The Perils of Aircraft Ownership: The Embers Of Spring

I loved looking at airplanes when I was looking to buy my first plane. The exploration of the different models was incredibly interesting, and the stories that I stumbled across along the way helped to enlighten me about the challenges and, at times, the outright perils of ownership.

I HAD THE CHANCE TO LOOK OVER AN OLDER CESSNA 210. This Centurion had seen its fair share of battles with the winds and weather, with a battered paint job and an interior that was fair. Still, it was retractable, and had a high performance engine. I looked it over carefully, and then decided to wait.

WHY WAIT? I didn’t have my pilot’s license yet, and my instructor advised me to be patient. At the time, I was having a hard time making ends meet working with a Cessna 152 and the instructor’s cost, so moving up to a Cessna 210 — with triple the fuel burn — wasn’t exactly what I needed to keep my costs down. Thus, I watched the Centurion from nearby, visiting it each time I visited my FBO.

ON ONE OF MY TRIPS, I NOTICED A CHANGE IN THE CENTURION’S APPEARANCE. While the paint hadn’t been great, the left side of the cowling hadn’t previously been adorned with a healthy, fresh burn mark! There was a fairly neat circle burned into the surface of the cowling, a circle in which the paint had been pretty much removed from the skin of the aircraft.

Naturally inquisitive, I checked with my instructor to see what had happened. This turned out to be one of the much-dreaded TALES OF A POOR PREFLIGHT, and the owner of the aircraft had only himself to blame. It seems he was in a hurry, and having flown the plane just yesterday, he came to the airport and went for another ride. As he checked the fuel, he made a quick check of the oil, but didn’t look inside the cowling.

SPRINGTIME WAS HERE, and with it, all the bees were a buzzing, and all the animals were prancing, and all the *&#^(#@&^# BIRDS WERE NESTING. In this case, a bird set up a very nice, fairly large nest between the left forward and mid cylinder of this nice engine. The bird used its usual nesting techniques, bringing in everything from bits of paper, to small twigs, to plastic it had found blowing in the wind. The nest was sturdy, and would have done a great job holding the eggs … as opposed to frying them.

…AND THEN THE OWNER’S NATURAL INSTINCTS MUCKED UP THE DEAL. When he started the plane, the cylinders heated up. As the temperatures of the cylinders increased they reached the ignition point of the nesting materials. The owner shut down the engine, and quickly climbed out with the fire extinguisher, but it was too late — once the nest started burning, it burned a nice spot into the paint, and then went out.

ALWAYS CHECK YOUR ENGINE DURING YOUR PREFLIGHT. Look inside the cowling holes with a flashlight, and look for any signs of winged visitors. If you spot so much as a twig in the wrong place, POP THE TOP AND TAKE A LOOK … and look everywhere. Bees, mice or birds will find the spot if you don’t.

The space between your cylinders is fairly large. A bird could put quite a bit of nesting material inside, outside of your field of vision, waiting for you to start the engine. Thus, if you see something that isn’t supposed to be there, or you don’t remember being there in the past, INVESTIGATE.

IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE. Our pilot got off lucky — he found this on the ground. Had the nest been located somewhere else and fire started in flight, the potential for further complications are many. After all:

  • It was a fuel-injected engine.
  • The fire was burning UNDER one of the fuel lines.
  • Airplane in flight = tons of oxygen to fuel the fire.
  • If the fuel line failed, an off-field landing would have been very likely.

DON’T LET YOUR PLANE GO TO THE BIRDS. Always do a thorough preflight, looking for those tiny, delightful songbirds, or the less tiny, loud cow birds. Take the necessary actions to keep them out of your engine compartment or evict them if they take up residence. You’ll save money on repairing burn damage, add some years to your life by avoiding the rush of fear and adrenaline, and have more money to fly with. All this, by keeping birds on the outside of your plane, where they belong. All you need to do is look.