Wednesday, June 25, 2014

T & M Aviation and West Coast Wings mechanics repairing airplanes in Ukiah, California

Only the tail end of a Cessna 208 Caravan is visible outside the shed doors of T & M Aviation. It is a small plane operated by UPS for overnight packages, and it is in the shop for a regular inspection, every six months, every 200 flight-hours.

It flew in from Oakland in the morning, and owner Mike Whetzel and employees will have it serviced and ready to be flown out at 5 p.m. in the afternoon.

The front end of the plane is open, from the engine fire wall forward, and the mechanics are performing an oil analysis and a soap sample, checking the chip detectors, cleaning the filter, checking the propeller, fuel filters and engine igniters and changing the aileron trim actuator under the right wing tip.

That last item allows the pilot to trim the airplane so it will fly straight, even in a crosswind or heavy wind.

Two full-time mechanics, one part time and Whetzel, are working on four planes, a usual situation, in the airplane maintenance shop where they repair and do airframe inspections.

The Cessna 180 belongs to an individual from Hollister and is being repaired in Ukiah because of the shop's excellent reputation.

There's also a Cessna 182, whose owner lives in Ukiah, and a Cessna 172 from Fort Bragg. Planes come from all over California as well as out of state.

Whetzel grew up on Vandenberg Air Force Base and worked on missile launch facilities for Martin Marietta.

In 1986, when the Challenger blew up, he and many others were laid off, and he decided to attend a program for aircraft maintenance.

He was a crew chief on a P-51 Mustang at the Reno Air Races. "Those are multi-lap, multi-aircraft races on 8-mile courses where the planes are flying 500 mph about 50 feet off the ground," he says.

In 1996, he opened his own shop at the Ukiah Airport.

Whetzel says his work is stressful and that his liability insurance is higher than that of a heart surgeon's.

"I have awakened in the middle of the night and come to the shop to make sure I tightened a nut properly. We try very hard to cross our t's and dot our i's and make sure everything is safe."

Next door, at West Coast Wings, Nick Bishop is rebuilding the wingspan of a Grumman Goose, an amphibious seaplane that can wheel or water land. He points out the specialized repair jig built to hold a wing to factory tolerances, to keep it true, while it is being repaired.

There's a tabletop of bucking bars, and Aric Abrams demonstrates their use while securing the wing skin of a Cessna 172. He individually seats one of the hundreds of rivets, both vertical and horizontal, about an inch apart found on the 15-foot wingspan, and pushes it in with a rivet air hammer while holding the bucking bar on the other side of the wing to compress it and make it tight so it can't work itself out of position. He does this with every rivet, hundreds of them.

In another part of the shop, Bennett Pool is working on a vertical mill to make an aluminum metal forming block, a highly specialized tool, milled to specifications, to fix a vertical stinger, a piece with multiple compound curves on the metal. The tool mimics the curvature of the metal's angle that needs replacing. "We have to make parts that don't exist; we are working on planes that are 50 to 60 years old," he says.

He points to a newly created skin, the outer covering of the wing. Using the old skin as a template, he has hand-drilled hundreds of holes into the new piece to prepare it for riveting.

Bishop and his wife, Tammy, are in this business together, she taking care of the financial end. After becoming an aircraft mechanic in 1988, he worked in a custom sheet metal shop and they eventually moved to Ukiah, where he worked at a general maintenance shop at the airport.

One of his handmade bracket mounts caught the eye of Steve Culbertson, his longtime mentor, who hired him because of the quality he saw in his work, starting Bishop on his way toward an entrepreneurship in his 1250-square-foot garage.

In 1999, the Bishops struck a deal with the city and leased a piece of land at the airport. With the help of friends, they took a year to assemble the 6,000-square- foot structure that is now home to their niche business.

They work primarily on wings and flight controls, insurance work being the bread and butter of their business.

"Our work is old school. The height of airplane technology was from '38 to '45, the Howard Hughes era. Aircraft structure has not really advanced since then. We are still using the same tools from that time.

"They don't make equipment like they used to, and a lot of our tools are from World War II factories, stuff I have hunted down, found behind hangars."

They get a lot of work from the Bay Area, and if a customer can't get the wing to the shop, Bishop has a specially rigged pickup they drive down to bring it back to the shop.

One customer drove his wing in a pickup from Michigan, left it for repairs and returned to pick it up later. "These people are serious," he says.

"We can dissemble the wing down to the last rib, the smallest part. We start from there and reverse engineer down through how it was originally designed. The drilling is done by hand; it takes hundreds of hours to perform the work.

"The only complaint we get is that people have to wait. There are a lot of shops that do general maintenance but few that go the extent that we do. We are a small shop with a small staff and it will stay that way; too much overhead will run you out of business. We do no advertising, have no web page. It's all by word of mouth," he says.

Story and photos:

No comments:

Post a Comment