Most of us cant afford a hangar and couldnt find one even if we could. So our airplanes spend their lives tied down outside, exposed to sun, rain, snow and the gunk and grime of the typical airport.
Obviously, an aircraft cover of some kind will reduce wear and tear on the paint, upholstery and avionics and given how cheap covers are, were always astonished to see how many owners simply dont use them.
There are a number of companies selling cabin covers for low- and high-wing aircraft. Our survey of the field took in the top players in the field, Bruces Custom Covers, Cunningham, Custom Cabin Covers, GroundTech (aka Planecovers.com) and Kennon.
We looked only at single-engine models, although each of these manufacturers can supply light twin covers, too. Some do canopy covers for aerobatic and ex-military machines as well and will build a custom cover to suit anything.
Covers: What it Takes
What are we looking for in a good cover? Good fit, durability and, above all, ease of installation and removal, especially on a windy ramp. Prices are competitive so we dont see that as the driver here.
We tried both low- and high-wing models from each manufacturer on a Mooney 201 and a Cessna 210. Worth noting is that design and fit for other low- and high-wing models vary from company to company so our observations address general quality, design and customer service.
Typically, the low-wing models require the owner to take some measurements when ordering. Theres no standardization for the forest of antennas that populate a Mooney, Bonanza or Piper, so customizing is a must.
The manufacturers provide a chart to help in taking these measurements and to set the reference points from which theyre made, typically top dead center of the windshield.
High-wing covers need fewer measurements because they dont have to navigate the antenna farm atop the cabin. But some models, like the Cessna 210, have a protruding OAT so its wise to let the manufacturer know where the probe is and how far it projects.
Low-wing covers typically fit over the top of the fuselage with boots sewn into the top to accommodate the antennas, with a side opening by the cabin door fastened closed with Velcro so you can access the cabin without uncovering. Straps run under the belly to hold the cover in place, fore and aft.
We found that it was straightforward to put each of the covers on without any problems caused by the light wind that was blowing during the tests. High-wing aircraft pose problems for cover designers, the challenge being how to fasten the cover to the top of the windshield to keep it from becoming a scoop during a tailwind and funneling grit and grime onto the windshield. Also, long runs of material under the wings are unsupported and may sag, exposing the side windows to the elements.
Typically, high-wing covers wrap the cabin and are secured by straps under the belly over the top of the cabin running from front to back to hold the cover in place at the top of the windshield. High-wing covers demand more practice for one person to install than do the low-wing models and in some wind conditions, you simply cant install them unassisted.
The Bruces low-wing cover is made of a silver laminate material thats reflective nylon on the outside with a softer nylon knit lining. Bungee cord is sewn into the edges of the cover to provide a tight seal where the cover meets the top of the engine cowling. This excludes grit from getting under the cover onto the windshield.
Our experience with the silver laminate suggests that it lasts about five years in the northeast; something that may vary with region. The edge material around the cover that holds the shock cord in place starts to disintegrate in that time while the silver laminate itself showed no signs of deterioration.
The Bruces cover has no door opening on the low-wing model; you have to remove the cover in order to access the cockpit. One strap each, fore and aft, fastens the cover to the aircraft, and theres an option to use snaps in lieu of the straps. And how about snaps? Theyre easy to use in the wind and never get tangled, which a poorly placed strap can do. The cons? While some snaps can be installed by replacing a non-structural screw with the snap assembly, others must be riveted to the airframe.
Further, straps can provide a tighter fit against strong winds because they can be cinched down while a snaps tightness is limited. Bruces favors snaps but other manufacturers can provide them as an option. The fit of the Bruces cover on the Mooney wasnt taut but it was adequate, in our view. This cover also extended well toward the front of the aircraft, over the cowling, which helps keep grit away from the windshield.
And the Bruces cover extended farthest aft on the Mooney of all the models we tested, although this has little operational significance, as long as whatever cover is in place shelters the baggage door from rain incursion.The Bruces was the bulkiest cover because the silver laminate is stiff, especially when new and with the knit backing, the cover consumes a bit of volume when stored. The model tested sells for $315.
Custom Cabin Covers
This cover is made from an automotive sun cover fabric called Evolution sold by Kimberly-Clark. It looks like paper towel material, but is much tougher; we couldnt tear or pierce it with blunt tools.
One benefit of Evolution is that it makes for a lighter-than-usual cover, which can be both a boon and a bother. When stored, the cover is small but in a breeze, its a nuisance to worry it onto the airplane. We dont have any information about how long this material lasts, although some in the field criticize it as not being as robust as fabrics routinely used for aircraft covers. Anecdotal information suggests that three to four years is a reasonable lifespan.
Also, this material isnt much to look at. It was the least attractive cover aesthetically, for those to whom that matters. This was aggravated by the fact that the Custom Cabin Cover just didnt fit well. It bunched, bagged and sagged on the Mooney, unlike the other covers, which were generally neat and taut.
The Custom cover just covered the bottom of the windshield and didnt extend back far along the aft fuselage, although it did cover the baggage door. At $129, the Custom cover rates as the bargain entry but its not in the same league as covers costing $300 or more.
Cunningham provided two covers for us to review: a standard model made of the Sunbrella fabric thats used by many manufacturers and a lightweight cover thats just being brought to market using a fabric called Guardian. Sunbrella is a canvas-like acrylic material treated to maintain its color and carrying a five-year guarantee. It comes in a rainbow of colors that an owner can choose from when ordering a cover.
The Cunningham cover has an opening for cockpit access, secured with Velcro. Because the rearmost of two nose straps come close to the front of the door opening, attention has to be paid to ensure that closing the door doesnt pinch the material.
The fit of the Cunningham cover is quite good. Its long in the front over the nose and extends well aft on the airframe. The two straps at the front and two at the back hold the cover tightly in place. Buckles are provided on both sides of the cover.
One feature of the Cunningham covers-and Kennon, too-is an extra strap that runs under the fuselage from the rearmost transverse strap to the tail tie-down ring, with a bungee arrangement to tension the rearmost strap. Weve never had a problem with a cover riding forward in a blow but Lynn Cunningham, the owner of the business, tells us that this feature keeps tension on the cover for owners who leave aircraft for extended periods without cinching the straps. Its a no-brainer to ignore the extra strap if youre so inclined.
The Cunningham cover is lined with a satin facing where it contacts the windshield. This isnt necessary because of any inherent hostility of Sunbrella to the glass but to guard against dirt and grit accretion. It provides a smooth surface that keeps grit from lodging in the weave so it can be brushed clean after the cover inevitably falls face-down on a filthy ramp.
Speaking of filthy ramps, choose the colors of your cover carefully. Whites and light colors arent good choices unless your ramp and aircraft are like NASA clean rooms. They pick up dirt and grease smears at the drop of a hat. Its better to go with a darker color, or a gray, that doesnt show soiling so easily. Sunbrella can be cleaned; the manufacturer recommends an aerosol product called 303 High Tech Fabric Guard. Dry cleaning is forbidden, but a small cover can be machine washed with natural soap, cold water and air drying.
Cunninghams lightweight cover fit the aircraft smartly and looks great. The new cover design uses Guardian, a woven polyester. The lightweight cover is a boon for pilots who want to minimize the room taken up by a cover on trips. But that light weight means that the cover can act as a big sail on a windy day. Both of the Cunningham covers sell for $325.
Kennon Aircraft Covers
Like Cunningham, Kennon makes its standard cover of Sunbrella. With a door opening, it has two straps foreward and one aft with a tie-down ring bungee identical to the Cunningham cover. While it didnt extend as far forward on the cowling as did some of the others, those who have used Kennon covers report that it doesnt ride up or allow dirt on the windshield.
Corners are reinforced and the cover is well made, with satin linings for the windows-a $75 option above the base price-and buckles on both sides of the aircraft. The fit on the Kennon was also quite good. In all cases, we found that the boots made to accommodate and cover the top-mounted comm antennas fit perfectly based upon the same measurements that were provided to each manufacturer. The standard Kennon cover of the type used on our trial Mooney sells for $320.
Kennon also manufactures a stripped-down model, called the Plane Wrapper, thats budget priced at $195. Its made of Duravent fabric that looks similar to the Evolution used in the Custom Cabin Cover product. Kennon estimates that this fabric will last about three years, compared to the five-year guaranteed life of Sunbrella. With the same strap configuration as the higher-priced product, it has no door opening. The fit is about the same as with the standard Kennon cover.
Like Kennon, GroundTech has been in the cover business for a number of years and, like Kennon, makes its covers out of Sunbrella. We saw its product on a Mooney 231 and that aircraft had two straps in the front and one aft of the wing.
The straps have a buckle only on the door side of the aircraft, with the right side sewn to the cover and a loop of rubber bungee material halfway down the strap to provide some tension. Sewn into the fabric behind the buckles are neoprene pads that shield the paint from the plastic buckle, a nice touch. Even the best covers will work a little in the wind, causing the plastic to abrade the paint; the pads prevent that. Theres no cabin door on the GroundTech cover.
One feature of the newer GroundTech covers is what the company calls a standing seam. This puts the seams joining pieces of the cover together on the outside of the cover, rather than being between the cover and the aircraft. The company says that this may be beneficial in keeping the cover flat against the skin but were skeptical. Even GroundTech seems ambivalent on the point, as its Web site says that it makes covers with either seam configuration, suggesting theres no wrong choice.
The cover fit well, with no bunching, sagging or drooping, although it didnt extend far forward of the point where the windshield meets the fuselage, as do the GroundTechs covers made for those Mooneys with external avionics access between the engine and the windshield. GroundTech declined to answer any of our questions about the features of its covers, saying that it didnt want to be part of this review. A company representative did say that it was introducing new designs in 2002 and that a review of the covers available to us now would not be accurate. (Hey, were just trying to help here.) We hope the covers dont change much, as we consider them to be good products. GroundTech low-wing covers sell for about $285.
Custom Cabin High-Wing
As with the low-wing model, this cover was made of Evolution, designed with one strap under the nose and one under the belly aft of the wing, both with buckles on only the left side.
There are two straps that extend from the top of each side of the windshield aft, where they attach with Velcro to the cover at the top of the rear window. Although some of the high-wing covers have a rod inserted at the top of the windshield to provide stiffness and prevent ballooning, the Custom Cabin model doesnt. Still, this cover held the top tightly against the roofline at least as well as did those with rods.
Getting lightweight top straps from the front of the airplane to the back can be frustrating in the wind. Weve cursed them many times. Custom Cabin Covers has a great solution for this: A small shot bag is Velcrod onto the end of the strap. You heave the bag and strap to the back and more often than not it lands where you can reach it to fasten the strap to the cover.
But the fit of this cover wasnt as good as the top-rated covers, although it fit better than did its low-wing sibling. It was skimpy at the base of the windshield and we suspect that dirt could get under the cover and onto the acrylic. It fit snugly under the wing along the sides of the fuselage, which wasnt the case with one of the considerably more expensive covers. The high-wing Custom Cabin Cover sells for a bargain $139.
Bruces model for the high-wing is made out of the same silver laminate as its low-wing design. Its designed with one strap each, fore and aft, with bungee sewn around the top and bottom edges of the cover to provide a seal against the fuselage. Rather than using over-the-top straps, Bruces cover has two straps terminating in snaps on the top corners of the windshield cover. These snaps fasten to their mates, which use existing screw holes at the wing root.
Theres a rod that stiffens the top edge of the windshield cover. An owner can also request an all-snap fastened model that does away with the under-the-fuselage straps but requires riveting some snaps to the fuselage.
We like the snaps at the top of the windshield because they make it easier to install the cover, holding it in place while you position the fabric along the side windows. Without snaps, the high-wing covers frequently blow or slide off the cowling. Although weve bought the Bruces cover for our personal use, its fit isnt as snug as the other high-wing covers. It does cover the bottom of the windshield and the back window well, however. The standard model doesnt completely cover the baggage door on the Cessna 210, which sometimes leaks like a sieve. For a small additional cost, an extended cover is available. This cover sells for $315.
We tested two types of Kennon high-wing covers: one made of the usual Sunbrella material and a Plane Wrapper version. Both have plastic rods along the top of the windshield, with one strap under the cowl and two in the back. Both also have a tail tiedown ring strap and bungee cords that go over the top of the cabin lengthwise with nylon hoods on the ends that clip onto the smooth fairing where the wing meets the fuselage.
These cords are light and when we owned a Kennon cover for a Cessna 210, they were a pain to get over the wing to a point where you could reach them. Windy days were the pits and more than once we gave up even trying. Also, on the 210s that have no corrugation on the flaps, as do the smaller Cessnas, the hooks are free to move and could slip into the gap between the flap and the fuselage fairing.
The fit of the Plane Wrapper wasnt good, in our view. The hindmost strap was a couple of inches too short and couldnt be fastened. Nor did this cover protect the bottom part of the rear window, as it was too short. But it did hug the undersides of the wings well and extended far enough to cover the bottom of the windshield. The Plane Wrapper model we tested sells for $195.
The Sunbrella Kennon cover was very attractive and fit better. The rear straps were both long enough to buckle but a fraction of an inch of the rear window continued to peek through when the cover was installed and the straps were tight. This cover sells for $295.
The Cunningham cover we tested, which was made from Sunbrella, fit like a glove. Its configured with two straps fore and aft and has a tail tiedown ring strap, the same bungee arrangement as do the Kennon products, plus the rod at the top of the windshield.
The Cunningham cover fully protected the rear window and has more of an extension over the cowl at the base of the windshield than the other models tested. Under the wings, the cover was snug. One option on the cover made for our tests is that it had a Velcro opening for cabin door access on both sides of the aircraft. We dont think this is essential, but it does save having to remove the cover when access is needed on both sides.
One small criticism of the Cunningham cover: the OAT boot didnt fit smoothly. This underscores the importance of good measuring when ordering. Also, Cunningham will make its covers with snaps at the top of the windshield in place of the bungee cords, as will most other manufacturers. We think its worth considering. The Cunningham cover costs $335.
GroundTechs Sunbrella high-wing cover is a mass of nine straps, top and bottom and is the most unusual design of all. There are four belly straps, one under the cowling, one that goes under the fuselage and wraps around the back of the landing gear, and two aft of the wings. Each of them has buckles on one side of the aircraft, with the skin behind the buckles protected with neoprene pad.
There are also four non-elastic web straps over the top of the fuselage running back from the windshield, each terminating in a rubber-coated hook. The outermost ones hook onto the trailing edge of the wing fairing, while the innermost straps hook onto yet another transverse strap that goes laterally across the top just behind the wings.
Theres no rod at the top of the windshield as, in the manufacturers opinion, it causes the top to balloon more than if it were held down tightly by the extra straps.
To help in heaving the over-the-top straps, GroundTech supplies a tennis ball with a slit in it. You insert the strap hook into the slit and toss the ball over the wing. Nice idea but one that suffers some in execution: We ended up chasing a loose tennis ball for three of the four straps we launched.
The fit on the GroundTech cover was very good. The rear window was amply covered and while the cover didnt extend over the cowling up front, it was well covered and the cover was tight over the windshield. There are some extensions at the tops of the doors that can be shut into the aircraft and they keep the cover tight under the wing; even without these the cover was snug.
Although the cover looked great on the airplane, we found it difficult to snug down the straps that ran back from the windshield because theyre made of a web material and arent elastic. Also, while the skin is protected from the buckles on the side of the aircraft, no protection is afforded from the rubber-coated hooks at the top of the rear window.
GroundTech sells this cover for $305-base price $269, plus $28 for the lining and $8 for color trim.
The low-wing entrants are by-and-large, well-made and functional. The Cunningham and Kennon standard products are dead even, in our view. We like the GroundTech cover, too, although it and Bruces, lacked a door opening. Bruces cover doesnt fit quite as well as the others, although we dont consider that a deal breaker.
If compactness matters and you can tolerate a slippery cover that might give you some exercise in a wind and the lack of a door opening, we recommend the Cunningham light cover over the Custom Cabin Cover and Kennon Plane Wrapper. Still, the price difference between these two light covers and the standard covers just isnt great enough to make them good values, in our view.
Our first choice among the high-wing products is the Cunningham cover. It fit well and looked great. Were we to order one, wed go for the snap option for the top of the windshield and do away with the bungee cords. Bruces and GroundTech tie for second in the rankings. Bruces cover is adequate but it didnt keep the windshield as clean as wed like and it sagged under the wings more than the others. The GroundTech fit better and tighter than the Bruces cover, but all those straps over the top can be a pain to deal with on a still day, let alone in a blow.
Both Kennon models were disappointing because they had skimpy coverage of the rear window and the Plane Wrapper strap wasnt long enough, although otherwise the fit was good.
In considering which cover design best meets your needs, remember to talk to the manufacturers about customizing the cover with snaps, doors, extra buckles and so on. Some of these may be no-cost options, while others may involve an additional charge. Because the covers are made to order, theres a good deal of flexibility to provide what you want and need.
-by Scott Dyer
Scott Dyer is an attorney and frequent Aviation Consumer contributor. He bases his Cessna 210 at Westchester, New York.