Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Retreads & Me

We’re wearing out more than just our airplanes

retreads & meI’m not sure what it means, but this morning I glanced down at the Tail-Dragger Dragger dolly that I use to push/pull my bird from its nest, and I realized that the tires are wearing out. Bald, as it were. I was a little surprised and asked myself, “Exactly how much mileage should we expect from the accessories we surround ourselves with while flying?”
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Denim jackets are the same deal: 2,000 hours seems to be about the limit before the parachute and seat/shoulder straps eat their way through them. The first 1,000 hours per jacket are the break-in period, the next 800 are to be enjoyed, while, in the last 200, I watch my favorite jackets die. It’s more than a little sad.

Even windshields seem to be life-limited. I treat my windshields as if they’re diamonds. I’m careful to only trust cast-off T-shirts as soft enough for them. I use the best Plexiglas polish and cleaner and keep them covered when they aren’t in the air. Still, last year, as I’d turn final into the sun, the runway would disappear behind a misty cobweb of almost-invisible scratches. I waxed, polished and tried all accepted methods for cosmetic restoration, but it became obvious that the only way we’d have a clear view of the world would be through new Plexi. So, after something like 3,500 hours, the little eyelids of plastic that protect me from the wind went through a form of cataract surgery. They were replaced, and I felt as a blind man must feel when his sight is restored; it had been deteriorating so slowly for such a long time that I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until the windshield was suddenly clear again.

This kind of gradual deterioration is a sad fact of life: The hours and miles creep up on us until, when we add them up, we’re startled by the total. One minute, we’re student pilots striving to build time, and then, after what seems like a few months later, we’re graybeard aviators who stop logging time because it’s of no importance to us.

Like fuel in the tank, the passage of time is logarithmic: the first portion seems to go slowly, but the last literally races past, rendering us incapable of accurately judging its passage. In response, we look back wistfully, wishing for the good old days, which, unfortunately, is a waste of our precious time. What we should be doing is treating today as the good old day we’ll be remembering tomorrow. It may be a cliché to say that today is the sum total of our yesterdays, just as what we’ve flown, and how we flew it, makes us the pilots we are today. But it’s important to remember that what we fly today, and how we fly it, does indeed determine what kinds of pilots we’ll be tomorrow. Think about it—how we invest today determines what and who we’ll be tomorrow. That thought makes wasting even the slightest amount of time feel criminal, doesn’t it?

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at


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