By Howard Deevers
Every car I have owned has come with a spare tire. Long ago, those were “real” tires already mounted on a rim. Now, they are the “donut” tires that will serve to get you to the nearest place that you can buy a new tire, but not much more than that. I have had to use both types several times.
None of the airplanes I have flown, or owned, came with a spare tire. Of course, there are several reasons for that. For one, the weight and balance of an airplane probably would make it impractical to have a spare tire mounted in the trunk. Trunk? What trunk? We only have baggage compartments, not trunks. Another reason would be the space they take up. Naturally, I am thinking about single engine, two or four seat airplanes. If you fly something bigger with more room and horsepower, you might be able to carry a spare tire.
Flat tires on airplanes are fairly rare, but not unheard of. I have had at least 4 in my flying time. Two of the four were on landing. Another one came after landing while heading to park; the nosewheel just went flat. Another one came after we stopped and shut down and parked. Something like a screw or nail, or FOD, got lodged into the tire and it went flat slowly. When I came out the next day, that tire was completely flat.
If I have a flat tire on my car, I get out of traffic to the best place I can find, get out my jack and tools, and my spare tire, jack up the car, remove 5 nuts, install the spare, put 5 nuts back on, throw all of the stuff into the trunk, or back of my van, and get going. Maybe takes me 20 to 30 minutes total, and I'm back on the road.
A flat tire on an airplane, even a simple plane like a Cessna 150 or 172, or a Piper Warrior, will not be so quick. First you will need to locate a jack. Then you must know how to jack up the plane. Some single engine planes do have jack points where you can safely put a jack to lift the plane. Others are not so obvious. You’ll have to figure out how to lift the plane without destroying it, or at least doing major damage. The wheels are not held on by 5 nuts, and you probably will have to disassemble the brakes, meaning safety wire and all, to get the wheel off. Of course, if you have wheel pants, you will have to remove them first.
My first flat tire on an airplane was about 39 years ago. My friend and fellow flying club member, Ken, and I had decided to go to Oshkosh for the EAA convention. We had reserved the club Cessna 172 for the 5 days of our adventure. We carefully pre-flighted the airplane and even took it around the pattern a couple of times before loading up our camping gear. We had planned a stop in Toledo, OH, for fuel. I was flying and Ken was in the right seat. After landing at Toledo I said, “Why is this taking so much left rudder to stay on the centerline?” Ken looked out of the right window. “We have a flat tire on the right main wheel.” By that time I was stopped right in the middle of the runway, and told the tower that we have a flat tire on the right side of the plane.
To my surprise the Tower controller asked if I could get the plane off of the runway and into the grass. As a fairly new pilot, I complied and did get the plane into the grass. An Allegheny Airline DC-9 landed on that runway right after I got off. I can't even imagine that happening today. There would not be enough separation and a violation would be issued to the controller, most likely.
Within a few minutes a fire truck was coming to our aid. They used an “inflatable pillow” to raise the plane and put a dolly under that wheel, and we were towed to the local FBO. A couple of hours later we had a new tire and tube, and were able to continue to Oshkosh. That tire was perfectly fine in Monroeville, but what made it go flat on landing in Toledo? We never found out.
Another flat tire occurred at the Tucson Airport a few years ago. After landing my Piper Warrior, and on taxiway Delta to park, my nose tire went flat. Not wanting to block the taxiway, I was able to get into a ramp area. I knew it was the nosewheel because it was really difficult to turn the plane in either direction. Again, I was at the mercy of whoever I could get to help repair a flat tire. What caused that flat tire? I never found out.
August of 2017, my friend, Marty, and I went to Oshkosh in his Cessna 172. On our way back to Tucson we elected to land at Santa Rosa, NM, (SXU) to take a break from the New Mexico turbulence. Santa Rosa is a non-towered airport right on Interstate 40, about 100 miles east of Albuquerque. Marty made a beautiful landing and we were turning to taxi back to a ramp area. I was on the right side. The plane did not want to make the turn. The right main tire was flat! We stopped and tried to push the plane off the runway, but with that flat tire we could not move the plane. There are no services at Santa Rosa. I called Flight Service to tell them that a disabled aircraft was on an active runway at Santa Rosa. The FSS specialist said that he had the phone number for the airport manager and would call him for us.
The airport manager showed up within a few minutes, and had some tools in his truck. We took the wheel pant off, but even with 3 of us we could not move the plane. The manager knew of a truck repair service that worked out of the community and called him. He showed up with a truck that he uses to service people on I-40. We were able to jack up the right wheel and put a dolly under it and get the plane into a parking place. I called Flight Service to tell them that the runway was clear, and thanked them for the contact information. We got the wheel off of the plane. The damage to the tire and tube were too much for a simple repair. Our road mechanic had to leave. The airport manager took us to a motel at the I-40 exit, and we never saw him again. There was a truck stop across the old Route 66 road, and a restaurant next door to the motel.
The next morning we had to get serious about fixing this flat tire unless we wanted to live in Santa Rosa. There are no rental cars, no public transportation, and no aircraft services at Santa Rosa. I got on the phone and found an FBO in Albuquerque that had a tire and tube in stock. The problem was getting them to Santa Rosa, 100 miles to the east. We finally found a courier service that would pick up the parts and deliver them to our motel. After getting the tire and tube, we needed to get them on the wheel, and then the wheel on the plane. We called our road mechanic again, and he finally showed up to assist. By the time we had the tire mounted and the wheel back on, it was very late in the day, so we stayed another night. The motel owner took us to the airport the next morning, and we completed the trip to Tucson. Two nights in a motel, plus meals and all of the extra work required, made that “only a flat tire” cost nearly $800.00.
An airplane is not a car (I’ve said that before). We do a pre-flight inspection before every flight, which includes looking at the tires and maybe checking the tire pressure, and on all of my flat tire experiences, the pre-flight did not reveal any hint that a flat tire would happen on the next landing. I don't even look at the tires on my car, but if I have a flat tire on my car I can fix it rather quickly. Not so on an airplane due to the way they are mounted and getting an airplane jacked up. If you do have a spare tire in your Cessna, Piper, Mooney, or other model that you fly, it will cut down the time to do the repair, if you have the skills to do that work, but you still need the tools, and a jack. Those all add weight to the plane and take up space in your luggage area. It is a difficult decision to make; have a spare tire and tools, and you’ll pay the weight and space department, or just take a chance and pay for the actual service when you need them? You decide, and I hope you never need either choice!
Hoping you are planning on attending an ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION safety seminar somewhere in Arizona. They are free and available all over the state. Don't forget to “Bring Your Wingman.” Check the website for locations and times near you.