Insider’s Guide to Aircraft Cleaning

Insights, tips and products to help keep your aircraft clean and your boss happy.

Flying is a dirty business. Corrosives, pollutants, bugs, dirt, grease, acid rain – you name it and it’s stuck to the various parts of your aircraft’s exterior. It’s even worse inside the cabin. Crumbs, ink stains, wine spills and other stuff you don’t even want to think about are left behind in carpets, seats, galleys and lavatories after every flight.

The challenge is someone – usually the aircraft’s technician – has to clean up this mess. And done correctly, it’s a more labor-intensive task than you might imagine.

“For a typical mid-size aircraft like a Falcon 50, I’d estimate that you’re looking at 100-man hours to thoroughly clean the interior and wash and polish the exterior, do the bright work and the like,” explained Jim Garland, President/CEO, Sharp Details Inc., ( “We’d typically have five guys on a project like that for two and a half days. It’s a lot of work.”

Too true. In fact, in today’s world of doing more with fewer people, aircraft cleaning with petrol pressure washers is falling farther and farther down an operation’s priority list. Garland also said that the exterior should be waxed every 300- to 400-hours of flight time and that the bright work should be done at least twice a year. Alas, even with the best of intentions, that’s a lot of extra work for the average flight department.

“We just picked up a new client where the operator said his maintenance team had been doing the cleaning themselves – which means, that it was not getting done,” Garland said. “They’re short-staffed and their guys just don’t have time.”

And even when flight departments do have time they often do it incorrectly. Garland said that in his 19-years of professional aircraft cleaning he’s seen it all: from using ammonia-based cleaners on plexi windows, to washing windows with stiff brushes, to pressure-washing the landing gear and airframe and last, but not least, using automotive-grade detergents and cleaners inside and outside the aircraft. Any and all of these practices will do varying degrees of harm to the aircraft’s finishes and fabrics.

Garland also pointed out another possible big benefit of having an outside company clean your aircraft at least a couple times a year. “You get another set of eyes looking at every detail of your aircraft – seeing little things that you can easily miss,” he said. “We were polishing the bright work in a jet’s tail and found a screw missing. If you’re not up there you’re not going to find that problem.”

Cleaning Tips

“First thing is make sure the cleaners and chemicals you use are approved for use on the aircraft. They’re in the aircraft’s maintenance manual. If not, you want to make sure it has passed the Acrylic Crazing and Sandwich Corrosion Test – those are products that have been tested to make sure they won’t corrode the structure and will not affect the acrylic windows and acrylics on the inside of the aircraft,” he said. “Ask the supplier for proof before you use it.”

Garland said that interior surfaces need even closer attention. “Exotic materials like silk and ostrich skin look great in the airplane, but they are really, really hard to maintain,” he said. “Natural materials come with coatings from the manufacturers. Check with the interior shop to see who produced the materials and what protectants and cleaners they say are safe to use.”

Also, Garland strongly suggest taking a proactive approach to helping keep small spills and stains from becoming big problems. “They should have approved cleaners for cleaning the seats, side rails and carpeting on the aircraft all the time,” he said. “And make sure the crew or cabin attendant knows how to use them. If you don’t have cleaners, the best thing to do is to just use a damp towel to blot the spill. Don’t spray it with an unapproved cleaner. It may just set the stain and you may never get it out.”

Remember, that’s a multi-million dollar investment you’re dealing with. Treat it right and you’ll go a long way to keeping it looking that way for a long, long time.

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