway, and the approach controller instructed him to change to the tower radio frequency.

Now, the guy in the radar room was a little… high strung, so he kept calling the guy in the tower on the override feature asking what was going on with the inbound emergency. 

The guy in the tower was very laid back, and kept trying to work the emergency, feed information to the crash and fire chief, work other traffic he had, and answer the radar guy’s incessant questions. 

Finally, just before the Boeing touched down, the radar guy called again and the tower guy said something to the effect of, “Get XXXX out of my ear!” Shortly after that, the Boeing touched down safely with what was apparently a faulty light in the cockpit, and taxied to the ramp with crash trucks in tow.

Unfortunately, at some point on final the captain had asked one of the crew to go down a ladder in a trap door that was in the floor of the flight deck so he could check the nosegear with a periscope that was installed there for that purpose. 

The crew member verified that the nosegear was actually down, and was on the way back up the ladder as the Boeing touched down. The shock of the landing jarred the crew member’s grip loose from the ladder, causing him to fall back down the trap door—and breaking his arm and a few ribs.

This single incident turned a nonevent into an “aircraft incident with injuries,” which in turn got the NTSB involved.

In the course of the NTSB investigation, they requested all of the pertinent data from all air traffic facilities that had worked the ill-fated Stratocruiser. That included the interphone transcripts from Miami tower. Both of the controllers got some time on the beach for that one.

The full story is available in print and e-book from Amazon, while the audio version can be found at Amazon, Audible and in Apple’s iTunes Library. (Note: this book contains a measure of salty/profane language—be forewarned if you prefer not to hear/read that sort of thing.)

Next time: Some final incidents from DTW and MIA.

Editor-at-large Thomas Block has flown more than 30,000 hours since his first hour of dual in 1959. In addition to his 36-year career as a US Airways pilot, he has been an aviation magazine writer since 1969, and a best-selling novelist. Over the past 30 years he has owned more than a dozen personal
airplanes of varying types. Send questions or comments to