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.
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.
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 .