Ron-Alexander_2012_smallby Ron Alexander, VAA 27150

What better way to acquire the airplane of your dreams than to restore an antique or classic. This is an option often overlooked by pilots who are considering building an airplane. Restoring an airplane is certainly a viable alternative to building one from a set of plans or from a kit. Rebuilding a production airplane has a lot going for it. First of all, you have a proven design. One that has usually been around for a number of years. Most of the problems associated with the airplane have been discovered and usually resolved through AD notes, modifications, etc. Insurance is normally available at a reasonable rate. The airplane usually has (and will continue) to appreciate in value through the years. You can hire professionals to do a part or all of the work for you. And, in many cases you are keeping a piece of history alive through the restoration of an antique airplane.

Restoration of aircraft is a significant portion of sport aviation. A large number of individuals have and are participating in this activity. It often requires less time and money than building an airplane. The construction skills and activities are virtually the same in building and restoring. The major difference is the fact that you are starting with an airplane that either is or has been flying. Restoring involves disassembly of a known quantity, inspecting and cleaning the component parts, and then reassembling the airplane. Compare that to building from a set of plans or an assembly manual.

One of the down sides many people have with restorations is the limited types of aircraft that are available to restore. You may have your heart set on an experimental airplane that better suits your needs. However, whether you are seeking an airplane for aerobatics, travel, or just plain fun flying you should take a look at what is available from the production side of aviation that may be restored. If you can find an airplane that meets your needs then this may be the way for you to go. If you are leaning toward a restoration then I would suggest that you join the Vintage Airplane Association. This will place you in contact with people who have a similar interest in older airplanes. There also are several EAA and VAA Chapters that specifically address antique airplanes.

Understand that you do not have to select an older airplane to restore. You may find a newer production airplane that requires refurbishing or just plain cleaning up. This is certainly an option. You can often find an airplane that is in need of cosmetics and minor repairs, refurbish it and have a great airplane along with a good investment. Many people decide to purchase and restore a warbird. This is frequently done. However, most restorers are looking for an antique or classic airplane.

I don’t want to present the impression that restoring an airplane is an easy task. It certainly requires a commitment on the part of the individual. Usually it is somewhat easier than building an airplane but certain commitments must be made prior to beginning the project. Like an amateur-built project, a restoration project will take a lot of time to complete. It will require tools, a workshop space, development of certain construction skills, and a certain financial commitment. Like building an airplane, the rewards associated with restoring an airplane are many. You simply must choose which airplane you desire, search for it, purchase it, and begin work. You will find yourself in for a very rewarding experience.

What is Available?

What type projects are available to restore? The potential restorer has several options.

  • Obtain a data plate and logbooks. Yes, you can literally build an airplane from scratch if you have the original data plate and a few parts. Obviously, this is the most difficult restoration. It is essentially the same as building an airplane except with more FAA restrictions.
  • Purchase a basket case. A restoration project that is termed a “basket case” means that the airplane has been disassembled into pieces. These pieces are usually scattered throughout a basement or hangar. A lot of parts will be missing. This is termed a basket case because that is what you may become prior to completing the project. It will require a lot of work but can be done.
  • An assembled airplane. This is obviously the best type of project to purchase. Everything should be in place. You can either ferry the airplane to your field and disassemble it, or disassemble it and transport it home. If the annual inspection on the airplane has expired and you cannot get an IA to sign it off the annual due to obvious problems, you may be able to convince the FAA to give you a ferry permit to fly the airplane to your location. You must have the airplane inspected and deemed airworthy for the flight by a licensed mechanic. We will discuss later the best way to disassemble the airplane.
  • A licensed, flying airplane. This type of project should require less work. It may only need cosmetic attention.

FAA Restrictions

What about legalities? You probably do not have an Airframe and Powerplant license. If not, can you legally restore a production airplane? Remember, we are discussing a type certificated, production airplane and not an experimental. The rules are different. To begin with, maintenance of experimental airplanes is not covered under Federal Aviation Regulation Part 43. Production aircraft are subject to this regulation. What if you want to restore an antique, classic, or warbird? How do you do that without holding a valid mechanic’s license? FAR Part 43.3 defines persons authorized to perform maintenance, preventive maintenance, rebuilding, and alteration. FAR 43.3 (d) reads “A person working under the supervision of a holder of a mechanic or repairman certificate may perform the maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations that his supervisor is authorized to perform, if the supervisor personally observes the work being done to the extent necessary to ensure that it is being done properly, and if the supervisor is readily available, in person, for consultation.” It goes on to say that inspections are not included. So, this means that the FAA allows me to do work on my production airplane without holding a mechanic’s certificate. I simply must do it under the direct supervision of the holder of a mechanic’s certificate. This is subject to a certain degree of interpretation, however, it is generally understood that the licensed mechanic does not have to be present during all of the work.

To get more specific, lets assume that you have woodwork that needs to be accomplished on a wing. If you do not have an Airframe Mechanic’s license, then the work must be done by or under the supervision of a licensed mechanic. If under the supervision of a mechanic, the mechanic must first inspect what needs to be done and explain how to do the repair. You can then do work on the repair without the mechanic being present. The mechanic must clarify any uncertainty that you encounter. Finally, the mechanic then inspects the work and ensures it has been correctly performed. The repair would then be documented in the aircraft’s airframe logbook with the licensed mechanic signing the entry. This is generally accepted as complying with FAR 43.3 (d).

Your first step then, is to find a licensed mechanic who is willing to oversee (and ultimately be responsible) for the work you perform. I would recommend that you solicit the services of an A & P mechanic who has an Inspector’s Authorization. An IA will have to return the airplane to service. In other words, they will have to sign off the maintenance that has been performed on the airplane before you can fly it. Lest you think otherwise, there are a number of IA’s throughout the country who are willing to work with restorers in this manner.

Now, if you so desire you may hire a professional mechanic to do any part of the restoration or the entire restoration. There is obviously no “major portion” rule that applies to restoring a production airplane. You can hire someone to do welding, wood work, fabric work, etc. or you can simply find a project in need of restoration and hire a qualified shop or mechanic to restore the entire airplane to flying condition.

Time Required

How much time will you have to commit to the project? Of course, this depends upon the type of restoration. Is it a basket case, a flying airplane, or just a few parts and a data plate? Each of these will require a different amount of time. A project that is missing a lot of parts and has not flown in years will require a lot more time than an airplane that has been flying and only needs cosmetic work. Complexity of the airplane itself will directly affect the restoration time. Will it require a lot of woodwork or welding? Will you have to have cowling formed? Is fabric covering involved? Availability of parts will also be an issue. Some aircraft suppliers manufacture and distribute parts for particular aircraft types. They must do any manufacturing under a Parts Manufacturing Authority to satisfy FAA requirements. Having these parts available and being able to track them down will save a lot of time. Certain antique airplanes with few left in existence will require more time just to find or manufacture needed parts.

Access to type clubs will be a time saver. There are a large number of aircraft “type clubs” that are active. These clubs are made up of members with like interests in certain types of airplanes. The Cub Club, Short Wing Piper Club, and Stearman Restorer’s Association are examples. These clubs usually mail out newsletters on a regular basis with valuable information about specific airplanes. Members are available to answer questions. Proper use of type clubs will directly affect the amount of time involved in restoring an airplane.

Like building an airplane, in order to successfully complete a restoration you will need to make a time commitment. It is impossible to say it will take a certain number of hours to complete a project. Too many factors enter in to the number. When asked how many hours it will take to build or restore an airplane, my answer is “more than you think.”

Workshop Space & Tools

The workshop space and tools needed again will vary depending upon the individual project. Generally speaking, a two-car garage will be adequate in which to complete a restoration project. More than likely you will want to assemble the airplane at a hangar facility on an airport. I would suggest having your workshop space within or close to your home for your convenience. This will also allow you to more easily involve your family in the project.

A standard set of tools is required. A good air compressor, hand tools, some air tools, etc. Of course, you can purchase all sorts of tools based upon the extent of restoration. You may want to weld, do your own woodwork, sheet metal work, etc. If so, you will require the tools necessary to accomplish that work. You can, however, hire specific tasks completed by professionals thus limiting the tools you will need to purchase.

Skills Needed

Do you have what it takes to restore an airplane? I would say yes, you probably do. Restoring an airplane is very similar to building an airplane. The same type skills are needed. The main difference is that with restoration work you may need to develop different types of skills rather than concentrating on one type. As an example, if you are building a sheet metal airplane then you will develop that one skill. With a restoration, woodwork may be required, welding and sheet metal work may be needed, and fabric work and painting will usually be necessary. So, as you can see several different skills come into play. That does not mean you have to be an expert in each field. Remember, when you get to something you are unsure of then hire it done.

EAA SportAir Workshops that are presented around the country will help prepare you for restoration work. These workshops include fabric, welding, sheet metal, etc. For more information on these workshops logon at With minimal effort you can develop the needed skills to restore an airplane.