Refurbishing project

by | 2020-03-29

Tired of that old rustic interior with colonial seating and tape covered cracked side panels? Depending on how much time you spend aboard your favourite aircraft, comfort (read fatigue) will sooner or later become a concern.

This old aircraft

Honest folks, let’s admit it. After spending a few hours sitting in a beat up old fashion spartan standard issue seat for general aviation aircraft, one generally requires a good stretch.

Ever noticed what a seasoned “aircraft” smells like when boarding? Your polite passengers do not realize it but takes years to carefully acquire that blend of leatherette, sweat, grime, lunch leftovers and avgas.

Old C-GDSY interior
Well matured seating

The first pointers came from my olfactory sensitive and astute style observer spouse. Following acquisition 3 years ago and a few short flights to get acquainted with the “adventure machine”, some details had to be dealt with in order to enhance the experience. Hanging smelly cardboard pine from the compass was radically out of the question. We conspicuously installed charcoal odour absorbers and got to truly wash all the interior surfaces. The results were mitigated.

Burgundy carpetting
Well, at least it is not shag!

My resilient VIP also had to endure sometimes rough air condition on gradually longer flights. Creature comfort had to sooner or later be a growing concern. I was wondering how long I could have it going so good. Not even a close resemblance to: “That’s it. Let’s fly the airlines for our next vacation”!

Decision taken

So back to the vintage 1963 PA-30. This comfort thing all came to a climax after a 6 hours and 17 minutes leg from BGBW (Narsarsuak, Greenland) to CYZV (Sept-Iles, Quebec). I recall clearly one of the first questions asked by the customs officer: “ Do you plan to carry on to somewhere else at this time”? Mathieu, my transatlantic colleague was unequivocal: “No way man, I am not sitting in there for another minute, well at least today, my six (colourful metaphor) cannot take it anymore”!

As a side note, I always thought that an aircraft exterior appearance was important. Certainly the paint job quality and state say plenty. This particular Twin Comanche was repainted in the mid eighties with that contemporary finish of beige, with red, brown and blue trims. The paint job was done by experts and superbly well maintained. Hangering does wonders over time. Regarding the paint, my rational due to this “contemporary” colour scheme finish was that eventually repaint the aircraft.

That thought was abandoned after lobbying from a gathering of opponents. The interior refurbishing project was submitted to the chief pilot and promptly approved.

Owner maintenance

Interior refurbishing can go two ways. Have it done or do it yourself. No specifics are mentioned as far as regulation goes for refurbishing. This is the kind of owner approved maintenance. On the other hand, indeed the material used should be fire retardant and non automotive. Eventually some items will need an AME signing off. A new weight and balance comes to mind. Mainly speaking, most of the work can be performed, if so chosen, by the owner.

Being parked in a hangar is a must. Next, the maintenance people that take care of the PA-30 were quite available for opinions and occasional help. They did mention that the project could take epic proportions, thus I as warned. Indeed should the project be undertaken by a professional, counting on a different kind of financial arrangement would be essential. Also, more than basic mechanical abilities is a prereqisite. This type of project is not for everyone I respectfully submit.

At this point, I stand fast. The most difficult part of the project was choosing the colours. I respect the criticism to the effect of being colour blind. CRM obliges and to avoid faux pas, proper consultation was heeded.

The concept was to transform beige seating and burgundy carpeting into something a little more contemporary. Black carpeting with two tones of grey was chosen for the seats and wall panels.

A specific type interior kit was ordered from Airtex. They supply many models and will produce either complete aircraft interior or individual sections. Usually a couple of weeks are required to produce the interior. Should you require leather seats expect more time in delivery.

New material displayed on right wing of PA-30
Fresh interior out of the box

Preparation: start the clock going!

Regardless of the waiting time, in my case, I knew I had quite a bit of preparation to complete. Preparation and cleaning always consume time.

Left side panel removed exposing old yellow insulation
Old insulation

On the last week of October 2019, the PA-30 was parked at the far end of the hangar expecting to go nowhere anytime soon.

As I am writing this article, breathing protection is an issue. This was not the case in October and it must be understood that proper respiratory protection must be worn when you start « tearing » down old carpets and 60 year old insulation. This was the first surprise. The insulation on the aircraft was the original and it was nasty! One merrily looked at it once the wall panels were removed and the darn stuff would disintegrate into ever so fine particles. I can only imagine the health effect for the occupants, never mind the flimsy thermal and noise insulation.

There will be surprises!

So, I had to order new insulation. I opted to stay out of the conventional fibreglass material. I went with foam/aluminium laminated Soundex. No more particles will be roaming in this aircraft. Ultimately this insulation is quite easy to instal as you only have to cut to size and everything fits perfectly in every little bulkhead and stringer corners. Side effect: you are gaining a bit of weight as opposed to other types of material.

By the way, within the confines of a small aircraft, this kind of project makes you discover, out of necessity, hidden talents for speleology and archeology.

Getting oneself into confined areas requires some form of contortionist feats especially when getting to all the grime accumulated over the years within. Surprises abound as one covering after the other gets removed.

Needless to say, the moment is to be cherished for valuable corrosion inspection. Further, I had the opportunity to remove “countless” cables, antennas and wiring that were left behind previous projects, no doubt saving labour. I discovered the underperforming DME was connected to the marker beacon antenna and the DME antenna was not connected to anything. Re-arrangement was completed and the marker beacon antenna and cable were trashed. Who cares about marker beacons in 2019/2020!

The “might as well” syndrome

Removing the interior of one’s aircraft is a perfect time to install labour intensive equipment should budgets permit. I was hoping to rearrange the instruments with some form of « EFIS » eventually. Following advice, installation of Garmin G5’s was also put underway. The wiring and removal of the vacuum system was so much easier since everything was opened up, despite the « early » capital expenditure.

The G5 as any other magnetometer driven compass requires electromagnetic testing prior signing off. The final position for the magnetometer unit is only discovered once a series of electrical tests are performed. There was about 65 of them! Having the interior removed made a favourable big difference.

More surprises

The Piper Comanche series retractable landing gear is electrical. The high current draw from motor requires to be tested a few times to ensure that it does not interfere with the fickle magnetometer. So, during the landing gear cycles test, after the third selection an encounter with Murphy’s law was noted. The motor fried itself!

I am a proponent of preventive maintenance for many good reasons, at a cost granted. Yet, that component was not contemplted. Preventive maintenance with good reason is counter-balanced an old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”! The last time the gear motor was serviced was 23 years back. Perhaps I unwittingly had pushed the old mechanical concept a bit too much. Once in a while you get lucky with these things. Happily on jacks and in the comfort of the heated hangar, the motor was removed and sent to overhaul and later re-installed.

Adventure machine you say?

Back to the preparation process, All the vacuum hardware was removed both sides. Tubes, pipes, gauge, instruments and pumps making room for… well nothing of course!

A set of G5’s got a new home, insulation got installed making the venerable lady look like the exterior of NASA’s LEM (lunar excursion module).

New insulation installed with lunar landing module look
New insulation

Grime and very old glue

The dirty and labour intensive job was to remove the old wall and ceiling panelling covers. They were mostly glued to very thin aluminium. Some corrosion was present at the bottom from wet boots I had gathered. That was cleaned up and repaired. The side windows mouldings made out of plastic had somewhat well aged. They were covered with fabric. It was decided to cover them once again with new material ( ultra suede) rather then purchase new ones. There are a few manufacturers out there that produce replacement mouldings should it be required. To this effect the ceiling panel containing the speaker, lighting and trim handle was looking quite funky. It had to be replaced. Be aware that the new plastic mouldings require fitting, big time.

Weight in gold

Putting every thing back together required another hidden pseudo talent in my case: arts and craft! Stuck between weight control and aesthetics, one has to thread carefully. In the process of “producing quality”, weight can add up quickly. On a wider scale, when Airbus completed it’s A-380 prototype, they discovered that the big airplane was 5 500 kg heavier than original plans had stated!

Yeah, I know, the modest PA-30 is no jet. This did not stop my efforts to minimize the impact of gaining weight. In many ways weight is a drag. More weight means less payload, less speed for the same power setting. 200 pounds on this PA-30 equals 4 KTAS.

Of interest here, Piper as far as the Comanches were concerned used standard metal screws backed by the occasional Riv-nuts to assemble the interior. Unfortunately, the latest refurbishing of GDSY was accomplished with sheet metal screws (“PK’s”). I gather interior refurbishers used them to save time. I understand Cessna products are also done with sheet metal screws. Regardless, they are a pain. They strip, they get loose and ultimately make holes everywhere!

Metal screws are solid and using the occasional “ever so cool” Riv-nut to support your work. They are well worth their effort. There was finally a hidden bonus here. All original airframe holes were in pristine condition. I just required a hole finder tool to align everything prior drilling the panel. Piece of cake!

Carpeting was fitted easily tough careful adjusting and cutting was required. There are many panels on the floor: Circuit breakers, manual gear extension system, fuel selectors and fuel drains.

Clean sox over new carpet
Some wear white gloves other clean sox for that new carpet.

And my Swiss army knife!

During that period, I was shown by the AME, a picture of a Beechcraft Bonanza that landed gear up in November 2019. The aircraft had suffered a total electrical failure. The pilot was unable to manually extend the landing gear as new carpeting covered the manual extension panel. Really! Swiss army knife? « Never leave home without it ».

After so many hours spent cleaning up, things were looking up and frankly looking quite classy.

Seat interior cushion
The seat cushioning, no wonder why comfort was in demand.


And then the main feature for all this project was the seating arrangement. The tear down brought its own revelations. The cushioning within was a sort of “grassy coloured hay” material. I did not dare research wat it was. One thing however was noted: the flammability of this stuffing. How freaky that was! Fires are a rare occurrence on aircraft but they do occur. The seat stuffing was anything but fire retardant.

Seats shown with no material
Seats ready to sandblast

Admit it, a thought about being on the hot seat comes to mind!

Indeed I had checked upon FAA and Transport Canada for fire retardant material requirements for the new material. Looking back, I am certain that the interior refurbishing project was worth the effort for this discovery alone.

The two front seats frames and aft unit were also in need of attention. I sent them out to a sandblasting enterprise to remove decades of old beige paint chipping away. I was advised to ensure that the spring supports had to be ever so delicately touched to avoid heating them and thus loosing the spring properties of the steel. Prior priming within an hour of the sandblasting, I was also advised to remove the sand that lodged itself within the tubbing. Never thought about it! A good quantity was shaken out. Sand attracts humidity and this will cause corrosion.

New interior in pale grey
New look
View of electronic flight instruments
The G5 installation
(The TAS is a bit high by 7 kt due to mountain wave over the Adirondacks in Vermont)

After letting the new paint dry, the seat covering itself was quite easy thanks to the excellent and precise design of the seat cushioning and covering.

Who is counting anyway

In retrospect, 275 hours of work went into the two sided project. 40 of them on the G5 installation. The AME’s figured a professional could have taken 200 hours of labour. There was a lot of time spent on details that otherwise might not be a priority for hired labour. Yet any finishing always takes time and it could be quite demanding should one desire to produce a “museum finish”. I decided to be practical about the outcome. Perfection as I look back was not attained. The amount of labour required to improve from a 90% grade to an illusive 100% was not an option. The amount of work required to acquire that extra 10 % was way out of proportion. Nobody noticed the few small cosmetic errors or at least politely refrain from any comments.

GDSY was weighted and this new aircraft registered 22 pounds of extra empty weight. The insulation was an item and the new seating added their weight in gold. It was a good thing to have removed the vacuum system.

What was required

Tools and supplies that were found indispensable other the conventional ones:

• A set of hole finders (allowing perfect lining up of various components)

• A small drill with a capacity to be maximum torqued

• At least 2 packs of 50 blades box cutters

• Riv-nut tool

• Seat material pliers for seat material fasteners (supplied by Airtex)

• 2 quarts of contact cement or equivalent

• Epoxy glue

• Good quality glue remover

The PA-30 now smells like new and looks like a million bucks. Instrument flying is also much more amicable for this former A-330 guy. As for those longer sector flights? Pure comfort.

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