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Restoration of an airplane
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I plunged the knife into the skin. It made a sweetly satisfying sucking sound, like a hollow cavity being punctured from the outside. Being careful to avoid the ribs, I slid the knife crosswise. The blade sliced with ease, as through butter.

I inserted my fingers into the incision and lifted slightly, peeling the mass back. Beneath the skin I could see a series of stitches. Grabbing a scissors, I snipped each one. With each cut, the plate of skin I held in my hand gave a little, and pulled away from the ribs.

I repeated the process methodically, with each rib. Before long the floor was a mass of torn skin. My feet constantly snagged a chunk as I moved, threatening a stumble. I knew that I was causing irreparable damage so I looked up quizzically at Mike. "This all has to come off?" I asked.

Believe it or not, I was actually not doing anything unusual. Certain airplanes manufactured right up through the 1960s were covered with fabric, and every so often the fabric skin of an antique airplane must be removed, and the structure recovered.

The earliest airplanes that flew were covered with fabric, and for good reason. It is lightweight, durable, easy to repair, cheap and abundant. No special tools required; anyone with a pair of scissors and a few needles can cover an airplane with fabric. Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in a fabric-covered airplane.

During World War II, as aircraft became faster and more powerful, fabric was replaced by aluminum for the high-performance machines. Fabric stuck around, but in a new form. Irish linen gave way to the more durable Grade A cotton, but it was found that these systems were incredibly flammable. Aircraft factories literally exploded, World War I airplanes burned in midair, and even an arbitrary cigarette ash could set these early aircraft alight.

It was said of these early airplanes, "Don't look at them - you'll start them on fire." Clearly, a new system was needed. Finally, in 1965, technology caught up with demand. A man by the name of Ray Stits designed a process of covering airplanes with polyester fabric. Whereas previous airframes were covered with cotton and dope (cellulose-based paints and coatings, which were flammable), Stits' system used polyester fabric and vinyl-based coatings. The result was a method of covering airplanes that was not only inexpensive and easy, but also safe and reliable.

Fabric is still the only choice for covering a vintage airplane. Thus, as I knifed my way through the skin of my 1939 Fairchild, I really was not doing anything particularly unusual. Believe me, it still felt weird to destroy and remove the beautifully painted skin of the old bird.

The first step in this restoration process was to strip both wings to check for damage. I peeled the skin back, exposing the skeletal framework. A series of parallel ribs give the wing its shape, while two wooden spars run the length of the wing, forward and aft, connecting the ribs and giving the wing its lateral strength. Each rib is constructed of chopstick-sized wooden top and bottom chords, which are bent and held into shape by struts - exactly like a roof truss.

As expected, there were several broken ribs in the left wing - this is what grounded the airplane two decades ago. These would need to be individually fixed, one by one. Additionally, I discovered a few other surprises. Buried within each wing, well away from the inspection holes and access covers, were mouse nests. The irksome little rodents had crawled up into the wings, chewed through the cloth lacing and used it to build their nests. Thankfully the airplane had been mothballed - there was obviously no recent activity. Still, the damage had been done. In addition to the broken ribs I would need to strip and re-primer all of the metal cross bracing and steel control arms.

At that very moment I lost all sympathy for Ralph the motorcycle-driving mouse and his entire ilk. I also began reading up on a heavenly product called rodenticide.

What's this - surprise. I discovered another treasure. As I pulled the final bit of skin from the right wing, the wingtip light fell off in my hand. Mike, the aircraft forensic analyst, came over to investigate. Somewhere along the line in the Fairchild's 73-year history, the wingtip had gotten smashed. Mike instantly offered this breakdown: "That's called "hangar rash'. See how the wingtip is broken from behind? That's not from flight - someone was pushing it into a hangar and got too close to the door. Must've been moving, too - see how the aileron bay is torqued? We'll have to address that."

All I could offer was a weak, "I didn't do it."

Thus the process began. One of the most valuable lessons Mike Weeden provided me in those initial days was to drop the intimidation factor. We were working on an airplane - a machine designed to climb thousands of feet into the air and travel more than 100 miles per hour, with a range of hundreds of miles. To say the least, I was intimidated.

Mike taught me, without knowingly addressing it, that the airplane is only that - a machine. People just like us built it. People just like us maintain it, and people just like us keep it running. Without people like us, it sits idle and rots.

Why not fix it up and keep it flying?

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