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Replacing radio costly, irksome job on airplane
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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?

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 U.S. airports. After hearing his recommendation I looked it up, and nearly fell off my chair - the Garmin 430 retails for around $10,000. 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, and 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, Ill. 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 carry-on 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 12-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.

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