The following series of articles originally appeared in the Monroe Times from June through October, 2012. Written by features columnist, Dan Wegmueller, they chronicle Dan’s quest to restore his family’s 1939 Fairchild 24R and return it to flight. The restoration took place over the course of a year at the Brodhead Airport and involved a number of people from EAA Chapter 431.
The articles are published here in their entirety with permission from Dan and the Monroe Times. Pictures have been added here from Dan’s collection along with several airport photographers.
Getting butterflies before joining them in flight
I couldn’t believe it – I felt nervous.
Actually it was more of a combination of euphoria, immense pride, and giddiness. True, I was nervous, but I felt as though I had arrived at the end of a great journey. Only, this journey was one that would not end; I had merely rounded a corner. I had arrived at this point, despite great odds, and was preparing to disembark once again. Relief – that’s it. I felt relieved and rightly proud of myself.
This was it. The old Ranger engine throbbed as I squeezed the throttle, coaxing higher and higher RPMs. Left rudder, with a touch of brake, and the machine swung its tail around. I was now to the side of, but facing directly down the runway. I pulled the throttle back to an idle and took a moment to collect my thoughts.
First I did the standard run-up. I moved the control stick, checking for free movement. A visual glance out the window confirmed that the ailerons and elevator responded appropriately. Input to the foot pedals likewise moved the rudder. I released the brakes and added power. The enormous propeller wind-milled into a translucent blur. The machine rolled ahead. I tapped the left, and then right brake pedal, noting how the fuselage lurched left or right as the appropriate brake grabbed. I held both brakes and brought the engine RPMs up to 1,700. The Ranger roared, and the propblast caused the control stick to jerk in my hand, as the control surfaces were drenched with charged air.
From the cockpit and using an electric switch I isolated the right, and then the left magneto. The magnetos provide electricity to the engine. They would keep the Ranger humming, even if the aircraft suffered a total electrical failure. There were two, for redundancy. I then pulled engine heat through the carburetor. The RPMs dropped slightly with each test, and I smiled. Everything checked out.
That was it. Back to idle. The propeller slowed, forming a concise circular blur out the front window. At a low RPM the propeller sings. In the cockpit, above the chop of the blades and the chatter of the radio I can hear it – a delicate whine. It is the sound of the counterweights disturbing the forward air.
I now glance across the instrument panel. A myriad of dials and gauges greet my eyes, and I check each one. Altimeter, set. Directional gyro, set. Artificial Horizon turned on. Oil pressure, Fuel pressure, and Manifold pressure, Cylinder Head temp, Exhaust temp, Oil temp; all read normal. Ammeter reads positive, Suction gauges both correspond. Most of these gauges and gyros are original to the airplane, and are exactly what aviators during World War II would have used.
Finally, I make a call over the radio. My headset adjusted I push a button on the control stick and announce, “Brodhead traffic Fairchild two-niner-five-Yankee departing Two-Seven, will remain in the pattern, Brodhead.”
This was it.
I had that feeling again, of slight nervousness and immense pride. I was about to fly my airplane solo, for the first time. I would never again be able to replicate exactly how I felt now, about to squeeze the throttle, shoot down the runway, and defy gravity by climbing into the sky. All for the first time.
As an afterthought I glanced to my left, toward the airport picnic area. I did not see Glenn. Not that I expected to see him; he would remain out of sight. No need to put any additional pressure on me. Nor did I see Mike. I was slightly disappointed Mike wasn’t there; he had mentioned a desire to see this thing fly. I took a moment to think of all the people who contributed to make this dream a reality. I thought of Gary, Mike, Richard, Bill, Glenn, my Dad, and my wife. There were others; many, many others.
In fact, perhaps the greatest aspect of this experience was the people who helped, and the personalities I met along the way. There is something truly unique about the atmosphere of a grass-strip airport. When authors drip nostalgia for the bygone Americana days of apple pie, baseball, and cookouts on the Fourth of July, they fail to recognize that the ideals symbolized therein still exist.
The can-do attitude, the ability to improvise, the genuine desire to slow down to savor life; the very principles that allowed us to build cars without seat belts and doors without locks. Throughout the journey I discovered such a place, and met the people who live there. It is not a bygone era; one must only search a little in order to find it. In my case, I stumbled upon it, almost by accident.
Like any great journey, mine has a very definite beginning. I had always dreamed of owning my own airplane, of possessing the freedom and ability to fly whenever I wanted. Not just any airplane, though. My first ride was in a 1939 Fairchild model 24R. My dad had one, and a facet of my childhood was airport picnics, grass-strip fly-ins, and pancake breakfasts. Such events still exist – just look for the banners alongside the road. They’re out there, particularly during the summer months. You just have to look.
At any rate, this story begins in March of 2011. At that point I had no idea how long it was going to take, or how much it would cost. I simply recall sitting down for dinner with my wife and exclaiming:
“Just so you know, I’m going to buy that old Fairchild of my Dad’s and fix it up. Are you OK with that?”
Money, luck and the dream of flying
So then, what makes an airplane fly?
Smart people may answer that question by elaborating on Bernoulli’s Principle. If you examine the cross-section of a wing, you’ll notice that the top half is curved, while the bottom half is flat. As the wing moves through the air, the mass flowing over the curved top has a greater distance to travel than the mass moving along the flat underside. Since the air on top has a greater distance to travel in the same amount of time, it spreads out, becomes less dense. Literally, a vacuum is created on the topside of the wing.
At the same time, since the air moving along the underside is now denser than that on top, it “pushes” on the wing. Quite simply, lift is created by the uncomplicated act of influencing the manner in which air flows across the wing.
Having said all of that, the smart person may sit back in his or her chair, cross his or her arms, and remark smugly, “Bernoulli’s Principle is the same concept which allows a sailboat to sail directly into a headwind.”
While all of that is true enough, it still does not answer the question, “What makes an airplane fly?” The truth is so simple that it can be compressed into one word. Because, there is only one thing on this green earth that makes an airplane fly:
This is not to mean you have to be wealthy in order to practice recreational aviation. If it did I would not be here writing this article. What that means, is that to pursue recreational flying as a hobby takes a special kind of commitment. It is not unattainable; it merely takes a bit of courage, far-sightedness, and determination. Private aviation is absolutely something anyone can enjoy, just be warned – it’s not free.
I mention all of this because that is the one question I am persistently asked. How much did it cost? How much does it cost to restore an airplane? How much does aviation fuel cost? What about insurance? Amazing – hardly anyone ever thinks to inquire about the actual airplane, how she handles, the performance characteristics, etc. It is always about the money. So then, that is where this story begins. Because believe me, it was my first question, too.
Go back to the spring of 2011. I looked at the old girl. Two decades of dust had dulled her gleam. She reeked of mothballs. The glossy topcoat had dried and become brittle. My mind was echoing like a scratched record with one outstanding thought, “How much was this going to cost?”
I was looking to undertake a massive project, of which I had heard horror stories. When I started asking aviation professionals what it would take, to restore this aircraft, I heard everything. One aircraft mechanic smiled knowingly and simply replied, “Good luck!” Another took the time to pull me aside and give me the lowdown. When this gentleman spoke, I listened. He had actually restored several just like it. He pointed out; the materials that go into a vintage airplane are not that expensive. To build an aircraft like my Fairchild from the frame up, including wood, fabric, topcoat, paint, etc., I may spend about $20,000 – far less than I would on a new pickup truck.
However, the labor involved raises the cost exponentially. According to Ted, it might take a year of full-time work to restore the Fairchild. Literally, it could cost as much as $100,000 just for labor. With materials and labor, this airplane could cost more than a house.
How did I react? I did what anyone else would do – I balked.
Still, the idea persisted. There had to be a way. What if I just bought the materials and did it myself? To this Ted replied, “Don’t do it yourself; it’s too big of a project.” Time would prove how right he was. One thing was obvious – I needed help, but I couldn’t afford to simply hire someone else to do it for me.
It was perhaps fate that intervened in the spring of 2011. Several factors had fallen into place that would see this dream become reality. A downturn in the economy had hit the aviation world – the value of airplanes was down in 2011, as was airplane-related work. Simply, people were not spending money on recreational aviation, and the market responded with a lowering of prices. 2011 also saw record-high values for agricultural commodities – my bread and butter. If the conditions were ever going to be right to take on this project, now was the time.
All I needed was a little help. Again, fate intervened. In March of 2011 I was at the Monroe Middle School giving a presentation on farming for Career Day. Easy – I could speak all day long on the joys of agriculture. As I was heading out, I literally ran into Gary, a pilot. Our conversation went something like this:
Gary asked, “Hey – you guys still have that old Fairchild?” The aviation community is a small one. Everyone knows what everyone else has; kind of like farming.
I replied, “Yeah, but it hasn’t flown in about 20 years. It needs a lot of work, but I’d love to get it flying again.”
Gary looked at me and offered, “Well why don’t you call Mike Weeden at the Brodhead airport. He may be looking for a project like that.”
I thanked him, and we went our separate ways. Simple as that – the seed had sprouted. I made a mental note to call Mike.
Despite the mouse problems, airplane project a go
I wonder what Mike thought.
He moved around the aircraft in silence, observing and inspecting. Maybe it was the unhealthy dosage of caffeine or my apprehension for the worst, but I buried myself in my thoughts and sat on a stool in a corner, waiting for his verdict. This was make or break time.
The last time the airplane flew was in 1991. About that time, it was discovered that there was some minor internal damage to one of the wings. The airplane was grounded, and had been hangared ever since. Through no one’s fault, the airplane became a lower priority to repair, and simply sat. Mothballed and collecting dust, it was just another project that would be addressed “someday”.
Today was that day.
In preparation for Mike’s arrival I washed the Fairchild. For the first time since I was in grade school she shined. My dad and I spent an afternoon removing access panels and fairings. Typically on any airplane, there are a ton of metal accent pieces that can be removed to better inspect critical areas of the airframe and engine. The Fairchild is a good example of this – it took the two of us an entire afternoon to remove all of the little strut covers, access doors, inspection hole covers, and cowling pieces. All this, so that Mike could better determine the condition of the airplane.
As of 1991, the only problem with the Fairchild was some slight internal damage to one of the wings. As with any machine, horrible, horrible things happen when it sits idle. Moisture and condensation leads to corrosion. Electronics break down. Rust forms, and begins to pit vital components. Fluid lines crack, gaskets fail, fuel turns to varnish, and bearings are compromised. Mice inflict damage at an exponential rate – as they move through an airplane they urinate on the tube steel, the equivalent of acid. They chew through wires and use components for nesting material. They build their nests in inaccessible areas, literally rotting the aircraft from the inside out. Although the Fairchild had been mothballed shortly after her grounding, it was obvious that mice had moved in.
As indicated last week, the only economical way this dream could become reality was to find an aircraft mechanic willing to guide me through the process. I could not afford to pay someone else to do all of the work, but it was simply too much for me to tackle on my own. Mike seemed to be that guy, depending on how bad the airplane was. As long as the damage was not too deep, we may just be able to pull it off.
I sat in the corner, trying not to assign too much meaning to what Mike said as he moved through the inspection. My overoptimistic side fanaticized; maybe he could just wave a magic wand! Yes! There is actually nothing wrong with the airplane – let’s fill it with fuel and see what she can do!
At about that time reality reared its head. Mike had finished the inspection, and this was his verdict: Overall, the airplane is not in bad shape, but there are several things that need to be addressed. The one wing will need to be removed, the covering stripped, so that repairs can be properly made to the internal structure. The other wing is curious; there is no apparent internal damage, but all of the rib lacing and some of the cloth stitches are gone. Neither of us said it, but we both thought the same thing: Mouse damage.
As for the fuselage, there was no corrosion on the steel components. Had the airplane not been mothballed, it would probably be junk. However, the brakes are seized, the radios do not work, and there are some cracks (called ‘ringworm’) on the finish. As for the engine, it was totally overhauled shortly before the airplane was grounded. The magnetos, carburetor, and alternator should be preemptively serviced, but the engine should check out.
I rationalized, the average American wedding costs over $25,000. To raise a kid to age 18 costs around a quarter-million dollars (not including college). To wake up one day and realize you are getting married to Kim Kardashian is not only committable, but will set you back about $10 million. Likewise, the average American divorce runs about $20,000, while a typical funeral costs about $6,000. Somewhere toward the lower end of this spectrum is my Fairchild project.
My brain whirled like an adding machine, figuring what this was going to cost. Worst-case scenario, we strip and recover both wings. We rejuvenate and repaint the fuselage. The brakes are serviceable, used radios are fairly inexpensive, but the engine components will be pricey. The figure I came up with was not bad at all, so I doubled it. For good measure I added another fifty percent. Still, as I stood there talking with Mike I believed I could get the Fairchild flying for significantly less than what I would pay for a brand new midsize pickup truck – my cost basis for this project.
Satisfied that this was doable, I committed. We would remove both wings and take them to Mike’s shop for repairs. That was it – the project was underway.
Deconstructing the airplane
“Did you know there was a bank robbery in Monroe?”
I looked up from my wallet. I’ll be honest – that was about the last thing I expected to hear from the kindly young lady dropping off pizzas on a Tuesday morning in April. I figured a punch line was about to be delivered so I waited. Instead, she followed that conversation-stopper with:
“Apparently there was a bank robbery, followed by a high-speed chase.” She accepted her tip and turned to leave, but added, “You should turn on the radio – I heard about it on the news.”
It is not everyday that one hears about a Monroe bank robbery/high-speed chase from a pizza deliverer. Then again, it’s not everyday that one pulls the wings off an airplane. As I grabbed a slice I pondered, what were the odds of hearing about a Monroe bank robbery/high-speed chase from said pizza deliverer WHILE pulling the wings off an airplane?
This day would officially mark the beginning of a long and quite intense restoration process. This was the day that I, along with Mike Weeden, my dad, Jeff, John, Stewbert and Ben (who just so happened to be in the area) removed the wings from my 1939 Fairchild 24. Actually, that was one of the most impressive aspects of the entire process. Each time a task was presented that required a few extra hands there was never a shortage of manpower. Literally, people would drop what they were doing to help out.
Removing the wings from the airplane was actually not that difficult a job. I had spent the previous day attending details – I removed the ailerons and flaps, pulled the protective and decorative fairings. I had reached inside the wing root – where the wing joins the fuselage – and disconnected the bundle of electric wires. I disconnected the fittings to the wing-mounted fuel tanks, and unhooked the control cables. There was a tube that supplied the cabin with fresh air, so I removed that.
Upon standing back it was clear that the Fairchild’s wings had effectively been clipped. Color-coded wires hung like nerve endings, cable turnbuckles like severed ligaments. Fuel lines were capped, like arterial sutures.
First we would remove the left-hand wing. I placed a jack stand beneath the right wing for support. Theoretically, the airplane could tip over with only one wing attached (it didn’t, but I would take no chances).
The process was amazingly simple; two people stood at the wingtip and lifted up, taking the weight of the wing off the struts. Only two bolts hold the wing at the fuselage, while another two secure the struts. The largest is as big around as my thumb, the other are the same diameter as a pencil. This is why I love aviation – no unnecessary frills. I tapped out the two strut bolts. At this stage, without the lateral support of the struts, the wing was hinged only to the fuselage and could potentially drop to the ground. Two more guys lifted at the wing root while I tapped the two main bolts.
The wing disconnected, the four lifters gently brought it down. Each wing only weighs a couple hundred pounds; two adults can easily move it. However, they are exceedingly ungainly and awkward. And, fairly fragile – to drop a wing was guaranteed to cause expensive damage.
Our plan was to remove both wings, and then transport them from the hangar at Monroe to Mike’s shop in Brodhead via flatbed trailer. Both wings would be stripped to their skeletal framework, checked for hidden damage, and then recovered with brand new material. Essentially, the Fairchild would get a brand new set of wings.
As we set the wings down, I could hear bits of material rolling around inside, like tiny pebbles within a drum. From various vent and routing holes tumbled cracked cherry pits. It was immediately obvious that mice had, at one point, nested within the wings. Until we stripped the covering off, we would have no idea how deep the damage went. I felt a sense of dread for the unknown; this project could still snowball into an unaffordable nightmare.
We strapped one wing to the flatbed trailer. Two trips would have to be made from Monroe to Brodhead, since each wing was almost six feet wide and nearly seventeen feet long. I thanked my friends for their help, and promised to take them for a ride once the airplane was finished. At that point it seemed an unobtainable dream, unseen over the horizon.
Dad and I headed to Brodhead, the trailer and precious cargo in tow. Almost immediately after leaving the Monroe Airport we realized that the pizza delivery lady was not, in fact, joking about the high-speed chase. Highway 11/81 was blocked east of Juda, which meant we had to take back roads – curses! I was furious – some fool tried to rob a bank, only to cause a road-blocking accident, which necessitated that I go out of my way with a priceless aircraft wing not once, but twice. What were the odds?
That evening I celebrated a successful day by taking my wife out to dinner. Afterwards we stopped by the Monroe hangar, where the Fairchild had sat idle for nearly two decades. With the wings and fairings removed, the airplane looked in sad shape. I talked about our progress, plans, and what came next in the restoration. My wife stared at the naked fuselage and exclaimed:
“Two bolts are ALL that holds the wings on?!”
Restoration of an airplane
I plunged the knife into the skin. It made a sweetly satisfying sucking sound, like a hollow cavity being punctured from the outside. Being careful to avoid the ribs, I slid the knife crosswise. The blade sliced with ease, as through butter.
I inserted my fingers into the incision and lifted slightly, peeling the mass back. Beneath the skin I could see a series of stitches. Grabbing a scissors, I snipped each one. With each cut, the plate of skin I held in my hand gave a little, and pulled away from the ribs.
I repeated the process methodically, with each rib. Before long the floor was a mass of torn skin. My feet constantly snagged a chunk as I moved, threatening a stumble. I knew that I was causing irreparable damage so I looked up quizzically at Mike. “This all has to come off?” I asked.
Believe it or not, I was actually not doing anything unusual. Certain airplanes manufactured right up through the 1960’s were covered with fabric, and every so often the fabric skin of an antique airplane must be removed, and the structure recovered.
The earliest airplanes that flew were covered with fabric, and for good reason. It is lightweight, durable, easy to repair, cheap and abundant. No special tools required; anyone with a pair of scissors and a few needles can cover an airplane with fabric. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in a fabric-covered airplane.
During World War II, as aircraft became faster and more powerful, fabric was replaced by aluminum for the high-performance machines. Fabric stuck around, but in a new form. Irish linen gave way to the more durable Grade A cotton, but it was found that these systems were incredibly flammable. Aircraft factories literally exploded, World War I airplanes burned in midair, and even an arbitrary cigarette ash could set these early aircraft alight.
It was said of these early airplanes, ‘Don’t look at them – you’ll start them on fire.’ Clearly, a new system was needed. Finally, in 1965, technology caught up with demand. A man by the name of Ray Stits designed a process of covering airplanes with polyester fabric. Whereas previous airframes were covered with cotton and dope (cellulose-based paints and coatings, which were flammable), Stits’ system used polyester fabric and vinyl-based coatings. The result was a method of covering airplanes that was not only inexpensive and easy, but also safe and reliable.
Fabric is still the only choice for covering a vintage airplane. Thus, as I knifed my way through the skin of my 1939 Fairchild, I really was not doing anything particularly unusual. Believe me, it still felt weird to destroy and remove the beautifully painted skin of the old bird.
The first step in this restoration process was to strip both wings to check for damage. I peeled the skin back, exposing the skeletal framework. A series of parallel ribs give the wing its shape, while two wooden spars run the length of the wing, forward and aft, connecting the ribs and giving the wing its lateral strength. Each rib is constructed of chopstick-sized wooden top and bottom chords, which are bent and held into shape by struts – exactly like a roof truss.
As expected, there were several broken ribs in the left wing – this is what grounded the airplane two decades ago. These would need to be individually fixed, one by one. Additionally, I discovered a few other surprises. Buried within each wing, well away from the inspection holes and access covers, were mouse nests. The irksome little rodents had crawled up into the wings, chewed through the cloth lacing and used it to build their nests. Thankfully the airplane had been mothballed – there was obviously no recent activity. Still, the damage had been done. In addition to the broken ribs I would need to strip and re-primer all of the metal cross bracing and steel control arms.
At that very moment I lost all sympathy for Ralph the motorcycle-driving mouse and his entire ilk. I also began reading up on a heavenly product called rodenticide.
What’s this – surprise! I discovered another treasure. As I pulled the final bit of skin from the right wing, the wingtip light fell off in my hand. Mike, the aircraft forensic analyst, came over to investigate. Somewhere along the line in the Fairchild’s 73-year history, the wingtip had gotten smashed. Mike instantly offered this breakdown: “That’s called ‘hangar rash’. See how the wingtip is broken from behind? That’s not from flight – someone was pushing it into a hangar and got too close to the door. Must’ve been moving, too – see how the aileron bay is torqued? We’ll have to address that.”
All I could offer was a weak, “I didn’t do it.”
Thus the process began. One of the most valuable lessons Mike Weeden provided me in those initial days was to drop the intimidation factor. We were working on an airplane – a machine designed to climb thousands of feet into the air and travel over a hundred miles per hour, with a range of hundreds of miles. To say the least, I was intimidated.
Mike taught me, without knowingly addressing it, that the airplane is only that – a machine. People just like us built it. People just like us maintain it, and people just like us keep it running. Without people like us, it sits idle and rots.
Why not fix it up and keep it flying?
Red tape can also be reassuring
You have to hand it to God. He sure knows how to get to the point.
Imagine all of life – the nuances, parameters, and right versus wrong, all condensed into just Ten Commandments, seven deadly sins, and one compact book.
Conversely, take a moment to ponder the omnipotence and omnipresence of the United States’ Federal Government. At the Federal level, our government is divided into three main branches – the Judicial, Legislative, and Executive. The Executive Branch is then further divided into the Office of the Presidency, a number of independent agencies, commissions, boards, committees, and fifteen – count them, fifteen – Executive Departments.
You’ve heard of at least some of these fifteen departments. They include the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, etc. Among these is the Department of Transportation.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) is further divided into thirteen separate agencies. One of these thirteen agencies is a regulatory body known as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I am a pilot, and I own an airplane. Boil the entire Federal Government down to one agency that directly affects my particular interest, and there you have it – the FAA.
Sitting next to me on the desk as I type this article is the most recent FAR AIM manual from the FAA. It lists the rules, regulations, and procedures to airmen just like me. It is not for aviation mechanics, nor does this particular manual deal with aircraft repairs or procedures. The manual is only for General Aviation, Sport Pilots, and Instructors. If one is feeling particularly masochistic, try reading it.
This manual is over one thousand pages long, and lists everything from the official government definition of what makes your ears pop as you increase in altitude, to the rules as regulations regarding dropping objects from an airplane. Want to scatter the ashes of a deceased loved one? Not so fast – there are stipulations as to when and where such an event can occur.
Let’s take this analytical flowchart and stand it upside down, to further illustrate the top-heavy and bureaucratical nightmare that the Federal Government has become. Again, I am a recreational pilot. I fly for fun – never for hire. There are over one thousand pages of rules, regulations, and procedures that I must know in order to own and operate my own airplane.
The FAA is only one of thirteen departments within the DOT. The DOT is only one of fifteen Departments within the Executive Branch, which is one of three branches of the overall Federal Government. How’s that headache now?
Before I feign outrage and dismay, I must point out that there is a reason this type of oversight exists. How would you feel, if your neighbor built a commercial aircraft in his or her backyard out of bed sheets and started hiring scenic flights over downtown Chicago? Just imagine…
The bottom line is, there are rules, regulations, procedures, and limitations placed on my dream of owning and operating my own airplane. Some of it is head-scratchingly baffling, while a great deal of it exits for a reason.
Take the example of the Fairchild. Even though I own it, I am not technically allowed to work on it. Literally, I cannot even change the oil. The FAA designates and licenses people to work on private, certified aircraft like the Fairchild. These people are called A&P mechanics, which stands for Airframe and Powerplant. All of the work done on a certified aircraft like the Fairchild must be inspected and signed off by an A&P. Every airplane then has two logbooks – one for the airframe, one for the engine. From the moment each rolled off the assembly line, every oil change, every inspection, and all of the work performed is entered into the appropriate logbook.
So then, take peace of mind in knowing that every time you hear a certified airplane roar overhead (unless it’s an ultralight, which sounds more like an average-sized mosquito), it is only flying because it has been deemed airworthy by a certified, licensed individual other than the owner of the aircraft.
This is exactly why my relationship to Mike Weeden throughout the Fairchild restoration process was so special. Mike is, obviously, an A&P. Legally, all of the repair work and modifications done to the airplane must be inspected and signed off. Since I simply could not afford to hire the work done, Mike offered to take me under his wing (no pun intended), and guide me through the restoration process. There would be plenty of work I could do, but he would ultimately have to inspect and sign everything off.
As mentioned previously, we started with the wings. For this work, the FAA does issue a manual, which pertains to airframe repair and alterations. Literally, it designates how long a splice is allowed to be, and how many are permittable, on the individual rib cap. It even stipulates what kind of glue can be used.
One day I flipped through the manual. It went so far as to explain the proper method of tying an inter-rib knot, and how many twists are permissible when applying safety wire. Mike remarked, “Yeah, they’re strict about some of that stuff.”
Anyone want to argue that we live in a free country?
‘That’ll be a nice airplane when you get it done’
It was like a middle school shop class, except even more toxic. Seriously, the smell hit you like a brick wall.
I was using a two-part aviation-grade epoxy varnish. I had quickly learned in this project, that anything prefixed by the word “aviation” just means ‘more expensive’, but this is how an aviation classic was reborn throughout the summer and winter of 2011.
One of the great surprises of the restoration was noticing how much interest it generated. I would show up when time allowed, often last minute, in the morning, afternoon, or evening after farm chores. Practically every time I worked, someone new would show up.
There was never any malice, just genuine interest. I’d be sanding, or varnishing the wings, when someone would walk in. ‘What are you working on?’ ‘Is this the Fairchild I heard about?’ We would chat, they would politely look over the work, and always end the random rendezvous with an encouragement like, “Stick with it – don’t give up”, “Boy that’ll be a nice airplane when you get it done”, “Best of luck, but I don’t think you’ll need it.” My favorite was when an old-timer poked his head in the door, glanced at the stripped wings and correctly remarked, “Say – are these wings off a Fairchild?”
Do you have any idea how uplifting it was, to be surrounded by random displays of optimism?
Slowly but surely, the project began to come together. The damaged rib sections were repaired piece by tedious piece. Mike meticulously separated the sections of the smashed wingtip, and then sandwiched a new runner in place. His handiwork made Bob Vila look like nothing more than a mediocre television personality.
Then, the sanding and varnishing – this is where I came in. Each wing had to be sanded, cleaned, and varnished. Repeat. Three coats were required per wing, with over a pint of brushed varnish per coat per wing. Then, the wing had to flipped so that the underside could be done. I could have written the definition of ‘elbow grease’.
Finally, right around late August of 2011, both Mike and I simply ran out of time. I was busy with the crop harvest; Mike got called to fly fulltime. That is when I met Mike’s brother, Bill Weeden.
I have thought about it, and I think the best way to describe Bill Weeden in the shortest amount of words is, there is the quintessential guy you would want to go have a beer with. Quiet, laid-back, knowledgeable, and with an insane talent for finish work, Bill was precisely the guy to cover and paint the Fairchild wings. Also, he had experience – some twenty years of finishing fabric-covered airplanes.
Like most things, the process started with something uncomplicated and primal – a big sock. I had ordered two envelopes of sewn fabric specifically to fit the Fairchild wings, which Bill pulled over the framework. The ‘sock’ was pulled no tighter than a bed sheet.
Then, the polyester fabric was literally glued to the wing. Wait – let’s use the word ‘cemented’; it seems to encourage greater confidence when speaking of airplanes. Once the fabric set it was shrunk with a calibrated household iron – the beauty of polyester. Three hundred and fifty degrees will contract the fabric to maximum tautness, and when finished it is tight as a drum.
Special chemicals are applied throughout the process to make the fabric waterproof and UV-resistant. Poly-fabric is impervious to everything except sunlight; unprotected it loses 85% of its strength in just one year. Thus, several coats of UV-protectant called Poly-Spray were applied. Literally, it is sunscreen for the airplane.
Of course, the actual process is much more tedious and requires great presence of mind to get right. Any mistake will show right through the final product. Reinforcing tapes, inspection and access holes, drain grommets; these are all features of a covered wing, and were all expertly applied by Bill.
Most tedious were the rib stitches. Glue – I mean, cement, does not provide adequate structural adhesion, so the fabric must be mechanically stitched to the ribs once it is shrunk. A needle is punched through the wing, top and bottom, on each side of a rib. Stitching thread is wrapped around the rib, tied in a special FAA-approved knot, and the process is repeated over and over again. Oh, and there is a trick to working the knot back inside the wing, so that a nasty little dimple does not accommodate every rib stitch.
There were 305 stitches per wing. That’s 305 wraps, 305 knots, and 305 times working the needle around a rib, per wing.
Finally, the entire wing was sanded, masked, and then painted. Since I wanted a specific scheme on the airplane, Bill shot the entire structure with white, and then taped off the leading edge for a blue accent. The end result was show-worthy.
The work Bill Weeden performed on the Fairchild is the type of work that makes or breaks a project. In total, he dedicated over 175 hours to recovering and painting both wings in the summer, fall, and winter of 2011.
If you would like to see more of Bill’s work, he is not difficult to spot. He can sometimes be found attending car shows, classic drive-ins, and auto parades. He has a sweet, and I mean sweet GTO. It is the quintessential Smart Car.
Airplane parts are not always a simple fix
You know, there is nothing like learning a new language. To be able to comprehend and articulate a foreign tongue with ease is truly a marvel. Take me, for example – I recently picked up on a new dialect that mere weeks previous had been alien.
What follows is an actual conversation I had, during the winter of 2011. I was in the process of ordering a new alternator for my 1939 Fairchild. Simple, right?
Michael: “Thank you for calling Skytronics this is Michael, how may I help you?”
Me: “Hello Michael, I am looking for a 50-amp alternator for a Fairchild 24, with a Ranger engine. Do you have anything available?”
Michael: “Is that the L440-series Ranger?”
Me: “Yeah, square pad, three-and-a-half inch studs on center.”
Michael: “You want the 6555T kit; 50-amp, 6-spline.”
Me: “Is there an STC for that kit?”
Michael: “No, there is not an STC for your Ranger. However I do have some 337 forms available from guys who have gotten field approval. Would you like me to email them to you?”
Me: “Sure. My email address is delta-whiskey-echo-golf-sierra-AT-tango-delta-sierra-dot net.”
If there was one thing that surprised me about the airplane restoration, it is how much time I spent on the telephone. The Fairchild was a unique enough aircraft, that sometimes it required a long-distance phone call and hour-long conversation with a total stranger in order to iron something out. Whenever something random and particular to the Fairchild arose, it was my job to start searching for someone who could help.
In this example I was attempting to locate a new alternator. The airplane was already equipped with an engine-driven generator, but it was original to the aircraft, stamped “1940”, and only rated to 25 amps. This original generator was not powerful enough to run both landing lights without tripping a circuit breaker – unacceptable.
Plus, as with any vintage generator, power output diminishes whenever engine RPMs are reduced. Remember that old car you used to drive, and how the headlights would dim at a stoplight? Press on the accelerator, and the lights would noticeably brighten. The Fairchild was the same, which is undesirable – the power needs of an airplane are greatest at a low RPM, either when coming in to land or maneuvering around the tarmac. In either scenario the lights are blazing, radios crackling, and everything turned on. The last thing I wanted was to run out of juice.
Ordering a new alternator was no mean feat, and the process was typical to the challenges that arose throughout the restoration. First, I posted a note on a special online chat group, specifically for Fairchild owners. Where do I go to get a new alternator? Within a day I received several responses, and sifted through the ones that were either irrelevant or did not pertain to my particular aircraft. Inevitably, a gem: call Skytronics.
I did, and was thus introduced to Michael, the sales rep. He asked a few pertinent questions regarding my particular aircraft and engine, and sure enough – Skytronics offered a 50-amp kit designed for use on my Fairchild. It’s not over yet.
Just because the new alternator will fit, and is designed for use on my engine, I am not allowed to simply bolt it on and fly away. It is considered an alteration and must be approved by the FAA.
I asked Michael if there is an “STC” for that kit, which stands for ‘Supplemental Type Certificate’. Quite simply, let’s say there were thousands of Fairchild airplanes that were using this upgrade. The FAA would issue a blanket approval, called an STC, saying that ALL Fairchild aircraft of this model and with this engine were pre-approved to use the kit. In that case, life would be easy – I could simply bolt on the alternator, make a logbook entry, and fly away.
However, there has never been a Fairchild model 24, Ranger engine combination like mine to install this alternator kit. Thus, I had to seek FAA-approval in order to do the upgrade. Next, I asked Michael for a ‘Form 337’. In cases like mine, there is an application (called a 337) that must be filled out and mailed to the FAA. An inspector will most likely look at the airplane, to verify that the upgrade was done according to specs. Depending on what is being approved, the process could take weeks, or months. It is not uncommon for an airplane to be completely assembled and physically ready to fly, but grounded since the legal paperwork had not gone through.
Finally, my email address is a nightmare to understand over the phone. The gibberish at the end is my email address, spelled phonetically. Works like a charm.
My alternator upgrade was fairly straightforward, and would take little time to get approved. I have, however, seen some unusual and perplexing FAA-approved modifications.
For example, it is possible to install a DeWalt cordless drill in the engine compartment of a certain airplane, for use as a lightweight starter. Hey – it’s better than hand propping, right?
Dog house? What dog house?
So what does your wife think of all this?
Excellent question. By January of 2012, I had been involved with the restoration project for nearly eight months. It is worthwhile to note that the Fairchild 24 is a fairly big airplane. When disassembled, there is an incredible array of parts; everything from engine cowls, to wheel pants, to the dozens of various sheet metal fairings that cover the irregular joints between the wings, fuselage, landing gear, and struts. These fairings are what give any airplane its streamlined, “clean” look, and there were enough fairings from the Fairchild to fill the bed of a pickup truck, including the cab.
By early 2012, the restoration began to come home in a very big way. I needed a safe, secure area to store the parts – a place where they would not get moved or shuffled until I was ready to reassemble the aircraft. The spare bedroom was just the place. In went the six-foot propeller, nose bowl, cowling, wheel pants, side steps, radio stack, navigational equipment, doors, struts, seats and upholstery, and the dozens upon dozens of sheet metal fairings. There was not even room for a walkway; to cross the bedroom required perfectly choreographed steps worthy of A Chorus Line.
Friends and guests who visited the winter of 2011 – 2012 were required to sleep on the sofa. The entire house was permeated with a slight but noticeable pang of cured paint, like an automotive body shop. You ask, what did my wife think?
She actually laughed it off. Guests were told, with a smile, that the spare bedroom had been converted to a temporary “nursery” for our ‘Child, which was due to take flight in the spring. But wait – that’s not all.
In addition to the physical encumbrance of the spare parts, I had work to do. There were a dozen or so fairings that, when assembled, butted against various surfaces of the airframe. To prevent the sharp metal edges from chafing the Fairchild, my job was to glue a special rubber channel around the edge of each fairing. Each piece had to be individually measured, cut, formed into place, glued, and then lightly clamped to allow the glue to cure. In total, I would cut, shape, and glue nearly forty feet of rubber channel.
To sit down and do the entire set of fairings would be tedious and mind-numbingly boring, so I devised a brilliant and incredibly enjoyable tradition. I’d come home in the evening after work, open a bottle of wine, grab a block of cheese, and turn on my HBO series Band of Brothers DVD set. Each night I’d watch an episode or two while gluing up the fairings. You ask, what did my wife think?
To answer the question, put yourself in her shoes. It has been a long day. You are coming home from work. It is dark and cold out; winter has barely begun. You park the car in the garage, noting wearily that it is past 8:00. Your husband is obviously in the TV room; you can hear the unmistakable sounds of a Hollywood battle scene pounding the house. You push open the door.
In the half-light of dimmed bulbs and television screen, you are greeted with a scene of comedic organized chaos. The overstuffed spare bedroom has burst open, spilling airplane parts into this adjoining room. The coffee table (thankfully) is covered with stained butcher paper. On one side is a half-empty bottle of wine and a partially eaten block of cheese. There are tools scattered about; exacto knives, utility scissors, tape measure, and some pungent-smelling glue. A long string of rubber winds its way across the floor like a snake. There are clothespins, chunks of rubber, and crusty bits of dried glue everywhere.
Your husband looks up with a huge grin. He is in his underwear. He takes a sip of wine. Sometimes he actually uses a glass. He proudly presents to you the ‘latest’ part that he’s finished. “Can you guess where this goes?” To you, the part is indistinguishable from the half-dozen or so he has already finished. Not to worry; he doesn’t give you time to guess, “This bolts to the lower left-hand landing gear, where it attaches to the fuselage. Next I’m gonna do the wheel pant guards.”
The scene would scarcely be different if he were eight years old and staying up late to build a new Lego set.
You ask again, what did my wife think? Throw every stereotype out the window and prepare for the shock of your life – she actually sat down and joined me. We watched the entire 10-part Band of Brothers series together (I watched it twice, there were so many parts to glue). She enjoyed the series, and looked forward to those evenings where one of us would pick out a new variety of cheese, and pair it with wine.
That’s not all – when I worked on the wings and airplane in Brodhead, she’d stop by to see how I was doing. She’d grab a tack cloth and wipe down the wing so I could brush another coat of varnish. She’d help Mike and I flip the wing, in order to paint the other side. Some days she’d bring lunch, and we’d sit at the Brodhead Airport and have a picnic.
She’d listen to me tell her about the progress I made, or vent about the difficulties encountered. We’d talk about the places we’d fly when everything was put back together.
To me, sharing it with her has been the greatest joy of all.
Replacing radio costly, irksome job on airplane
I must have been a contortionist in a previous life. How else to explain the ease at which I can fold myself in half and wedge my torso into that impossibly confined space?
I had done it so many times that it now came naturally. Sit sideways in the door opening. Shimmy backwards, so that I am lying on my back. Raise my legs so my knees are tucked into my chest. Swing my feet into the cockpit, and rest them on the rear seat frame. Thankfully, the seats have been removed. Slide forward, being careful not to spear my shoulder blade with the pilot seat bracket like last time.
I am now lying on my back in the floor of the airplane, my head beneath the dash, the control sticks and flap actuator digging into my collarbone. Pray to God I didn’t forget anything. Hold the flashlight in my teeth and attempt to focus the beam onto the connection I need. Ignore the sweat beading on my forehead and running into my eye. On my chest is a balancing act assortment of tools. Reach for the driver. I can only look straight up; I’m selecting tools by touch. I weave my arm through an intestinal maze of structural steel tubing, a myriad of hoses, pressure lines, and sensor wires, and bundles of multicolored electrical connections – the nerve center of the airplane.
I force my arm through the maze, attempting to reach the connection I need. The cut end from an ancient zip-tie slices the skin on my forearm. I watch with exasperated amusement as blood seeps out, mixing with the sweat and oil already smeared across my skin.
I reach the connection. Holding the driver delicately in my fingers, I attempt to unscrew the terminal. Nothing happens. I curse – of course it’s the wrong size! I yank my arm back out, again slicing skin on the same zip-tie. In the process, the socket falls off the driver. I hear it roll down the fuselage and fall into the inaccessible underbelly of the plane. I’ll fish it out with a magnet later.
Again, I curse – the correct size socket is in my toolbox, well out of reach from my current position. I unfold myself and go out the way I came. Welcome to the wide world of aircraft avionics. I had just purchased a brand new radio package for my 1939 Fairchild 24. All I had to do now was install it.
At the onset of the restoration project, it became obvious that I would need to upgrade the radios. The only question was, with what? Some people don’t even have a radio. I actually know someone who flew a vintage Champ across the United States without ever speaking to another soul.
Obviously, this is less than ideal. I could go cheap – a simple handheld retails for a few hundred bucks, but has limitations. My brother suggested the Garmin 430 COMM. It has a moving-map GPS display, with approach data to thousands of US airports. After hearing his recommendation I looked it up, and nearly fell off my chair – the Garmin 430 retails for around ten thousand dollars. Something a little more basic would have to suffice.
I also needed a transponder; a Mode C transponder, should I wish to operate within certain airspace. This device squawks identification and altitude information, which allows air traffic controllers to distinguish, identify, and maintain separation of aircraft. Since one day I do plan to fly the Fairchild to San Diego, New York, and Florida, I would need to be Mode C compliant.
The third piece of electrical equipment required was an audio panel. Since the Fairchild is a four-seat aircraft, each passenger would have his or her own headset jack. The audio panel organizes, routes, and isolates conversations. My dialogue with a control tower can be automatically recorded and separated from the passengers. I can even place phone calls, passengers can listen to music, via Bluetooth through our headsets.
There were so many options; enough variety to cause a migraine. The only limit is how much someone is willing to spend. Literally, there are radio packages available that easily cost more than the Fairchild is worth. In the end I sat down with Ron Hammer from Radio Ranch, in Rock Falls, IL. Together we designed a stack to fit my specific needs, without going overboard.
Throughout the restoration project I was keenly aware that I would have to do as much work as possible, in order to keep it affordable. The radios were no exception. Pricey by themselves, it would cost me double to have them installed by a professional. So, I did it myself.
Which is how I found myself folded neatly in half and compressed to carryon size, fumbling and cursing beneath the dash of the airplane. In total it would take me a full day to remove the existing radios, and two twelve-hour days to solder connections and install the new set.
Technically I was working under Mike’s supervision, and he did stop in to check on my progress, which, I am embarrassed to say, was typically at the height of one of my more passionate ravings.
I’d apologize to Mike, and he would smile and blow it off with, “That’s why most people don’t mess with radios.” He knows, because he’s been there.
Still, I joked – if only Mike kept a swear jar in his hangar I would have paid off the entire airplane with just the radios.
All in the name of doing it right
Do you think I’m obsessed?
My wife looked up, a startled look on her face. I hadn’t asked the question for its shock-value, nor was I merely messing around. As spontaneous as it may have seemed at the time, the query was not without foundation.
For nearly a full year I had lived the airplane restoration project. Every spare minute was spent either in the shop wrenching, or searching the cavernous depths of the internet for an answer to some obscure question. For nearly a year I had thought of little else. I ate, breathed, slept, and functioned with little else in mind.
During the winter of 2011 – 2012, the project began to come together, in a big way. Bill Weeden completed his stellar work recovering the left wing, and began the process on the right wing. While this was going on I literally spent days researching and ordering parts – everything from the new radios and alternator, to electrical components and flight accessories.
I spent two entire weeks rebuilding the braking system. This deceptively simple task turned into nothing but a nightmare. It was not uncommon for World War II-era airplanes to utilize automotive parts. The brake cylinders in the Fairchild are actually from Chrysler, with aviation parts mixed in. To rebuild the system required expander bladders, springs, and pads from California, tires and tubes from Tennessee, and two rebuild kits from NAPA of Monroe, all powered by brake fluid costing some $30 a quart.
Additionally, I had to install new fuel gauges and sending units. The setbacks and dilemmas associated with this task were infuriating beyond measure. I can do little to articulate the stress that accompanied the job, but I can offer this perspective: Imagine performing a ground-up rejuvenation of a World War II-era airplane. Try to think of all the work involved, the obstacles that could arise, the challenges faced. Then realize that for the entire project, start to finish, rebuilding the brakes and installing new fuel gauges gave me more trouble than any other aspect of the airplane.
In addition to the aforementioned, Mike Weeden repainted the entire fuselage of the Fairchild. The fabric was in excellent shape, but the topcoat and paint had become brittle and cracked over time; kind of like the way skin peels after a sunburn. In spots, the paint had actually lifted, exposing the fabric underneath. This is fixable, through a process called rejuvenation. An intense chemical is applied to the airplane, causing the topcoat to liquefy and re-adhere to the fabric. Although time consuming and tedious, this was clearly the time to rejuvenate the topcoat.
For days on end Mike sat on a stool, meticulously cleaning and brushing chemical into the cracked topcoat. When the rejuvenation was complete, the entire fuselage was repainted.
January 2012 was so mild, that we painted with the hangar door open. Still, it took a few days to convert his shop into a suitable painting booth, another couple of days to mask and prepare the skin, a week to rejuvenate, and two days to shoot color. Then, since the airplane has a blue accent down the side, another day to mask for blue, a day to paint, and another two days to remove all of the masking paper. This process has convinced me that there are few things in life more satisfying than pulling tape off a new paint job.
Quite literally, this hobby had turned into something of a part-time job. During the winter of 2011 – 2012 I spent days at a time, sometimes even a full week, working on the Fairchild. I came home only to milk my cows, sleep, and perform the most fundamental chores that keep a farm going during winter.
Every day was different. Mike might call me in the morning, announcing that his schedule had changed – he’d be available to work on the Fairchild all day. More than a few times I would scramble to find a relief milker, sometimes on incredibly short notice. Mike’s time was valuable enough to justify a night off here and there, and a special thank you to Chris Guthrie for making it possible. Especially on short notice.
There was a justification to this madness – the days were getting longer. My biggest fear from the onset of this project was to start it, and then not be able to finish it. I knew that once spring arrived and fieldwork began, the airplane would become a low priority. I could afford to devote my wintertime, but not the spring or summer, to such a hobby. In short, I hated the thought of not finishing the airplane before spring.
Which is why, following a regular schedule of coming home late and putting everything else on hold, I asked my wife if she thought I was obsessed with this project. I actually expected her to say yes, and she would have been justified.
Instead, she thought for a moment. She was not flippant or dismissive. She smiled sweetly, but very earnestly replied, “I do not think you are obsessed; you’re just concerned with doing a good job, and getting it done right. Which, by the way is a good thing, especially if I’m going to ride in it.”
“I’m proud of you for sticking with it and not giving up. It’s obviously more difficult than you thought it would be, but if rebuilding an airplane was easy, everyone would do it.”
Starting engine becomes a ‘redneck operation’
This was in danger of becoming a genuine redneck operation. Imagine a one-winged airplane tied to a tree, being jump-started by a pickup truck, and with an old milk crate as a pilot seat. Picture that, and you know what I mean.
Things were moving fast now, seemingly with a mind of their own. Exactly twelve months into the restoration project, and the end was definitely in sight. Believe it or not, the last obstacle to clear was perhaps the most critical – the engine.
Here is an interesting piece of information about the 1939 Fairchild 24 – it does not have a fuel pump. Inside each wing is a 30-gallon fuel tank. Since the wings are mounted to the top of the fuselage, above the engine, gravity is all that is required to keep the engine running, even at high RPMs. The engine will very happily burn eleven gallons of fuel per hour, fed by nothing more than gravity.
This simple fact negated our ability to test-run the engine. There was enough work to do that we decided to wait until at least one wing was mounted to start the engine. The joke around the hangar became, “Yeah, we just did a ground-up restoration on a 1939 Fairchild; I just hope the engine runs.”
In March of 2012, Bill Weeden completed his work on the left wing. Time to join it to the fuselage, for the first time in a year. A common thread throughout this series of articles is the interest and genuine support I received throughout the restoration process. As the time came to piece the airplane back together, there was no lack of volunteers to help out. Literally, people showed up at the hangar on the designated day, some of whom I had never met. “I heard there was a wing being put on an airplane today – just came to help out.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard a line similar to that.
On that designated day, several men and a few women donned latex gloves and hoisted the left wing above their heads, and into place. By itself, the wing is not that heavy – two strong adults can pick it up and carry it. But to lift it six feet into the air, and hold it steady while the mounting hardware was installed required a few more hands. Two bolts hold the wing to the fuselage, and two more affix the struts. This is zero-tolerance hardware, which means I would have to lightly tap on the bolts to get them through the mounting plates. Of course, my Dad was there, offering the kind of advice that fathers have given since the beginning of time:
“Watch how you swing that hammer; don’t miss and scuff the paint.” “You shouldn’t have to pound so hard, did you ream out the brackets?” “Careful with that punch – you’re going to slip off the head of the bolt and put a hole right through the wing.” “Don’t hit it so hard – you’ll strip the threads.” “Are you sure you have the right size hardware?” And, my omni favorite – “Watch your language.”
I’ve come to realize the reason fathers give such advice. In my case, having dedicated a year of my time and a small fortune of cash to the project, I had actually planned on scuffing the brand new paint while stripping the threads of wrong-sized hardware in order to slip the chase and punch a hole through the fabric – all while taking the Lord’s name in vain. But, since I was specifically told not to, I’ll have to devise another means of sabotage.
I stood back. We all stood back, and admired the work. From the left-hand side at least, the Fairchild was beginning to look like an airplane again. The mounted wing stretched gracefully out, held in place by two deliberate struts. Even without the dozens of fairings, she was starting to appear beefy and strong. Her lines were beginning to come together, and they were beautiful.
It took me a full day to connect the electrical, fuel, and pressure lines. I was learning the quintessential lesson of any rebuild: nothing goes together as easily as it comes apart. By contrast, it took me less than two hours to disconnect these components a year prior. Everything connected; it was finally time to run the engine.
This was no dry run. Mike used his bore scope, checking for corrosion. Everything pre-oiled, screens cleaned and checked; even the experts shrugged and responded, “Just run it – check the oil after an hour or so for metal fragments. Those old engines are tough; you’ll be just fine.”
I didn’t even have the seats put back in. On a cloudy day in March we pushed the old girl out of the hangar. With only one wing, the airplane was in danger of tipping over, so we braced it with a jack stand. Not wanting the thrust of a 200-horsepower engine to overwhelm the untested brakes, we tied the tail to a tree.
I climbed into the cockpit. Butterflies. I would never again be able to replicate the feeling; that excited anticipation. All clear, I engaged the starter motor. Nothing happened. Just a few clicks. Of all the things – the battery was dead! After a winter of testing lights, radios, avionics, and fuel gauges, I had drained the battery. Curses!
Couldn’t we just jump-start the thing? I pulled up my pickup truck and connected jumper cables. This was embarrassing. I climbed back in the cockpit, cleared the area, and once again engaged the starter.
One final obstacle, one beautiful sound
It is almost impossible to convey the excitement I felt, as I climbed into the cockpit. I would never again be able to replicate this feeling. Not very many people get to sit at the helm of a genuine World War II aircraft, much less operate one. I was approaching the end of a very long journey, with just one remaining obstacle to clear. This was the day we test-ran the engine.
The day began with a series of bad omens. A clear sky turned cloudy, and then let loose with a depressing drizzle. We waited. At seemingly the last moment, the overcast grey began to break, and was dissipated by sunshine. Better. We pushed the aircraft out of the hangar. Only one wing was installed, so we braced it with a jack-stand to prevent the airplane from tipping. We then tied the tail to a tree. Battery dead, I pulled up my pickup truck with a set of jumper cables.
I approached the airplane, looking it over. A milk crate for a pilot’s seat. No doors installed. Mike Weeden holding a fire extinguisher. This ensemble alone could jump-start Jeff Foxworthy’s career. I climbed aboard. This was it.
I sat at the controls, familiarizing myself with the layout of the instrument panel. Once the engine was started I would have a half-dozen gauges to monitor. I wanted to be able to identify each at a glance. I looked outside. A crowd of onlookers was gathering. Ironically, this was one occasion that I preferred not to have an audience.
Here goes. I switched the magnetos on. “Hot mags!” I called out, warning no one to touch the propeller. I pulled the primer, giving the fuel system three solid shots of gasoline. I could hear fuel cursing through the lines. I pumped the throttle three times, activating the accelerator pump and filling the bowl with fuel. Mike called out, “I see fuel dripping from the overflow – you’re good to go.” I noted with a smile that he never strayed far from his fire extinguisher.
One last glance of the instrument panel. “Clear prop!” I yelled out. An onlooker replied, “Prop clear.” I reached down, flipped up the safety cover to the ignition switch, and engaged the starter.
With a very deliberate whine, the starter motor caught. My forward view was now dominated by the propeller, wind milling as the engine turned over. I gripped the throttle. All I needed was for one cylinder to fire, and then catch – I’d quickly pump the throttle so as not to starve the engine of fuel. Timing was everything – too soon, and it would flood.
Nothing. No response. I disengaged the starter, feeling a sense of dread well up from deep inside. “Clear!” I called out. Again, I engaged the motor. Several seconds, and still nothing. I sat back, trying to clear my head. I saw Mike approach, so I switched off the magnetos. “Cold mags,” I announced. He pulled a few of the spark plugs. They were wet, indicating that fuel was, in fact, reaching the cylinders.
Was the problem electrical? I groaned, thinking of the small fortune I had just spent getting the magnetos overhauled and timed. Mike backed off, cleared the area, and I tried again. Still nothing. What the hell?
As I sat in the cockpit racking my brain, Mike’s father, Richard Weeden, stepped forward. His arms folded and with a calm but clear voice he simply asked, “Are you sure you have the magnetos hooked up in the proper firing order?”
That was it. What a stupid mistake – so elementary I debated whether or not to publish that I made it in the first place. The Fairchild has a six-cylinder engine. Each magneto, like an automotive distributor cap, has a terminal for each cylinder. Each terminal is clearly numbered. Like a fool, I wired the number one terminal to cylinder number one, and so forth. In reality, the number one terminal goes to the first cylinder to fire in the firing order, which is not necessarily cylinder number one. Idiot!
I had installed the magnetos; this was why Mike had asked me, like five times, “Are you sure they’re connected in the right order?” It wasn’t his fault; I was adamant that they were. But, notice the difference in how Richard asked the same question. That was it.
Having switched the wires I climbed back into the cockpit. Mags hot, area clear, I once again engaged the starter motor. On the second revolution – almost instantly, the old Ranger engine fired, caught, and roared to life. There was no sputter, no cough, and no hesitation whatsoever. Let me tell you, I have never heard a more beautiful sound in my life.
Mike ran over. “Watch your oil pressure – if it doesn’t register shut the engine down.” It registered. So did all of the other gauges, after a few moments of idling. Needles crept upward and stabilized. Everything was within normal parameters, and everything worked. That was it – we had cleared the final obstacle.
I sat in the cockpit, watching the gauges like a hawk and savoring the moment. The old girl growled like a diesel engine; they absolutely, positively, do not make ‘em like that anymore. I brought the engine to a higher RPM. She roared.
And if you think that’s exciting tune in next week when we fly it for the first time.
There is nothing like a good read. I leaned back in my chair, put up my feet, and poured over the pages. It was the last line that got my attention – that concluding sentence that summarized everything with such precision and abridgment:
“I certify this aircraft has been inspected in accordance with procedures required for an annual inspection and determined to be in airworthy condition.” Signed, Michael Weeden, followed by his A&P number.
I was reading from the aircraft logbook for the newly restored 1939 Fairchild, which documents every alteration, modification, and all maintenance performed on the airplane throughout her life. For example, I know that on April 1st, 1961, the airplane got a new set of tires and an oil change. I know that on July 1, 1974, a new directional gyro was installed in the dash. More recently, in May of 1986, mechanic Richard Weeden installed a new battery.
Finally the most recent entry, made by Mike, is dated May 23, 2012. It is long – four pages summarize the work performed over the preceding fourteen months. It is neatly written in clear, concise wording; very matter-of-fact: “Replaced left and right tires and tubes”, “Wings reinstalled with new mounting hardware”, “Installed new alternator”, “Replaced VHF radios”, “Fuel tanks flushed and new quantity senders installed.” Very innocuous – the entry includes not a hint of the associated frustration or setbacks. Then again, it references none of the joy, either.
I turned in my swivel chair and looked at the old girl. Beneath the florescent shop lights she gleamed. Not a single splattered bug marred the perfect finish; no errant oil leak smeared the paint. Her lines had come together, and they were beautiful in a way that will never go out of style. To me, these classic old World War II-era airplanes are equivalent to the American muscle cars of the late 1960s. Try as they may, engineers will never recreate that lost art.
So then, who’s going to fly it for the first time?
The question had been bantered about the hangar for the past several weeks. The only thing remaining in the restoration process was the Test Flight. Following a major alteration or repair, a Test Flight is required. As defined by the FAA, a qualified pilot, with no passengers, must execute the test. I guess the logic is, that having just restored an airplane, best not to load it with nuns and small children for that initial flight.
Oh, and insurance coverage would not be instated until after the Test Flight. When I asked the aviation insurance representative why not, she simply explained, “Because the Test Flight is when something is most likely to occur.” Well, at least they’re honest.
Legally I could not do the Test Flight – I did not have the proper endorsement on my pilot’s license to fly tailwheel aircraft. I was out. A test pilot with experience in a Fairchild offered, but he was out of town for the next three months. Technically my dad could do it, but it had been 20 years since he last flew, and I refuse to believe that flying an airplane is analogous to riding a bicycle.
And that, my friends, is how Mike Weeden found himself buckled up and sitting at the controls of the 1939 Fairchild on a sunny Sunday morning in June, 2012. He had essentially drawn the short straw.
Holding my baseball cap atop my head with one hand I fought the prop wash and opened the passenger door. I shook Mike’s hand, looked him in the eyes and said; “I’ll see you in a few minutes.” He was busy familiarizing himself with the controls and gauges, and seemed surprised by my announcement. “Oh, ok – I’m just going to fly it around the pattern for a half-hour or so, and then I’ll take you for a ride, if you want.” No worries; nothing out of the ordinary for him. Just test-flying an airplane; just another day at the office. I want a job like that.
A small crowd of onlookers gathered as Mike taxied the Fairchild. The old Ranger engine growled sweetly. After one final check of the systems, Mike maneuvered the aircraft onto the runway and opened her up. Instantly a roar saturated the airport as, slowly at first, the Fairchild rolled forward. She gathered speed and lifted her tail. She now rocketed ahead, unleashed and unrestrained. Halfway down the runway she got light on her mains and, undeniably triumphant, lifted off the ground. The sound of the propeller biting the air reverberated across the airfield, and I laughed out loud, grinning ear to ear as I watched her climb. What a perfectly gorgeous sight.
After 45 minutes of flight Mike brought the airplane back to earth. There was nothing to report – everything performed as it should, with no problems. Three simple words on a separate logbook entry thus completed the restoration process. Dated June 3, 2012: “Test Flight OK,” signed Michael Weeden. Those three little words will never convey my true excitement or sense of accomplishment on that day.
You can find pictures of the Fairchild restoration at the Brodhead EAA Chapter website: www.eaa431.org The website is worth a look – the Fairchild project was but one small slice of the remarkable events that occur on a daily basis at an airfield like Brodhead. One need not be a pilot, or even interested in flying, to be positively affected by the presence and preservation of grassroots aviation.
Working my way out of a quandary situation
Quandary: noun. A state of uncertainty or indecision as to what to do in a particular situation. Used in a sentence: Having just bought and restored an airplane that I was not qualified to fly, I found myself in a quandary. See also dilemma, jam, Catch-22, sticky situation, and my favorite – pickle.
This sounds silly because it is, in a way. I had been so wrapped up, so focused, and so committed to the Fairchild restoration, that I had not taken the time to obtain the qualifications needed, in order to fly it. Thus, in early June, 2012 the airplane was deemed airworthy and signed off. And all I could do was sit and look at it.
Let’s consider the world of automobiles. Say you learned how to drive on a midsize sedan. One day you decide that you would like a full-size pickup truck, with a manual transmission. A few years later you move up in the world, and purchase a convertible sports car.
No problem – once you get your driver’s license, an endorsement is not required to operate a manual-transmission pickup truck, or high-performance sports car. Not true in the aviation world: obtaining endorsements, check rides, and biannual flight reviews are as necessary as filling up with fuel.
Practically every contemporary aircraft is tricycle-gear, from the Cessna 152 in which I trained, to massive passenger airliners like the Boeing 787. In this configuration two mains, and one forward landing gear support the aircraft. Upon landing, the front of the airplane settles down onto a nosewheel, since the aircraft center of gravity is located forward of the main gear.
Conversely, most antique airplanes have conventional gear – everything from the Tiger Moth biplane, to the P-51 Mustang, to the B-17 heavy bombers of World War II. These, like the Fairchild, are called “taildraggers.” Two mains carry the airplane, but since the center of gravity is located aft, the tail settles onto the ground and is supported by a tailwheel or skid.
So then, what’s better, tricycle-gear or taildragger? To answer the question is like trying to determine whether a car with a manual transmission is better or worse than an automatic. In the case of airplanes, they both have advantages. Tailwheel aircraft can operate more effectively from rough terrain, and can cruise at a higher speed than the same airplane with a nose gear. Plus, it must be said – taildraggers, like stick shifts, are more fun.
However, there is a reason airplanes have switched away from tailwheels. A tricycle-gear aircraft, due to its forward center of gravity, is more stable on the ground and in high winds than a taildragger. Having a nosewheel prevents the aircraft from flipping over, should the brakes be applied too aggressively. In addition, it simply takes less time for a student to master a tricycle-gear aircraft.
Most pilots, myself included, learn to fly in a tricycle-gear airplane and then transition to a taildragger. I had more than 100 hours logged in various tricycle-gear aircraft, but before climbing aboard and taking the tailwheel-configured Fairchild for a flight, I would need an endorsement. And, I’ll admit – given the time and small fortune invested, some flight time before being turned loose in my baby.
Meet Glenn Hake, of GrassRoot Flyers, Inc. Glenn is a flight instructor based out of Mt. Morris, Ill. who specializes in tailwheel endorsements. With its wide, grass runway and uncontrolled airspace, Ogle County Airport was just the place to obtain proficiency.
I walked into the hangar, and was a bit surprised when I finally met Glenn. Based on our phone conversations I had pictured someone about my age. As it turns out, Glenn has logged thousands of hours as a corporate pilot, and is closer in age to my father. It has to be said – pilots seem to age very, very well.
“Pleasure to meet you, Dan – how ’bout some coffee?” He spoke with what I would peg a distinct Brooklyn, or New York City accent. Another surprise – turns out Glenn is originally from Texas. I hoped my flying was better than my judgment.
Coffee mugs in hand, we went over the airplane. My tailwheel endorsement would come at the controls of an Aeronca Champ, a lightweight two-seat aircraft perfect for training. The idea was to start out small. I would become proficient in the Champ and then learn how to fly the heavier, more powerful, and more complex Fairchild.
We spent an hour or so going over the Champ before pushing her out of the hangar. Just like teaching someone how to drive stick, there is only so much talking – eventually you just have to get in and do it.
To save weight, some airplanes do not have an electric starter and must be hand-propped. I’ll admit that hand-propping an airplane makes me nervous. It’s kind of like reaching underneath a lawnmower and spinning the blades.
On the second pull, the little Champ sputtered to life. I climbed in, Glenn sitting copilot. Visibility was excellent; I had a nice view out the front windshield. There was absolutely nothing intimidating about the airplane; I just had to go learn how to fly it.
Glenn said it best: “All right, everything looks good – let’s go have some fun.”
Lessons learned for the Fairchild
There I was, learning how to walk all over again.
The summer of 2012 was riddled with more than its fair share of stinking hot, oppressively humid days; this one was no exception. A front was supposedly moving into the area, even though it never actually did, and the weather reacted with a striking case of schizophrenia. Was this day going to be cool and breezy? How about hot and muggy? Perhaps today would bring a warm, soaking rain, just to stir things up. The only way to describe early June 2012 was unsettled.
Despite the breeze, or perhaps because of it, I was sweating bullets. I slid the side window open and allowed the blast to massage my senses. Refreshing. Clouds were moving into the area. With them came a gusty crosswind, which caused the little Champ to buck and weave. I felt like I was wrestling a bear, which in retrospect is pretty pathetic. The Aeronca Champ is perhaps the easiest airplane in the world to fly; yet there I was, feeling very much like a beginner.
The Aeronca Champ is a two-seat aircraft perfect for training. I sat in front as pilot Glenn Hake sat rear seat as copilot. I had an incredible, unimpeded view – imagine riding a motorcycle that can fly. We each wore a headset, which enabled communication between ourselves and any other aircraft that may be in the area. Fat chance; no one was out flying in this soup, except the crazies.
First lesson: Thou shalt not wrestle the aircraft. Without realizing it, I was forming a bad habit. In this weather, the Champ rocked sickingly. Every time the wing dipped, I responded by jerking the control stick in the opposite direction for correction. In his signature calm, cool, collected pilot-speak, Glenn came over the radio, “You’re working way too hard up there; you’re making me sweat. I want you to take your hands off the stick. Let go – just let the airplane fly itself.”
With hesitation I did, and you know what? The airplane does fly itself. Even in turbulence, an aircraft like the Champ is designed to fly straight and level. Amazing – a gust threw up one wing, banking the little airplane nearly on her side. With no input on my or Glenn’s part, it simply leveled off and continued flying. I could hold the stick and maneuver the airplane with micro-movements, and despite atmospheric tumult, she always returned to normal flight.
Second lesson: Landings are fun. I brought the Champ around, setting up for a landing. The procedure was identical to every other aircraft I’ve flown: throttle back, nice even turns, slow down on approach, aim for the threshold of the runway. On final approach it never failed. There I was, concentrating, focusing with absolute solemnity, and Glenn’s voice would crackle over the radio, “Hey. You’re supposed to smile. Remember, this is fun.”
There are two basic types of landings one can make with a tailwheel aircraft. The first is called a three-point landing. In this configuration the airplane touches down in a slow, nose-up attitude, so that the two main wheels and tailwheel simultaneously touch the ground. I believe this to be a perfectly natural approach to landing. As the ground rushed up, I break the descent by pulling back on the stick. Since the airplane is already slow, it responds by dipping the tail in a nice, steady flare. All three wheels touch the ground, and the airplane rolls out nice and controlled.
The second type of touchdown is called a wheel landing. In this design, the airplane is literally flown onto the ground so that only the main wheels make contact. The approach is faster than with a tailwheel landing, which ensures that the aircraft remains level. I’ll admit, the first couple of wheel landings I made turned out hairy.
I gripped the stick, and intently watched the runway. It seemed to be coming at me at an unnervingly high rate of speed. Closer, closer. My instinct told me to pull back, to slow down. Glenn advised, “keep the stick forward.” The earth rushed closer yet. I felt as though I were playing chicken with a stationary object. Keep the stick forward. At the last possible second, level off. The airplane slows only marginally, so I coax it down with minimal forward stick. There – the wheels grab. I instinctively pull back, but because of our speed the tailwheel slams onto the runway, bouncing the airplane back into the air. We’re not fast enough to actually fly – herein lies the danger. Several feet above the runway, traveling more than 50 miles per hour, the aircraft could stall out and drop like a rock. I dump full throttle and the little Champ begrudgingly climbs, clawing skyward. I’ll go around and try again.
The second wheel landing was rough, but slightly better. This was an art, rather than a science. A good wheel landing is a result of acquiring that special touch that tells you when to touch down, when and how much to move the stick, and when to pull back. The secret was to hold the stick forward, to keep the tail off the ground until the airspeed dropped. This method went against the grain of everything I knew thus far.
The third, and subsequent landings got better. A few more, and I began to get the feel for it. As a matter of fact, I found myself smiling – this was fun. After three sessions Glenn signed my logbook. I now had my tailwheel endorsement.
If flying the Champ was fun, I could not wait to get my hands on the Fairchild.
Back to the beginning: My first flight
And here we are, right back where we started.
I began this series of articles at the controls of the newly restored 1939 model 24R Fairchild. The actual restoration process took exactly 14 months, to the day. The project began on April 3, 2011, when Mike Weeden performed that initial inspection of the airframe. Fourteen months later – June 3, 2012, the aircraft left the ground on her maiden flight.
And here I find myself, right back where the series began. I am about to fly my airplane solo, for the first time.
I do the standard run-up. I check the brakes, smiling and shaking my head as I recall the frustration in getting them to work. I move the controls, and look out the window to verify that each surface is reacting accordingly. Again I smile – in the back of my mind I can picture a group of friends and Brodhead Airport volunteers lending a hand, hoisting the great wings into place. I notice how shiny the fresh paint appears, and can recall Bill Weeden masking, spraying, and finishing the surfaces.
I coax the engine up to 1500 RPM. The old Ranger roars, and it sounds the same as it did on that sweet, sweet day she came to life. Finally I make a radio call, hesitating only briefly to remember the excruciating job of installing them, the hours spent lying on my back contorted into a human pretzel.
I glance out the window. Glenn Hake is nowhere to be seen, but that’s OK. As a flight instructor his job is done; there is nothing else he can teach me, I just need to get out there and do it. His voice still echoes, random tidbits bouncing about in my head: “Get that tail down as soon as you can.” “Don’t flair so soon.” “You’re working too hard; just let the airplane fly itself.” “For God’s sake, smile – this is fun, remember?”
Enough reminiscing. Time to cut the cord and just go.
I am lined up, facing directly down the runway. I can’t help but notice – it looks short. I reach down, grip the throttle, and open her up. At full power, several things happen simultaneously. First, that sound – the old girl roars, uncaged and unleashed. It is a unique sound, straight out of World War II. It is a sound that raises the hair on the back of your neck, a sound that stirs emotion, although you cannot comprehend why, exactly.
Second, because of the rotation of the propeller, the airplane pulls hard to the left. An airplane is essentially a big gyroscope, and full power causes the Fairchild to lurch off track. Uncorrected, she will careen off the runway. I apply hard right rudder, keeping her path straight.
The third thing that happens is we start moving. Slowly at first, the machine gathers speed at a geometric rate. It does not seem fast enough – I feel as though the opposite end of the runway is rushing up to greet me.
The engine still roaring, the airplane comes alive as we gather speed. I feel a noticeable change in the controls; less input is required to gain response. We move faster, faster. I ease the stick forward, counter to one’s natural instinct. This brings the tail off the ground, lowering the nose as she stands up on her mains – like a ballerina en pointe. This again causes a sharp pull to the left, noticeable enough to take my breath away. More right rudder, and we continue on track.
Halfway down the runway I can feel it – she’s light on her mains. The ground is a blur. We’re screaming along at over 50 miles per hour as I ease the stick back. There is no transition, hardly a physical indication that our collective weight has been transferred from landing gear to wings as we lift off the ground. I laugh out loud, like a child. Out my side window I watch the earth fall away, sinking beneath the appendage. Liftoff. We are flying.
Micro movements are all that are required to maneuver the great bird. I marvel at the designers and engineers who pieced together this beauty more than 70 years ago. She handles like a dream; stable, secure, rugged and durable. She is nimble, powerful, and flies without a single bad habit. We climb, leisurely gaining altitude at a respectable rate of more than 1,000 feet per minute.
I turn hard left, and then right. She banks 360 degrees steady, requiring no correction. Feeling confident I dip a wing, bringing the airplane nearly on her side. Still, she does not falter. I am smiling the entire time; savoring this perfectly balanced, amazingly correct flying machine. At a safe altitude I even initiate a stall. Despite weighing in at over a ton, the Fairchild simply settles back to straight-and-level. Even with power at idle and full flaps, I could not get her to break into a proper stall.
We head back to earth. Runway approaching, minor corrections, don’t flair too soon; we glide over the threshold. I move the stick back, feeling for the runway. We seem to hang, seconds stretched into minutes, until yes – there it is. Once again, Glenn was proven right – landings are fun. I marvel; this thing lands as well as she flies. The Fairchild settles softly onto her mains as we roll out, slowing to a stop.
As we taxi back I think once again of the past 14 months. I can only conclude that it was all absolutely, positively, worth it.