Aircraft and Powerplant Cleaning | Aircraft Systems

Aircraft and Powerplant Cleaning

Aircraft Cleaning

Cleaning an aircraft and keeping it clean are extremely important. From an AMT's viewpoint, it should be considered a regular part of aircraft maintenance. Keeping the aircraft clean can mean more accurate inspection results, and may even allow a flight crewmember to spot an impending component failure. A cracked landing gear fitting covered with mud and grease may be easily overlooked. Dirt can hide cracks in the skin. Dust and grit cause hinge fittings to wear excessively. If left on the aircraft’s outer surface, a film of dirt reduces flying speed and adds extra weight. Dirt or trash blowing or bouncing around the inside of the aircraft is annoying and dangerous. Small pieces of dirt blown into the eyes of the pilot at a critical moment can cause an accident. A coating of dirt and grease on moving parts makes a grinding compound that can cause excessive wear. Salt water has a serious corroding effect on exposed metal parts of the aircraft and must be washed off immediately.

There are many kinds of cleaning agents approved for use in cleaning aircraft. It is impractical to cover each of the various types of cleaning agents since their use varies under different conditions, such as the type of material to be removed, the aircraft finish, and whether the cleaning is internal or external.




In general, the types of cleaning agents used on aircraft are solvents, emulsion cleaners, soaps, and synthetic detergents. Their use must be in accordance with the applicable maintenance manual. The types of cleaning agents named above are also classed as light- or heavy-duty cleaners.

The soap and synthetic detergent-type cleaners are used for light-duty cleaning, while the solvent and emulsion-type cleaners are used for heavy-duty cleaning. The light-duty cleaners that are nontoxic and nonflammable must be used whenever possible. As mentioned previously, cleaners that can be effectively rinsed and neutralized must be used, or an alkaline cleaner may cause corrosion within the lap joints of riveted or spot-welded sheet metal components.


Exterior Cleaning

There are three methods of cleaning the aircraft exterior: wet wash, dry wash, and polishing. Polishing can be further broken down into hand polishing and mechanical polishing. The type and extent of soiling and the final desired appearance determine the cleaning method to be used.

Wet wash removes oil, grease, carbon deposits, and most soils, with the exception of corrosion and oxide films. The cleaning compounds used are generally applied by spray or mop. Then high-pressure running water is used as a rinse. Either alkaline or emulsion cleaners can be used in the wet wash method.

Dry wash is used to remove airport film, dust, and small accumulations of dirt and soil when the use of liquids is neither desirable nor practical. This method is not suitable for removing heavy deposits of carbon, grease, or oil, especially in the engine exhaust areas. Dry wash materials are applied with spray, mops, or cloths and removed by dry mopping or wiping with clean, dry cloths.

Polishing restores the luster to painted and unpainted surfaces of the aircraft and is usually performed after the surfaces have been cleaned. Polishing is also used to remove oxidation and corrosion. Polishing materials are available in various forms and degrees of abrasiveness. It is important that the aircraft manufacturer’s instructions be used in specific applications.

The washing of aircraft should be performed in the shade whenever possible, as cleaning compounds tend to streak the surface if applied to hot metal or are permitted to dry on the area. Install covers over all openings where water or cleaners might enter and cause damage. Pay particular attention to instrument system components, such as pitot­static fittings and ports.

Various areas of aircraft, such as the sections housing radar and the area forward of the flight deck that are finished with a flat-finish paint, must not be cleaned more than necessary and never scrubbed with stiff brushes or coarse rags. A soft sponge or cheesecloth with a minimum of manual rubbing is advisable. Any oil or exhaust stains on the surface must first be removed with a solvent, such as kerosene or other petroleum-based solvent. Rinse the surfaces immediately after cleaning to prevent the compound from drying on the surface.

Before applying soap and water to plastic surfaces, flush the plastic surfaces with fresh water to dissolve salt deposits and wash away dust particles. Plastic surfaces are to be washed with soap and water, preferably by hand.

Rinse with fresh water and dry with a chamois, synthetic wipes designed for use on plastic windshields, or absorbent cotton. In view of the soft surface, do not rub plastic with a dry cloth since this is not only likely to cause scratches, but it also builds up an electrostatic charge that attracts dust particles to the surface. The charge, as well as the dust, may be removed by patting or gently blotting with a clean, damp chamois. Do not use scouring powder or other material that can mar the plastic surface. Remove oil and grease by rubbing gently with a cloth wet with soap and water. Do not use acetone, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, lacquer thinners, window cleaning sprays, gasoline, fire extinguisher, or deicer fluid on plastics, because they soften the plastic and cause crazing. Finish cleaning the plastic by coating with a plastic polish intended for aircraft windows and windshields. These polishes can minimize small surface scratches and also help keep static charges from building up on the surface of the windows.

Surface oil, hydraulic fluid, grease, or fuel can be removed from aircraft tires by washing with a mild soap solution. After cleaning, lubricate all grease fittings, hinges, and so forth, where removal, contamination, or dilution of the grease is suspected during washing of the aircraft.


Interior Cleaning

Keeping the interior of the aircraft clean is just as important as maintaining a clean exterior surface. Corrosion can establish itself on the inside structure to a greater degree, because it is difficult to reach some areas for cleaning. Nuts, bolts, bits of wire, or other metal objects carelessly dropped and neglected, combined with moisture and dissimilar metal contact, can cause electrolytic corrosion.

When performing structural work inside the aircraft, clean up all metal particles and other debris as soon as possible. To make cleaning easier and prevent the metal particles and debris from getting into inaccessible areas, use a drop cloth in the work area to catch this debris. A vacuum cleaner can be used to pick up dust and dirt from the interior of the flight deck and cabin.

Aircraft interior present certain problems during cleaning operations due to the fact that aircraft cabin compartments are relatively small enclosures. The possibility of restricted ventilation and quick buildup of flammable vapor/air mixtures can occur when there is any indiscriminate use of flammable cleaning agents or solvents. Additionally, there may also exist the possibility of an ignition source from concurrent maintenance work in the form of an electrical fault, friction or static spark, an open flame device, etc.

Wherever possible, use nonflammable agents in these operations to reduce to the minimum the fire and explosion hazards.

Types of Cleaning Operations

The principal areas of aircraft cabins that may need periodic cleaning are:
  1. Aircraft passenger cabin areas (seats, carpets, side panels, headliners, overhead racks, curtains, ash trays, windows, doors, decorative panels of plastic, wood, or similar materials)
  2. Aircraft flight station areas (similar materials to those found in passenger cabin areas plus instrument panels, control pedestals, glare shields, flooring materials, metallic surfaces of instruments and flight control equipment, electrical cables and contacts, and so forth)
  3. Lavatories and buffets (similar materials to those found in passenger cabin areas plus toilet facilities, metal fixtures and trim, trash containers, cabinets, wash and sink basins, mirrors, ovens, and so forth)


Nonflammable Aircraft Cabin Cleaning Agents and Solvents

  1. Detergents and soaps—These have widespread application for most aircraft cleaning operations involving fabrics, headliners, rugs, windows, and similar surfaces that are not damageable by water solutions since they are colorfast and nonshrinkable. Care is frequently needed to prevent leaching of water-soluble fire retardant salts that may have been used to treat such materials in order to reduce their flame spread characteristics. Allowing water laced with fire retardant salts to come in contact with the aluminum framework of seats and seat rails can induce corrosion. Be careful to ensure only the necessary amount of water is applied to the seat materials when cleaning.
  2. Alkaline cleaners—Most of these agents are water-soluble and thus have no fire hazard properties. They can be used on fabrics, headliners, rugs, and similar surfaces in the same manner as detergent and soap solutions with only minor added limitations resulting from their inherent caustic character. This may increase their efficiency as cleaning agents, but results in somewhat greater deteriorating effects on certain fabrics and plastics.
  3. Acid solutions—A number of proprietary acid solutions are available for use as cleaning agents. They are normally mild solutions designed primarily to remove carbon smut or corrosive stains. As water-based solutions, they have no flash point, but may require more careful and judicious use to prevent damage to fabrics, plastics, or other surfaces and protect the skin and clothing of those using the materials.
  4. Deodorizing or disinfecting agents—A number of proprietary agents useful for aircraft cabin deodorizing or disinfecting are nonflammable. Most of these are designed for spray application (aerosol type) and have a nonflammable pressurizing agent, but it is best to check this carefully as some may contain a flammable compressed gas for pressurization.
  5. Abrasives—Some proprietary nonflammable mild abrasive materials are available for rejuvenating painted or polished surfaces. They present no fire hazard.
  6. Dry cleaning agents—Perchlorethylene and trichlorethylene as used at ambient temperatures are examples of nonflammable dry cleaning agents. These materials do have a toxicity hazard requiring care in their use, and in some locations due to environmental laws, their use may be prohibited or severely restricted. In the same way, water-soluble agents can be detrimental. Fire retardant treated materials may be adversely affected by the application of these dry cleaning agents.

Flammable and Combustible Agents

  1. High flash point solvents—Specially refined petroleum products, first developed as “Stoddard solvent” and now sold under a variety of trade names by different companies, have solvent properties approximating gasoline, but have fire hazard properties similar to those of kerosene as commonly used (not heated). Most of these are stable products having a flash point from 100 °F to 140 °F with a comparatively low degree of toxicity.
  2. Low flash point solvents—Class I (flash point at below 100 °F) flammable liquids are not to be used for aircraft cleaning or refurbishing. Common materials falling into this “class” are acetone, aviation gasoline (AVGAS), methyl ethyl ketone, naphtha, and toluol. In cases where it is absolutely necessary to use a flammable liquid, use high flash point liquids (those having a flash point of 100 °F or more).
  3. Mixed liquids—Some commercial solvents are mixtures of liquids with differing rates of evaporation, such as a mixture of one of the various naphthas and a chlorinated material. The different rates of evaporation may present problems from both the toxicity and fire hazard viewpoints. Such mixtures must not be used, unless they are stored and handled with full knowledge of these hazards and appropriate precautions taken.


Container Controls

Flammable liquids should be handled only in approved containers or safety cans appropriately labeled.

Fire Prevention Precautions

  1. During aircraft cleaning or refurbishing operations where flammable or combustible liquids are used, the following general safeguards are recommended:
  2. Aircraft cabins are to be provided with ventilation sufficient at all times to prevent the accumulation of flammable vapors. To accomplish this, doors to cabins shall be open to secure maximum advantage of natural ventilation. Where such natural ventilation is not insufficient, approved mechanical ventilation equipment shall be provided and used. The accumulation of flammable vapors above 25 percent of the lower flammability limit of the particular vapor being used, measured at a point 5 feet from the location of use, shall result in emergency revisions of operations in progress.
  3. All open flame and spark producing equipment or devices that may be brought within the vapor hazard area must be shut down and not operated during the period when flammable vapors may exist.
  4. Electrical equipment of a hand portable nature, used within an aircraft cabin, shall be of the type approved for use in Class I, Group D, Hazardous Locations as defined by the National Electrical Code.
  5. Switches to aircraft cabin lighting and to the aircraft electrical system components within the cabin area must not be worked on or switched on or off during cleaning operations.
  6. Suitable warning signs must be placed in conspicuous locations at aircraft doors to indicate that flammable liquids are being or have been used in the cleaning or refurbishing operation in progress.

Fire Protection Recommendations

During aircraft cleaning or refurbishing operations where flammable liquids are used, the following general fire protection safeguards are recommended:

1. Aircraft undergoing such cleaning or refurbishing must preferably be located outside of the hangar buildings when weather conditions permit. This provides for added natural ventilation and normally assures easier access to the aircraft in the event of fire.

2. It is recommended that during such cleaning or refurbishing operations in an aircraft outside of the hangar that portable fire extinguishers be provided at cabin entrances having a minimum rating of 20-B. Additionally, at minimum, a booster hose line with an adjustable water spray nozzle capable of reaching the cabin area for use pending the arrival of airport fire equipment must be available. As an alternate to the previous recommendations, a Class A fire extinguisher having a minimum rating of 4-A plus or a Class B fire extinguisher having a minimum rating of 20-B must be placed at aircraft cabin doors for immediate use if required.

NOTE 1: All-purpose ABC (dry chemical) type extinguishers are not to be used in situations where aluminum corrosion is a problem, if the extinguisher is used.

NOTE 2: Portable and semi-portable fire detection and extinguishing equipment has been developed, tested, and installed to provide protection to aircraft during construction and maintenance operations. Operators are urged to investigate the feasibility of utilizing such equipment during aircraft cabin cleaning and refurbishing operations.

3. Aircraft undergoing such cleaning or refurbishing where the work is to be done under cover must be in hangars equipped with automatic fire protection equipment.


Powerplant Cleaning

Cleaning the powerplant is an important job and must be done thoroughly. Grease and dirt accumulations on an air-cooled engine provide an effective insulation against the cooling effect of air flowing over it. Such an accumulation can also cover up cracks or other defects.

When cleaning an engine, open or remove the cowling as much as possible. Beginning with the top, wash down the engine and accessories with a fine spray of kerosene or solvent. A bristle brush may be used to help clean some of the surfaces.

Fresh water, soap, and approved cleaning solvents may be used for cleaning propeller and rotor blades. Except in the process of etching, caustic material must not be used on a propeller. Scrapers, power buffers, steel brushes, or any tool or substances that mar or scratch the surface must not be used on propeller blades, except as recommended for etching and repair.

Water spray, rain, or other airborne abrasive material strikes a whirling propeller blade with such force that small pits are formed in the blade’s leading edge. If preventive measures are not taken, corrosion causes these pits to rapidly grow larger. The pits may become so large that it is necessary to file the blade’s leading edge until it is smooth.

Steel propeller blades have more resistance to abrasion and corrosion than aluminum alloy blades. Steel blades, if rubbed down with oil after each flight, retain a smooth surface for a long time.

Examine the propellers regularly, because cracks in steel or aluminum alloy blades can become filled with oil that tends to oxidize. This can readily be seen when the blade is inspected. Keeping the surface wiped with oil serves as a safety feature by helping to make cracks more obvious.

Propeller hubs must be inspected regularly for cracks and other defects. Unless the hubs are kept clean, defects may not be found. Clean steel hubs with soap and fresh water or with an approved cleaning solvent. These cleaning solvents may be applied by cloths or brushes. Avoid tools and abrasives that scratch or otherwise damage the plating.

In special cases where a high polish is desired, the use of a good grade of metal polish is recommended. Upon completion of the polishing, all traces of polish must be removed immediately, the blades cleaned, and then coated with clean engine oil. All cleaning substances must be removed immediately after completion of the cleaning of any propeller part. Soap in any form can be removed by rinsing repeatedly with fresh water. After rinsing, all surfaces must be dried and coated with clean engine oil. After cleaning the powerplant, all control arms, bellcranks, and moving parts must be lubricated according to instructions in the applicable maintenance manual.

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