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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aircraft Stewardship, Part One: Tiedown

Teach a fellow pilot the basics of tying down, before it's too late.
Perhaps I should have started this series with, "If you can't afford a hangar, don't buy an airplane," but even those who normally do well at keeping their machines out of the merciless elements must, sooner or later, take them somewhere a hangar isn't available. Today at Sun 'n Fun 2011, we had an awful reminder of just how vulnerable our birds are when we have to rely on nylon to keep them from becoming UAVs in a thunderstorm.

To the neophyte, tying an airplane down can seem, well, a little OCD. And anyone who actually thinks there's a few right ways and a lot of wrong ways to do it might seem downright certifiable. That would be me: a card-carrying member of EAA, AOPA, APA, and the lesser-known ARPA (Anal-Retentive Pilots Anonymous). I'm "that guy" at every airport who lands 30 minutes early just to wipe the bugs off with a bucket of clear water and a sponge, while they're still hot 'n juicy. My plane's belly (when I had one) was either clean or spotless, and I was never at a loss for something to do in the hangar, if only I could get out there.

I hate seeing airplanes get hurt or destroyed, and hate seeing it happen when their pilots aren't even with them worse. My first instructor's first instructor made a point of teaching him how to tie an airplane down very early in their time together, and I carry the tradition on with my students, (when I have one).

Like a good story, a good tiedown has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I'm going to call the bottom of the tiedown the beginning.

The Beginning: "Nothing beats a tight bottom."
Obviously, a ring of heavy metal set into a well-maintained paved surface isn't likely to give up much to a little airplane trying to use it for a dance floor, but when we're away from home, sometimes we have to park on crumbly concrete or grass. This isn't the time to get some really good tent stakes from Wal-Mart and call it good. Buy a set of portable tiedowns from Sporty's or your own favorite pilot shop, and use them as directed. Good beginning.

The Middle: "Get a rope!"
Again, cheap and/or dried, brittle, weather-beaten nylon or, God forbid, even lesser-quality rope for less-expensive purposes is not the way to go here. If your rope looks like the last time it bore a color was the Carter administration, or if it's got a great start on the afro hairdo your dad had back then, save it for someone who considers their airplane a "tool." Tools can be replaced, after all. Airplanes can't - each is unique, like us.

The End: "(Insert your favorite 'knot' pun here)"
This is the part I see done wrong more often than (ugh!), knot. When you tie an airplane down, you're doing much more than merely slipping it onto a loop you've made from each of three pieces of rope. The idea is to put the airplane securely at THE END of those ropes, with a little bit of tension on all of them, so that it's being held down tight and no possibility exists of the ropes accumulating any slack. If you don't believe me, try breaking a door down, starting with your body right up against it. Get the idea?

The way I was taught to do this is to put the rope's end through the tiedown ring, from the side nearest the tiedown's anchor first, pull it tight, then make a simple, single half-hitch (the simplest of all, and what most people think of as a "basic," knot) in the rope as close as you can possibly get it to the tiedown ring. After that, I make another series of double half-hitches right up against the first one to lock it into position.

You can also score big OCD points if you start with the airplane well-centered in the tiedown, so all the tiedowns bear equal loads from similar angles, each hopefully close to 45 degrees to the ground, and tie down the wings first, then pull the tail tight, taking out any slack that might otherwise exist in the wing ropes. When you're done, your plane will be bonded to the ground tighter than you were to your instructor after your first lesson in spins, and any wind that comes will have to be strong enough to pull the airplane's tiedowns from the ground or break the ropes themselves, because the way you tied the ropes to the plane won't be the weakest link.

My heart goes out to the hundreds of pilots and aircraft owners who suffered the trauma of seeing their planes damaged or destroyed at Sun 'n Fun 2011. But we have a long summer of airshows still ahead, and if any of us can help a fellow pilot keep his plane safe when the next thunderstorm zeroes in on Oshkosh, Dayton, Cleveland, or any other of our gatherings, we should. Get involved. Meddle. Watch out for each other out there. If you see a plane not tied down right, try to show its caretaker what's missing, or if there's no other way, provide it yourself. It might be your plane next time.

More info on this subject is available in an FAA advisory circular at

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