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Despite the mouse problems, airplane project a go
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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 fanatisized: 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 50 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.

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