By Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848
This piece originally ran in Vic’s Checkpoints column in the July 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Most of you know by now that I’m a believer in proper and proactive maintenance. As much as I love airplanes and aviation, unexpected maintenance away from home, especially while on a trip or vacation, can put a damper on the fun factor. I’ve seen breakdowns while on trips with groups of pilot friends — some preventable, some not. So far, I’ve been lucky. Or, in other words, my proactive approach has paid off. Our trips have been uninterrupted by maintenance. I hope to keep it that way as we prepare for our upcoming fourth trip to Alaska this summer, which hopefully will be happening by the time you read this. Breakdowns in Alaska can take days to fix if you need parts. Plus, for me, the sight of that huge grizzly bear running right below us keeps popping into my head. I don’t want to be lunch.
Let me share some proactive things I am doing, not all of which are necessary. My thinking is that a dollar passed at home is better than passing the ketchup to that bear. The condition inspection on the RV-10 is due in May. We are leaving the first weekend in July. Also, the MT propeller is due for an overhaul based on calendar time. So, this last week of March I am removing it and sending it to MT-Propeller in DeLand, Florida. While it is gone Nick and I will perform a very thorough inspection on the RV-10. That should give a full five to six weeks of flying before departure, allowing for any maintenance-caused problems to shake out. Yes, a new alternator belt will be installed at the same time as the prop, even though it was just replaced last year when we replaced a leaking nose seal.
I took a hard look at all the systems on the RV-10 that could cause a face-to-face meeting with that bear. The exhaust system has more than 2,000 hours on it. Even though it still looks fine and passes all our inspection tests, I decided to replace it. Besides, it’s on the second set of mufflers, and it’s loud enough again that Carol is mentioning the noise. As of this writing, I have completed the new installation, and it is much quieter.
Yes, I’ve proactively replaced the exhaust system. Not a cheap decision, but the new mufflers really quieted the cockpit. We’ve seen enough cracks and exhaust system failures to make me realize I don’t want a failure on the Alaska trip. I cleaned the exhaust flanges of residue with a Dremel and used new Blo-Proof exhaust gaskets.
For ignitions, I have one Slick magneto and one Light Speed Plasma III ignition, which have proven very reliable. The Slick magnetos have a 500-hour service bulletin (SB) on them, so even though I am only about 400 hours into it, I also performed that SB, replacing the rotor gear, distributor gear, carbon brush, contact points, and rubber drive cushions. Replacing it now will give it some time for the points to settle in, as we have noticed that the timing does seem to require another adjustment around 25 hours after performing this SB. I will recheck the timing before departure. The Light Speed spark plugs are being replaced, which I do every 100 hours, and the aviation REM40E spark plugs will be cleaned and gapped, as they have less than 100 hours on them.
Here’s a good pic of the distributor housing. You can see the wear on the contact, so I replaced the distributor gear and housing.
With regard to the Light Speed ignition, I had a coil failure recently, so I replaced it and will either replace all three coils before departure or carry them as spares. I’m usually hesitant to replace electrical components that are working, as infantile failure in electrical components is usually the greater risk.
It’s easy to set the internal mag timing on the bench and then pin the mag while installing it on the airplane so the timing doesn’t shift. Replacing the magneto drive cushions (only appropriate to the six-cylinder engines) is recommended every 500 hours. Here you can see how they seat against the magneto gear (right cushion only), and how they are installed into the engine drive gear. The new cushions have tabs on them so they don’t fall into the accessory case when removing/installing the mag.
Tires and tubes were replaced last year with Goodyear Flight Custom III and Aero Classic leak-guard tubes, my favorite combination. They last a long time, usually around 500-600 hours on my RV-10. I’d like to think it’s due to my squeaker landings, but it probably has more to do with me living at a grass field. I repack the wheel bearings with marine-grade synthetic wheel bearing grease. I find it to be better than the AeroShell 5 we have all been using for years. And since the grass is often wet, I think the marine grease gives some added protection. Brake pads were replaced last year but will be checked.
AeroShell 5 has always been the go-to grease for aircraft wheel bearings, but I find synthetic marine grease does a better job, especially in wet environments like grass runways.
The K&N air filter will get replaced with a new one this time. I always keep two air filters in rotation so that I can immediately replace the dirty one with a clean one, versus waiting for the dirty one to dry out after cleaning it. I cycle them three to four times before replacing, and I clean them every 100 hours.
All intake hoses and gaskets were replaced during last year’s condition inspection. They still look good. The in-flight EGT check for leaking gaskets still passes as well. We will also make sure all of the pertinent Van’s SBs are complied with.
It’s important to not induce a stress riser into the exhaust system, so drill slowly using a lubricant such as Boelube. It is not important where the EGT probes are located, but they must be the same distance from the flange so the measurements will be equal.
The emergency locator transmitter checks fine. Both the ELT main batteries and the ELT control battery were replaced last year and are not due until 2026. Don’t forget to check that the 406 MHz ELT registration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is current as well. By the way, we always carry a SPOT when traveling on long trips, as it allows us to text messages back home at the start and end of the day to let everyone know we made it to our destination. I’ve always thought the SPOT might have a better chance of alerting help if it’s needed. But I learned a lesson from someone who was in charge of the Canadian air rescue operations. He mentioned that he had an unlimited budget for search and rescue with regard to an aircraft ELT signal with a known missing aircraft, but with SPOT and other personal locator beacons (PLB), it was not the same. Something about too many false PLB activations. So, I’ve made it clear to Carol that if we have to make an unscheduled off-airport landing, her job is to activate the ELT before we hit the ground.
After aircraft preventive maintenance and preparations, people preparations are next on the list. Survival gear is an absolute must, and there is an Alaskan requirement for two weeks’ worth of supplies for every person. We will make sure the food supplies are well stocked and not out of date prior to the trip. For those of you planning a trip such as this, there are many sources for prepacked survival kits, including one called Let’s Fly Alaska Aviation Survival Kit. A quick Google search will help you find one.
Luckily, the RV-10 has a great useful load of about 1,000 pounds, so we also get to take two weeks’ worth of clothes as well, which requires both a summer set and a winter set. Yes, we’ve sat at Lake Hood at midnight, wearing sunglasses, shorts, and polo shirts. Friday nights are the best, watching everyone heading out to their cabins. It’s amazing what you will see strapped to airplanes! But some days can be cool, and certainly you need to dress warm when walking on glaciers, like the Matanuska Glacier just outside of Anchorage. I would hate to have to set down on one of the glaciers we fly over without having some cold weather gear with us.
The last piece of survival gear is a life raft for two. The flight up the west coast of Canada is beautiful and foreboding at the same time. There are lots of high, rocky beaches with cold water. On the last three trips, we’ve enjoyed the stark beauty of it all while realizing the high risk at the same time. The life raft may be a peace-of-mind placebo, but I’m taking it anyway.
I won’t take firearms due to the inspection hassle if we must route through Canada due to weather, but I will take a crossbow, which is allowed. Databases for Canadian airspace need to be added to ForeFlight, as well as the electronic flight instrument system and Avidyne navigator. I may also reactivate the Sirius XM weather so I have a second weather input, although being so far north it didn’t really work that well last time. ADS-B weather seems to work well in Alaska, thankfully.
The last part of the trip is the route planning, which I will start about a week ahead of the planned departure. On a trip this long, delays can be expected, so patience is required. It is important to make reservations with hotels that understand you are traveling via private aircraft and may have to change arrival dates. Carol does a great job of finding hotels that allow same-day or prior-day cancellations without penalties. That also removes the pressure from making dumb flying decisions. Dumb flying decisions in Alaska can get you killed fast, as we have witnessed on prior trips, which puts a real damper on the fun factor.
This is our planned route. It’s the same route that has worked for us on other trips. Patience is key, as a trip this long can go through many weather systems.
By the time you read this, all our preparations will (hopefully) have paid off and another trip to Alaska will be well underway. I certainly will give you an update, and hopefully will inspire some of you to make this trip as well.
Vic Syracuse, EAA Lifetime 180848, is a commercial pilot, A&P/IA, DAR, and EAA flight advisor and technical counselor. He has built 11 aircraft and has logged more than 10,000 hours in 74 different types. Vic founded Base Leg Aviation, has authored books on maintenance and prebuy inspections, and posts videos weekly on his YouTube channel. He also volunteers as a Young Eagles pilot.