By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911
This story first ran in the January 2020 issue of EAA
We started up the trail
single file, passing between large boulders scattered on either side of the
path. The afternoon sunlight filtered through the thick woods, falling on the
ground in dancing patches. The rich fragrance of pine permeated the chill in
the air. The path steepened, and we stopped talking as the walk began to raise
our heart rates.
After 15 minutes, we
reached a clearing more than halfway up the “bubble,” as they called it. Not
tall enough to be classified as a “mountain,” this certainly was not a hill
“Whew,” Jerry said. “Let’s
sit and rest here a minute.”
We sat down on a granite
outcropping in Acadia National Park on the Maine coast.
“Look, we’re already
getting a nice view,” I said. “I hope that red Waco flies over again.”
I thought I heard Jerry’s
“Good heavens. Is that
your phone? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“Hello,” Jerry said.
“Jerry? This is Rick.”
“Hey, I need your advice.
You know, I’ve been looking for a Stearman to restore. I think I found it.”
“Okay, tell me about it.”
I laughed. Here we are on
top of a mountain — okay, a bubble — and Jerry has disappeared down the rabbit
hole of airplanes. Fully understandable, but I knew he would become completely
immersed and forget we were even on a hike.
Twenty minutes later,
after I’d hiked to the top of the bubble to find out what the path down the
other side looked like, I returned to hear, “Okay, well, I would definitely
pass on that one, Rick, and wait for a better deal.”
Jerry hung up and looked
“Rick fell in love with a
blue Stearman,” he said. “He really wants it. He called to get advice on
whether to go ahead. It’s missing a lot of parts, the prop is bent, and the
engine has been sitting idle for a long time. It failed a fabric test, and it
appears to have spar damage. I told him to pass on it.”
“Well, I’m glad he called
you. Did you tell him you were halfway up a mountain — er, a bubble — on a
“No, I had trouble getting
a word in edgewise.”
“Hey, we’re meeting the
guys at the pond house. Let’s get going.”
Fifteen minutes later, we
were at the top. The view was stunning. Sparkling lakes dotted the forest
landscape. Just as we were about to head down the trail on the opposite side,
Jerry’s phone rang again.
“I can’t believe you’re
getting a signal here,” I said, looking at the scenery. “There should be a law
Jerry answered the phone.
It was Rick again.
“I did it! I got it!”
“You bought it?”
“Yes. I just called the
guy back. Can you help me pick it up next week?”
“Sure, I’ll see you next
week.” Jerry hung up.
“He’s mad for it,” he
said, looking at me. “He won’t listen. Wildly in love.”
“I don’t think there’s a
cure for that.”
“No, there’s not a cure.
But Rick may fall out of love when he finds out how much work it’s going to be.
He hasn’t done any real research. And you know how impulsive he is.”
“I know. We just
Getting a “good deal” on
an airplane that needs work is not enough information to go on when making a
restoration choice. Here are the questions to ask before you invest time,
effort, and money restoring an aircraft. The following factors also affect
airworthiness, safety, and resale values.
For the purposes of this
article, restoration means restoring any aircraft to airworthy, flying
condition. It can begin as a box of parts or a flying aircraft. The term
“flying basket case” is a pejorative tag that some of us use to say the
airplane is in really poor condition. It is a tribute to the toughness of the
airplanes that they can have a lot wrong with them and still get in the air.
In addition to antique,
warbird, and classic aircraft restorations, you can also restore an aircraft
that has an experimental certificate. With the boom in homebuilt kit aircraft,
there are hundreds of models to choose from. When we say restoration in this
context, it’s assuming that the aircraft flew at one time and has an
Here’s what to think
about before you plunk down your money and show up with the trailer.
Money. Restoration is going to cost more than you think
it will. You already knew that, but here’s how to head off really big
surprises. Upfront research is the single most important thing you can do to
minimize regrets. Don’t let yourself fall in love just yet.
knowledgeable to help you evaluate the airplane. It’s worth paying for a prebuy
inspection, even if the aircraft is in boxes. A professional evaluation will
help stave off the love pangs.
Verify that the project
has a data plate, airworthiness certificate, and registration. If it’s a
homebuilt, verify that it was signed out of the testing phase and has a set of
operating limitations with the airworthiness certificate. Do a
registration/title search to make sure the person selling it is the person who
Inspect the logbooks.
Look at damage history, maintenance, and any large time gaps in flying that
might indicate hidden corrosion.
Do an airworthiness directive (AD) search and determine if it complies with all ADs. This is a major surprise factor that can cost a lot of time and money to correct later. If you’re looking at a homebuilt, look for any certified parts that might have an AD on them.
Have an A&P mechanic or
qualified repair shop evaluate the engine and propeller. These are expensive
Determine what’s missing.
This could be the biggest roadblock to your restoration. Restorers will tell
you that finding and/or making parts gets time-consuming and expensive. Once
Jerry and I went to pick up a Stearman we bought (online) that we wanted to
personally restore. As we loaded the boxes and pieces into the enclosed trailer
inside the massive hangar, we found more and more things missing. The owner
waved his hand over the disorganized space and shrugged as we searched. Hours
later, inventory in hand, we were able to negotiate a much better price.
Work. How much work? Like money, the time for the
project is going to expand no matter how tightly you try to control it. Realize
that there will be moments when you wonder why you began. Are you up to it?
Assume that it will be triple the work you think it will be.
Evaluate your skills.
There will be times when you’re overwhelmed by the project — this is normal — will
you be able to locate help?
Tools and equipment. Restoring an aircraft is absolutely one of the best reasons to buy tools and shop equipment. Remember that you can probably borrow specialized tools from your A&P friends and local EAA chapter.
Space. Do you have the space you need? You can work from your garage, but a hangar will be easier unless your project is a small homebuilt.
The aggravation factor. Some projects are more straightforward than
others. The term basket case also refers to how we feel after looking for a
part that we thought we had already. As this happens over and over again, we
will wonder why we started the project in the first place. Don’t be derailed.
The readier you are for these moments, the stronger you’ll be as you forge
Some restorations have a
higher aggravation factor, such as earlier aircraft with less information about
them, multiple and confusing sets of plans, and fewer available parts.
Get help. Develop a
network of other owners who you can call for advice. Join the type club if
there is one for your restoration.
Talk to other owners and
restorers of the airplane you want. Take their advice to heart.
Want to perform a major
alteration on a certified aircraft? Be prepared to obtain approvals with lots
of paperwork. It’s usually worth it.
Are you a builder or a
flyer? This is a major point of
discussion when I talk to groups of people wanting to know what is involved in
building an airplane. If you figure out the answer to this question before you
build or restore, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.
If you want to get in the
air fast, find an already flying aircraft that needs work. Doing a fabric-covering
job yourself will save a lot of money and won’t take years to do — unless you
identify other problems in the disassembly.
Be careful if you lean
toward flying satisfaction over building. There may be enough surprises and
aggravation in restoring an aircraft to stop you from finishing.
How much fun? When you get down to it, why are we all
flying? Our wonderful secret is that flying is a blast. Airplanes represent our
creative drive and are a link to both our physical and spiritual connections
with the earth and the heavens.
Read the feature stories
in EAA Sport Aviation about members
restoring an airplane that has been in the family for decades, and you realize
that fun really isn’t the right word for owning and flying a special
restoration. The words sentimental, love, and lifelong dream come to mind.
Several years ago, we
restored the Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser that rescued
Smokey Bear from a forest fire in 1950. The heartwarming story filled us with respect and excitement as
we restored the red- and cream-colored airplane to factory-new condition. We
wept with happiness watching the airplane lift off the runway to fly home as
pristine as it was 70 years ago with the Smokey Bear logo on the side.
Sometimes our choices aren’t logical. And that’s okay. Go for it.
Wondering about paperwork for your restoration?
If your project doesn’t
have a permanent airworthiness certificate, or you have made major alterations
or repairs, a column by the late Robert Lock has your answer. In the
September/October 2019 edition of Vintage Airplane, his reprinted column
The Vintage Mechanic brings
clarity to the process in “Some Thoughts on Restoration and Airworthiness.”
If you are not an A&P mechanic, can you do the restoration if it’s a type-certificated production airplane?
The short answer is yes
if you have an A&P friend who is willing to supervise the work you do.
FAR 43.3 (d) reads, “A
person working under the supervision of a holder of a mechanic or repairman
certificate may perform the maintenance, preventive maintenance, and
alterations that his supervisor is authorized to perform, if the supervisor
personally observes the work being done to the extent necessary to ensure that
it is being done properly, and if the supervisor is readily available, in
person, for consultation.”
It goes on to say that inspections are not included. So, your A&P companion will review what you are to do, and how to do it, and then inspect the work before entering it into the logbook. Eventually, an A&P/IA will review and inspect the aircraft, returning it to service.
Don’t forget that you can
also pay someone else (an A&P or an authorized facility) to work on the
restoration, without limit.
If you are restoring an
experimental aircraft, you can restore to your heart’s content. You will only
need a condition inspection signoff in your logbooks to fly it, assuming you
did not make any major changes and the airplane still adheres to the operating
limitations that it was certificated under.
Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a
manufacturing engineer, A&P, technical counselor, flight advisor, and
former DAR. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III, and is
researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight,
details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn
more at https://DreamTakeFlight.com.