By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911
This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the July 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
“You can borrow my car to visit your family,” Sue said.
“Are you sure? I’ll be gone for a week.”
Sue looked at her close friend Ben.
“Look, I’m the dockmaster here, and they provide room and board,” Sue said. “Where am I going to go? Take the car. I have only one warning: It is old and could break down on you. I never know what’s next on it.”
She held the keys to her 1967 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia out to Ben.
Ben took the keys uneasily. He wasn’t sure what he was getting into. The year was 1974. Both Ben and Sue had just graduated from college.
The next day Ben left for Florida. At the first fuel-up, Ben paid the attendant and hopped back in the VW. He was starting to like the handling of the little 49-hp green convertible — but not the low power. He turned the key. Nothing. He turned the key again. Nothing. Not being a mechanic, he didn’t have a clue what was wrong. He got out of the car and went into the station to explain his predicament.
“Hi, I’m Andy,” the middle-aged mechanic said. “Let’s have a look.”
Andy got into the car and turned the key. Nothing.
“Okay, I got it.” He lifted a large flat-bladed screwdriver out of his side pocket and slid under the car right in front of the back wheels. The Ghia fired right up and sat idling like nothing had ever happened.
“You said your name was Ben?” Andy said.“Ben, do you have a screwdriver like this one?”
“Ah, no. No, I don’t. I don’t know anything about cars.”
“That’s okay,” he said.“I’ll give you a junk one to take along. What you do is slide under the car, touch and jump the starter to solenoid is all, and that will start you. Or, never turn the car off.”
Ben looked confused.
“Okay, come on. Let me show you.”
Andy made Ben get on the ground and pointed to the starter and the solenoid post next to it. The car was running with a loud throaty burble like the air-cooled VW engines do. Ben could hardly hear what Andy was saying. Then Andy jumped up and ran into the shop and came out with a screwdriver that was curled at the tip and handed it to Ben.
“Ah, what do I owe you, Andy?” Ben said.
“Give me $2.”
Then, Ben was off on his trip, bewildered. For the next four hours, he worried about how he would crawl under the car to start it the next time.
He stopped for the night at a hotel. His strange dreams included getting run over by a Karmann Ghia. The next morning, he grabbed the screwdriver boldly and put the key in the start position. For the heck of it, he turned the key all the way and was startled when the car started right up.
Ben placed the screwdriver on the seat and smiled as he drove off to finish his trip.
Remember your first car? That feeling of freedom, excitement, independence, magic, and anticipation. Until the first breakdown. Then the exhilaration would burst, with panic and confusion replacing it. At the time many of us had little knowledge of mechanics or troubleshooting ability and relied on a phone call, a good Samaritan stopping, or us figuring it out.
Some of you reading this didn’t begin with a first old car, but with a first old airplane. Even better.
Automotive breakdowns are rare now. The amazing thing is that they are rare in spite of neglect. When was the last time you checked the oil, anti-freeze level, and tire pressures in your car or truck before you left for the grocery store? I thought so.
While our cars hold up beautifully in the face of neglect, our airplanes don’t do so well. A variety of reasons contribute to this, including lack of use. Although nearly all of us do an extra-thorough preflight before a trip in our airplane, we still may not be really ready for worry-free flying.
I decided to do an informal survey of A&P mechanics and owners to find out what they thought the top mechanical failure would be on their airplane if they were on a cross-country trip. Rather than being purely scientific, these items are anecdotal and based on experience. As I had these discussions, most of it rang true to my own experience.
The reasons for mechanical failure will vary from airplane to airplane, so I chose three categories to talk about: homebuilts, small production aircraft, and antique aircraft. Each type has distinctly different risks.These are the top trip-stoppers I heard.
Homebuilt Aircraft (Example: Pulsar XP)
Homebuilts are very different animals from production aircraft. This is one of the reasons we love them. We can experiment, upgrade, change, and be creative with everything on them. The penalty we pay, though, may be decreased reliability on operation and components because of the less experienced nature of the builder. A positive side is that much of a homebuilt is new, and we don’t have the corrosion and metal fatigue issues we have with older airplanes.
Blocked or clogged fuel system on one or both tanks. This is no surprise. New kits contain lots of debris, no matter how hard we try to clean everything up before filling the tank(s). It takes longer than you think to clear it out, and it’s easy to overlook. How do you think I found this out?
Another item is a system malfunction that is either overlooked during the flight test hours or develops a little later. This is usually a component that comes loose because it wasn’t torqued properly, falls off because it wasn’t safetied, or chafes because clearances are not adequate. Items I’ve seen include an exhaust pipe that contacts wiring or the fuselage and causes heat damage, as well as a wiring bundle that wasn’t secured and gets caught in another component and chafes through.
How to Prevent
Have several qualified mechanics and/or technical counselors look at your airplane after your test phase and before a trip. The additional eyes will find things that were invisible to you. Make sure your checklist is as thorough as you can make it. During testing, make sure you have the correct ranges and settings in your engine monitor. Check and change filters often.
Small Production Aircraft (Example: Cessna 152 and 172)
Cessna manufactured approximately 145,000 single-engine airplanes between 1946 and 1986. The average age of an aircraft in the Cessna fleet is 50 years. These airplanes are still loved and appreciate in value during ownership as long as they are maintained. What could go wrong?
Corrosion damage and metal fatigue, hand in hand, is number one. The problem is that they sneak up on you, rather than presenting as an operational failure.The manufacturers have issued detailed guidance on how to inspect for corrosion and metal fatigue. If you’re the owner of one of these aircraft, then you’ve already added inspections to your maintenance.
What else could stop you on a trip? The top two are electrical connections full of dirt or not tight (like Ben in the Karmann Ghia), and plug fouling.
How to Prevent
Use the aging aircraft inspection recommendations that the manufacturer has provided if your aircraft is vintage or classic. Attachments, fittings, and welds should be inspected for corrosion and cracks, especially the exhaust.
Rough running on a mag check reveals the fouling problem. To help prevent plug fouling from slowing you down, do a clean and gap on plugs before your trip. And your preflight needs to be extra thorough, removing the cowling and other access panels that you skip on a typical local preflight.
For the electrical connections, clean the airplane thoroughly before your trip and put a wrench on heavy electrical component attach point nuts to make sure they are tight. Use torque seal. Clean and inspect the battery and connections.
Antique Aircraft (Example: Stearman)
The beloved Stearman is, like other antiques, a joy to fly. It offers amazing reliability considering its age. When I quizzed flyers and restorers about trip-stoppers, the number one item was the tail wheel.
“Why do you think we have to repair so many broken wingtips and spars?” one restorer said. “It’s not the lack of experience on the part of the pilot — and they do get blamed — but it’s often a neglected bearing that seizes on a wheel, especially the tail wheel, and then the airplane is off in the weeds. It happens all the time on cross-countries.”
The second trip-stopper reported is engine trouble — aging hoses, baffles and fittings separating and causing rough running or no running, and the electrical connection issue we just discussed.
How to Prevent
Take the weight off the tail wheel when you inspect it and use the manufacturer’s recommendations for adjustment. Inspect the main wheel bearing and brake condition carefully before a trip. The preflight should also include looking carefully at the things you normally look past — like hoses, fittings, and baffles. Double-check safeties.
Statistically, it is rare to have a component failure that completely stops your flight. Most of the problems we encounter on trips are the beginning of a failure that causes us to sit up straighter and take notice. An example is a blockage or a separation in the exhaust or the intake. Engine operation will be sluggish, and we’ll wonder why. Here are some additional tips that should keep you flying without incident.
- Extra thorough preflight. I’m sure I am preaching to the choir here, but it really can’t be understated. An objective and detailed preflight will catch the things you don’t see on a routine walk-around.
- If the airplane has not flown in a while, see the first bullet. Strange things can happen to an airplane that has been sitting, including all manner of blockages in the intake and the exhaust. These include nests and insects in orifices, mice chewing through lacing, fuel and oil leaks, and loose component mounts. Clean the airplane thoroughly before your inspection.
- Right after service, right after an overhaul, right after upgrades, and anytime you’ve taken things apart and put them back together (painting comes to mind), expect a problem to pop up. If you’re lucky, you won’t have a problem, but, unfortunately, the norm is that something on the airplane gets left off, is loose, or is put on backward. Never take off on a trip right after the airplane has been in the shop. Fly it locally for a while to make sure everything is okay.
- Make a separate pre-trip checklist. Why? Because it’s different. You’ve been following the same preflight checklist before flying. Before a trip, reorder items and add detail. This will help you discover things you might have missed with the regular list.
- Double-check your weight and balance calculations. Your airplane is going to be full of stuff. Make sure baggage is secured and accurately weighed. Not doing this has caused some nasty accidents.
- On every flight, watch the trends on your engine monitor if you have one. Trends tell a story, and you’d like to know where the trends are going, and if there’s a problem emerging. Oil pressure fluctuations and rising oil temperature, in particular, may foretell an engine failure. If you are not fully understanding what your engine monitor is telling you, study up. This device can be a harbinger of trip-stopping trouble.
- Take spare parts and a tool kit with you. This activates Murphy’s law, which states, “If you have everything you need for a breakdown, then you will not have a breakdown.”
- Troubleshooting. Keep Occam’s razor in mind. Occam’s razor is the problem-solving principle that states,“Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” The idea is attributed to English Franciscan friar William of Ockham, a scholastic philosopher and theologian. The bottom line for troubleshooting is that it is usually the simplest answer or solution that works.
Remember the stickers that mechanics would place in the upper left-hand corner of your car’s windshield to remind you to get maintenance? Might that be a good idea for your aircraft? The General Aviation Joint Steering Committee thinks so.
Now get out there and take a trip.
Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P, EAA technical counselor and flight advisor, and former DAR. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight, details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn more at https://DreamTakeFlight.com.