Restoring an Airplane – Part Two

Vintage Aircraft Association | Mar 23, 2015 | Technical Articles

by Ron Alexander, VAA 27150

Finding a Project

There exist a surprising number of classic and antique airplanes that are available for restoration. The first place I would recommend looking is in Trade-A-Plane or online at Each has an antique section in addition to other sections such as Aeronca, Citabria, Piper, Stearman, Waco, etc. They offer a large number of flying aircraft, projects, parts and services for all models of airplanes. This is probably the best place to start. In addition, you can obtain a listing of various “Type Clubs” from the Vintage Aircraft Association website. These clubs usually have a listing of airplanes and projects for sale or can direct you to other sources for information. Really rare projects or airplanes that are considered “good deals” are usually purchased right away. They will not stay on the market long because a number of people watch for that “right project” and as soon as they see it they make the plunge. Of course, a number of magazines and other publications list antique and classic airplanes that are available.

Take your time. Don’t be in a big hurry to find the right project. It will take some searching and inspecting before deciding to purchase. Once you find the right airplane you should look for certain items. Let’s take a look at some of the more important points.

  • First of all, is the airplane flying, capable of being ferried, or in pieces? As discussed previously, a flying or assembled airplane is preferable to a basket case project. This fact will affect the value of the project along with having a major impact upon the time and effort it will take you to restore the airplane.
  • Is the paperwork in order? The airplane should have a standard airworthiness certificate and registration paperwork. Be wary of an airplane with no airworthiness certificate. Not to say that you cannot get the certificate but it will require extra effort. If it has been lost you can get it replaced. However, you need to be sure that the owner actually had an airworthiness certificate. Perhaps modifications were made to the airplane at some time in the past and the airworthiness is no longer valid. If that is the case, a FAA Inspector or Designated Airworthiness Representative will have to inspect the airplane when it is complete and reissue the airworthiness certificate. This will add time to the project. It is much easier if you can obtain a copy of the airworthiness certificate.
  • Inspect the logbooks thoroughly. You can often find out a lot of good information from the aircraft logbooks. You should specifically look for damage history, sudden stoppage of the engine, propeller damage, routine maintenance, when the airplane received its last annual, if it is a fabric airplane—when was it last recovered, etc. Take time to search these documents for problem areas. Hopefully, the logbooks have been properly kept
  • Airworthiness Directives (AD Notes)—search the logbooks for AD notes and their compliance. Prior to reviewing this have a local mechanic search for the AD notes that apply to the airplane you are considering. You can have a service do this for you. You should be aware of any outstanding AD notes or major ones that will affect the restoration of the airplane. If you fail to research this adequately it can cause major problems. As an example, if you discover a major AD note after the airplane is complete you may have to cut out fabric or do some disassembly to comply with the requirements.
  • Engine condition—how long has it been since the engine was used. Has the airplane been sitting for years and, if so, was the engine prepared for this storage? What is the total time on the engine, the time since major overhaul, who did the overhaul, has the oil been regularly changed, etc. If the airplane does not have a recording tachometer (this is often true with an antique airplane), then the times discussed will probably not be accurate. The condition of the engine will certainly have a bearing on the value of the project. More than likely you will want to have the engine overhauled by a reputable shop before placing it upon your newly restored airplane,
  • What is the condition of the propeller? Look through the logbook for any damage history, date of last overhaul, any outstanding AD notes, etc. Look for corrosion or evidence of damage. Propeller problems can be very expensive. Replacing a propeller is often very costly when you can find a replacement.
  • Try to determine what parts are missing. This is not always easy to do. Again, if the airplane is still assembled then you can assume that most of the parts are in place. If it has been disassembled, then you have problems. It will be a rarity if all of the parts are there if the airplane has been taken apart. That means you will have to find and purchase these parts. If the parts are not there it is a good bet that they are hard to obtain and expensive.
  • Do a title search on the airplane. This will ensure that the aircraft has been registered and that the person you are writing a check to actually owns the airplane. This will also uncover any liens that may be filed on the airplane.
  • If the airplane is still flying does it have a current annual inspection? If not, you must obtain a ferry permit to fly it home. Is it safe to ferry? What is the condition of the engine, the fabric, the wood, propeller, etc. If the airplane is safe to fly then the next step is to analyze your flying skills. Have you flown this type airplane before and are you current? If the answer is no then you should take someone with you who is experienced in this type airplane. Some antique airplanes are a challenge to fly. Don’t risk unnecessary damage that will add to your restoration time or damage your ego (or body).
  • If the airplane is not ferriable, then you must determine how you will disassemble it and how you will transport it. I cannot overemphasize the importance of proper disassembly. If you hurry through this process you will add countless hours to the restoration time. I would suggest minor disassembly—just enough to transport the airplane. Take the wings off and leave everything else in tact, if possible. If not, then only remove what is absolutely necessary. As you remove a part tag it and be very careful in moving it. You can do a lot of damage disassembling and transporting an airplane. Take your time as you take the airplane apart.
  • If the airplane is not flyable, transporting it to your home or workshop space can be a challenge. The degree of difficulty is usually proportional to the size of the airplane. Obviously, with a biplane you will have 4 wings to move. This can be even more interesting. A long, flat bed trailer is a good way to move the airplane. Enclosed trailers can also work but if the project is a biplane you will usually have to remove the center section to be able to get it into the trailer. Each instance will be different. Take a look at what you need and how to move it before you go.
  • Insurance—can you obtain insurance on the airplane? You should investigate the availability of insurance for the airplane and your experience level. Don’t forget to insure the airplane prior to moving it.

Let’s assume you have found the ideal project, you have managed to get it safely home and you are ready to start working on it. Where do you start?

Beginning the Restoration Process

Prior to starting to work on the airplane I would suggest you organize your workshop space. You are going to need a place to clean and prime parts. This will be one of the major tasks you will have to perform. Most of the restoration work involves disassembly, cleaning, priming, and reassembly. You should have access to a bead blaster or sand blaster. In an ideal workshop you will have a separate place to paint parts. Try to set aside space to store component parts. You will need to store parts that have not been restored and parts that have been completed. Keep them separate if at all possible.

Probably the most important step in restoring an airplane involves disassembly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. Do not rush into the project and begin taking things apart. Leave as much assembled as you can and before you begin removing parts take pictures, make drawings, and take notes, anything you can do to remind yourself as to how the part was originally attached. You will have to decide whether or not you are going to disassemble the entire airplane. Often you will be dealing with cosmetic issues that do not require repair and reassembly. More often than not you will find it much easier to remove a part so you can adequately clean it, inspect it, and repair it if needed. I would suggest obtaining any kind of manual that you can find regarding maintenance on the airplane. This is certainly possible with most classic airplanes. Read through the manual before you start disassembling the airplane.

When you remove a part use a small tobacco bag, place the attaching hardware in the bag and then attach the bag to the part. This will save a lot of time later when you are replacing hardware and reassembling the airplane. Be very careful not to damage pieces when you are disassembling. Taking the wings off an airplane is no easy task. You should have plenty of help and think through how you will support the wings while they are being removed from the fuselage and what you are going to do with them when they are removed.

After deciding what needs to be disassembled, then focus your attention on one section at a time. I would suggest that you begin with the tail section of the airplane. Start with one tail surface. After completing all tail surfaces, I would then suggest restoring the wings followed by the fuselage last. This will allow you to gain experience on small parts so that you do not make mistakes on larger pieces—mistakes that might be more costly.

Another reason for this sequence has to do with storage of parts. It is much easier to store and protect the smaller pieces. Also, the fuselage will usually take the most time to complete. I place it last in the sequence so that when it is complete I can then assemble the airplane.

Again the process is as follows:

  • Remove the part from the airplane
  • Carefully remove the covering from the part if fabric covered
  • Clean the part by removing old primer, varnish, paint, etc.
  • Inspect the part for any damage
  • Double check for AD notes to be sure the part does not need modification
  • Repair damage or replace wood, tubing, etc. as needed
  • Prime or varnish the piece
  • Set it aside until required for reassembly

(Remember, if you do not have a mechanic’s license (A & P) then all of this must be done under the supervision of a licensed mechanic).

Focus on one area of restoration at a time. By that I mean a tail surface, a wing, the fuselage, etc. Do not set unrealistic goals for yourself. Look at the restoration process in component parts rather than the entire airplane. It will probably take less time to restore an airplane than it will to build one from a kit. This is not always true but most of the time this fact will apply. Remember that you can legally hire a professional to complete any restoration task. This will add money but certainly save time.

Do not forget to involve your family in the process. To not do so is to invite problems. Type Clubs certainly encourage family involvement. Many of these clubs have annual events that include family members. Most antique and classic airplanes have at least 2 seats so you can take someone with you when you fly. Restoration work lends itself to family involvement. There are a number of tasks that can be completed by persons without a lot of mechanical experience.

Obviously, a big part of restoring an airplane involves knowing how to properly inspect component parts. With this in mind, in future articles we will discuss inspection of aircraft wood, metal, and fabric.