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Deconstructing the airplane
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"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.

It is not everyday that one hears about a Monroe bank robbery/high-speed chase from a pizza delivery person. (While the incident was initially reported as a possible bank robbery, the incident was actually a drug-related robbery at a small grocery store on the Square.) Then again, it's not every day 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 6 feet wide and nearly 17 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. Wisconsin 11/81 was blocked east of Juda, which meant we had to take back roads - curses. I was furious - some fool tried a robbery, 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?"

- Dan Wegmueller of Monroe writes a column for the Times each Monday. He can be reached at