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Tugs, Tows and Winches

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July 2005- When you take flying lessons, you learn the basics of moving an airplane on the ground. At first, you’ll help your instructor, then you’ll do the moving under his or her supervision. If your trainer is kept on a tiedown, most of what’s involved is just taxiing, but from time to time you’ll have to move the airplane without using the engine.

Where modern trainers are concerned, this is just a matter of muscle power—attach the tow bar to the nosewheel, and push (or pull) on the prop, near the hub. Older tailwheel trainers are even easier—just lift the tailwheel (or skid) and push or pull as required.

As you graduate to bigger airplanes, though, more muscle power is needed. Most of us can comfortably move a small two- or four-place single like a Cessna 172, but it gets tougher as you move up to heavier airplanes. By the time you get to a six-place single or twin, forget it—especially if you have to push uphill!

A couple of years ago, I moved up from a four-place single to a retractable, and a new hangar that’s uphill. I can still manage it (with a running start), but my wife can’t. She has to ask passing pilots for help (for some strange reason, they’re more likely to be around when she needs help than when I do).

Neither of us is getting any younger and I can see the day coming when I won’t be able to get the darned thing in there by myself—so I’ve started looking for mechanical assistance. I’ve found three main options: gas- and electric-powered tugs, vehicle tow bars, and winches; plus a surprising low-tech variation. In this article, I’ll explain the tradeoffs among the three.

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