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#132 Wrenching for Pilots

I’ve touched on this subject before.  Maybe it’s a sign of how important I think it is that I’m going to touch on it again.

Learning to Prop

John Morton hand propping the 140.

When I was producing the Tailwheeler’s Journal video on “Hand Propping”, I pointed out to someone that hand propping an airplane was similar to “popping the clutch” to start a car on a hill.  My point was that no driver should be ignorant of that starting technique.  Similarly, every pilot should know how to hand prop.

The same could be said of certain maintenance operations.  In fact, it seems to me that every student pilot should be familiarized with some maintenance operations during their flight training. Some that come to mind are oil and filter changing, filter inspection, brake lining replacement and tire changing and inflation.  This subject has caught the interest of many aviation writers.  They normally approach the subject from the standpoint of what the FARs will allow.  I suppose we have to bear that in mind, since the feds are always lurking to bust pilots for any violation, no matter how minor.  I’m more concerned with how well an operation is performed rather than which operations are permitted by the boys in polyester pants.

Cammi relilning

Cammi Benson relines brakes

I try to give my primary students the opportunity to get some hands-on experience with maintenance.  Perhaps the best example of increasing pilot maintenance ability is to simply stress the proper inflation of tires.  Heck, I think we can train a chimp to check tire pressure.  Then it’s an easy step to inflate the tire to the proper pressure.   For those who don’t understand why I hate wheel pants, just try to check your tires and brakes when those damned things are installed!

I continue to be impressed by how few pilots have any idea of how much brake lining remains when they peer at it during a pre-flight… or miss it completely.  And it’s so simple to teach!

Brake dissassembly CU

A 7/16″ socket is used to remove the two bolts holding the brake to the rotor…

A 7/16 socket and ratchet are all that’s necessary to remove the typical Cleveland brake and check the lining.  And the assembly itself  is a pretty simple thing to maintain.  It may require the expenditure of a few

Julie with brake

…and VOILA! it’s off and inspectable or relineable.

bucks for a riveting tool, but it’s a pretty good investment.  It doesn’t take long for the average person to judge how the wear is proceeding on their linings.  They are so simple to disassemble that you can do it several times just to get an idea of how much lining needs to be showing before the rivets contact the disc.

When I was in the airshow biz, I stopped in South Bend, Indiana and needed an oil change.  I must have been feeling flush, because I asked one of the FBO’s to do it and never bothered to ask how much.  Boy, did I learn from THAT one!  I think I may have commented, “I just wanted an oil change, not a top overhaul!”

For a few bucks you can buy an oil filter cutter, too.  This enables you to open up that filter so that you can get the element out and see if the filter caught any metal.  Different mechanics have different methods for checking that element and I’ll bet you can find out a good one from a mechanic you like. Personally, I like to squeeze the pleated element in a vise, leaving nothing but the particles, if any. They are plainly visible when I pull the pleated paper apart, much in the manner of Myron Floren playing the accordion. I learned that technique from Jeff Stanford and it’s a good one.

Years ago I read of some research someone had done on the concept of “throwing like a girl”.  Seems  the researcher wondered why girls seemed to throw with less effectiveness than boys.  What he found shouldn’t surprise us.  It was cultural.  When growing up, boys were encouraged to throw rocks and climb trees.  Girls were encouraged to be “ladylike” and have tea parties.  There is virtually no difference in

Janet w Mercedes and Hooper's thumb

Janet Lansburgh changes the starter on her car. Her brother, whose hand can be seen, has been relegated to handing her parts from below….

the physical ability to throw between the two sexes.  Similarly, boys are often encouraged to work on cars and to learn about tools.  Since there is no difference between the aptitude for flying between males and females, we’d be well-advised to bring our little girls into the garage and teach them the difference between an end wrench and a screwdriver.

Roll 42-4

…of course she’s been working in the shop for a while.

The lack of experience should not stop anyone who’s learning to fly from learning to do a bit of maintenance.  Besides, airplanes are generally a lot cleaner than cars and easier to work on.

I would have to say that if you learn to fly and never learn to change the brake linings or hand-prop, your training is deficient..  Those who know me know that I take pretty seriously the old wheeze that “when the student fails to learn, the instructor has failed to teach”.  But not all instructors teach any maintenance.  That’s especially true at modern Acme Flying Schools, so the responsibility falls on the student.  Don’t drop it.

6 comments to #132 Wrenching for Pilots

  • Keith

    When I first started flying, I was afraid of my aircraft. It was this magical thing that I just wanted to work. I often felt like just training and piloting was the limits of my capacity at that point. It wasn’t until a few years later and many thousands of dollars later that I took any interest whatsoever in helping with the maintenance of my aircraft. Boy, was I glad to meet some of the local A&Ps who were friendly to owner assisted annuals. I learned so much about my plane! Bravo for incorporating this important skill into your trainings Brian.

  • Keith

    Can you please fix my typos Brian 🙁 Sorry for my quick mouse fingers and not double checking before posting.

    –“I often felt that simply training and piloting were the limits of my capacity at that early stage.”
    –“A few years and many thousands of dollars later”
    -“friendly to the idea of owner assisted”

  • Brian,

    You probably guessed I couldn’t resist taking this bait. For me, wrenching is the other half of the pleasure of flying, the first half. As a kid, I didn’t need to fly an airplane to experience the joy of flight, it was only necessary for me to be allowed to touch an airplane. I was so simple-minded in my passion that being close enough to smell the unique odor of an airplane was enough. Let’s be a little more charitable with the Acme instructors, they don’t know any better. They’re the product of several generations of flight training as a business, rather than an opportunity to pass on their skill, love and passion.

    I have a therapist friend who encourages people to understand not just what they are as a person, but also who they are and why they are. She calls it becoming a fully integrated human. Aviation needs fully integrated pilots. Personally, I’m greedy, I always wanted everything my love affair with aviation had to offer.

    Thanks for this piece. I hope a few Acme instructors and their students read your article and become curious enough to go get dirt under their fingernails. If they do, they’ll discover that’s fun too.


  • Tom Sawyer and the white fence?…Obviously I agree on the learned maintenance

  • Light bulbs are a great subject, trouble shooting and electrical circuit, simple to do and won’t miss a night flight if you know how.

  • Guy Parker

    Hey, Brian, your comment on wheelpants reminded me of a trip to PDX back in the ’60’s in a lease-back C-150 with pants. You check the tires by: lookee, pull the prop, lookee, pull the prop, etc. till you think you’ve seen all the rubber there is to see. Guess I missed a patch, because I had a flat tire (blow-out) at the intersection of the old “X” runways. The fire trucks got there in a BIG hurry, put a dolly under the flat and yanked me out of there post-haste. Suffice to say, I’ve never owned even one wheel-pant.

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