The first time I pushed my Mooney up a slight incline into the hangar, I was certain someone would eventually find my lifeless body slumped over the nosewheel.
For us middle-aged guys, shoving even a light airplane around by hand can be a strain. If you own an airplane that either weighs more than 2000 pounds or one that lives in a hangar, youve thought about a hangar tug.
We thought these were specialty items but at least nine companies make hangar tugs or tows of some kind. (Some of these are heavy duty jet-capable equipment, which well largely ignore for the purposes of this article.) The good news is that competition seems to have dictated that the smaller tugs and tows work well. We didnt see any real dogs in the crop.
Most of the manufacturers are small companies whose owner developed the product as a labor of love. While all the tows and tugs share some similarities, some have unique features so lets launch into a comparison.
Electric or Gas?
Choice one: Electric or gas? Some owners opt for electric tows, reasoning that a gasoline engine would suffer cold starts, same as the airplane. If this is true, we found no evidence of it. Not a single owner we interviewed complained of cold start problems with a gas engine, although tugging the start rope and storing gasoline in the hangar may be a nuisance.
If you have electricity readily available, it has the advantage of eliminating the fire hazard of stored gasoline, not to mention the issue of the stuff going stale. Most of the electric units require the use of a garden variety lead-acid battery which is typically not included in the price. Plus, youll have to keep the electrolyte topped off and the battery charged with a charger. (Also not included, except in one case.)
There’s at least one 115-volt model out there and it needs neither gas nor battery charges. But it does need a long extension cord from the hangar and proper grounding, especially in wet weather.
A more practical consideration in deciding between gas or electric is pulling/pushing power. Electric tows are typically limited to about 3500 pounds (or less), while their gas counterparts can move more weight.
Also, many hangars have inclines ranging from slight to hills that would challenge Sir Edmund. Hangars often have lips or door tracks between the concrete floor of the hangar and the ramp and youll need enough traction and power to overcome these. So consider both weight and the incline when making a choice on power type and engine horsepower.
Some Assembly Required
A big surprise owners faced after ordering a tow is that these things require assembly. Some a little, others a lot. You dont have to build the engine or transmission, but youll need to connect almost everything else on the tow that requires two parts to merge.
If youre mechanically inclined, the instructions provided by most of the manufacturers are simple enough to understand and follow. A typical comment we heard was It took me two hours to assemble the unit and if I had to build another one it would take me 40 minutes. (That applied to a Northwest PowerTow.)
A note on warranties. They arent big in the tug and tow industry. With a few exceptions, dont expect one. When asked, manufacturers told us Ill service the customer no matter what or Hey, even several years later, we still send out parts for free. Caveat emptor. To be fair, we didnt hear of any warranty issues raised with the owners we spoke to. In fact, some owners said that broken parts were repaired years after the sale for minimal or no charge.
Airtug, on the other hand, does provide a written 30-day unconditional guarantee. Their guarantee even extends to any shipping or freight costs incurred.
The most popular tow units are those manufactured by Northwest Manufacturing, Inc. of Sandpoint, Idaho under the brand name, PowerTow. The PowerTow EZ is available in several models, electric or gas.
The Model 35 EZ electric uses a 3/4-HP motor while the gas version uses a 3.5 HP Tecumseh engine. Regardless of the motor, the models themselves have the same set-up. A single wheel is driven through its transmission (via chain) in either a forward, neutral or reverse direction.
This familiar powered tow bar uses a pincer type mechanism in which one arm is locked in place and is meant to connect to one side of the nosewheel while the other arm is connected via a spring actuated by a lever pulled to engage the arm into the remaining side of the nosewheel.
Owners we spoke with were concerned about their ability to pull the adapters out of the nosewheel while towing. One New Jersey owner reported that proper periodic adjustments to the arms prevent inadvertent disengagement. Another owner warned to be careful about making turns too quickly, lest the arms pop loose from the nosewheel.
One important point is to buy the proper horsepower. The Model 40 EZ, for example, uses a 4 HP engine and is more applicable to light twins or heavier singles. Older models of this brand didnt have a clutch and required the owner to lift the tow for speed control. Newer versions use a handle-controlled clutch arrangement to manage tow movement and they also allow for snow chains and an optional tail dragger accessory. The Model 35 EZ gas or electric version sells for $629 and the Model 40 EZ (gas only) sells for $679.
Lil Sherman is manufactured by Aero-Tow LLC of Lake Mills, Wisconsin. The Lil Sherman is powered by an 8 HP Tecumseh engine with electric start and it uses avgas, thus no pesky cans to store.
The tow has a two-wheel set-up with a hydrostatic transmission which provides, in our opinion, superior traction and stability over the one-wheel models. The manufacturer says that the tow can be used to push/pull aircraft up to 6000 pounds.
A handle-operated clutch mechanism is used to set forward, reverse or neutral lock position. Adaptors are available for connection to either an airplanes nosewheel (no wheel fairings) or tailwheel. The adaptors are connected to rigid arms and a lever moves the right-side adaptor to either engage or disengage the wheel. The arm itself doesnt move. Terry Railing, owner of Aero-Tow, told us that each unit is set-up specifically for the type of aircraft used.
A single container weighing 300 pounds is shipped with oil, battery acid but not gas already in place. Simply remove the unit, connect the handle and youre in business. The Lil Sherman costs $1850, plus shipping, so its not a down market tow.
A new model introduced at Oshkosh this year is the E-100. This all-electric unit costs $1000 (plus shipping) and it can tow about 3000 pounds; up to a Bonanza A36, says Railing.
The major parts of the Lil Sherman carry their respective manufacturers warranties and the remaining parts and workmanship carry a lifetime warranty. (Thats Railings lifetime, of course. When he goes, the warranty might, too.)
Airtug, located in Superior, Montana, manufactures two models: The 1900 and the 18-F. These tugs are intended for heavier airplanes such as King Airs, Caravans and the occasional Learjet. Both tugs rely on the principle of lifting the nosewheel rather than attaching to the airplanes gear. The 1900 comes with a 9 HP Tecumseh engine, with electric start and hydrostatic transmission; no chains and no shifting.
Towing capacity is 15,000 pounds. The unit requires that the operator place a nylon strap around the strut. The nosewheel is then hand winched up the tows ramp to a stop with 2-1/2 inches of ground clearance. Two drive wheels and a third free castoring wheel do the rest in providing a stable platform.
If hand winching is too difficult, the 18-F provides a similar set-up except that a 10 HP engine is used and a four-ton hydraulic fork is used to lift the nosewheel rather than the mechanical version on the 1900.
The 18-F can tow up to 18,000 pounds. Once the aircraft has been loaded, all the engine controls are located at the handle position. Speed control is performed using a twist bar type mechanism. This means that unlike other units, you dont need to stop and then run to another position on the tug to change speeds or direction.
The units are shipped almost completely assembled and Airtug recommends that unleaded auto gas be used rather than avgas. Airtug provides a 30-day unconditional customer satisfaction guarantee, including reimbursement of any pre-paid shipping expenses. Not bad and its in writing. The 1900 sells for $1995 and the 18-F goes for $2295.
The FAB Shop
The FAB Shop, started in 1992, is a steel fabrication business that takes a different view of the airplane tug problem. They were approached by a local FBO to build a powered tug for a Lear but rather than build a gas design, their point of departure is the electric golf cart.
The FAB Shop produces three models: The 12-volt Mini-Tug, the 24-volt Model 1000 and the 24-volt Model 1500 with APU capability. All three operate by lifting the nose wheel off the ground and then towing the airplane.
The Mini-Tug, priced at $1795, uses a nylon strap to winch the nosegear up the ramp which then slides back horizontally, securing the wheel. The Mini-Tug is capable of towing 4500 pounds, depending on incline.
The other models are priced at $3745 and $4995 and may be a bit pricey for the typical GA application. On the other hand, if you own a King Air or a business jet, the price is in line with other powered tugs. The Mini-Tug is shipped in a crate and nearly fully assembled. A one-year warranty is included.
While most tows apply to nose gear airplanes, this unit was specifically designed to work with tail draggers. Skyline Aviation, located in Swartz Creek, Michigan, primarily builds and sells two models of the Trail-Dragger Dragger.
An electric version sells for $765 (plus shipping) and a gas version (typical 4 HP Tecumseh or Briggs & Stratton engine) costs $805, plus shipping.
You have to buy your own battery but for $40, you can opt for a built-in battery charger with 1.5 amp trickle capacity. The unit is shipped in several boxes and the manufacturer estimates that 30 minutes to an hour is necessary to assemble the tow.
The unit doesnt have many optional accessories. If you need snow chains, youll have to visit the local auto store. The tow itself consists of two main wheels and a free castoring smaller wheel for maneuvering.
The unique and patented aspect of the Tail-Dragger Dragger is that the tailwheel is actually lifted off the ground by the unit without requiring the operator to lift the airplane itself. This is accomplished by sliding the tow sideways such that the tailwheel engages the tows cradle.
Using the curvature of the tire, two pins rest along the surface leaving the operator to simply lift the control handle and raise the tail wheel about 1 to 3 inches off the ground. The transmission allows for three pulling speeds and one pushing speed.
We watched one owner connect the Tail-Dragger Dragger to his antique British military trainer and easily tow his airplane tail first into the hangar. I used to need several people to help me push it back. Now I can do it by myself while my wife watches to make sure I dont hit the hangar, he told us.
Jack Irwin, owner of Skyline Aviation, also sells a manual version of the tow for customers who own Piper Cubs or Champs.
For customers who need a nosewheel tow, Skyline sells a Nose-Dragger Dragger. The unique aspect of this unit is that the nosewheel is lifted onto six ball bearing rollers. This means that no metal-to-metal contact is required, a plus in our view. The unit fits almost all airplanes, even those with wheel fairings. The Nose-Dragger Dragger is priced at $755 for the 12-volt electric model (pulls up to 4000 pounds). The 3 HP gas model costs $785 (up to 5000 pounds) and $1015 for the 5 HP heavy duty gas model (up to 7000 pounds).
Terra Tugs of Verona, Wisconsin produces two electric-powered tows under the brand name AeroTug. The AeroTug Model 130, introduced at Oshkosh this year and the Model 120.
The Model 130 uses a 12-volt motor, custom adapted from electric motors used to drive handicapped wheelchairs, and a worm drive to power one drive wheel. The tows configuration is essentially a handle connected to a cart containing a battery, motor and two stiff arms meant to connect to the airplane. All controls are on the handle bar, with the exception of a single on/off switch near the battery.
This tow has a variable speed motor with built-in brake. Many tows dont have an integrated brake, in which case the unit just coasts to a stop depending on the incline and the airplanes weight. Depending on your hangar or tie-down location, you may need to be the brake.
The tow itself is connected to the airplane using one of two front-ends. One front-end is designed to be used when connecting to the nosewheel axle, the other when the tug is to be connected to a higher nosegear tow attach point. When you order the tow, indicate what type of airplane youll be towing so the proper front-end can be furnished.
The right side arm contains an adapter that slides and allows the tow to be easily connected or disconnected from the airplane. The Model 130 can push/pull up to 6000 pounds on an up to 3-degree incline. The tow itself is shipped in two boxes and weighs about 55 pounds. Buy a 12-volt battery and simply connect the handle to the tow cart and youre done. The Model 130 sells for $1150.
The Model 120 uses a 12-volt one speed electric motor. The motor drives a single wheel using a sprocket chain combination. Different sprocket wheels are used depending on whether the airplane is light or heavy and to vary the speed and gearing. The Model 120 is placarded to push/pull a maximum of 3000 pounds on a flat surface and sells for $950.
Frankly, none of these devices are junk: You probably wont go wrong with any model you purchase. The biggest worry is buying one with insufficient power to push a heavy airplane up an incline.
That said, here are our recommendations for tows and tugs: Skyline Aviations Nose (or Tail) Dragger Dragger represent the most versatile and best value purchase, in our view. It doesnt require adaptors because the wheel rides on rollers with no metal-to-metal contact.
Northwests PowerTow is also a good buy in either electric or gas models at a price most owners expect to pay for tows. Were partial to the electric motor based purely on reliability and freedom from maintenance. Our only misgiving with the PowerTow is that the units quality may very much be a factor of how carefully you assemble it. Do it right, and the PowerTow should do what you ask of it. Overall, construction quality is adequate, if not the best money can buy.
In that latter category, our view is that the Lil Sherman by Aero Tow is the best quality tow available in the price range. The swivel front, dual drive wheels and hydrostatic transmission make this tow much more suited for heavier aircraft, from medium twins on up.
-by Ben Rosenberg
Ben Rosenberg owns a heavy Mooney Ovation based at Caldwell, New Jersey.