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'That'll be a nice airplane when you get it done'
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It was like a middle school shop class, except even more toxic. Seriously, the smell hit you like a brick wall.

I was using a two-part aviation-grade epoxy varnish. I had quickly learned in this project that anything prefixed by the word "aviation" just means "more expensive," but this is how an aviation classic was reborn throughout the summer and winter of 2011.

One of the great surprises of the restoration was noticing how much interest it generated. I would show up when time allowed, often last minute, in the morning, afternoon, or evening after farm chores. Practically every time I worked, someone new would show up.

There was never any malice, just genuine interest. I'd be sanding, or varnishing the wings, when someone would walk in. "What are you working on?" "Is this the Fairchild I heard about?" We would chat, they would politely look over the work, and always end the random rendezvous with an encouragement like, "Stick with it - don't give up," "Boy that'll be a nice airplane when you get it done," "Best of luck, but I don't think you'll need it." My favorite was when an old-timer poked his head in the door, glanced at the stripped wings and correctly remarked, "Say - are these wings off a Fairchild?"

Do you have any idea how uplifting it was, to be surrounded by random displays of optimism?

Slowly but surely, the project began to come together. The damaged rib sections were repaired piece by tedious piece. Mike meticulously separated the sections of the smashed wingtip, and then sandwiched a new runner in place. His handiwork made Bob Vila look like nothing more than a mediocre television personality.

Then, the sanding and varnishing - this is where I came in. Each wing had to be sanded, cleaned, and varnished. Repeat. Three coats were required per wing, with over a pint of brushed varnish per coat per wing. Then, the wing had to be flipped so that the underside could be done. I could have written the definition of "elbow grease."

Finally, right around late August of 2011, both Mike and I simply ran out of time. I was busy with the crop harvest; Mike got called to fly fulltime. That is when I met Mike's brother, Bill Weeden.

I have thought about it, and I think the best way to describe Bill Weeden in the shortest amount of words is he is the quintessential guy you would want to go have a beer with. Quiet, laid-back, knowledgeable, and with an insane talent for finish work, Bill was precisely the guy to cover and paint the Fairchild wings. Also, he had experience - some two years of finishing fabric-covered airplanes.

Like most things, the process started with something uncomplicated and primal - a big sock. I had ordered two envelopes of sewn fabric specifically to fit the Fairchild wings, which Bill pulled over the framework. The "sock" was pulled no tighter than a bed sheet.

Then, the polyester fabric was literally glued to the wing. Wait - let's use the word "cemented"; it seems to encourage greater confidence when speaking of airplanes. Once the fabric set it was shrunk with a calibrated household iron - the beauty of polyester. Three hundred and fifty degrees will contract the fabric to maximum tautness, and when finished, it is tight as a drum.

Special chemicals are applied throughout the process to make the fabric waterproof and UV-resistant. Poly-fabric is impervious to everything except sunlight; unprotected it loses 85 percent of its strength in just one year. Thus, several coats of UV-protectant called Poly-Spray were applied. Literally, it is sunscreen for the airplane.

Of course, the actual process is much more tedious and requires great presence of mind to get right. Any mistake will show right through the final product. Reinforcing tapes, inspection and access holes, drain grommets; these are all features of a covered wing, and were all expertly applied by Bill.

Most tedious were the rib stitches. Glue - I mean, cement - does not provide adequate structural adhesion, so the fabric must be mechanically stitched to the ribs once it is shrunk. A needle is punched through the wing, top and bottom, on each side of a rib. Stitching thread is wrapped around the rib, tied in a special FAA-approved knot, and the process is repeated over and over again. Oh, and there is a trick to working the knot back inside the wing, so that a nasty little dimple does not accommodate every rib stitch.

There were 305 stitches per wing. That's 305 wraps, 305 knots, and 305 times working the needle around a rib, per wing.

Finally, the entire wing was sanded, masked, and then painted. Since I wanted a specific scheme on the airplane, Bill shot the entire structure with white, and then taped off the leading edge for a blue accent. The end result was show-worthy.

The work Bill Weeden performed on the Fairchild is the type of work that makes or breaks a project. In total, he dedicated more than 175 hours to recovering and painting both wings in the summer, fall, and winter of 2011.

If you would like to see more of Bill's work, he is not difficult to spot. He can sometimes be found attending car shows, classic drive-ins, and auto parades. He has a sweet, and I mean sweet, GTO. It is the quintessential Smart Car.

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