What “stuff” do you carry in your airplane?
It’s a well-known fact: Most mechanical problems occur between Friday night and Sunday afternoon when you’re hundreds of miles from home base. The difference between a minor annoyance and a major travel disruption can hinge on whether you brought along the “stuff” necessary to get back in the air quickly.
I’m talking about several kinds of “stuff”—service information, a survival toolkit, and spare parts and supplies. I fly lots of long-range missions in my airplane, and I always carry quite a bit of such “stuff” with me. It has bailed me out of trouble more times than I care to count.
Service information is perhaps the most important thing to carry. If you have a mechanical problem on a weekend and are lucky enough to find an A&P to help you out, he cannot legally work on your airplane without the maintenance manual (MM) for your make and model. If it turns out that he needs to order a part to get you back in the air, he’ll also need access to the illustrated parts catalog (IPC) for your make and model to figure out what part number to order.
MMs and IPCs tend to be big, heavy loose-leaf binders. Your best bet is to do what I do: get a copy of your airplane’s MM and IPC on a CDROM or DVD and stash it in the plane’s glovebox or seatback pocket. That way, it’ll always be there when you need it. Most aircraft manufacturers offer digital versions of their service documents nowadays, and it may also be available from third-party sources. (For example, if you fly a Cessna, check out McCurtain Technology Group at www.mccurtaintg.com.)
It’s also not a bad idea to upload your digital MM and IPC to the cloud somewhere (e.g., Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud) so you can access it from anywhere using your laptop or smartphone.
While we’re on the subject of information, it’s a good idea to have a list of important phone numbers and email addresses that you might need. Make sure you have all the phone numbers for you A&P mechanic: work, home, mobile, and maybe the pub he hangs out at on Friday nights. If you belong to an aircraft type club (and you should), make sure you have the club’s tech support hotline number handy. Also contact information for your favorite parts suppliers, especially the ones near Memphis or Louisville that can walk your order over to Fedex or UPS and have it to you first thing the next morning.
What about your aircraft’s maintenance logbooks? DO NOT EVER carry them in the airplane! The NTSB doesn’t want you to, because if you crash they don’t want the logbooks to burn up. Your aviation attorney doesn’t want you to, because if you’re ramp checked he doesn’t want the FAA inspector to have access to your logbooks until you’ve had a chance to make sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. I don’t want you to, because I’ve seen too many cases where shops have held an owner’s logbooks hostage during an invoice dispute. So, take my advice: Keep your maintenance records at home in a safe place, and have any necessary logbook entries be made on self-adhesive stickers that you can paste into your logbooks when you get home.
Creating a survival toolkit to carry in the plane is an exercise in minimalism. A decent aircraft mechanic’s toolbox weighs 400 to 600 pounds and stands five feet tall. You can only carry a tiny fraction of its contents in the airplane, so you need to take only what you think you might need to get home and nothing more. A survival toolkit has to be light and tight.
For example, the roll-around toolbox I have in my hangar contains 30 different screwdrivers plus two cordless screwdrivers. The survival toolkit I carry in my airplane has only two screwdrivers: a ratcheting screwdriver handle with interchangeable tips, and stubby #2 Phillips driver for working in tight quarters
Likewise, my home toolbox has four entire drawers full of wrenches: sockets, box wrenches, open-end wrenches, offset wrenches, cylinder wrenches, obstacle wrenches, etc. My survival toolkit makes do with a basic socket set (1/4” and 3/8” drive) and combination wrench set (1/4” through ¾”), supplemented with an adjustable wrench and vise-grip pliers. A few other pliers (regular, needle-nose, diagonal cutters) round out the collection.
In addition to these basic hand tools, the most important tools to carry are specialty tools that might be hard to procure locally at a hardware store. Things like an aircraft spark plug socket and a pair of safety wire pliers. My own survival toolkit also has a special wrench designed specifically for removing and installing vacuum pumps (since my plane seems to have a ravenous appetite for those).
You should tailor your survival toolkit to meet the needs of your particular aircraft, and to conform to your own mechanical aptitude and ambition. How comfortable are you wrenching on your airplane? Do you do your own oil changes? Do you replace your own spark plugs? Because I’m an A&P and fly a complex piston twin, I probably carry more stuff in my survival toolkit than you might want to carry in yours.
Once you figure out what stuff to carry, the next question is what to carry it in? I suggest you avoid traditional metal toolboxes; they’re heavy, and can dent or scratch your airplane (or your toe). I like plastic toolboxes from Stack-On (available at Lowes, Wal-Mart, and Amazon.com). I carry two of these in my airplane, one for tools and the other for parts and supplies. Another good choice is a “fishmouth” canvas toolbag (available from Klein Tools among other sources); my friend Chris carries one of those in his Bonanza.
Parts and Supplies
I bought my first airplane in 1968, a brand new Cessna 182, and traveled in it a lot, including making a transcontinental trip at least once a year. The Skylane proved to be a very reliable airplane with one exception: It had an old-fashioned mechanical voltage regulator that it “ate” on a regular basis. After the third time I spent the night on a hard airport bench, I decided to buy a spare voltage regulator and carry it in the baggage compartment. Guess what? The airplane never “ate” another regulator for the rest of the time I owned it. I’m convinced that when you carry spare parts with you in the airplane, they radiate some sort of protective force field that keep their brethren healthy.
My Skylane had a belt-driven alternator, so I also carried a spare alternator belt, which doesn’t weigh much or consume much space. I figured it might come in handy someday, but my plane seemed to “know” that I was carry a spare, and so I wound up never needing it. (Had I not carried the spare, it might have been a different story.)
The Cessna 310 I’ve been flying for the past 30 years uses solid-state regulators that never seem to give any trouble, so I don’t carry a spare. But my 310 likes to “eat” vacuum pumps, usually when I’m far from home and dealing with IMC. Because my plane has deice boots, it uses the big, expensive 400-series vacuum pumps that maintenance shops almost never keep in stock. So I carry a spare pump and the special wrench needed to change the pump under battlefield conditions. I also carry a couple of spare spark plugs, spare landing and taxi and nav and post-light lamps, and some spare fuses.
I carry some strategic supplies: tie wraps, duct tape, a tube of RTV sealant, a vial of super glue, a length of .032” safety wire, some 20-gauge hookup wire, and a crimp terminal kit. Also a few chemicals: spray lubricant, contact cleaner, windshield cleaner, and Simple Green. (There’s not much that can go wrong with an airplane that can’t be fixed at least temporarily using tie wraps, duct tape, safety wire and vise-grips.)
Mini-Toolkit for the Cockpit
I also carry a mini-toolkit in my airplane glovebox for in-flight use, and it has saved the day for me on numerous occasions. It includes a Leatherman multitool, a tiny miniature vise-grip plier, a jeweller’s screwdriver, some Allen wrenches (for removing/installing tray-mounted avionics and tightening knob setscrews), a small adjustable wrench, a folding pocket knife, a small LED flashlight … and of course, a supply of tie-wraps and duct tape.
You probably don’t want to carry as much “stuff” in your airplane as I do in mine. My purpose in writing this article is to get you to think about what you do want to carry. You just might thank me next time you find yourself stuck in Sheepdip, Nebraska on a Friday night.
You bought a plane to fly it, not stress over maintenance.
At Savvy Aviation, we believe you shouldn’t have to navigate the complexities of aircraft maintenance alone. And you definitely shouldn’t be surprised when your shop’s invoice arrives.
Savvy Aviation isn’t a maintenance shop – we empower you with the knowledge and expert consultation you need to be in control of your own maintenance events – so your shop takes directives (not gives them). Whatever your maintenance needs, Savvy has a perfect plan for you: