It all begins so innocently. We have the best intentions to make a small modification or simply fix something that isn’t quite right. We take the airplane out of service and open her up to do the job. We stare at it a little while and think, “You know, while I’m in here, I might as well…”
The next thing you know, months have gone by, the airplane is spread all over the hangar floor, and you are further from flying than you were before you started!
The past year saw my trusty RV-8 in this situation. With other, newer airplanes in our hangar, the RV-8 occasionally gets stuffed in the back, unflown for a few weeks (or sometimes a month) at a time. Originally flown in 2005 after a 1-1/2-year build, it is equipped to state-of-the-art standards—or at least the state of the art in 2004. Things have advanced since then! Fortunately, the panel has been constantly updated as we tried new EFIS and avionics equipment, both the blessing and the curse of being an aviation journalist.
Yes, it is great to get a chance to fly with the latest and greatest—but that often means a hurried and temporary installation, with proper bracketry and cabling ignored in the interest of expediency and not wanting to make anything so it can’t be changed again later. Extra circuit protection can often be velcroed in place, and a forest of zip ties used to keep wires from dangling out from under the panel instead of nice neat lacing. I’ve had antennas and the odd digital instrument velcroed to the glareshield for years and small black boxes (like GPS receivers) stuffed behind the panel, filling all available volume.
In short, the RV-8’s panel wiring is a mess, an embarrassment to anyone (like myself) who values parallel wiring runs with tight little lacing-cord knots. So cleaning that up has been on the list. The last of my airplanes to get some sort of ADS-B In and Out equipment, the RV-8 has sat patiently for the past six months with a brand new Garmin GTX 345 sitting on the shelf, destined to replace the old Mode C GTX 327 that has occupied the panel space since day one. Every time I thought it was a good time to take the airplane down, pull the panel, and do the installation (plus all that necessary cleanup), something else has come up, some other airplane was broken, or the annual inspections had ticked around on the calendar.
But finally it was the RV-8’s turn—so out came the panel and all that wiring came spilling into my lap. Cleanup began. Actually removing the old transponder and physically installing the new one took about an hour; that was the easy part. Going through all my notes to figure out what serial channels were talking to each other between the EFIS, IFR navigator, and transponder took longer.
But since I was in there…the annual was due. And that meant I had to check out all of the lighting. Lo and behold, the landing lights were both dead—HID units with noisy power supplies that I had installed years back in a test program. I rarely fly the airplane at night, so I hadn’t noticed them going out (that’s what inspections are for, right?), but now was the time to address the problem. Time for LEDs, of course! But since I was in the wingtip…wouldn’t it make sense to upgrade the nav and strobe lights to LEDs at the same time? Since I was in there…
So yes, all the lighting got changed. A new set of Whelen landing, nav and strobe lights got added, which means the old Whelen strobes and nav lights had to come out. And the wiring had to change. Since I was in there…I redid the taillight mount that had served well, but was a little outdated. And, of course, I had to do a little rewiring of the lighting switches since the strobe circuitry was different. To no one’s surprise, the nylon Molex connectors I used more than a dozen years ago were getting a little brittle, so I figured it was time to “modern up” and put in some better, newer CPC-style connectors I had on hand. Since I was in there…
Oh, then of course, I had a new little Garmin aera portable GPS—the first new portable I had used since my 696 showed up about eight or nine years ago—and that needed a mounting location so I could use it with the wireless link to display traffic and weather from the new transponder. I freehanded a bracket to mount on the left side of the cockpit and only bent one of them the wrong direction before I got it right the second time. Funny how things work out—but at least I have a good-sized pile of scrap aluminum from multiple projects to use for things like that.
The annual condition inspection? Well, that went great! I did that (using a written checklist, as always, to make sure that I didn’t lose track of where I was in the month-long downtime) along the way, mostly when I was frustrated with some portion of the upgrades. And when the airplane was all buttoned back up, its new transponder transpondering, and its new lights blinding all that looked my way, I took a look in the logbook and realized it had been 2 months since the airplane had last flown. Our other airplanes were smiling, however. They took up the load and got lots of airtime during the same period.
It turns out that “while I’m in there” is one of the most dangerous things you can say if you want to get an airplane in and out of maintenance as quickly as possible. It’s not so bad when you’re motivated by the fact that it’s the only airplane you have to fly, but when it can take a back seat, it does. This just goes back to the old rule of knowing and sticking to your requirements. Break that missive, and you might well create a hangar queen—and that’s no fun for anyone.
Paul Dye, Kitplanes Editor in Chief, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the space shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra they completed. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 5000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, EAA Tech Counselor, and Flight Advisor, as well as a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.