AOPA's Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes - Project Update: The Cardinal, Deconstructed

November 11, 2009

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February 1
The Cardinal, Deconstructed

What goes into your airframe?




Somewhere inside me is a frustrated homebuilder - a personality that may never get to come out to play, given the fact I swear I have adult-onset attention deficit disorder. But as a young flight instructor, I could never explain aircraft systems very well until I had seen the requisite parts in pieces on the shop floor.

Putting them back together afterward? Some would say I'm better off watching. Although I assisted in a limited fashion on the last annual on our Globe Swift, it's still flying. And a former boyfriend once let me help him rebuild the two-stroke engine on a well-used dirt bike he had in the garage. And come to think of it, that engine did actually run again - I even rode that bike around the block a few times.

So I take that back - hand me a wrench!

I'm kidding. I promise that only fully qualified A&Ps are working on your airplane.

When we began the refurbishment process on AOPA's Catch-A-Cardinal sweepstakes airplane (a 1977 Cessna Cardinal 177B) we already knew that a limited deconstruction of the airplane came first on the agenda.

Yes, I wanted very badly to see the inside of the project airplane - especially since I'd be flying it around the country throughout 2007. But this thinking really grew out of the experiences of projects past, when gremlins (from poor repairs to funky wiring) surfaced once we were well into a given sweepstakes refurbishment - problems that might have been more readily addressed early on. Part of our purpose in assembling the diverse pool of talent within the sweepstakes airplane's refurbishment team at Griffin, Georgia, was to facilitate this process.

We also took the opportunity to assess the condition of the airframe structure, which was representative of the general aviation fleet (and some might say on the new side) at 30 years old. I was running marathons at age 30 - surely with normal care, our airplane would be able to keep going for a long time. Unlike me at 30, however, I was pretty sure our airplane could stand for a couple of replacement parts and some minor "dermabrasion" - what technical aircraft types might call corrosion mitigation and repair.

The disassembly
We determined that we would need to tear down several parts of the airframe in order to take a real good look at its guts. These would include removing the wings; the empennage; the interior, including seats, carpet, and plastic; the engine, mount, and bracket; and the landing gear.

Before the disassembly process began, the team in Griffin built a fuselage cradle to hold the airplane once they took off the engine (making for a serious change in center of gravity) and the landing gear (the airplane couldn't very well sit on the floor). Our on-site project manager Dan Gryder fashioned a corner of his hangar facility to accommodate the airplane and the process with dedicated shelving and workspace. Bright white shelves lined the walls ready to catch the parts as they came off the airplane, with boxes of all sizes to contain the various collections (often marred with grease, oil, or the simple dirt of the years). The technicians would clean up as much as possible as they went.

At the same time, our chief inspector and parts manager Danny Rexroad, owner of Classic Aircraft Maintenance, developed a meticulous cataloging system to keep track of parts as they came off the airplane and to determine which ones would need repair, replacement, or just a good clean-up before going back onto the airplane.

Our process used a unique numbering system cross-referenced to the Cessna parts catalog for the Cardinal. About 100 labor hours were spent in this task, but we now have a giant binder in which we account for every part, down to the last screw removed from the airplane.

The team removed the cowling first, followed by the control surfaces (including the Cardinal's beefy stabilator), which went onto a special rack. Larger racks had been built for the wings, and they departed the airplane after a quartet of massive bolts was encouraged out from their fittings. The wide Cardinal doors (two of the airplane's most convenient features, yet requiring a certain amount of fuss and finesse because of their size) came off their hinges and were set aside for future attention. Next, Anja Cook, Brian Hubbard, Larry Gobble, Steve Dodnoruk, and Earl Clements from Air Wrench deconstructed the tail further, removing the vertical stabilizer and tailcone.

The interior came out readily - seats, carpet, and plastic moldings, and then the headliner above. With this move, the main wing carrythrough spar saw daylight after three decades under cover. This impressive metal structure glowed with a golden color, protected all these years with an anodized process at the factory. That sight alone was worth the price of admission.

Don and Jeff Swords, from Don's Dream Machines, disengaged the engine from its mounts, and carefully laid out all the accessories. Then the mount itself came off the stainless steel firewall (soon to be buffed out to a mirror shine compliments of our friends at Nuvite, which creates an entire line of aircraft care products). The airplane's landing gear was removed and the airframe placed on the rolling cradle for ease of access.

Last, further interior deconstruction included removing the rudder pedals and other elements near the instrument panel for inspection, and then removing the seat tracks and floorboards.

We'll tell you more about that process in the next update, when we really get into the inner workings of the airplane, and talk about what parts we'll refurbish, what we'll replace, and what gets replaced with a new part.

What parts do we need?
We compiled an initial parts list, one for airframe parts and specialty hardware from Cessna Aircraft Company, and one for hardware and control cables from Freeman's Just Plane Hardware. Once this initial order was out the door, we had a few weeks to catch our breath while several airframe projects began - such as refurbishing of several of the control surfaces, which we'll also talk about in detail in the next update.

This downtime gave us the opportunity to prepare for the good part - putting the airplane back together. The more we could line up ahead of time, the less time we would waste during reassembly chasing down required parts and hardware.

Somehow, we ended up again with parts lined up on a hangar floor, shades of my instructor days. Except this time, we had a great system in the works to put them back in place.

We laid out all our parts from the airplane (in freezer-duty Ziploc bags for the most part), along with the first hardware order from Freeman's (in small brown paper bags), and the first order of parts we had from Cessna and other vendors (in their original packaging, complete with part numbers).

Each bag on the floor contained a specific part and/or the hardware for a part that was removed from the airplane during disassembly, along with its catalog number on the front.

Gryder, Rexroad, and I, along with some help from Tom Holt from Freeman's, went through each bag and assessed the condition and appearance (for pieces visible on the airplane) of each item. From this, we determined whether to overhaul, clean up and reinstall, or replace with new each part and piece of hardware removed from the airplane. Modeling our program on those used in modern aircraft manufacturing plants, we have 300 "kits" now constructed, all lined up on the wall and on shelves - most have the new part or hardware, or a yellow tag identifying the parts needed to complete the kit. Once reassembly begins, the A&Ps will simply pull the appropriate kit and install the part(s).

Although this is probably overkill for a simple owner-driven restoration, we're on an ambitious program time wise. And we have the added responsibility of rebuilding your airplane, and we're determined to do it right.

- Julie K. Boatman

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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The AvNet
The AvNet owner Dan Gryder has been an active flight instructor since 1982, specializing in tailwheel training and rating completions. Flight training may be the cornerstone of Gryder's resume, but he developed The AvNet to address a diverse range of "aviation situations" for which he can figure out an "aviation solution."

Since 2001, Gryder has operated out of his large commercial hangar at the Griffin-Spalding County Airport offering convenience for pilots who fly in to engage in virtually every kind of flight training. His company owns and operates numerous aircraft including a Douglas DC-3. The AvNet also performs general aviation consulting such as assessing and advising corporate flight departments regarding best practices for safe, clean operations; developing marketing promotions with companies, or advocating for an aircraft owner during an airplane purchase or restoration. But he's open to suggestion: "I like to cherry-pick the neatest projects," says Gryder. And helping AOPA manage this year's sweepstakes project is a great example. Visit The AvNet Web site or call 678/688-7069.