Rear Cockpit

On electric light.


“Hello darkness my old friend” may have kept Simon & Garfunkel in fresh sandals, but if my mole-like shop experiences are any clue, it sure is a lousy theme for plane builders and maintainers. It’s also a condition aggravated by advancing years. Although I may have plateaued mentally at 16, physically my dark adaptation gently but persistently suggests my orbs may be well past 40. That or I’ll have to come up with another reason for tripping over the air hose last week.

Tom eyeballs the bungees one fine winter’s eve. Compared to just a flashlight, the 4-foot fluorescent fixture provides ample, shadowless task lighting.

Lack of light is a persistent workshop theme, so much so that once descended below the heroic Taj Mahal level of personal work spaces, darkness is essentially emblematic of the breed. Admittedly I’ve been in only a few dedicated aviation workshops ranging from Piper’s Vero Beach plant to a few repurposed home garages and the ubiquitous tin-shed hangars, but I’ve haunted a couple hundred automotive shops. There are detail differences in what typically transpires inside these workplaces, but in their need for something more than a jar of fireflies suspended from the rafters, they might as well be identical.

Yet, experience shows most shops need to import more fireflies. In the recently departed incandescent and fluorescent age, such lumen parsimoniousness could at least be partially credited to the high cost of electricity, plus in ye olde times fixtures and bulbs were frequent costs as well. Beady-eyed accountants and their thug squads of efficiency experts no doubt got hives when faced with lighting a quarter million square feet of factory, and lord knows my dad could summon the thunder and invoke the lightning should he discover the oven lamp on duty without a human in attendance. But in this age of electron-sipping LEDs sourced from price-slashing big box stores, fiscal conservancy is more tertiary than ever when calculating the cost-benefit ratio of illuminating the average 500-square-foot shop.

And the benefits of workplace illumination were well documented by lab coat and clipboard types about when Noah went boating. The results are irrefutable: Within reason more light means more productivity, better worker satisfaction, and increased safety—and the more natural daylight, the better. But somehow so many of us don’t get it, toiling in the sort of dimness people of mediocre attractiveness prefer when courting, or squinting into a combination of darkness and glare guaranteed to produce a headache.

As usual, the experts don’t fully agree, but according to the professional lightning bugs, there are at least three categories of lighting involved in human habitations: general, task, and accent.

The first of these is the obvious wide area light most shops rely on exclusively via a few hoary fluorescents buzzing in the overhead, while task lighting is illumination concentrated over a smaller area, most naturally the workbench, but this could also be that portable light stand used to accurately assay areas insufficiently sanded while re-ragging wings, for example. Accent lighting is an emotional tool designed to attract attention and set a mood, and while you might scoff at the idea of up-lighting the potted palm you screen the air compressor behind, if you have a neon beer sign in your man-cave airplane factory, you’ve got accent lighting.

The experts also say daylight is the ideal general shop light, although there are several obvious difficulties getting enough of that evenly spread in a hangar, and typically most shop lighting sins are simply not enough general lighting and definitely not enough task lighting. That’s why you’re always holding the flashlight in your teeth.

Actually, my obsession with lighting may be somewhat regional. As a Southern Californian, endless sunny skies are something of a birthright—a bunch of Chamber of Commerce hooey, really, but compared to Buffalo, it is pretty mild—and so traditional SoCal workshops tend to be smaller because it’s assumed work can spread outside, poorly insulated if at all, shaded from the burning sun via overhangs and possibly by small, heavily inset windows, and ultimately still dependent on open garage or hangar doors for illumination, as it’s assumed such portals will be perpetually open. Some, in fact are. Thus, the illumination is often glary, one sided, insufficient and variable with the time of day, not to mention what happens at night. In fact, Midwest and rust belt shops are often far advanced over their Sunbelt compatriots simply because long winters and humidity demand it. Such two-season hobby conditions—fly it in summer, work on it in winter—mean beautifully maintained cars and airplanes are a heartland staple, while the coastal iron often features a few more “inop” instrument blanks than expected in sporting machinery.

So, what’s to do about all this? Put up more (modern) lights, if you can. We’re not allowed such things in our rented hangars—no one owns hangars around here, and you farmers with the private airstrip and hangar tucked in the north forty are envied beyond telling—but for those in control of their lighting destiny, you can’t have too many. And if you’ve been away for a while, the old T12 fluorescent has been legislatively sacrificed to a more efficient future; it’s all T8 or smaller bulbs these days. Likewise, those buzzing, don’t-work-when-cold magnetic ballasts in legacy fluorescents are no longer manufactured, so if you have some vintage lighting dying in your plane-making place, it’s best to budget for new fixtures and LED “bulbs.” Or, if you’re brimming with handymanitis after squeezing all those rivets, the old fixtures can be upgraded with electronic ballasts—drivers, actually—to allow switching to T8 LED “bulbs.”

I shan’t be so daft as to attempt specific lighting advice, but at least from observation, I must say those shops with light from two opposing sides are far superior to working in the average cave. The passing breeze can be nice, too. Of course, much of the time man-made lighting is the only thing. Hanging fixtures to evenly light the entire shop and using switches to allow partial lighting zones is often the basis of good illumination and thus fine airplanes. From there a series of task lights over the bench, toolbox, and larger shop tools is on my wish list. Finally, portable light stands can make specific jobs such as cutting the bungees and not the fuel line more successful.

Naturally I have few of these things in my own hangar where if I’m not building, I’m at least maintaining one each Experimental string bag and certified tomato can. Useful expedients are a 4-foot fluorescent slid around the floor pointing upwards as if it were the world’s largest drop light, along with a quiver of flashlights. I wish you better.

Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.


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