Keys to a Successful Antique Aircraft Restoration

By Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911

This piece originally ran in Lisa’s Airworthy column in the June 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

Roger opened the window as the line of cars snaked through the fly-in parking areas. The sparkling spring day was still cool. The sky was a cloudless blue, and the flags at the entrance were hanging limp. The sound of arriving aircraft overhead made Roger and Ellen feel like children.

“A perfect day for the show,” Ellen said. “Where do you want to head after getting in?”

“For the antiques.”

It didn’t matter how many times they had been to the show. Every time was new and fresh. The sights and sounds of aircraft were both soothing and exciting at the same time. After parking and getting in, they headed to the vintage line. Spotting a group of Wacos and Stearmans, they walked over for a closer look. The freshly mown grass was wet with dew, and the smells of oil and machinery wafted through the line as aircraft were directed to parking. They walked up to a man sitting in a lawn chair under the wing of a bright red Waco UPF-7.

“It’s a beauty,” Roger said to the man.

“Thanks. Three thousand hours in my workshop.”

“That’s a labor of love,” Roger said. “It is stunning. What I really want to find is a Waco Cabin.”

“Ah, no, not here this year,” the man said. Then he pointed to another UPF-7, several aircraft away. “But go over there and talk to Ricky. He knows where to find projects.”

“Projects?”

“Right. You’re unlikely to find a Cabin here at the show. They’re so rare. I’m assuming you’re going to build or are building one?”

“Build one? Yes, well, of course,” Roger said with a laugh, thinking the man was joking.

“Hey, wait,” Ellen said. “Why couldn’t we build one? We already built our RANS and have plenty of A&P advice and help on our field. Why not?”

“Well, that would be a dream,” Roger said, gazing wistfully at the Waco.

Four years later, Ellen walked over to the now partly completed Waco Cabin in the community’s shared hangar. Roger and Fred were examining the windshield frame. “This area is going to need some reinforcement,” Fred said. “It looks like someone cut something out previously.”

“Back to the plans.”

“Right, that’s the best course of action.”

“I had no idea, no idea at all, that this restoration would be so research and time intensive.”

“It’s my fault,” Ellen said with a wry smile. “I’m the one who suggested it.”

“I’m not sorry we decided to do this,” Roger said. “It’s an incredible airplane, but I figured we’d be done by now.”

“Well, figure about another three years.” Fred said.

“Look at that Waco Cabin,” shouted an onlooker after the Waco parked at the fly-in and shut down. “That’s a flying time machine if I ever saw one.”

Roger and Ellen sat for a minute, taking it in. “It’s worth it just to see the faces,” Ellen said with a wide grin. Roger nodded, speechless.

Several readers commented that I have touched on critical restoration factors in several previous articles and would appreciate an article on antique restoration, noting, “Antiques are not anything like experimental second-hand projects.” It is interesting to note, though, that as time goes by, some homebuilts are also entering the realm of “antiques.”

I searched out people who had accomplished their own restoration. A few performed it by themselves, but most of the individuals had others helping. This was one of their success factors. Then I assembled my own notes on what I’ve seen over the years and tried to make some comprehensive sense out of it for readers.

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Keys to a Successful Antique Aircraft Restoration

From a building perspective, a plansbuilt aircraft is high on the difficulty and unknowns scale. Scratchbuilding is even more of a challenge since it involves coming up with your own design and then building and testing versions until you are pleased with the result (think Wright brothers). Restoring an antique aircraft falls somewhere between the two of these processes. You might have drawings, but they can be inaccurate or incomplete, and many parts may have to be remanufactured. The variability scale is highest with scratchbuilding, with plansbuilt and antique restoration following close behind.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Variability is the one factor we cannot predict. It trips up the most well-intentioned of us, from the scratchbuilding pioneers to even the quick-build kit builders. So, we begin our success factors there.

Time and Money

Not having enough of either one of these has been the death knell of many a project. Without research, any project can easily fall by the wayside. Here are the questions to ask and factors to consider.

Time

Assuming that you can set aside the time, how do you calculate it? Once you have calculated it, can you spend it? How good are you at estimating projects? If you’re like me, then you are highly optimistic and chronically underestimate the time a project will take. Read on; I have a cure.

Ask

Do some research and find out how long others have spent on their projects. How many people were working on the project? How did they calculate their time? Take the total time they gave you for the project that is similar to yours. Up it by 20 percent and load that into your calculations. If it’s still acceptable to you, you should be pleased with the time it takes. Remember that this is a high variability area, and the time could skyrocket depending on surprises.

Money

The largest variable we have in life. First, look up all the similar aircraft that are for sale and flying. This gives you a sense of their worth. Ideally, what you spend on your restoration is less than what it will sell for when you’re done. I hear you; of course you’re not ever selling the airplane. But it’s a good reference point.

I’ve seen owners of family-owned antiques who not only will never sell, but also will go to financial extremes to keep the airplanes pristine and flying. Whatever puts air under your wing.

Whatever you come up with as the cost of the restoration after you’ve done your research, add 25 percent to that number. If you do not spend it, then it’s money in the bank. If you do spend it, you won’t be mad at yourself (or other people won’t be mad at you).

A large variable financially will be engine decisions and overhaul, and having custom parts manufactured by someone qualified. Prices keep going up. Part of your research will be to call around to restoration facilities armed with data and photos. Nearly all the facilities I know of are happy to ballpark a price, telling you they are adding in the surprises factor.

Space

Where will the project live? You don’t want to be halfway through it when your landlord says he has sold the building. Of course, you can’t account for all contingencies. But be ready with Plan B if you need to move.

Documentation

Make sure you have the original data plate and that the registration matches it. Perform a title search to make sure it’s clear.

Authenticity

You should research the era and the models that were produced so the restoration is authentic and accurate. This will add value.

Parts

Are all parts available? Owners may be able to tell you this. For example, the Waco Cabin uses the crank mechanism from the Model A Ford for its windows. They are still available because people are rebuilding antique cars. Will parts need to be made? FAA AC 23-27, Parts and Materials Substitution for Vintage Aircraft, may be helpful.

Engine

Does the project come with an engine? Does the engine need to be overhauled? Where will you send it? It will take time to determine who does the best job. How long will it take? Hint: It will take longer than you think it should.

Quit Early

I’m not trying to be a killjoy, but once you’ve done the time/space/money analysis, if there are any substantial misgivings about proceeding, I’d consider waiting until all the pieces line up. It only gets more complicated from here. If they don’t line up, consider saving your money for an eventual purchase of the flying version.

How Complete a Restoration?

A massive success factor that affects safety in particular is how thorough you are. An aircraft manufactured in the 1930s is going to have weak spots. It doesn’t matter if you were told, “It’s been restored twice.” You cannot verify exactly what was done, no matter how complete the logbooks may be.

Take the aircraft all the way down to the frame. Proceed slowly, taking pictures and making notes. Label all the parts completely. You’ll thank yourself when you are in the middle of reassembly and can’t figure out which part is top and which is bottom.

With a complete disassembly, you may find spar cracks and rusted-through tubing. Previous cursory restorations and repairs may have left these to develop into potentially catastrophic structure failures. (See Airworthy, “The One Big Thing,” October 2021).

Get Help

The most successful projects and happiest owners that we hear from are the ones who work together. Not that you alone can’t undertake a full restoration. You can, but the research on successes point to the projects undertaken by several people or groups. Not only is the social interaction rewarding, but also you’ll have different perspectives on how to solve problems.

Get Training

If you’re an A&P mechanic, then you may not need a refresh. If you’re not an A&P but working with one, determine what your weaknesses are and get some hands-on or formal training. That way, you’ll be more comfortable working on your restoration.

Join the Club

Antique restorations can present thorny problems. Joining the type club will give you access to knowledge and expertise. Attend get-togethers and fly-ins. Take pictures of the completed aircraft you see on the field. Owners are delighted to show you everything they did. This picture trick works on all projects — not just restorations, but on anything you are building with others further along or flying.

Plans and Drawings

Owners and club members may have information on drawings. The Smithsonian may be able to sell you a set of plans for some vintage aircraft.

Love

Life is complicated with many activities going on around us. Will you be able to put this project near the top of your list? Do you feel energized and inspired when you think about it? The decision about where this is going to fit in your life can mean finishing and flying, or it could mean overwhelm and disappointment. Antique aircraft restorations are huge projects and can be the most rewarding thing you ever do. Dig deep and make sure you have the passion, inspiration, and energy to pursue it.

Don’t get involved in a restoration if all you want is the flying aircraft at the end. These projects rarely get completed. The hands-on, long-term process is what you should fixate on. You can’t do everything on your list, so this will require serious life decisions. But once you’ve decided, throw every ounce of energy into it. Your love will be contagious.

Antique aircraft restorers all share one characteristic that drive their success. Rather than considering variability and unknowns as menacing monsters, they consider them puzzle pieces. Their excitement builds as the pieces go together, no matter how complicated. Every small piece that fits is a win. If you find yourself with this insatiable drive to assemble these variables into the complete picture of a flying antique, you will be successful.

Lisa Turner, EAA Lifetime 509911, is a manufacturing engineer, A&P, EAA technical counselor and flight advisor, and former DAR. She built and flew a Pulsar XP and Kolb Mark III and is researching her next homebuilt project. Lisa’s third book, Dream Take Flight, details her Pulsar flying adventures and life lessons. Write Lisa at Lisa@DreamTakeFlight.com and learn more at DreamTakeFlight.com.

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