Monday, April 21, 2014

Achieving plane perfection at Vultures Row


CHUCK AND CAROL WAHL stand beside Chuck's SNJ-5c that he restored from the ground up. Wahl is currently restoring two other WWII Navy planes — a Hell Diver and a Dauntless. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

From page A11 | October 16, 2013 | Leave Comment

The process of restoring war birds involves a meticulous attention to detail with absolute authenticity being the guiding factor. That includes the type of wire used, markings, type and color of paint, type of rivets, instrumentation and radios.

Wahl’s wife, Carol, who often does the scavenging for parts, said some come from people’s garages while others are sold on eBay or through small businesses that cater to the trade. “There are maybe 10 vendors we use frequently because they specialize in bearings or old bolts from the war era. Generally we try to get old stuff before fabricating it ourselves.”

Upstairs, one part of their building is a parts room. Asked how they keep track of all the parts of a plane they are restoring, Chuck laughs and says, “We don’t sleep at night.” He went on to say that even when an old part is not usable, it tells them a lot about how to make it. “It tells you how wide was the skin, the size of rivets, and how many rivets used, and how big the access panel was. So nothing gets thrown away. You can never have enough spare parts.”

This is especially true because replacement parts are almost nonexistent for the planes they are working on.

“We’re more of a fabrication restoration shop than just a restoration shop,” said Chuck. “We look at the original engineering blueprint drawings from the 1940s and manufacture the part from scratch to the same tolerances and specifications as back in WWII. In many cases the parts are better because the metals are better, the process for heat treating metals are better, and overall people are getting a better product.”

Chuck emphasized that’s what sets him apart from some of the other restoration shops in the country. “Not many have a paint facility, and even fewer have a heat treatment facility, and even fewer still have a machine shop,” he said. “We brought everything under one roof. Twenty-five years ago, restoring these planes would have been cost prohibitive. Nowadays it’s more affordable. Instead of $8 million to $10 million, today it only costs $3 million to $4 million.”

This is a niche business, he said, and he knew he would have to be really good at it to survive. “Now I’m having people cold calling me from around the country and I tell them to get in line.” Right now his shop can only handle the two planes he is currently working on, but he is in the process of adding another 10,000 square feet. When that’s done, he will be able to handle a maximum of four planes. However, he only does restoration work, not general maintenance on modern airplanes.

“The real problem is finding experienced and talented people who can do this kind of work. It’s very specialized,” he said. “We can do training to some extent, but they need the right foundation. They need to be able to read blueprints and to get curves just perfect so they are not out of curve by 10- or 20-thousandths of an inch. They need to understand stress on an airplane and how components are stressed in different axis of flight. When we start dealing with putting a skin on a rib, and we get a 20 thousandths dimple, then basically the part is not formed right and something has to be done with it. We’re dealing with authentic restoration, quality, perfection, and our client expects that for the money he’s paying.”

“This is very unforgiving work,” added Carol. “There’s no room for mediocrity. It shows very quickly if someone is not getting the parts in place correctly. We’ve been through that before.”


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