REFLECTIONS ON STATIC AIRCRAFT RESTORATION
Chapter 3 - Initial Inspection
OK, now you're ready to start in earnest. Whatever the aircraft, whether you've been allocated to it or you chose it, the walk-around assessment can now begin.
Don’t charge at it, take it steadily. If necessary do your assessment over several visits considering different parts of the airframe at each visit – wings, undercarriage, fuselage, tail unit, cockpit, systems, etc. Make copious notes and diagrams of anything you see. Most important of all have a fully charged digital camera with you not only as an photo-notebook but because nobody is going to believe it was as bad as that two years further down the line after a lot of your hard work has gone in to it.
The undercarriage is of prime importance here. Bear in mind that military aircraft can be considered “tools of the war trade” and were built to have an operational life of 5 to 10 years not the 50 plus that we are now seeing in museums. So, if it’s been stored outside you will need a very careful inspection, with good use of a wire brush to get back to the bare metal again on such things as undercarriage castings and spars. It’s no good lavishing attention on the airframe only to discover six months later hidden cracks and corrosion that could be its death knell. If you find anything you are unsure about ask for a second and even third opinion. The replies could range from “we know about it and its OK” to “ Wow! That’s a new one since last year”. If it is in a non-structural critical area ask if its OK to do a cosmetic repair. Do not cosmetically repair or paint over anything you are unsure about as the consequences could be ultimately disastrous.
Ask copious questions again about its history from anyone who will talk to you about it. Who did what previously? Anything that will help you form an opinion to decide if it's going to worth your time (and ultimately money) to start the restoration process. The Internet and Web Forums, if you are lucky, can sometimes be a good source of an aircraft’s previous service history, there may even be photographs.
Tyre and brake condition is relatively unimportant unless you intend to taxi the aircraft, for the purpose of these 'reflections' I will assume you won’t be. Tyres need pumping up and rotating every six months to prevent flats forming. If you have one that keeps losing pressure use one of the motorists' shops liquid rubber fills and then re-inflate it again. This stuff works a treat but you must be able to rotate the tyre during filling through the valve. So ask for authority, and training, to jack the aircraft wheel(s) off the ground before going down this road. If your chosen airframe is a static Vulcan then . . .mmm. Further, a worn tread or some canvass showing adds character to the aircraft so don’t change tyres for new looking items unless they are in a dangerous state with splits etc.
Moving on to the airframe body and wings, look for any signs of past abuse or weakness in the structure. Photograph and record it. I found on WF922 for instance that because at some time it had been laid on the ground there was some creasing adjacent to the bump stop. Nothing serious for a museum exhibit but creasing that would have to be dressed out at some stage as it also affected the area around the bottom anti-collision light that I had plans to fit.
On metal skinned aircraft the wings internally, (unless you are lucky enough to get some panels off for detailed inspection), are fairly robust and waterproof to boot thanks to the over-engineering that makes a military aircraft a joy to work on. Externally though they might need some serious sanding to remove any corrosion.
Now here is a dilemma that can only be sorted out project-by-project. Do you take the aircraft back to bare metal before attempting a repaint? In general the primer applied by either the OEM or an MU will be in good condition and will still be serving the purpose for which it was applied. Personally I would leave it on unless you are very lucky and have an establishment with good application and drying facilities. It will be almost impossible to match the quality of primer that you are going to remove to get back to bare metal. A worthwhile adage is to consider 20 years further down the line where maybe someone will be in the lucky position to be able to do a professional repaint job on your aircraft with all the bells and whistles. He (or she) would much rather find 10 layers of paint protecting a good primer and a sound skin underneath, rather than an aircraft that has looked good for a couple of years but then skin rot has started because of a primer that had not been professionally applied. Primarily, paint is a good protector for an aircraft on open-air display. Although important, aesthetics, in my book comes second.
In the case of WF922 the paintwork condition was excellent with only minor areas of the top wing spars showing any signs of corrosion. These areas had to be rubbed down to bare metal and, on a fine day, two coats of primer applied to provide the best possible key for the paint. Knowing these areas are susceptible to further corrosion in the future I will keep an eye on them and re-do them if required. Before a new layer of paint was applied most of the fuselage and wings of the Canberra were T-cut back to remove grime and bird droppings but not sanded.
The paint used in a museum varies in quality of course and depends largely on what the organisation can afford. For application I personally like to use Harris foam rollers as the cheaper bulk packs from the DIY stores tend to bubble too much and give you extra work. Try not to paint upper wings in direct hot summer sunlight if possible as the paint can dry too quickly leaving a wrinkled surface that you will have to rub down and do again - and I speak from experience here. Incidentally, it is much easier to get a good finish on curved and under-wing surfaces.
Don’t be tempted to leave masking tape on for any longer than is absolutely required as it will take you twice as long to scrape it off. On a 30ft long wing surface a 2inch masking tape strip can take days to get off. Believe me I’ve tried it.
I carried out a lot of work on WF922 that some might consider unnecessary by replacing a lot of anchor nuts on wing and fuselage panels so that I could refit the panels correctly. Each aircraft will be different and some panels are best left undisturbed as, over time, they have almost mated with the adjacent airframe and damage would likely ensue if an attempt was made to remove them. But in a case where, due to the moving and transportation of the aircraft, panels were quickly removed and screws drilled out I felt it was better that they were removed again and anchor nuts and screws replaced. You will end up with a more watertight joint if the panels are held tightly to the airframe. With copious grease applied before refitting they ought to last another 50 years. One of my main weapons of course in the constant fight against the dreaded corrosion is a mixture of 80% WD-40 to 20% cheap motor oil. It just about comes out as a spray but provides a bit more longevity than plain WD does by itself.
Although I have drifted off topic slightly that should take care of your all important initial inspection of the airframe. Then its decision time.