How to Wash a Helicopter

It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

I washed my helicopter today. It isn’t the first time I’ve done the job and it won’t be the last. I don’t like doing it — it rates right up there with washing Alex the Bird’s cage. But it has to be done periodically to keep it looking nice for the folks who spend big money to fly in it.

Take a moment to consider the task. The helicopter is about 32 feet long from the front of its cockpit to the end of its tail. (Or 38-1/2 feet, if you include the main rotor blades, lined up front and back.) It’s twelve feet tall, from the bottom of its skids to the main rotor hub. The surfaces are painted aluminum and Fiberglas and Plexiglas. Few of the surfaces are flat.

Over the past two years, I’ve developed a technique for washing the helicopter. I start by pulling it all the way out of my hangar so it’s parked in front, on its ground handling equipment. I get a bucket of warm (or hot) water from the airport terminal (I don’t have hot water in my hangar) and add some car wash liquid detergent. I like Rain Dance, but I had some other “spot-free” stuff that I used today. I make it all sudsy with the hose. Then, after making sure all the doors and vents are closed, I get down to business.

The first task is spraying down the tail section, from the end of the main part of the body to the tail rotor. I use a spray nozzle on a hose. Power washers are not allowed and some people think you shouldn’t use a hose spray nozzle either. My response: how are you supposed to rinse it off?

Once it’s wet, I start at the very end and work my way forward with a car wash sponge and the warm soapy water. It’s the kind of sponge that’s spongy on one side and a bit rougher on the other. I use the rough end on the leading edges of the horizontal and vertical stabilizers and the tail rotor blades to remove the dead bugs that have accumulated there. They usually come right off with a little elbow grease. I need to climb a ladder to get the top of the vertical stablizer. I use an 8-foot ladder that I keep in my hangar for preflighting the main rotor hub. While I’m doing this, I’m checking all the screws and rivets and the tail rotor’s pitch change links, looking for weird stuff that I might miss on a preflight.

Then I rinse where I washed and rewet the forward part of the tail cone. I do a lot of rinsing. Unfortunately, unless I wash the helicopter an hour or two before sunset, I have to wash it in the sun. The Arizona sun likes to dry things very quickly. That’s not a good thing, because the water has a lot of minerals in it and it tends to spot when it dries, no matter what kind of car wash detergent you’re using. So I keep it wet until I can get it out of the sun.

I continue washing and rinsing and checking screws and rivets, moving forward on either side of the tailcone until it’s all done. I make sure I wash off the strobe light and antennas back there, too. Then I move the helicopter back into the hangar a bit so the part I just washed and rinsed numerous times is now in the shade and the rest of the helicopter is still outside.

Now I’m up to what I call the R44 butt. It’s a panel that covers the rear end of the fan scroll at the back of the engine compartment. It gets coated with a white, kind of greasy film. Car wash soap cannot remove it. So I get out what I call R44 Butt Cleaner. It comes in an orange spray bottle. I spray it all over that panel, as well as at the bottom of the tailcone near it, which also gets that nasty film. I spray so everything’s coated. Then I get out a shop rag and wipe the film right off. This stuff works great and I’m thinking of repackaging it and selling it to R44 owners as a specialized R44 product at three times what I paid for it.

Although the panel is all shiny when I’m done, that’s not good enough. I want to wash off every trace of whatever that junk is. So I spray it down and continue with my wash, rinse, wash, rinse routine.

Next are the skid pants. That’s not what they’re really called, but it’s what I call them. The skids are the long black things that make contact with the ground when the helicopter isn’t flying. There are four legs that attach the rest of the helicopter to the two skids. Each leg has an aluminum fairing. That’s what I call skid pants. Their front, rounded sides get full of dried bugs, which I usually scrub off with warm soapy water and the rough side of the sponge. Today I used bug and tar remover with a brush.

I do the back end of the body next, along with the back windows. They’re “bubble” windows that kind of bulge out so passengers can stick their heads out a bit and look in all directions. I use the soft side of the sponge; they don’t usually get very dirty.

Washing a HelicopterNext is the mast, which has a cowling over it. The front, rounded side of the cowling is completely covered with baked on, squished on bugs. It’s bad, mostly because it’s so darn high off the ground that I need a ladder to clean it so I only clean it when I wash the whole helicopter. I used bug and tar remover with a brush on it today. Not a good solution, but it did work. I have to move the ladder and climb up either side of the helicopter to wash it all properly. Then it’s rinse, rinse, rinse and move the whole thing back a bit more into the hangar.

The front bubble comes next. It’s usually pretty clean — after all, it is the window I look through when I fly, so I wash it before just about every flight. The area under it — including the painted area around the landing lights — is another story. The bugs are really stuck there. On a whim, I decided to try the R44 Butt Cleaner. Would you believe it worked? No scrubbing required, either. Of course, I still had to wash that junk off, so I did double duty. But it is the cleanest it’s been in a while.

After a good rinse, I move the whole helicopter back into the hangar and begin the drying cycle. I use towels. I have a bunch of towels that are pink because I consistently wash them with red shop rags. They’re my helicopter and car wash towels. I use them to dry the whole helicopter, from the bubble back. The tailcone is usually just about dry by the time I get back there, but I dry it with a wet towel anyway, just to prevent the spots from setting in.

No, I don’t wash the main rotor blades. They’re drooping about 11-1/2 feet off the ground and are very difficult to reach to wash properly. I’d have to climb to the second to the last step on the ladder, which I’d have to reposition four times for each blade. It’s a ton of work and I get very wet, with soapy water running down my arms as I reach up. And I simply can’t deal with the ladder thing.

It’s kind of funny, because I had a perfect technique for washing the blades on my old R22. Those blades weren’t nearly as high up. I’d drive to the airport in Mike’s pickup truck and back it up, perpendicular to the helicopter, aligned with the mast. Then I’d turn the blades so one of them was lined up right over the bed of the pickup. I’d climb up in the bed of the pickup with my bucket and sponge and wash the blade, top and bottom, scraping all the dead bugs off the leading edge. Then I’d climb down, spray the blade to rinse it, and rotate the blades a half turn so the other blade was over the bed of the truck and repeat the process. Another wash and rinse cycle and I was done. One time, I even waxed them.

Unfortunately, the R44 blades are so high off the ground that I’d need a ladder inside the bed of the pickup to use the same method. And that’s not something I’m ready to do. So they go unwashed until their 100 hour or annual inspection. The guys who do the maintenance wash and detail the whole helicopter for me, including the blades.

The was job takes a good hour. It goes faster with help — one person can rinse while the other washes and it gets done very quickly. Then it’s usually still wet when we dry it off.

If I have time and it isn’t too hot, I use some spray wax to finish it off. It’s sold as RV cleaner/wax and it does a nice job, as long as you use it in the shade. It dries too quickly in the sun. I don’t usually do the whole helicopter. It takes too long. Instead, I start with the painted surfaces in the front and work my way back. I usually run out of steam before I get to the tailcone.

I didn’t wax it today. I ran out of time and had to get it out on the ramp for a flight. It sure looked good out in the sun, all clean and shiny.

Although I don’t like to wash the helicopter — primarily because it’s so much work and I always wind up getting dirty and wet — I’m glad I do it. It gives me an opportunity to look over the entire ship closely. I once found a loose screw on the mast cowling and have never forgotten it. Now I check every screw, every rivet. There hasn’t been a loose screw since, but if there is, I’ll find it.

9 thoughts on “How to Wash a Helicopter

  1. Hi Maria,

    Many thanks for taking the time to post your views and experiences of helicopter washing which I stumbled across while studying this subject.

    Can I just ask why using pressure washing equipment is not allowed on your helicopter?

    Is it a technical issue around this kind of craft, a site restriction or something else?

    Thanks in anticipation of your reply.




  2. I think it’s because they’re worried that high pressure might damage the pitch change links or other important control parts. The owner’s manual specifically says not to use pressure washer equipment.

    A friend of mine doesn’t use water. He cleans the whole thing with various spray-on cleaning solvents. But he doesn’t fly nearly as much as I do and I don’t think his helicopter every gets as dirty as mine.

    Hope this helps! And if you’re ever in the U.S. and want practice washing one, give me a call. (Okay, just kidding.)

  3. Great read! I’ve been eyeballing our 44 out here and she needs a bath, of course we flew it to Seattle yesterday and dropped it off for it’s 100 hour mtx. So she’ll come back purty.

    As for high pressure washers, they can be used, but it’s so dangerous, because they would have no problem peeling paint off of the aluminum surfaces if used at too close a range.

    At TEMSCO after a day of flying the pilots would all take turns with the sprayer and clean off the ASTAR, especially the tail cone where the exhaust is.

  4. The POH says no power/pressure washers. They also say not to use a spray nozzle on the hose, though. Special care needs to be used around the vent for the tail rotor gearbox or water can get in, contaminating the TR gearbox oil.

    None of the pilots at Papillon ever cleaned the helicopters. I assume they were washed when they went in for maintenance.

    I’m looking forward to getting a platform ladder when I build and move into my new hangar. Then I’ll be able to wash and wax the rotor blades, too.

  5. Enjoyed reading your article. I live in Mesa, AZ, would enjoy coming out to assist in washing your helicopter.

    • Thanks, Dan! But I’m in the process of moving out of state, so I doubt I’ll be washing in many more times — if at all — in Arizona again.

  6. When I trained at Delta Heli (Luton, UK) on R22, the engineers said they did not use pressure washers for the same reason you don’t clean your mountain bike with a pressure washer. (Yeah, I know, we all do…) It can blast fine grit into the sealed bearings. You don’t notice it until things get noisy.
    As tourists we once flew in a very high-hour Jet Ranger over Bryce Canyon. It was a stunning flight but all the moving parts were in conflict and the gearbox was on its last legs, the grinding sound was most disturbing.
    The R22 used to require so much major work at 2,000 hours, the hangar guys said it might be cheaper to buy a new one and start again.
    The rotor blades on the MT 03 Gyro are also very short-life but that’s nothing to do with washing methods.

What do you think?