Stock aircraft seat belts and shoulder harnesses are often uncomfortable. BAS, a company from Eatonville, Washington, seeks to alleviate pilots of their pain with its inertia-reel seatbelt system. The BAS system consists of one overhead anchor that splits into two separate shoulder harnesses, thereby creating a safe, solid four-point harness system that’s very comfortable.
Recognized as an importer of some of the finest leather in the world, Spinneybeck supplies a number of different industries with its high-quality product. The company’s more than 35 different textures, and hundreds of colors, make up its two million square feet of inventory. This means if you can dream it, Spinneybeck likely carries it.
Yes, the seats are black. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. There are other colors, but an airplane that used to sport a retro, powder-blue interior has gone twenty-first century chic and now is upholstered in fine, Italian, black leather.
The airplane in question is of course N208GG, AOPA’s Get Your Glass Sweepstakes 1976 Piper Archer II. Oxford Aviation in Oxford, Maine, designed and refurbished the interior, thanks to the help of some generous contributors along the way. And while the interior has other handcrafted features not normally found on an airplane of this type or vintage, the centerpiece of the cabin is, without question, the seats. Other than the Aspen Avionics EFD1000 primary flight display that is central to the instrument panel, nothing has received as much attention as the four captains chairs in the cabin.
The idea for such a radical design started quite unceremoniously. On our first visit to Oxford in late November of last year, Louise Horowitz, head of the interior shop and owner Jim Horowitz’s wife, made a passing comment about trying to incorporate some black leather into the interior. Up to that point, our thoughts had focused on paint, and with the process moving along without any mention of black being used, it seemed like black inside the cockpit wouldn’t make a cohesive design. But over the coming weeks, as we talked more about interior and paint concepts, it became clear we could bring the two elements together, and that the black was going to happen. To seal it, members voted to have the airplane painted with metallic black and silver.
This point in the design process confirmed something else for us. Having the paint and interior design and execution in one place was a major asset. It allowed Louise and paint designer Paul Taitt to work closely and create a cosmetic treatment on the airplane that usually can’t be accomplished on aftermarket applications. It also meant changes were conceived, debated, examined for design conflicts, and eventually executed in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks.
If deciding on the black seats was the easy part, then actually building them was painstaking. Once the seat color was set, it was time to think about construction. During our visit we noticed that Oxford kept a nice sampling of previous seats in its interior design showroom. One stood out as perfect. It was aggressively shaped with noticeable side supports on the seat and seat back, much like what BMW or Mercedes is producing today. Two weeks later the “baby” seat arrived in my office. It was a small sample of what the full seat would be, and no, it’s not approved to place in the baggage compartment and stick a small passenger in. We were impressed with the effort and told Oxford without hesitation to go ahead.
Spinneybeck, which supplied the leather for the project, sells leathers in all shades and textures. To complement the black, we went with a black perforated leather inset instead of suede, mainly because we were concerned that suede would stain. It sounds a bit odd, but the perforated leather does complement the more prevalent normal leather, even though both are black.
Oxford takes every seat and strips it to its frame. Often the seat consists of a fabric or leather material covering one layer of foam, a web sling, and the frame. The technicians strip and repaint the frame, and then start building the seat like a puzzle with a template. For the Archer’s seats, there are 28 individual pieces, not including the frame. Why the complexity? “Differing levels of foam density are the key,” Jim said. “A soft top layer is necessary for comfort, but other layers must be strong to support the pilot or passenger.” We also upped the comfort and styling of the seats thanks to four new headrests from Central Airmotive in Clinton, Missouri.
Building the seats was no easy task, but David LaRue, the Oxford technician who did everything from cutting and building up the foam to stitching the leather, was noticeably proud of his work on one of our subsequent visits. As we milled around, feeling the leather and examining the design, LaRue walked over with a wide grin. “What do you think?” he asked. They were great, and he knew it. It’s refreshing to see people who take pride in their work, and Oxford has many of them.
While seats may be the most visible portion of the new interior, the unseen is just as important. Soundproofing is a prime consideration when refurbishing an interior, and we were happy when Oxford told us about its proven, proprietary application. It begins by stripping the airplane to its bare skin on the inside. Then an impregnated vinyl material is cut and attached to specific locations on the skin to reduce the resonating effect of aluminum. “Before applying the vinyl, we ask owners to sit inside the airplane and we tap on the fuselage,” Jim said. “It sounds like a bell as the skin rings. But after the vinyl is applied, it’s a dull thud.” After the vinyl, the technicians apply a layer of fiberglass made specifically for sound attenuation, a dense layer of foam for stopping low-frequency sound waves, and then another layer of the fiberglass. That sandwich of materials is then heat-sealed in Mylar to make what resembles a pillow. The entire inside of the airplane is filled with the custom material, which is numbered for easy removal and reinstallation later. The result is a noticeable reduction in sound, Jim said.
To complete the soundproofing, the rubber door seals had to be replaced. Aircraft Door Seals provided both the baggage and main cabin door seals for the Archer, and there is a noticeable improvement. Instead of a generic piece of rubber made to fit any aircraft, the company molds seals to fit each application.
Combine the soundproofing, the new door seals, and the thicker windows from LP Aero Plastics, and the decibel level really comes down. And if all that still isn’t enough for the winner and his or her passengers, Lightspeed has donated four brand new Zulu headsets, the company’s most recent ANR offering.
Louise suggested the other interior colors, all of which make a nice comprehensive design. The design philosophy is simple. “The idea is to start darker on the bottom and get lighter as you go up,” she said. The carpet is deep gray, and the sidewalls and overhead are lighter gray and cream, respectively. Obviously, the dark carpet is nice because it will hide stains and dirt, and the sidewalls blend well with the rest of the interior.
At this point the interior would have been quite beautiful and inviting, but the crew at Oxford wanted to go even further. Louise sent a rosewood sample and asked if we thought it was appropriate. Initially, we were concerned it would look old or stale, like the fake wood paneling that was popular in cars in the 1980s and early 1990s, and that it would not meld with the updated look of the interior. But there’s no reason an Archer can’t look like a Jaguar. In other words, the goal was a refined look that combined solid, hand-carved wood accents and fine leather. We knew Louise had a good eye for these things and trusted her judgment. We weren’t disappointed.
Not only is the grip on the flap handle a solid piece of premium rosewood, but the door handle and parking brake handle are also fine wood instead of cheap-looking plastic. There’s also a long strip of rosewood veneer running the length of the overhead plastic ductwork.
Take a detailed look around the inside of the interior and other small pieces of custom work are revealed. The sidewalls are one of the more striking examples. Instead of replacing the old cardboard sidewalls, the technicians created new ones from more durable plastic, and covered them with various foam layers. Then, a black, perforated leather inset was added to match the seats. Bolted on that is a piece of solid rosewood that serves as the bulk of the armrest, and it is covered with a piece of black leather. Also new are the overhead vents. Gone are the old white plastic shutter-style variety. They have been replaced with sleek silver round, Wemac-type vents that work quite well. In the final assembly, Jim noticed something else that just didn’t fit. “The overhead dome light looked like it belonged in a camper,” he said. “So we put in a black smoke lens set on a silver ring.” It’s all in the details.
In addition to Oxford’s modifications, we added some off-the-shelf items that will go a long way toward increasing comfort for the Archer’s pilot and passengers. New BAS inertia-reel shoulder harnesses were installed in the two front seats, a creative product that creates a four-point restraint and offers a more comfortable alternative to the stock shoulder harness. Quaker City Plating plated all the seat belt buckles, as well as some other nice accents. Finally, no new interior would be complete without new Rosen sun visors.
The major downside to any job like this is paperwork. And there are loads and loads of paperwork for the Archer. All the materials, including the wood, leather, and plastic, required burn certificates, some of which Oxford Aviation did in-house. Almost every modification also required a sign off from a designated engineering or airworthiness representative. When we picked up the airplane to move it to Penn Avionics for the panel work, Jim handed us a binder with pages of authorizations. Oxford had worked hard over the last few months and it showed. See for yourself later this month at EAA AirVenture where the airplane will be displayed July 28 to August 3 at the big yellow AOPA tent.
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