by Joe Godfrey
Theres an old saying in the hangar tug business: You dont think you need one until the first time your back creaks when youre grunting to get your airplane over that annoying lip on the hangar floor. If you and your back would rather get your exercise at the gym or on the golf course than at the airport, it might be time to invest in a hangar tug. There are a number of these gadgets to pick from at various price points.
When we last examined tugs in the September, 1999 issue of Aviation Consumer, we found that a few popular brands and models dominate the landscape and thats generally the same scenario today. Back then, we found companies started by tinkerers in a backyard shop and those companies have survived and prospered, turning the businesses over to sons and daughters.This time around, we found that companies have worked to improve their products and their customer service, but the basic products themselves havent changed much. Many owners we talked to have had the same tug for years and had no plans to replace it. To us, that suggests that companies are generally hitting the design brief on tugs and that the products hold up well over time.
Worth mentioning is that tugs hold up so well that you can probably find a decent used one somewhere on your airport. Weve seen them posted for sale on the FBO bulletin board and one company even has a section its Web site to help buyers and sellers of used tugs find each other. Since these products are well-supported and easily repairable, a used one is a smart buy.
Powered tugs come in three configurations: Gas-powered, AC electric-powered and DC battery-powered. Some factors to consider when choosing the right tug are the weight of your airplane-the new 24-volt battery-powered tows are now as hefty as the gas-powered tows-the configuration of your airplane (some tugs only work on a bare nosewheel, others can handle wheel pants and tailwheels-and the configuration of your hangar. Humping the airplane over rain lips, gutters and door tracks demands extra power. Last, consider the distance you need to cover. For simple in-and-out of the hangar, an electric tug might be fine. If you need to tow the airplane to the gas pumps 500 feet away, thats a different story. You may even wish to consider a golf cart or small lawn tractor to do the towing duties.
I inherited a gas-powered tow when I bought my Bellanca Viking 15 years ago. During that time, Ive been in four hangars, two with downhill inclines and two with uphill inclines. In fact, one was tilted so far uphill that getting the airplane out of the hangar was scary. Once I pulled the chocks, the airplane would roll, so I used the tug in reverse to help counter gravity. Getting the airplane back in again with full tanks took some power, too.
During my nomadic hangar life, I was once in a row opposite a Bonanza owner who used an electric tow. He would chuckle at me when I primed the one-lunger to start it, I would shake my head as he struggled with a 75-foot extension cord. We could both snicker at the guy with a electric tug whose battery died because he forgot to charge it. Theres no foolproof system here.
If your hangar has no electricity-many dont-a gasoline tow may be the best option. Youll need to keep a small supply of gas available-the smaller the better, for safety reasons-and run the thing occasionally to keep it in shape. Some owners use avgas but watch out for lead fouling of the spark plug. On the very coldest of mornings, if I havent started the engine in a couple of weeks, the engine on my gas tow needs three or four pulls. It has never not started at all. Ive used my tow to haul the airplane across the field to a radio shop more than once, something my Bonanza friend cant do with his AC-powered tug. On the other hand, he doesnt have to worry about running out of gas or having the gas go stale, gumming up the carburetor.
A DC-powered tug splits the difference. You have to remember to charge the battery occasionally-two or three times a year is usually sufficient-and in exchange, theres no bother with a yanking a rope on a cold winter morning.DC-powered tugs have neither the range nor the power of a gas tug, if those two factors are important.
Most powered tows share a common design. The engine or motor drives a gear box through a belt or chain arrangement, which in turn drives the wheels, either directly or through more belts and chains. From there, there are various ways for the tugs to cradle, lift or hook to your airplane. Heres a review of some of the popular products available, with prices quoted as of press time. These dont include tax and shipping.
Jack Irwin founded Skyline Aviation, Inc. in 1988 and his company currently offers Taildragger-Dragger, Nosedragger-Dragger and Copterdragger-Dragger models. Nosedraggers use a metal arm that reaches around the tire and guides it into six ball bearing rollers, one in front, one in back, and two on each side. Cradling the nosewheel takes the nosewheel axle out of the equation and eliminates metal-to-metal contact.
Jacks son Jeff is the General Manager at Skyline, based near Flint, Michigan. He says wheel pants are no problem for the Nosedragger because our rollers grab the tire below that. We think the Nosedragger works better than the other tows for Cirrus, Diamond and other free-castoring nosewheels, because we dont just grab the pins, but we cradle the tire in front, back and on both sides.
Skyline offers two electric-powered Nosedraggers. The 12-volt $925 model handles weights up to 3500 pounds and the 24-volt $1165 model can handle up to 6000 pounds. (The latter is Skylines best-seller.) Gas-powered (6-HP) Nosedraggers are priced at $1065 and will handle any nosewheel airplane up to 10,000 pounds with or without wheel pants. Gas Nosedraggers have neutral, reverse and three forward speeds; the top speed is a fast walk.
The Taildragger design is a bit different. Once you maneuver the tow into place behind the airplanes tailwheel, you slip the tire into a cradle and lift the wheel off the ground. Taildraggers are available in several gas and electric models to handle airplanes and tailwheels of all sizes. Taildraggers can be maneuvered for nosewheels, too. A friend uses the same Taildragger for the tail of his Cessna 195 and the nose of his V-35 Bonanza. The cradling action of the Nosedragger is ideal for heavy tailwheel airplanes with bigger wheels, such as Beech 18s and AgCats.
Copterdraggers are designed for Robinson R-22s and R-44s, but they can handle other small helicopters up to 3000 pounds. The gas Copterdragger sells for $1765 and the battery model for $1665. All Dragger models use two wheels for better traction and more stability. Available options are snowchains and lights and all Draggers ship fully assembled. The Dragger family also includes carbon-powered (muscles not included) towbars and theyve recently redesigned the manual taildragger with a longer handle for easier lifting.That handle also folds in half so you can carry it with you.
Jeff Irwin concedes his companys past reputation for slowness. Sometimes it would take us four to six weeks to ship an order, but weve recently tripled manufacturing and right now were down to about a week. Skylines Website doesnt have video, but has a photo series depicting the loading sequence. Theres also an accessory list and a parts list. Later this year, theyll add pictures of parts and youll be able to order parts online.
Northwest Manufacturing, Inc. in Sandpoint, Idaho offers several models of its Powertow brand. Their most popular model is the 40EZ gas, powered by a 5-HP Briggs & Stratton engine, which costs $970 and will tow singles and small twins up to 4700 pounds. For an extra $100 you can upgrade the EZ to a 6-HP engine that will handle heavier airplanes up to 5500 pounds. Cabin class twin owners will want the 65EZ, which sells for $1695.
The EZ models use one tire and a pincer system. Youll use a different adaptor depending on whether your axle/yoke is an innie or an outie. You position the one-wheeled tow in front of the nosewheel, slide one side into or onto the axle, then use a spring-loaded lever to pinch the other side.
Initial set-up is important with the EZ in order to put the right amount of squeeze on the axle, just enough to hold it snug. Its possible to set the pincers so tight that the over-center lock wont lock, which is why set-up is important. None of the owners we talked to had had any problems with wheels popping loose. EZ models are available with electric start, too, if youre at the end of your rope days.
Northwest has been tweaking and improving its products since 1975 and the latest tweak is nylon adaptors, which eliminate metal-to-metal contact. Those are available for $65. Other options are an adaptor for wheel pants, an adaptor for Scott tailwheels, a dual-wheel differential for grass and gravel areas, a 12-volt floodlight and snowchains. Powertow also makes two-wheeled helicopter movers for Robbies. If youre lucky enough to fly a Cheyenne or a King Air, Powertow offers three models of Supertow, a two-wheeled tow with a Lazy Susan type tray. Supertows have a unique loading system; there are no hooks or straps, you slide the tray under the wheel; turning is handled by the tray.
Northwest offers three assembly options for new units. Standard do-it-yourself assembly gives you three cartons and an afternoon project. Advanced assembly costs $60, arrives via FedEx Ground and requires you to attach just the handle. Theyll ship a fully assembled unit for an extra $100, but that requires common carrier delivery. Advanced assembly is the most popular option.
A few years ago, Northwest began offering an upgrade option for owners of older models. You keep your engine and transmission and $350 gets you everything else, including a new frame, axle, tire, chain, pulleys and belt.Theres no core charge-you just scrap the old parts. If youre selling a used Powertow, their Website will list the model and your location and the buyer and seller can make the deal. Its kind of like a mini towbug Ebay and Northwest doesnt charge customers for that service.
The Powertow Website is thorough, with lots of pictures, FAQs for each product, downloadable owners manuals, assembly manuals and a short video of an EZ towing a Bonanza.
Just down the road from Oshkosh is Aero-Tow, which makes a family of battery-powered tow products, including the Lil Sherman. Shermans are pincer-type two-wheeled tows powered by two 12-volt batteries and theyll work with either nosewheels or tailwheels, but not wheel pants. Shermans look a bit like the tank theyre named after, feature a hydrostatic transmission and they look like theyd haul your airplane up Porkchop Hill.
But these might be overkill for a light airplane on dry, flat terrain.Shermans sell for $1950 and are popular with owners of larger retractable singles. Aero-Tows $1250 E-200 is a smaller pincer-type tow thats popular with Cirrus and 182 owners. Aero Tows E-300 $3400 is another sturdy-looking 24-volt tow that uses a nylon strap to drag the nosewheel onto a tray. Aero-Tows power switch is a bit different. The longer you hold the switch, the faster you go, up to maximum power at 150 feet per minute-a full walk.
Aero-Tow makes a couple of other interesting towbars. Cirrus owners might want to check out Aero-Tows specialty towbar. Its muscle-powered, but it padlocks to the nosegear and prevents the airplane from being moved. Its priced at $150.
Bob Gettleman used to sell powered tows in Texas and when he retired, Aero-Tow took over his product line and now sells the GetJet. It will tow any airplane up to 19,000 pounds. Aero-Tow is also now the distributor for Ray J towbars, basic metal forks that let you tow your airplane with a golf cart or a pick-up truck. There are three models priced from $500 to $975.
Theres a two-year warranty on everything thats black, which includes the batteries and the power cables. Theres no specific warranty on the welded parts, but Aero Tow founder Terry Railing says If someones man enough to break a weld, Im man enough to fix it. Aero-Tows powered products arrive fully assembled except for one bolt to connect the handle.One nice Aero-Two feature we wish other tow companies would adopt is lights on all powered tows. There are pictures of the products on Aero-Tows Website, but theres no video, no manuals, no online ordering, no prices and no toll-free number.
Airtug is a third-generation family business that recently moved from Montana to Gold Bar, Washington. They manufacture three models priced from $1995 to $3595. All three are three-wheeled tows with two big tires up front and a free-castering smaller wheel in the back. The 6-R uses a winch and nylon strap to load the nosewheel onto a metal ramp and a 6-HP Briggs engine to move it around. Airtug suggests it for everything from small singles to big twins like Barons and Navajos.
The 11-R also uses a strap/ramp load but the 11-HP engine will handle bigger airplanes, say, Pilatus P-12s and Conquests. The 11-H adds a hydraulic lift and is recommended for Twin Commanders and corporate jets. All three models can use J-hooks instead of straps for hard-to-reach nosegear like the Cessna 300 series. Airtugs also have dual drive via a hydrostatic transaxle, so you get infinitely variable drive in all directions without need to change gears.
These tugs seem perfect for an FBO or a repair shop that needs maximum flexibility and efficiency without a lot of retooling. Frankly, theyre too much tug for the average lightplane owner, although many pilots might like having the extra power. Surplus power would also come in handy in a less-than-ideal hangar environment, such as a high door ledge, an uphill push, or snow and ice. Airtugs Website is simple but thorough and lists the models, the prices and the warranty. Airtugs ship fully assembled and, at press time, it was expecting to announce new models and prices later in 2005.
FBOs may also be interested in the TOWMASTER, a three-wheel strap/winch/ramp model by the FAB Shop in McPherson, Kansas. They offer a battery-powered 12-volt model for $2395 and two larger 24-volt models for larger twins. All three are available with APUs. Their Website is sparse, with just one picture and no prices. These are worth a mention but beyond the needs of the typical owner, so we didnt try them or contact owners.
If youre looking for a powered tow you can toss in the airplane with you, there are a couple of portable tows that use a battery-powered drill-type motor to turn a roller which turns the nosewheel. You might think these smaller motors dont have the power to move a ton and a half of airplane and while you wont set any speed records, they will help you put the airplane to bed.
If wheelpants arent an issue, B-UR-O in Carlsbad, California has been making POWER-STICKs since 1986. The 110-volt corded model is B-UR-Os best seller at $795. Theres also a cordless model for $895 and an extended handle model for $995. The extended handle folds down to 3 feet and fits in the nose locker of most twins. All of them weigh less than 20 pounds so they barely eat into your gross weight. POWER-STICKs are a little harder to attach to Cessna 210s and 182RGs because the nose sits so far back under the cowl, but if portability is what you want, itll work. POWER-STICKs are most popular with Pipers and Bonanzas.
Sportys Pilot Shop sells two portable tow models, one called Robotow and another simply Aircraft Tug. The Robotow-retail $1499-weighs more than the POWER-STICK-around 36 pounds and the 48-inch handle doesnt collapse. A heavy duty cordless version is available for $1599 and a corded version for $1259, a price that includes a 75-foot extension cord with GFI.
The Aircraft Tug, although smaller than other tugs, isnt quite as cartable in the airplane. It weighs 57 pounds and doesnt collapse into a small package. Price is $1299 for a steerable model and $899 for a non-steerable unit. The tug is powered by a DeWalt 18- or 24-volt cordless drill, which is included in the price. Sportys sells the drills ($319 and $409, respectively) but advises customers that theyre available for lower prices at hardware stores. (Home Depot, for instance, carries the 18-volt model for $199.) The drill can be easily removed for use as a drill or driver in the hangar or shop.
The tricky part with portable roller tows is getting enough leverage and friction between the roller and the tire. B-UR-Os Pete Olson found that rubber rollers worked great until they got wet and slipped. Plastic rollers worked fine until they got smooth and slipped, too. Wood rollers proved to be the right mix of friction and strength.
Attach points are also tricky and the list of airplanes that Robotow wont work on includes the Seneca, Arrow, Mooney, Aerostar, Lance, Saratoga, Cherokee Six, Malibu, Beech Sierra or anything with wheel pants. The drill-powered Aircraft Tug universally adapts to most models, including those with wheelpants, but there are exceptions that require an adapter. See www.sportys.com for more information.
These portable tows may be ideal if you find yourself landing in remote locations without FBOs, such as your favorite fly-fishing spot. We tried an earlier version of the Aircraft Tug on a Bonanza and were quite surprised at how much power that little drill motor has. But plan on the airplane moving no faster than a very slow walk.
B-UR-Os Pete Olson offers a two-week trial period so you can try it out in your environment. Sportys offers a one-year warranty on Robotow.
None of the manufacturers we looked at seems to have a serious edge on price. The smaller tugs sell for about $1000, the beefier ones are half again more in price. If youre have to tow everything in the fleet, plan on doubling that. Owners we talked to were generally content with the brand they had picked, so we cant really tell you to avoid one or another. If youve got more than one airplane to move, the ability of the Taildragger to jump up front and handle a nosewheel is an advantage. For tray loaders, we like Airtugs 6-R and Northwests Supertow. Theyre well designed and easy to use, according to owners.
Back in 1999, we concluded that the best value was a toss-up between the Dragger family and Powertow and were comfortable saying that again. Draggers had the advantage of no metal-to-metal contact until Powertow offered their nylon adaptors. Theres a bit more stability in the two-wheeled Draggers, but Powertow users like the maneuverability of one wheel. Chocolate and vanilla.If we were looking for portability, wed stick with the POWER-STICK. And if we owned an older Powertow, wed take a look at their $350 field overhaul.
Aero Specialties, 208-378-9888, www.aerospecialties.com
Aero-Tow, 920-648-8114, www.aero-tow.com
Airtug, 800-972-5563, www.airtug.com
Brackett Aircraft, 928-757-4005, www.brackettaircraft.com
B-UR-0 (POWERSTICK), 800-447-7818
The FAB Shop, 800-966-1358, www.the-fab-shop.net
Northwest Manufacturing, Inc., 800-635-5565, www.powertow.com
Skyline Aviation, 800-535-8640, www.dragger.com
Sportys Pilot Shop, 800-776-7897, www.sportys.com
-Joe Godfrey is a writer, musician and owner of a Bellanca Viking. He lives in California.