In January 2004 I began
a search to find a Mooney "Mite". I had flown one in
1972 and remembered being very impressed with the flight characteristics
and performance. (The 4 gph fuel consumption wasn't bad either.)
I felt it would be a great "second" airplane. A
search of available aircraft revealed that most had been restored
20 or so years ago and it would be very difficult to properly
evaluate the wood structure without removing all the fabric.
I was able to learn
from the Mooney Mite Site
that 283 Mites had been built and of these, the last model built,
the C-55, had a larger cockpit and canopy. Only 35 of these were
produced. I decided after sitting in a C-55 cockpit, that this
was what I wanted. It was much more comfortable than the earlier
models however, finding
a C-55 looked like it would be nearly impossible.
A Mite expert I had
contacted happened to recall that there had been a C-55 stored
many years ago in a garage, about 30 miles from where he lived
in Western Ohio. He didn't know if it was still there, but remembered
the owners name. Wow, I thought, the old "airplane in a barn"
fable! I put on my detective hat and managed to locate the owner
who said he had owned the airplane since 1965 and had used it
to commute between his home in Southern California and Cleveland,
Ohio (usually in two days) with in between trips to Seattle (a
one day flight). In 1969 the original fabric tested unairworthy
and the airplane was grounded. The owner had planned to restore
it, and when he moved to Ohio in 1992, stored it in his garage.
As the years passed, he began to realize that he would probably
never complete the restoration.
phone conversation, he agreed to sell the airplane so I wasted no
time. I headed for Ohio, picked up my friend who had told me about
it, and found the airplane as pictured above. It still had the original
fabric and colors. The tail and wing were hanging from the ceiling
with tattered fabric. The wing had been wrapped in plastic sheets.
The logs were complete back to the first flight and nearly every
flight was recorded in detail. Total time was 831 hours. The original
panel pictured below needed lots of work.
|The owner had many pictures
of the airplane when it was still flying such as the one below taken
in 1966 at Cable Airport in California:
February 2004 the airplane arrived at my shop and the restoration
began. A jig was built to support the wing and the old fabric removed.
The wood was in unbelievably good condition for a 50 year old airplane.
Even the rubber stamped part numbers were visible on each piece
of wood. Nothing had any rot. I breathed a sigh of relief. The condition
of the wood was no doubt due to the careful indoor storage and spending
most of it's flying life in dry climates. I optimistically estimated
the airplane would fly before the end of 2005. Since I had little
aircraft woodworking experience, I decided to concentrate on the
mechanical part of the restoration first.
was completely disassembled with photos taken of each piece to aid
in reassembly. All the metal parts were cleaned, inspected, and
powder or paint coated as appropriate. All the hardware was replaced.
Some Mites had a complete electrical system with a starter and generator.
This one did not. Continental had made a few A-65-12 engines, especially
for the Mite, that had provisions for the starter and generator.
I found one of these, had it overhauled with new "Millennium"
cylinders and a new light weight starter and alternator. A complete
electrical system was added including lights, a radio, transponder
and encoder. By May 2004, reassembly began. I had never done any
fabric work, but decided that covering the wooden tail cone would
be a good project to acquire the needed skills. The tail cone was
in near perfect condition and required very little repair work.
2004, I had the engine and instrument panel installed, the tail
cone had been covered, and in January was mounted on the fuselage.
Instruments were installed and new "Tefzel" FAA approved
wiring was added for the electrical system using the original Mite
wiring prints. The fuel tank was cleaned, leak checked and reinstalled
along with the rest of the fuel plumbing. The landing gear was completely
disassembled, powder coated and installed with all new rubber shock
2005, the fuselage was nearly finished. The windshield and canopy
were back on and the interior was being completed. Only problem
was the wing, control surfaces, flaps and tail that still needed
minor woodwork and covering were still lurking in the background.
I would be gone quite a bit over the summer and would not be able
to work on the project again until September 2005. So much for flying
the Mite before the years end. Judging by how long it took to cover
the tail cone, I estimated that it would take another year to cover
the rest of the airplane. I wanted to keep the momentum going over
I had looked at a number
of Mites and found many of them to have cosmetic deficiencies.
Most common on the Mite were warped trailing edges of the control
surfaces due to the light metal tube that formed the structure
bending as the fabric was tightened. Many did not have straight
tapes and many had uneven plywood surfaces due to improper preparation.
Since I had never recovered anything but the tail cone, I had
serious doubts about my ability to do a quality job without having
to redo things several times. I wanted the finished airplane to
look good. I confided my doubts in a friend who had lots of restoration
experience. He asked if I had seen a recently restored Aeronca
Chief that belonged to another mutual friend. I had not and he
said the restoration was a beautiful job and had been done in
nearby Weirsdale by a guy named Herb Clark. He thought quite a
bit of Herb and suggested that I call him.
The next day, Herb
flew over in the Chief to look at my project. The fabric and paint
on the Aeronca were beautiful. The whole airplane was quality.
I was impressed. Herb looked over the Mite wing, control surfaces
and tail. He said that he could cover them for me during the summer
and have them finished when I was able to resume the project in
September. He suggested that I visit his shop. I found the shop
to be exceptionally clean and orderly. He had the equipment for
doing nearly any type of metal, fabric, wood or paint work including
a well lit spray booth which I lacked.
We discussed the project.
Herb said he was in the 'happiness" business. His goal was
to deliver a quality product, when promised at the promised cost
and to have a happy customer when the job was finished. He said
that he would have my project finished by mid September. We agreed
on what was to be done and arrived at what I considered a fair
price. I reasoned that using Herbco would allow the airplane to
fly a year earlier than doing the job myself and would result
in a higher quality finished project due to Herb's covering and
painting skills. It would also keep the momentum going. I had
seen several other Mite restoration projects that were partially
finished and had stagnated or that had taken 10 or more years
to complete due to the distractions of life. The sooner the airplane
was finished, the more I'd be able to fly it.
Next step was loading
the wing and tail on a trailer and moving the job to Herbco.
A thorough structural
inspection of all components was completed by Herb. I found that
one of the advantages of having the project at Herbco was the
constant influx of visiting aircraft restorers and builders. Most
of these folks live in one of the many fly in communities nearby
and frequently visit Herbco as it is a "Mecca" In the
area for Pitts and antique enthusiasts. Many of these folks are
long time EAA'ers and have lots of experience with wood and fabric.
The project was inspected many times over by very well qualified
people. This added to my confidence.
The Mite, as were all
wooden airplanes of its day, was built with caisen glue. Each
structural joint is reinforced with triangular wooden "glue"
blocks. We attempted to remove each of these blocks. On a few,
the bond was like new. Others could be pried loose. Herb replaced
all the glue blocks that could be removed and replaced them with
new blocks using modern glue to make the wing even stronger than
when manufactured. We were surprised that Mooney had used little
varnish to protect the wooden structure. The old style varnish
was easily flaked off. Since the wing was to be covered using
the PolyFiber process, all wooden components were given two coats
of special two part epoxy varnish per the STC to seal against
moisture entry. This stuff is far superior to the original because
it won't flake off. I had coated the tail cone inside and out
with the PolyFiber epoxy varnish to be sure moisture could not
contact the wood.
The wing trailing edge
was slightly bowed from the old fabric, but
was still structurally sound. Airplanes of the '40s and '50s were
originally covered with linen and nitrate dope which continued
to shrink over the years, bending the thinner parts. I had hoped
to be able to remove the bow from the trailing edge by adding
spacers in the bowed area. I didn't think it would be possible
to replace it easily due to the complicated profile shape of the
wood. Herb insisted on replacing it and easily milled out an exact
duplicate from new sitka spruce. Had he not done this, I'm sure
the bow would have looked really bad. Note the new wood along
the trailing edge in the picture below.
|The control surfaces were
recovered first and fitted to be sure the hinges were still in alignment.
|Next were the tail surfaces.
Note how the PolyFiber epoxy fill was skillfully used to smooth the
is the wing in the spray booth for a coat of PolyTack. Herb kept
a steady stream of "progress" pictures in my email if
I was out of town.
|The tail is finished and
temporarily assembled to insure that all parts fit properly.
|The wing is now complete
down to the nonskid walk way. Flaps and ailerons have been installed.
|At last the components
are back in my shop. The covering has taken less time than expected.
The airplane is in the original factory markings. These have been
cut from vinyl in case I want to later remove them for a more exotic
paint scheme. It is now early September and time to begin final assembly.
I guess Herb is happy, because I am. The job was done exactly as he
|The panel and interior
are now complete.
|The wing is ready to position.
|The fuselage is suspended
and leveled, the wing has been positioned and leveled and in a few
minutes will be mated together.
|The end of September 2005.
The airplane is complete and ready for a final inspection.
|October 6, 2005 - First
flight of N4159 in 36 years - Almost 3 months ahead of schedule thanks
to Herbco's help. The first flight was uneventful, performance was
better than expected and all systems worked properly. The airplane
is a delight to fly - docile and responsive with exceptional visibility