Pressure Washer’s Guidebook: Cleaning Airplanes

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Pressure Washer’s Guidebook: Cleaning Airplanes

Contributor: Kevin Netzer, Sales Manager, Ultimate Washer, Inc., Jupiter, FL / Published November 2015



Editor’s Note: This compound entry encompasses the text that follows and three equally important sidebars. Also, there are firm beliefs on top to bottom, versus bottom to top when washing; much like the conflicting advice of physicians following surgery—keep incision wet vs. keep incision dry—weigh all options and choose a prudent course.

Geographical Considerations

There are applications globally. Opportunities are not limited by region of the country.

Typical Job

[N.B. Advice repeated by all contributors to this compound entry: Check the aircraft operation and safety manual before starting work. This will help the user to understand if there is any exterior instrumentation that should not be pressure washed at all.]

It is safety (personal and aircraft structural integrity) first: Do not use a ladder, but consider an extension wand (available for different sizes of aircraft) that allows a high reach for hard to get to areas of the aircraft. Do not use high pressure when cleaning, since, often, parts are delicate. Recommended is a steam pressure washer (250 psi and about 1 gpm) that utilizes high temperature for removal of grease and oil, insect residue, but will not harm parts since it employs lower pressure only. Do not use a pressure washer to wash windows, which are easily scratched; use a specially formulated low-abrasive cleaner. (See Sidebar 1, Special Considerations.)

The recommended process for how to approach cleaning your airplane is to start from the tail and work up to the nose, from top to bottom, so water runoff doesn’t continuously affect the area you just cleaned. When at the tail section, move the rudder left to right so you target those areas that are only exposed when the plane is in use. When focusing on the fuselage, take note that this is likely where the high heat from the steam will be more effective. A good tool for this area is a rotating brush as it has delicate, feathered bristles that are aggressive enough to clean but soft enough so as not to do damage to the surface. Move next to the wings, and move the flaps the same as you did with the tail rudders, to get into those hard to see areas. Lastly, power wash the wheels and landing gear to get all that has runoff the rest of the aircraft’s surfaces from above. (See Sidebar 2, Historical Plane, for more on how it’s done.)

Techniques That Work Best

If the aircraft has stainless steel parts, then it is a good idea to employ deionized water to get a spot-free water quality. Do a walk-through of the cleaning process in your head to plan how you approach the aircraft. 


Jets require a bit more careful cleaning as opposed to helicopters and planes with props. Jets have a fuselage that can be hot in warmer climates and have turbines that are more sensitive to high pressure.

Equipment and Supplies

Flying-High-photo1Equipment: Steam pressure washer with a flat fan steam nozzle, telescoping wand, rotating brush, variable nozzle, and a gutter cleaner attachment for hard to reach upper areas.

Steer away from the use of rotary nozzles since they are very aggressive on surfaces and can result in doing damage. Also, do not use pressure that exceeds 2000 psi for the same reason. We often suggest use of a steam pressure washer combo unit that can use low pressure and dry steam for those more delicate areas, and at the same time, one can switch to use high pressure up to that 2000 psi mark for areas that can handle that higher pressure where steam is not as effective. (See Sidebar 3, Matching Product to Plane.)

How To Bill

Check the market. Not all regions of the country (or the globe) will have a one-size-fits all formula for this. Factor in size, presence of delicate areas, and access difficulties when making an estimate. Consider, too, whether extra equipment will be needed.


A good companion service is to clean runways. The heavy rubber material on the tarmac is where more psi and rotary nozzles come in. A flat surface cleaner (capable of at least 5000 psi) for going over larger surface areas is a good time-saver. 

Problem Areas to Avoid

A contractor must not cause windshield damage or prop or turbine damage. Runoff water from the cleaning process must be handled according to local regulations.

How to Fix Mistakes

If a bit of pressure does accidentally strike a window, use a mild abrasive for window cleaning like All Kleer, which in addition to dissolving grease, tar, and bug residue, gets rid of scratches in the surface.

Kevin Netzer has been with Ultimate Washer for eight years in the positon of Sales Manager. He has attended trade shows, visited suppliers at their factory, and training events all to gain good knowledge to address customer challenges in cleaning. Ultimate Washer works hard to understand the customer’s application for our cleaning equipment and uses the best resources to support us in presenting the solution that works. 


Special Considerations

Contributor: Robert M. Hinderliter, President, Rahsco Manufacturing Company, Inc., Burleson, TX

Commercial and military planes will have BMPs [best management practices] to follow, and smaller aircraft are affected by FAR (Federal Air Regula-tions); also, newer aircraft will have procedures for washing listed in their service manuals.

You need to be familiar with the following (at):
• FAA “Aircraft Cleaning & Corrosion Control”—www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aircraft/amt_handbook/media/FAA-8083-30_Ch06.pdf

• Aviation Entrepreneur “Washing isn’t Washing: Aircraft Cleaning and Detailing” by Ric Peri—www.morethanflight.com/images/Aircraft_Cleaning_and_Detailing.pdf

• Technical Air Force Manual TO 1-1-691, See Chapter 3 and appendix A—www.robins.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-091006-036.pdf

  If you are not familiar with the above three items, you know just enough to get in trouble. You can easily destroy some of the aircraft instrument’s systems if you do not know the different parts of an aircraft. Not knowing the service manuals, FARs, and military specifications can cause real problems.

Details matter. For instance, put masking tape over Pitot tube and static ports, then remove after cleaning or altimeter and air speed indicator will not work. (To understand the significance of cleaning and how to do it correctly, become a private pilot.)

Robert M. Hinderliter is founder of Rahsco Manu-facturing Co. Inc., Delco Cleaning Systems of Fort Worth, PWNA, and UAMCC. He is presently consulting engineer and expert witness, semi-retired. (And he has a background in aircraft design.)

Historical Plane

Contributor: Scott Horsley, Vice President, Scotts Pressure Wash, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

We needed to wash a historical plane located in Calgary, AB. The aircraft had sat for years in a private lot. The new owners wanted to clean the plane, restore it, and use it as a private courier plane that they would charter to Central America. The plane was covered in snow and ice when we were considered for the project. In preparation, the exterior of the plane was opened up and prepared for washing. A lift was rented to elevate me to conduct the wash. We utilized a power washer that was rated to 3000 psi and temperatures were set well above 150 degrees.

An extra technician was made available for the project so they could be a spotter and to assist in turning the power washer on/off when required and to observe any changing safety conditions.

No chemicals were used on this project, as the frigid temperatures would not allow for soap or degreasers to effectively work. The exterior of the plane was cleaned to remove any dirt debris and snow that had accumulated. Another challenge that was presented on the project was to remove pigeon droppings that had accumulated in the propeller housings on each side of the wings. They were opened and some significant shoveling needed to be done prior to starting the flush with the pressure washer. (As a friendly reminder, it is always a good idea to make sure no live, remaining birds are making a home; there were several still making the propellers home.)

The planes should always be washed bottom to top, removing any large debris first, similar as you would to “dry sweeping” a property job. Any openings and doors should be inspected first, so they are safe to leave open while washing.

All safety equipment should be inspected well before leaving for a project such as this. A hazard assessment should be conducted of the site prior to work commencing. Proper PPE should be worn when working in these extreme temperatures.

Our head office is in Calgary, AB, but we operate in four cities in Western Canada, including Vancouver, BC, Edmonton, AB, and Saskatoon, SK. We will operate in a four-season climate and work outdoors when temperatures can drop below minus 15 degrees Celsius. Temperatures below minus 10 degrees Celsius would not be recommended as cleaning planes involve highs and exposure to cold and freezing temperature and can produce unsafe working conditions.

Here are some general tips: After checking the manufacturer’s instructions/procedures, doing a mental walk around first can help you prepare the sequence you will follow to clean the unit, working bottom to top; if weather conditions cooperate, then wash with plenty of detergents, allow the detergents to dwell on surfaces (no longer than suggested); do not wash in the hot summer sun so chemicals do not dry on surfaces; rinse with plenty of clear water. Provide water recovery when required to protect sensitive areas from hydrocarbons. Do not use a ladder as it can potentially be a safety hazard. Pay extra attention to the underbelly of the plane, it can be the dirtiest area of the aircraft. Work in small areas and aim to wash two to four feet from the aircraft’s surface. Some parts like the rudders and flaps might need to be moved around in order to clean them effectively.

Use all proper PPE [personal protective equipment] including, reflective coveralls, gloves, steel toe boots, eye protection (preferably anti-fogging lens), layered clothing for the weather conditions, harness, leash, lift (articulated or scissor), trigger or straight lance wash gun, sufficient length of hose, power washer with heat capabilities, foam applicator, chemicals required for the desired results, potentially and X-jet ( for heights and reach ) articulating brush heads, extension poles, and clean clear nozzles. Biohazards (from bird excrement to chemicals) may require respirators.

Cleaning the windows of the plane by providing a weekly, biweekly, or monthly service to clean the interior of the plane and its windows can be a good ancillary service, but use only an approved cleaner and manual cleaning.

When cleaning a plane, take a good look at the project first and understand what the customer is asking of you. Plan the sequence in which you plan to follow, take your time—you have a lot of surface area to clean. Take an occasional step back from the project and you are sure to do a great job.

Scott Horsley is the vice president of Scotts Pressure Wash and a 3rd generation power washer living in Calgary, AB, Canada. His company is celebrating its 50th year of operations.

Matching Product To Plane

Contributor: Linda Chambers, Brand and Sales Manager, Soap Warehouse, Snellville, GA

[Soap Warehouse makes a product specifically formulated for cleaning airplanes.]

How long has Top Gun been a product?
It has been available since April 2000.

Was the product formulated in response to a specific request?
Yes, it was before my time back in 1999 when a company came to us wanting to have a soap that would clean aircraft landing gear made for that task. Soap Warehouse had their manufacturer work on the formula and paid the company SMI, Inc. (Scientific Material International) to do the testing for the certifications. SMI is a leading testing facility used for product certification.

This process was not easy nor inexpensive. Formulation and trying out a number of versions was done up until the final formulation was submitted for testing in March of 2000.

When researching certification, it was found that instead of just trying to be certified to clean landing gear that it made more sense to go for the much broader certifications that were the industry standards for any and all exterior cleaning. And unlike some other products on the market, we applied for multiple certifications; some other products may only have one of any one of the three we have.

Is the product suitable for fiberglass, aluminum, composite, etc.—or is it best suited to one type of airplane exterior?
Yes, Top Gun is suitable for all surfaces within the guidelines of these certifications: AMS 1526B, Boeing D6-17487, and Douglas Aircraft CSD-1, which covers as detailed: AMS 1526B is a revision of the original 1526 set up on July 1, 1977. It was one of the first and was updated as 1526A in January 1981 and again in 2000 to 1526B just when we got our certification, and it has since been revised again as 1526C in 2008. 1526B states, “This specification covers a water-miscible, low-foaming cleaner in the form of a liquid. Primarily for removing soils from painted and unpainted exterior surfaces of aircraft by pressure spray or manual application.”

Top Gun was submitted to eight tests for the AMS 1526B with the ninth for storage stability to not be completed until after the initial certification. The tests undergone were; sandwich corrosion, total immersion corrosion, low-embrittling cadmium plate, hydrogen embrittlement, flash point, effect on transparent acrylic plastics, effect on painted surfaces, and effect on unpainted surfaces.

Boeing D6-17487 revision N for “Exterior and general cleaners and liquid waxes, polishes and polishing compounds”, covered these tests; sandwich corrosion, acrylic crazing, paint softening, and hydrogen embrittlement. This certification has also had a few more revisions since 2000 and is now up to D6-17487 revision P.

The last certification Douglas Aircraft CSD-1 covers Type 1”Materials and procedures for general exterior cleaning of painted and unpainted surfaces.” The tests given for this were: effect on painted surfaces, residue, sandwich corrosion, stress crazing on acrylic plastics, immersion corrosion for aluminum, cadmium removal, and hydrogen embrittlement.

Each of these groups of tests had their own exacting procedures and limits that a product had to conform to or pass entirely to become certified. Passing one sandwich corrosion test results did not carry over to another sandwich corrosion test, etc.

Top Gun did a follow up in 2002 with an original batch of sample product to be sure it was still stable. This is why Soap Warehouse can list on any certification documents that once produced or mixed Top Gun has a shelf life of at least two years.

Why is it important to use a cleaner formulated for airplanes?
The tests just described lead to this answer: Because companies flying commercial airplanes and GA, general aviation pilots need to be 100 percent sure that the products used to clean their planes will in no way harm or jeopardize the flight worthiness of the aircraft. Especially if used repeatedly over time. This is why any contractor wanting to wash aircraft most likely will be asked to prove they are using only certain certified cleaners for their washing.

Is a pressure washer ever used/recommended in the process of applying and rinsing the Soap Warehouse chemical for airplane exteriors?
Yes, a pressure washer has been widely used for years with Top Gun as well as many other approved methods; tunnel hanger washes, similar to tunnel car and truck washes where an aircraft will taxi through or under spray arches where the chemical and water rinses are pumped and sprayed on, spray on wipe off methods such as with mechanically applied fabric wash pads or even manual application of wet chemical pads to clean followed by clean water rinse pads and finished with dry fabric pads to dry and polish. As water restrictions, wastewater issues, and other factors have come up over the years, how and by what equipment and the method an aircraft may or can be cleaned will vary by location. This leads to my response to the next, last question…

Have you any anecdotal assessment of whether there are opportunities for power washing contractors in the sphere of cleaning airplanes?
As more emphasis is put on EPA and water use restrictions, mobile pressure washers have seen a decrease of their services being requested unless they have kept up with the times; they need to have and use reclamation equipment, use high quality certified chemicals that can perform the work faster and more economically than in house manual methods any company that is looking to hire could do themselves. There are opportunities at FBO fields or smaller airports, with maintenance repair facilities that do not normally offer after service cleaning, or at flight schools and regional fly-in events.

Linda Chambers is brand and sales manager for Soap Warehouse since March of 2007. She has authored or contributed to numerous published articles, industry newsletters, and blog posts and has been a speaker at local and national pressure washing events with her knowledge of cleaning chemicals, chemical safety, and small business information.