by Dan Wegmueller
It is the little things, like the limited forward view. I won’t be able to see properly until we gather enough speed to lift the tail. Then, there is P-factor. I must remember to compensate with the rudder immediately when power is added, and again, once the tail lifts. Nor can I forget the burn rates: a pint or better of oil and 11 gallons of fuel per hour. Finally, it is a good thing I’m not in a hurry – we’ll cruise at about 100 miles per hour.
Just getting to the point of flight was in and of itself a great journey. The memory of that trip is never far from my mind, particularly during the run-up when I have the runway and entire world stretched out ahead to infinity.
In the early spring of 2011, I visited a hangar at a municipal airport in south-central Wisconsin. I was not flying this day; I merely wanted to peek inside. Tucked in a corner of the shed was an aviation classic: a 1939 Fairchild, model 24R. There she was, sitting just as she had for the past 20 years, with a coat of dust and reeking of mothballs. Despite her sabbatical from service, the airplane could still turn heads. I dreamed of what it might be like to fly her.
Restoring the Fairchild was not an unobtainable dream; the owner of this grand flying machine was my father. I had often approached him with the idea of returning the airplane to flying condition; my optimism was always thwarted by two factors: experience and money. Very simply, I did not possess the wherewithal to take on such a complicated, long-term restoration project, nor could I afford to pay someone else to do it for me. Thus, the airplane sat.
Quite by accident one day, I was introduced to an A&P named Mike Weeden (http://www.brodheadaviation.com). Based out of Brodhead, Wisconsin, Mike specializes in guiding aircraft owners through precisely the type of restoration I was looking to undertake. Mike had a workshop, paint booth, tools, aircraft hardware, and a lifetime of experience and know-how. Working under his guidance, I could perform the tedious odd jobs while Mike tackled the technical aspects of the restoration, overseeing the repairs and alterations. Restoring the Fairchild suddenly appeared to be affordable, timely, and absolutely obtainable. After years of reverie, I had found the answer.
From the beginning, the greatest surprise in taking on the Fairchild restoration was the amount of genuine interest it generated. When it came time to detach the wings from the fuselage to relocate them to Mike’s shop, some half-dozen volunteers turned out to lend a hand. As I worked sporadically over the summer, fall, and winter of 2011, someone would inevitably drop by to view the progress.
Encouragement was universal. Strangers would politely stand by, chat for a few minutes and then be on their way, offering words like: “Stick with it – it’s a rewarding experience.” Or, “Good luck, but I don’t think you’ll need it!” My favorite line came from an old-timer who randomly dropped in one day while I was sanding between coats of varnish. He gazed at the naked, skeletal wings and remarked, “Say – are those wings off a Fairchild?”
Another surprise of the restoration was the necessity of networking. The Fairchild is a rare enough bird that certain spare parts, components, and repair methods are not readily available. During the course of the restoration, I shipped the magnetos and carburetor to Illinois, the Ranger engine to Missouri, Grimes landing light motors to California, and the propeller to Nevada. I spoke cumulatively for hours with people all over the United States who specialize in the restoration of Fairchild aircraft. In nearly every case, I was rewarded with newfound friendship with enthusiasts who shared my interest in classic aircraft.
Of course, challenges arose at nearly every step, but none were more daunting than upgrading the radios.
From the beginning of the restoration, I knew I would have to replace the avionics stack. The nav/com was hopelessly outdated, and the transponder did not even work. The biggest question: With what should I replace them? My ears echoed with advice, ranging from a surly old man grumbling, “Hell, just get a handheld; you don’t need anything more than that;” to a Navy pilot adamant that I “needed” a Garmin 430 GPS Nav/Com, with moving map display, built-in approach plates, and XM weather.
The good thing about advice is that most of the time it is free. Something halfway between the extremes would suffice, so in the end, I went with a simple Garmin SL 40 Com, GTX 327 Mode C transponder, and four-place audio panel from PS Engineering, all of which would fit nicely into the instrument panel with room to spare. In order to save on costs, Mike and I worked with the avionics supplier. We ordered the three units, wiring harness, breakers, switches, and headset jacks. All I had to do was install them. For those of you who have not had the pleasure, it went something like this:
I sit sideways in the door opening and shimmy backwards so that I am lying on my back. I raise my legs so my knees are tucked into my chest, then swing my feet into the cockpit and rest them on the rear seat frame. Thankfully, the seats have been removed. I slide forward, being careful not to spear my shoulder blade with the pilot seat bracket like last time. To get this far, I must have been a contortionist in a previous life.
I am now lying on my back on the floor of the airplane, my head beneath the dash, the control sticks and flap actuator digging into my collarbone. I pray to God I didn’t forget anything. I hold the flashlight in my teeth and attempt to focus the beam onto the connection I need. Ignoring the sweat beading on my forehead and running into my eye, I balance on my chest an assortment of tools. I reach for the screwdriver, but 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 screwdriver 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 screwdriver. 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.
In times like these, I would joke to Mike, if only he had kept a swear jar in his hangar. I could have paid off the entire restoration just installing the radios.
Over the course of 14 months, the Fairchild began to come back together. Both wings were stripped, repaired, and recovered using the Poly-Fiber process. The fuselage was inspected, rejuvenated, and repainted. New components, like the radio stack, brakes, and certain avionics were installed. Every step of the way, we were encouraged by an ever-growing group of supporters. When it came time to reattach the wings, so many people turned out to help that we ordered pizza and made an afternoon picnic out of it.
Then, the time came for the Fairchild to fly. After 20 years of idle storage, a 14-month restoration, and a comfortable investment of cash, the old girl left the earth and climbed into the air with over seven decades worth of pent up glory and grandeur on full display. I know of no more beautiful sound than that Ranger engine roaring skyward.
Each time I perform the run up, I reminisce fondly of the 14 months and countless new friends that brought me here. The scars on my forearms from intimate bouts with razor-sharp zip ties and safety wire have all but disappeared.
Then: full-throttle. The old girl roars ahead, standing up on her mains as delicately as a ballerina en Pointe. I can’t help it; I smile every time.
After liftoff, we bank lazily, departing the airspace. I throttle back to cruise, relishing the precision and balance of this superb machine. She may not fly very fast, but man is it fun to get there.
Landing is as controlled and deliberate as flight. The approach is smooth; the glide a comfortable descent. Just over the numbers, I level off, letting the old girl bleed speed of her own accord. When she’s good and ready, she dips her tail and settles down. Whether executing a three-point or main wheel landing, the Fairchild lands as nicely as she flies.
No matter how my day is going, each time that tail lifts off the ground, I can’t help but realize that it was all totally worth it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Wegmueller is a regular columnist for the Monroe Times and operates a small, grass-based Brown Swiss dairy farm. He enjoys scuba diving, cross-country motorcycling, and has held a Private Pilot Certificate since age 17. Dan and his wife, Ashley, live just outside of Monroe, Wisconsin, with their two horses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org