Aircraft Tugs: A Model for Every Budget

For moving airplanes under 6000 pounds, there’s plenty of choice. Aero-Tow, 40EZ and Tail-Dragger Dragger are our top picks this round.

We hear a bad news about the aging pilot population and its effect on the decline of general aviation. For one segment of the market, aging is, in the short run, a good thing. Aircraft tug sales are up because pilots who used to be willing to shove their airplanes up uneven ramps into hangars have decided that doing so isn’t as easy as it used to be. The airplane’s obviously been getting heavier, so it’s time to buy a tug. 

We surveyed available tugs for airplanes weighing up to 6000 pounds and found a wide variety with competitive prices. Battery-powered tugs are increasingly popular because of simplicity of operation and improved battery technology. We also found that the combination of the airplane and the environment means that no one size fits all when it comes to selecting a tug. What may work for a Bonanza on a flat ramp in Tucson may not for that airplane on a sloping ramp in Duluth.

The purpose of a tug is to make a pilot’s life easier and reduce the risk of jamming some part of the airplane against the side of the hangar when maneuvering it on the ground. A tug that strains to do the job, no matter how inexpensive, doesn’t make the pilot’s life easier and increases the risk of hangar rash.

Starting with the basics—the weight of the airplane to be moved and whether a slope is involved—are all-important. A Cherokee 140 can have the rolling resistance of a King Air if the tug is trying to push it up an incline or across hangar door tracks. If the surface is wet or covered with snow and ice, the movement equation gets worse.

In purchasing a tug, you get what you pay for. It costs money to move objects uphill, more as the object gets bigger or the hill gets steeper. Manufacturers said that the most common source of customer dissatisfaction was when one of the bottom-of-the-line tugs would not move the airplane up a slope or across a hangar entrance lip. A Cessna 172 has about 40 pounds of rolling resistance on level pavement if the brakes aren’t dragging and the tires are properly inflated. Any degree of incline increases that amount significantly, as do surface discontinuities, hangar lips and door tracks.

Battery-powered tugs are growing in popularity as available batteries for them have improved due to the powered wheelchair and medical scooter world. If you have electrical power to your hangar, leaving them plugged in assures no shortage of power for most, even if you have to go several hundred yards to the fuel pump. For routine hangar in and out operations, owners tell us that even without electrical power to their hangars, they only have to recharge the battery three or four times a year, although it is frustrating to forget. Overall, figure on a battery lasting about five to seven years.

It must be kept in mind that batteries rapidly lose energy as the temperature drops and, at the same time, rolling resistance increases as bearings tighten up. Those who reported only charging their batteries a few times a year were in warmer climates.

Terry Railing head of battery-powered tug maker, Aero Tow, told us that he was surprised when he went to a purely electric line of tugs and his sales took off among women and in Alaska. Those users reported preferring not having to worry about starting a gasoline tug. The Alaska users simply keep the charger plugged in so that even in the coldest temperatures the battery has plenty of oomph to move the airplane.

The gasoline-powered tug makers are sensitive to the need for reliability and ease of operation. Most use engines that will readily run on 100LL, so owners use their tugs to recycle sampled fuel from their airplanes. Brian Kruh, designer of the PowerTow line of tugs, reports that its engines are required to start by the third pull at -28 degrees F.

Exceeding turn limits or side-loading a nose landing gear leg can be an expensive mistake. If your airplane has turn limits for the nose gear, say so when you talk with the tug manufacturer to see if there are any specialized needs for a tug for it. Some tugs elevate the nose wheel and then can swivel under it, leaving the nose wheel straight. This allows a very tight turning circle, but the trade off is potentially side loading the nose gear if care is not used.

Some tugs will not accommodate nose wheel pants or will require an attachment or modification to do so. If your airplane has a nosewheel fairing, particularly a Cirrus or recent model Cessna, with little space between the ground and the fairing, check with the tug maker before buying.

For winter operations, snow chains can be purchased for some tugs. We have heard positive feedback on using chains as we’ll as complaints that they tear up hangar floors.

Most of the tugs in this class are effectively powered tow bars, which means the center of rotation when steering is the nose tire, so most tugs must be lifted or yanked sideways to make a turn. Some tugs have optional casters to ease that process and the Priceless Aviation Products 701 and 701L have a swivel arrangement so that lifting the tug is not necessary when steering.

Northwest Manufacturing offers five tugs in its PowerTow line targeted at the under-6000-pound airplane market. Four are powered by gasoline engines and one uses a 12-volt DC system. All offer snow chains for their single-drive tire and a headlight as options. All except the SuperTow I will accommodate wheel pants, although a $40 adapter is needed.

The Supertow I lifts the nosewheel onto a lazy Susan that keeps the nosewheel straight when towing and allows pivoting the airplane on one main wheel. The other four tugs use lugs that attach to the nose gear and are opened and closed using a lever on the handle. Nylon adapters are available to avoid metal-to-metal contact. The power controls and clutch are on the handle.

Although primarily designed for nosewheel airplanes, the EZ series and 12 Volt DC Tug will connect to Scott tailwheels.

The 12 Volt DC Tug is battery operated and advertised for a max airplane weight of 4700 pounds. The website specifically identifies it as suitable for the heaviest piston singles and light twins such as the Baron, Seneca, Skymaster and Twin Comanche. It’s priced at $1855. We agree with the Northwest’s recommendation that it be used on flatter hangar ramps and warmer climates. It uses a deep cycle battery and comes with a float charger.

The 40EZ has a 6.75 HP Briggs and Stratton engine, is marketed for an airplane max weight of 5500 pounds, including twins up through the Baron, Skymaster, Seneca and Twin Comanche. It is priced at $1455. This has long been a popular tug. Owners report having them operate reliably for we’ll over 15 years.

The Key EZ is essentially the 40EZ with a number of options as standard equipment including electric start, 12-volt battery, charger and floodlight. While it has the same engine as the 40EZ, the manufacturer advertises it for an airplane max weight of 6000 pounds, 500 pounds more. Price is $1655.

The top of the EZ line of tugs is the 65EZ, with an 8.75 HP engine. It has a heavier frame and larger tire than the other EZs and includes caster wheels, which help maneuvering. Max aircraft weight is 7000 pounds; it’s priced at $2055.

The SuperTow I uses the same engine as the 65EZ, but is rated for aircraft slightly lighter, 6000 pounds, however, it is a true tug with twin driving wheels and it raises the nosewheel off of the ground. It will not accommodate wheel pants. At $2795, the SuperTow I is targeted at the user who has to maneuver in tight spaces.

The Dragger line of tugs includes a pair of gasoline and battery-powered tugs for both nosewheel and tailwheel airplanes up through 6000 pounds.

The Nose-Dragger Dragger tugs have two drive wheels. Once the forward roller of the tug is snugged up against the front of the nose tire, the operator moves a lever to latch a roller against the rear of the nose tire.  The nose tire is “cradled” as Dragger owner David Scholtz described it, so the airplane is moved without metal-to-metal contact. The Nose-Dragger accommodates wheel pants, so long as there is at least three inches of clearance between the bottom of the wheel pant and the ground.

The gasoline model has a 6 HP engine, hand clutch speed control, is advertised for airplanes weighing 6000 pounds or less and priced at $1595. The electric version uses a 24-volt battery with a twist grip throttle, is for airplanes of 5000 pounds or less and is advertised for $1695.

The Tail-Dragger Dragger tugs also have two drive wheels, however, they clamp on to the tailwheel and lift it off of the ground. We like the way it works. The gasoline and electric versions are powered the same as the Nose-Dragger Dragger versions and advertised for the same weight airplanes, respectively. The gasoline Tail-Dragger Dragger is priced at $1595, the electric at $1695.

The Dragger website has what we considered to be a useful aircraft compatibility chart. Available options are an extended handle for $149 and snow chains for $69.

We were concerned about the rolling cradle arrangement of the Nose-Dragger Dragger when dealing with hangar door rails and lips between the hangar and ramp. Feedback we received was conflicting—some said it was a problem, others said it was not, however, Dragger does sell ramps for those who have to deal with lips or tracks. If you have a hangar with the older, large door tracks, this may not be the right tug for a nosewheel airplane.

Terry Railing, proprietor of Aero-Tow, takes a little different approach to manufacturing tugs. His website showing his line of three, battery-powered tugs, gives information on the E-200, Lil Sherman and E-1800, but does not list the prices or show the aircraft weights for which they are appropriate. There are also no options—his practice is to make sure that each tug is fully equipped, which includes a light, as standard equipment on the Lil Sherman and E-1800.

In the business for 40 years, Railing wants potential buyers to call and describe the type of airplane involved and the environment so that they don’t buy a tug that won’t work for them. He said that his dissatisfied customers have been ones who bought less tug than was needed. He has seen users have difficulty assembling tugs or installing options such as lights—as a result, he has cut the assembly required on receiving each tug to installing one bolt.

Railing said that his experience with Alaska owners and building his tugs in Wisconsin is that snow chains are more trouble than they are worth. It’s better, in his opinion, to throw some kitty litter or oil dry on the snow or ice. It provides more than adequate traction and can be swept up quickly when done.

All of the Aero-Tow tugs have two driving wheels with 24-volt electric motors that use two 12-volt sealed batteries and include an automatic battery charger. The E-200 and Lil Sherman have lugs that attach to each side of the nose wheel strut, the E-1800 has a hydraulic lift that picks up the nose wheel.

The E-200 develops approximately one HP and is priced at $1425; the Lil Sherman’s motor puts out approximately 3 HP, it’s priced at $2425 and the hydraulic lift-equipped E-1800 also puts out about 3 HP and is priced at $6250.

Priceless Aviation
Priceless Aviation Products offers two models of its 24-volt, battery-powered tug that it advertises for moving airplanes weighing up to 4500 pounds on a level, paved surface. Both have motors developing 400 watts—battery life on the 701’s two 12 volt, lead-gel batteries is claimed at approximately one hour, while on the 701L it’s 1.5 hours.

The two-drive wheel units clamp onto the nose gear strut but differ from other tugs in that there is a swivel attachment between the clamp and the tug itself, making steering easier.

The tugs are capable of handling tail wheel airplanes, although a longer clamp may be needed on some. The website contains a list of airplanes for which the tugs are compatible and adapters are depicted for various types as we’ll as for those with or without gear fairings. Directional control is via a rocker switch and the throttle is lever-operated.

Prices are $2495 for the 701 and $3245 for the 701L.

For airplanes up to 6000 pounds, the Model 703, with a 190cc Honda engine is offered. It has a single drive wheel and, with adapters, its clamp will attach to most nosewheel and tailwheel airplanes. It’s priced at $3795. Options include a headlight, battery tender, snow chains and a fire extinguisher.

AC Air Technology
The AC Air TrackTech from AC Air Technology is a remotely controlled, battery-powered, tracked tug that lifts the nosewheel clear of the ground. It is capable of moving airplanes through the size of a Turbo Commander.

There is no lifting or shoving to steer this tug—the operator gives commands via a control box and can stand in the best position to watch wing and tail clearances, something we think is important when dealing with tight clearances.

Power is provided by a 16-volt battery and will handle airplanes with nosewheel pants. Battery life is estimated to be at least 1.5 hours without recharging.

Driving tracks rather than wheels, the manufacturer told us that customers have had good experience with operation on snow and ice. Price is $3750.

Bad tug-buying experiences seemed to us to be connected with a pilot lapsing into traditional tightwad mode and buying a low-powered tug when a bigger one was needed to deal with a slope or hangar door tracks.

We like the increasing capability of the battery-powered tugs, especially if the hangar has electricity and the battery can be plugged into the charger between uses. Without hangar electricity, we’d probably stay with a 100LL-capable gasoline engine tug so as to avoid having to haul batteries to a charger.

We’re a little leery of the Nose-Dragger Dragger tug if there is a hangar lip or door tracks to wrestle with, as we would prefer not have to deal with ramps to get over them. We like the Tail-Dragger Dragger method of lifting the tailwheel off the ground for movement.
We also liked the Aero-Tow philosophy of including all options in the base price—no nickel-diming to get to the final price—and the user-friendly assembly that involves only the insertion of one bolt.

We think that for $2500 or less, the owner of an airplane up to 6000 pounds can find a tug that will meet most of the tougher slope and hangar lip requirements and be able to pull the airplane 300 yards to the fuel pump and back at a reasonable speed without breaking a sweat.

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