More Economical than you think
By Jim Cavanagh
A few months back we ran a story on the refurbishing of an airplane, and the author mentioned that because of the costs of interior parts, he elected to repair the existing parts and then, because of the repairs, upholster them with various materials to match the interior. In the piece, he says that this was much cheaper than buying all new parts.
Well, I gotta disagree…at least a bit. I have rebuilt probably fifteen airplanes and I have done about everything a guy can do to get the interior looking good. I have replaced, repaired, repaired and painted, repaired and upholstered, and even fabricated my own parts. Each and every one of these can be done both legally and illegally, according to the letter of the FARs, depending on a number of items. I’m a huge proponent of owner maintenance and saving money where you can, but with airplanes, sometimes you have to bite the bullet. So let’s talk about what you can do, what you need to do, and what you can afford to do when you want to snazz up the old bird.
First of all, while they might not seem all that important, interior parts are actually a very high priority with the FAA. A cabin fire can either be quenched or can virtually explode into a fireball, depending upon the materials used. In an enclosed cabin, the latter is not a good thing. Plastic trims, carpeting, cloth seat covers, and paneling have to be fire retardant to a specific degree, as dictated by Part 61. This FAR explains the test procedure and the rates at which a material can burn. An approval of the material can be made by either an IA conforming to the FAR or by an independent company that will certify the material. Skandia, Inc., near Rockford, IL, is one such company. These guys have been approving interior components for years, and are happy to test materials that an owner or a shop might want to send them. It’ll cost a bit more than Joe Blow Mechanic, but it’s neat and well documented, and there is absolutely no question that the procedure has been done right.
Before we go on, it MUST be said: The important aspect of burn testing a material is not to get it legal; rather it’s to ensure that you and your family and friends will not be killed should a fire occur. Whether the part is plastic or fiberglass or upholstered, it needs a burn cert. I lost a very good friend and his beautiful girlfriend when they burned up in a Bonanza sitting on the ground at a run-up ramp. No one heard a word or saw the smoke until it was too late. The outside of the airplane looked fine, but the interior and the souls on board were gone. We do not want something like this to happen simply because we didn’t take the time to see how fast a new carpet burns. At the time, I was young and dumb and had put new carpeting in my airplane thinking “Hey, it’s only carpet.” I immediately pulled it out, set a torch to it, and watched it disappear before my eyes in just seconds. It was a very emotional and poignant epiphany. Mea Culpa, Y’all!
The FARs read that if an OEM factory offers a specific part for an airplane, the owner is required to use it—no matter what the cost. An STC-PMA’d part is allowable…if the paperwork is correct. A part from a salvaged aircraft is not considered legal unless there is a direct paper trail to the airplane it was removed from and its TC data. Only if a part is out of production and out of stock is an owner allowed to create or have a part created under his direction. Sort of defies common sense, but such are the ways of bureaucracy, and a paper trail is the only way to assure that a part is fireproof.
It’s funny how some owners overlook the real intent of an FAR in order to save a few bucks. There seems to be a disconnect between cost and reason in aviation, and while (thank goodness) bending the rules doesn’t always lead to wholesale death and destruction, when the right combination of factors combine, it can be traumatic in the worst sense.
For this piece, I want to fill you in on the realities of upgrading your plastic parts. Notice that I did not say replacing? You do not always have to replace. What you must do, however, is ensure that the parts fit, look good, and are burn certified. That is really all you should think about. Getting these three things to work out for you is where time and money come into play, but, hell, that’s just life!
A part can be upgraded in many ways and by taking several different steps as necessary. Going up the price scale, you can: wash and clean a part, paint it, repair and paint it, repair and cover it, replace it with an OEM piece, replace it with an aftermarket piece or, under certain circumstances, an owner may even fabricate a new part. It’s also important to note that you do not have to replace all of your parts. If you have good old parts, keep them; and whatever you do with the new parts do to them too.
The best (least expensive) option is painting—a topic we will cover more in-depth in an upcoming issue. You can repair the piece if you have to, but you must do a clean, neat job. Before you paint, be sure to wash and clean the part to remove any oil and stains. This will give all of the parts, new and old, the same color, finish, and sheen. As for the paint itself, I recommend using a flex paint designed to prevent chips, cracks and “spider webbing.”
Depending on your vision, there’s the option of upholstering all or some of the parts. Covering your old parts can fix a lot of problems. You can reinforce and repair a broken part “quick and sloppy” and, because it’s going to be covered, you won’t have to worry about how it looks. You may also avoid the horrendous factory prices for new replacement parts. While covering can be very tasteful and nice-looking, it can also be economically misleading. Typically, you have to repair the part, buy the material and adhesives, ensure the burn certification, and find someone to do the work. Covering is made even more difficult by the nature of some parts. Just try to mold cloth or leather to the complex curves of interior parts—especially those going around or into corners! Fabrics and materials can only stretch or compress so far without wrinkling, and sewing from a pattern is the only option. Of course, it takes time to make a pattern and to find the right material that will conform to the task at hand. You’ll also need to have the materials (including the glues you use) burn tested before you can actually begin the process of covering the parts. Then when you’ve finished, you then have to hope the added thickness will allow for a good fit and the added weight will not affect EW too grossly. Doing it yourself will help, but it takes time and momentum. Realistically, most owners do not have the skill or often the patience to get all of this done in a halfway timely manner. Their ultimate cost will depend on the fees charged by their upholstery shop or mechanic.
If you’re replacing some parts, say a window trim, a door panel, or perhaps carpeting or seat covers, what do you do? If it is just a part or two, you suck it up and buy a replacement part.
Hopefully, you have the common sense not to buy from the OEMs. Your first call might be to Steve Wentworth or White Industries to try to find a good used part off of a salvaged airplane.
The good thing about used parts is that they are relatively cheap. The bad thing is that they’ll likely be old, used up, or very thin. Plus, the holes might not line up. Most parts are put on during production and are fit and drilled freehand. Piper is the only company that has a number of predrilled parts that match the airframe holes.
Your next option is to call an aftermarket guy, like Vantage Plane Plastics, Texas AeroPlastics, P.A.S.T, or any number of sources. All of these parts have been tested for fit and appearance and are already certified having met the burn test requirements. All of this adds to their cost, and at one time these costs were considerable, as the main manufacturer of replacement plastic, Kinzie Products, based their prices solely on factory list prices. These days, reality has more of a hand in determining pricing. There is competition, keeping prices much more realistic, and one company, Vantage Plane Plastics (which years ago was a division of Kinzie) has garnered a large portion of the market by realigning their prices.
I worked with Mark Severs, President of Vantage Plane Plastics, on this piece. Plane Plastics is the “big dog” in aftermarket interior parts these days. Severs is not an aviation guy—he’s a manufacturing guy. He was hired by Vantage, parent company of Plane Plastics, because he could improve production and product development. (I like working with Mark because his hobby is barbeque, and my hobby is eating barbeque!) Severs and Dale Logsdon pretty much run the show in Alva, OK, with diverse talents and a very focused vision.
I took a typical Cessna 172“F” model and priced out several interior parts that are typically damaged and either repaired or replaced by owners. These parts included a glareshield, console, window trims, aft bulkhead and baggage door, and front door posts. Plane Plastics price for all these parts was just pennies over $1,000—not bad for a nearly complete interior replacement! Plus, Plane Plastics gives a 5% discount on orders over $500, and 10% on orders over $1,000, so I’d save $103. Again, the price isn’t bad, so now let’s talk about the parts themselves.
Plane Plastics has thousands of parts in their inventory and graciously provided me with a few to play with. Compared to the originals, their parts are very robust, and if you actually did a “feely touchy” with the Plane Plastics parts, you’d be impressed. Their goal was to provide customers with a part that looked and felt like it had substance and would last a long time enduring a lot of punishment. This definitely computes to added weight, but, visually, the parts couldn’t be any better. Though heavier, your gut instinct tells you that lighter material (measured in mills) simply wouldn’t hold up. It’s worth noting here that some of the original Cessna parts were drawn so thin during forming that it was almost impossible to drill holes in them.
Years ago, I had window trims on a Grumman Yankee that needed work. The “ears” that covered the canopy stops had broken off—something you see with most of these planes. I tried bluing them on, mixing acetone with PVC powder, and they looked horrible. Sure, paint helped them blend in, but they still looked bad. I then tried to upholster them with a sort of stretchy velour material, but ran into wrinkles and gaps. I decided that having an upholstery guy make a pattern and sew sleeves would be too expensive. The Plane Plastic parts would have been welcome solution had they been available back then!
When you’re anticipating refurbishing your interior, the first thing you should do is take good look at each part you have—its fit, its appearance, and whether or not a quick repair will do the trick. Next, go shopping online and determine what your costs may be. This is where most owners hit a wall. Some parts don’t look like they should cost as much as they do, but it’s a supply and demand thing. If you need a part to complete a refurb, you NEED that part and nothing else will do, but don’t let one part spoil the entire project. A part might cost $700 from Cessna, but might be just $400 from Plane Plastics. Even if you think it’s too much, where else can you go to get a high-quality part that matches? Save the $300 and go for it!
I know this sounds like a sales pitch for Plane Plastics, but in reality it’s a simple reminder that there is an industry out there that supports pilots by providing parts and services for much less than the OEMs. It’s also a sort of nudge to not let the sticker price of one item mess up your plans to have the interior you want. If you have plenty of time and want to repair and upholster your parts, go for it. Even if you don’t really want a show plane and opt for just a solid functional and attractive bird, today is the best time ever to buy aftermarket parts. Not every supplier will have every part, but many of them will help you find the parts you need—even from other manufacturers, and most will even build a part for you using your old part.
Everybody sees the outside of your airplane. Friends and family will see the inside. Their attitude about flying and their personal comfort level can be changed by the condition and look of your interior. For this, and for your own sense of pride, keeping your plane looking sharp is something you owe everyone.
Do You Smell Something Burning?
Skandia, Inc. (www.skandiainc.com) specializes in testing and certifying materials for aircraft use and has been burning stuff up for 31 years. They work with customers ranging from private owners all the way up to OEMs and the government.
Their in-house Flammability Testing is performed by highly trained technicians utilizing state-of-the-art equipment. For example, the required testing for carpet is a Bunsen burner test. Technicians apply a known heat value to the material and then note the material’s flammability, rate of burn, resistance to flames, and the overall result of the burn.
The pricing structure for Skandia’s testing services is as follows:
- Data Sheet Only – In support of R&D, Stock, etc. (with technician review and signature): $45
- Data Sheet Only – In support of certification and DER witnessed (no 8110-3/8100-9): $60
- Data Sheet and 8110-3 or 8100-9 or DER witness letter: $86
- Streamline testing for major repair or alteration: $134
Skandia is also leading edge in soundproofing. Their proprietary line of Aerocoustic Sound Solutions were developed to meet the Radiant Panel Flammability test for Part 25 aircraft, 14 CFR 25.856(a) (b) in addition to vertical/horizontal burn test requirements.
For more information on Skandia, Inc. and their services, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-945-7135.