Rebuilding A Strut

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When I bought my 1970 Piper Cherokee 180 and the pre-buy and annual were completed, it was time to introduce my wife to our new bird with a short flight around our area. I was hoping to make a good impression.

The airplane stance was wrong as we approached our plane on the ramp. The nose was sitting way too low. Ouch. The front strut was collapsed.

1970 Piper Cherokee 180
A 1970 Piper Cherokee 180 prepared to have its strut disassembled. Photo by Denny Katz

Because it was a Sunday afternoon, the Augusta Aviation maintenance shop was empty. I contacted the manager and was told that nothing could be done until the next day. I told my wife that our first flight would be another day, and we went out to eat.

The joys of airplane ownership.

The next morning, I arrived to find my strut serviced with nitrogen by the maintenance crew. It was worth a try, since aging seals will sometimes leak in cold weather. Unfortunately, the strut collapsed in less than an hour.


An owner can participate in the maintenance of their personal airplane, but you’ve got to be under the direction and observation of a certificate holder, as authorized by FAR 43.3 (d). The Certificate holder will watch you work and approve your work when completed to their satisfaction. My shop assigned a mechanic to work with me while I performed most of the required repairs. Working on your airplane can be educational, and it can save you money.

The Oleo strut is a common aircraft suspension component found on many of our airplanes. Although similar in appearance to a motorcycle front suspension, they are significantly different. The biggest difference is that there’s no actual spring, just gas under pressure. The shock absorber is hydraulic fluid flowing through small openings. These struts are simple, sturdy and provide years of trouble-free service, and repairs to them require only basic hand tools. The rebuild took a few hours and required some new seals, a little hydraulic fluid and some compressed nitrogen. The seals are easily obtained as a kit for your specific airplane from most aircraft parts vendors. I completed the repairs for less than $200.

We began troubleshooting by replacing the Schrader valve core, located on the top of the strut. This valve allows you to recharge the gas, like the fill stem on your tires. The core is removed and replaced using a common tool. The rubber seals can go bad, and it is an easy fix, if you are lucky. Unfortunately, after I made that repair, the strut proceeded to collapse in less than an hour.

Luckily, disassembling the strut for rebuilding is easy. You elevate the leaking strut enough to pull the strut shaft out of the housing. Sand bags on the tail of my Piper provided the required clearance. You’ve got to get rid of any remaining gas pressure and then remove the wheel and the tire. You disassemble the strut torque linkage by removing a few fasteners. Then, if you look up into the strut from the bottom, you’ll see a lock ring that must be removed. After that, you simply pull the shaft out of the housing.

When you pull out the strut, a lot of bright red hydraulic fluid will come with it, so a catch pan is a necessity. The main housing remains installed in the aircraft.

Once the strut is on the work bench, you remove heavy duty lock ring to permit removal of the seal bearing sleeve from the fork tube. A few minutes at the parts washer will remove years of dirty sediment from inside the fork tube. Removing and replacing the seals comes next.

A disassembled front strut.
The front strut inner cylinder is disassembled on the bench. Photo by Denny Katz

You reassemble the unit in the reverse order that you disassembled it. The strut must then be refilled. This sounded complicated in the repair manual. In practice, it was simple. You push a hose on to the Schrader valve stem after removing the valve core. The other end of the hose is inserted into a can of hydraulic fluid. The strut is then expanded and compressed by hand. By using a clear hose, you can watch hydraulic fluid from the can go in and the air bubbles come out with each stroke. Finally, you reinstall the valve core using a nitrogen tank, with regulator, to add sufficient gas pressure to establish the correct ride height. If no leaks are detected, the job should be done.

Unfortunately, once again, the strut collapsed in less than an hour. At that point, I was afraid that I might be facing something expensive. We pressurized the strut and poured some soapy water over it to look for leaks. It was immediately obvious from the bubbles around the base of the Schrader

A reassembled strut
The reassembled strut. Photo by Denny Katz

valve stem that we found the leak. The valve stem body threads into the top of the strut. I removed the stem, and when I did, I discovered that, some time in the past, a rubber o-ring was added to the metal sealing gasket that was intended to seal the stem to the housing. I carefully cleaned the machined surfaces to remove all rubber residue and installed a new metal gasket. We pressurized the strut, and it remained extended. My strut was now fixed.

My supervising mechanic inspected and properly documented the work in the airframe log books, in accordance with FAR 43. I filed away the knowledge for the next time down the road I needed to fix a strut and save hundreds of dollars in the process.

One more quick note: you can rest easy if you are worried about a strut collapse during taxi or landing. Your airplane was designed to avoid a prop-strike in the unlikely event of both a collapsed front strut and a nose wheel with a flat tire.

The post Rebuilding A Strut appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Moving On Up: Getting The Call From A Major Airline

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Halfway through the preflight inspection in Bloomington, Illinois, the phone buzzed in my pocket. I let it go to voicemail. I’m not one to screen calls, but I’m also not one who enjoys interruptions in a preflight walk-around. It was cold out, besides, and I just wanted to get back into the heat.

The voicemail was from a manager at an airline I’d interviewed with a month or two before. Like the village idiot, I’d gotten the call and let it go to voicemail at quitting time on a Friday. I wondered if I could survive the suspense of having to wait out the whole weekend to know my fate.

I was sitting in the right seat, pulling the ATIS and starting to load our flight plan as I hit send. I was mentally preparing to leave a voicemail of my own when the ringing stopped.

There was a voice on the other end, not a recording.

There was a job offer and a class date.

There was much rejoicing and an uncountable number of thank-yous.

After more than nine years of flying regional jets, I had an offer to move up. I scrambled for a pen and came up with a magic marker. I grasped for paper—any paper, in a flight deck where we burned through 12 linear feet of paper per flight. I came up with the piece of cardboard off the back of a hotel notepad.

March 23, I scrawled.

After my stammered flurry of thank-yous, I fired another call off to Amy, my wife. “They hired me. I start in late March. Gotta fly. Coming home.”

The captain, one of our company’s most senior, looked at me with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “You got the call, you S.O.B. Okay, that’s it. I’m done here. Fly us home. Congratulations, kid. We’re gonna miss you around here.”

I had about a month until class. Choosing my day to leave the company was a strategic move to manage a few days off to rest before beginning training, while also trying to pick up a few fun trips to end on a high note.

My last scheduled trip was a continuous duty overnight from Atlanta to Westchester County, New York, and back. Naps, as we called them, are rough. You typically fly the last flight into a city and the first flight back out the next morning. There’s a couple hours at a hotel in between, usually no more than five hours on the ground.

I had the leg back to Atlanta, and I misjudged my flare just enough to drive the mains into the pavement with a somewhat firm arrival. Steve, my captain on this trip, just shook his head. “I’ll tell everyone you greased your last landing,” he said.

We got to the gate, and the passengers disembarked, hurrying to their connections. I walked to the back and pulled my bag from the overhead bin. Steve offered to do the post-flight inspection, but I needed a quiet moment away from people. With a lump in my throat and moist eyes, I waved my crew off to the employee shuttle.

As I descended to the ramp, I reflected on the nine years and a little more than 5,000 hours of flying these CRJs. At several points, I stopped to remember events from the last decade. The numerous bird strikes that hardly left a scratch. The sets of tires I’d worn through. Three lightning strikes on one flight with a check airman I’ll forevermore call “Sparky.” The CF-34 engines that’d never failed me. The air conditioning packs and auxiliary power units that had failed me more times than I could count.

Returning to the left side of the nose where I began the walkaround, I noted a stenciled “operated by…” was the only place where my company’s logo adorned the jet. For a long moment, I remembered the people who’d made the company such a great place. There had been a merge, a failed rebranding and then another name change. Many had left. Planes were being shuffled to other carriers. We didn’t know it yet, but they’d soon lose the vast majority of the flying that formed our pre-merger company. I’d almost gotten the seniority to make captain before things began winding down. I’d just have to earn the fourth stripe somewhere else. Hoping I was hidden from public view beneath the jet bridge, I gave this bird a little kiss on the cheek and climbed the stairs.

I wasn’t done, though. A trip popped up in open time that was too juicy to leave on the table, a maintenance ferry from Atlanta to Tucson. I’d never flown a plane that far west. The captain, Andy, was a great guy who was restoring a Bücker Jüngmann. I’d met him just before starting at the airline. It seemed like a great way to wrap things up.

We told stories all the way out. We had an airplane, a destination, and a rough time frame. I got an eyeful of the boneyard on the way in, and the mechanics drove us to lunch. We had brought an airplane to them for an interior modernization and were planning to take a refreshed jet back. After lunch, Andy and I agreed to do separate preflight inspections. With the plane having just undergone a major maintenance task, we knew there was ample opportunity to find things unfinished.

I did my preflight. I opened every panel I could reach, climbed into the aft equipment bay, stuck my head into the landing gear wells, and peeked into the avionics bay. It was a nice throwback to my time on furlough spent as a night shift mechanic, maintaining the same birds I’d been flying.

Andy did his preflight. We compared notes. We’d both seen a few fasteners loose on a big panel under the belly. They’re a pretty common sight to find loose, but we figured it’d be an easy thing for the mechanics to tighten them down.

We figured wrong. One fastener broke. Two nut plates were stripped. We retreated indoors to an air-conditioned office while the mechanics scrounged to find the fasteners they needed.

Andy and I fired up our computers, hit the wifi, and went shopping on Barnstormers the way kids from ages past shopped the Sears and Roebuck “Wish Book” catalog. We found a Piper Aztec nearby that was dirt cheap. Andy, ever keen to flip a plane, called, and we almost got serious about buying the thing.

As we watched the clock tick away, we debated possible outcomes for the day. It was my last day with the airline. I drew up a drop-dead time, the minute when we’d have to be taxiing out, because we were near our duty limit for the day.

We weighed possible outcomes if we couldn’t get airborne in time. Would they buy a ticket home for a former employee? Could we adjust my resignation date by a day to complete the trip?

Deep down I wondered if they’d go for the most painful option: “You should have known better than to pick up a ferry flight on your last day. Those never go to plan. Thanks for your service and enjoy the next phase of your flying career.”

We continued debating the merits of buying the derelict Aztec so I’d have a way to get home. It never came to that, though. The mechanics said they’d found the needed parts and got us buttoned up with just a little time to spare. I knew better than to ask from whose plane they’d robbed the parts.

Winging our way east as the sun sat behind us, it all seemed like a time lapse video. As we descended down the arrival into Atlanta, the red flash of the Master Caution annunciators, a triple chime and the audible alert “SMOKE, SMOKE” absolutely wrecked the quiet reverie of my final flight with the airline. The EICAS screen showed an alarm for the aft lavatory smoke detector.

There were no flight attendants to query whether there was smoke back there. Andy was flying the plane. He took over the radios and I grabbed a fire extinguisher as I walked aft through the empty cabin. The message had cleared before I got halfway back, but I looked to be certain. False alarm. We figured some dust stirred up during the interior refit had settled on the innards of the smoke detector.

The last 15 minutes passed uneventfully. We landed, turned north away from the terminal, and taxied up to the company’s maintenance hangar, where we turned “our” ship over to our technicians with a write-up about the smoke detector. Andy, who parked in a lot by the hangar, gave me a lift to the shuttle pickup for my parking lot on the other side of the field. We shook hands, and I walked off to the bus stop.

In a week’s time, I was surrounded by a dozen of my newest friends in training at a new airline, deep in the books as I began learning the ins and outs of my new company and their equipment. I had graduated from flying the “Barbie Jet” to learning the Airbus. I had an intense couple of weeks in the schoolhouse ahead of me.

Jeremy King is an airline pilot from Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife, Amy, are restoring a 1945 Piper J-3 Cub.

The post Moving On Up: Getting The Call From A Major Airline appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

NTSB Finds Other Cracks in a PA-28 Wing

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The NSTB has released an update on its ongoing investigation of the fatal crash of a Piper PA-28R-201 Arrow near Daytona Beach on April 4th, releasing details of its search to see if other Arrows exhibited similar fractures in the spar and spar attachment assemblies.

Spar Fractures

The Arrow that crashed was a 2007 model Arrow with 7,690 hours of flight time. The crash killed both occupants, Zachary Capra and FAA designated examiner John Azma. Capra was on a FAA checkride when the crash occurred after the left wing separated from the fuselage, putting the Arrow into an unrecoverable descent.

In its latest update issued on May 15, 2018, the NTSB said that its investigators found cracks in the spar cap of the right wing (the one that remained attached) and also in a second non-accident Arrow that had also been used exclusively for flight training. The board then had the wings of that Arrow reattached and used a bolt hole eddy current examination to inspect the wing using a method that Piper developed for the inspection. The inspection did find the cracks that NTSB investigators had identified.

Investigators also inspected nine other PA-28R-201s looking for signs of similar metal fatigue but found none in those other airplanes.

The NTSB is continuing its investigation into the crash.

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Maximizing the Flight Review

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Flight reviews come to all of us every couple of years, if not supplanted by an equally rigorous evaluation and training requirement. Under Federal Aviation Regulation 61.56(c), no person may act as pilot in command unless a flight review (or equivalent) has been successfully accomplished within the preceding 24 calendar months. “Successfully accomplished” means the flight instructor giving the flight review endorsed the pilot’s logbook, attesting to satisfactory completion.

Flight Review

So much for the grizzled old aviator who says, “I’ve got so many hours that I don’t log my flying time anymore.” That’s fine, but there has to be some way to show compliance with the recent-experience requirements of FAR 61.57. And FAR 61.56(c) specifically says “…that person…has a logbook endorsed…” Thus, it would appear we have to dig out the logbook every two years, at a minimum.

Do not misinterpret the part about acting as PIC. Having a current flight review has nothing to do with carrying passengers; you can’t fly, even alone, if more than 24 months have passed since your last sign-off. There’s no penalty for letting the flight review lapse, but, having done so, you’ll have to have someone else fly your airplane to the instructor in order to accomplish the required training, or you must bring the instructor to the airplane. There is no requirement to take the review in your own airplane, of course. In the case of a single-seat aircraft, or one not equipped with dual controls, it will be necessary to use another aircraft for the review.


Historical Perspective

The flight review regulation was first issued in 1973; prior to that time, we used common sense to maintain our skills, perhaps with some financial encouragement from insurance companies to get dual instruction periodically. That wasn’t working too well, and the FAA thought it was a good idea to mandate at least a modicum of refresher training every two years. Initially, there was little or no guidance given to flight instructors as to what constituted satisfactory completion. Thus, some schools or CFIs would demand two or three hours of dual, while others might log a mere 30 minutes, if well acquainted with the individual under scrutiny.

The regs never used the term “biennial,” or BFR, to describe the flight review requirement. Therefore, it was clearly evident that the rule could potentially be changed to require it on an annual basis, or more often, and in 1989 such a proposal nearly made it into law; for VFR-rated pilots with less than 400 hours total time, a new regulation was going to be issued requiring a flight review every 12 months. The proposed rule was withdrawn after the lack of statistical evidence supporting it was pointed out.

In 1993, a requirement was added to define the minimum acceptable training for the flight review to be at least an hour of ground training and an hour of flight time. The flying time can be done in a simulator, but only as part of an approved course conducted by a Part 142 training center, and if the pilot isn’t current for landing, that portion of the review still has to be done in an aircraft.


In Lieu Of…

FAR 61.56(d) and (e) outline the circumstances under which another required check ride or training can substitute for the flight review. If one is taking a pilot proficiency check required for an operating privilege, such as to fly commercially under Part 121 or 135, or attaining an additional rating, such as a seaplane, multi-engine or instrument rating, the clock is reset as of the day of the check ride.

An instrument proficiency check, on the other hand, does not qualify because no additional privilege has been attained. It is possible to combine a flight review with an IPC, but I have never recommended it. It makes for a very long training session and requires diligence on the part of the CFI to make sure all required items and important review subjects are covered.

Completing a phase (not just a seminar) of an FAA-sponsored pilot proficiency award program (Wings program) also satisfies the flight review requirement, as of the date of the award. To do this, it will be necessary to register at, attain three knowledge credits of instruction, and fly three specific training flights covering the required Areas of Operation. Quite often, participation in the Wings safety program enhances your pilot qualifications profile when applying for insurance.


Don’t Neglect The Ground Training

Most of the time, I’ll begin with ground instruction, just to feel out the pilot’s personal profile and state of readiness. It’s good to find out how much he or she knows about the aircraft, its limitations, operating quirks and systems. We’ll discuss the flight’s objectives, where we’re going and any specific desires that are on the reviewee’s mind. I do have a canned ground-training quiz we can go over, which I may even have issued to the applicant in advance, but not every question will apply to every pilot, and I’ll always add extra emphasis to suit the person’s needs.

It’s critical to go over changes that have occurred in the past two years, things the pilot may have missed. The FAA is always requesting that we emphasize the latest “cause celebre,” like runway incursions or loss of control, and I like to have a current paper navigation chart on hand to point out new symbology. Regulatory updates are discussed, and any new on-line offerings are shared. I learn much about new web sites by talking with other pilots.


Now, Shall We Go Flying?

Because the word “flight” is part of the title, a flight review must involve at least one hour of time aloft. Only if I personally trained the individual and regularly fly with him or her will I put in the bare minimum; on the other hand, it shouldn’t take more than an hour and a half to see if a pilot can perform the standards of the certificate held.

I’ve always felt that meeting the flight review standard is an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary, adding to your flight experience. Even renting a different airplane can satisfy the itch. Whatever your taste, it’s important to gain something from the flight review, not just go through the motions. You can accomplish the review in any of the types of aircraft for which you’re rated; one review suffices for them all, so at least alternate among your choices. However, the CFI must hold the appropriate certification to give instruction in the type being used.

It is vitally important for the instructor to tailor the flight review to the pilot, not to use a one-size-fits-all approach. When giving a flight review, I like to find out what type of flying the pilot does, and then focus on something that will benefit him or her. That tailoring doesn’t mean I can’t suggest trying to stretch one’s wings a bit, like visiting an airplane in Class B airspace or going into a well-maintained sod strip. It is, I always state, YOUR flight review, and I’d like you to do whatever helps you advance your flying endeavors. Discussing the training objective in advance makes sure everybody is on the same page, ensuring that maximum benefit can be derived.

Bear in mind that simply going up with an instructor and logging dual does not mean a flight review has been accomplished. It is the logbook endorsement (or “Wings” phase completion) that’s the key to satisfying the requirement. Flight reviews involve both ground and flight training, and while the content is at the discretion of the CFI, the job isn’t done until the paperwork is finished. I’ve always felt it important to review the three Big Killers; control of the airplane by instrument references, slowflight and stall recovery, and takeoff and landing performance. These three items will be covered during the flight portion of any flight review I conduct.

Continuing the ground training after finishing the flight training portion, we can offer suggestions on areas that could be improved and encourage further practice, things that can be done while engaged in regular flights. Most pilots just need to fly more.


Completion Standards

Because the flight review is a training requirement, not a testing standard, its conduct and content remain entirely at the discretion of the flight instructor. FAR 61.56(2)(a) simply says “maneuvers and procedures…necessary to demonstrate the safe exercise of the privileges of the pilot certificate.” Personally, I apply private pilot standards to private pilots, while expecting ATP standards of the ATPs; I can demand nothing beyond what was demonstrated on their initial certification ride.

Because the flight review is not a check ride, it cannot be “failed.” I can refuse to sign off an endorsement of satisfactory completion, but I can’t put anything in the logbook about the ride except remarks pertaining to the dual given. Come back, I’ll say, and we’ll finish this up later. I always stress, to the nervous review-taker, “In order to pass a flight review, you don’t have be any better than you were when you took your check ride. You probably are a better pilot now, with your experience, but you only have to meet the standards of your rating.”

During the flight review, the job of the flight instructor is to evaluate the pilot, but training is the objective, not testing. Only if you seriously scare me will I exit the aircraft running and neglect to sign your endorsement.


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What New Traffic Pattern Rules Mean to You

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The FAA has released updated guidance on how we pilots are expected to fly traffic patterns, and the updates are fairly extensive and for the most part really smart, too. Here’s a breakdown of some of the biggest changes contained in the new document, Advisory Circular 90-66B.

New Traffic Patterns1. Altitudes: The FAA has long given license to airport operators to set their traffic pattern at non-standard heights. Most patterns for piston planes were 1,000 AGL (or thereabouts) but many were 800 feet and some were even lower than that. The new rule calls for those patterns to all be 1,000 ft AGL unless there’s a good reason for them not to be such as obstacles or competing airspace. Turbines would be at 1,500 feet AGL with similar caveats, and ultralights are to be at least 500 feet the piston planes, so 500 AGL in most cases.

2. Left versus Right Hand Flow: This one, like the new altitude guidance, shouldn’t change anything at airports that already have standard left hand patterns. But for those that have right hand circuits, they need to have a good reason for doing so and they have to let pilots know of the non-standard pattern flow through light signals (which is cute), markings on the ground or though publications, etc… The FAA says that it recognizes that many airports already have right hand patterns and the advisory circular didn’t prohibit those. But it does require pilots to fly a left hand pattern unless the right-handed version is in place.

3. Entries: This, again, is a big change. The 45-degree entry is retained, but the procedures for entering midfield are different. The FAA now wants planes to enter at 500 feet above pattern altitude and then make a reverse teardrop to join the downwind, initiating the turn only after descending to pattern altitude. The FAA also lists a conventional midfield downwind entry as acceptable, with the midfield crossing done at pattern altitude. The FAA emphasizes that traffic pattern guidance is advisory only.

4. Straight-Ins: This is a reminder that a straight-in approach is an approved ways of entering the traffic pattern and that all aircraft flying a standard pattern should keep a close watch when turning base to final for conflicting straight-in traffic.

5. IFR Traffic: IFR traffic is now expected to work themselves into the traffic pattern, so if there’s traffic in the pattern already, instead of barreling through IFR flights should accommodate VFR traffic already in the pattern. This guidance will probably come under some scrutiny, as there are a number of complicating factors for arriving IFR flights, including the fact that they are still in many cases under positive control and following a clearance. Unless they’ve been cleared for the visual, they are on a proscribed flight plan. As we said, there’s likely some discussion to come up on this one in particular.

6. Crosswind Turn: Airplanes staying in the pattern shouldn’t start the crosswind turn until after they’re beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet of pattern altitude and they shouldn’t join the downwind leg until they’re at pattern altitude.

This is a short list of the many areas of guidance on the new Advisory Circular. To read all about it, check out the full text.

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