Recip Technology: Did I Hear a Radial?

Who maintains the R-985 radial engines?


Last August while fishing in Katmai National Park, Alaska, two brightly painted de Havilland DHC-2 Beavers flew over and landed on nearby Naknek Lake. They taxied up and I heard those beautiful R-985s clatter to a stop. In about 15 minutes the bush pilots had off loaded the tourist, repositioned the Beavers and were taxiing out for a takeoff.

As I watched them lift off some maintenance thoughts came to mind. I knew that Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) had stopped producing the R-985s in the early 1950s, so who maintains and overhauls those old workhorses? What are the specifications now and where do they get parts? If someone was operating aircraft powered by radial engines then there were mechanics out there trying to find an oil leak, measuring cylinder wear, or timing a magneto.

The operator

Some of those AMTs work for Rust’s Flying Service in Anchorage, AK. Its fleet of aircraft includes five DHC-2 Beavers used by experienced bush pilots to take clients bear watching, on fishing and hunting trips, and to fly-in lodges. I contacted Colin Rusts, owner and operator, and asked if he would like to talk about radial engines. I quickly learned that anyone that has any experience with these engines loves to talk about them. Colin says that the Beavers powered by R-985s were ideally suited for the Alaskan environment and the day charter business. They are safe and dependable, with very few maintenance problems.

He says that “when Pratt & Whitney designed these engines, they got it right the first time.” Rust’s has a staff of five to six experienced A&Ps that maintain its fleet of aircraft. “They like to maintain the R-985s because they are classics. Up here, a lot of nostalgia and prestige are associated with maintaining bush planes and these engines. They are like Harley-Davidsons. Our maintenance guys take good care of the engines and are especially careful with oil leaks. We fly into the National Parks and other environmentally sensitive areas where any fuel or oil contamination is forbidden. We will continue operating the R-985s as long as we can get parts, low lead 100 octane aviation gas, and the engines overhauled.”

I contacted P&WC and asked about engine overhauls. I was surprised to find that Pratt & Whitney R-985 and R-1340 radial engines are still performing vital services in the agriculture industry, backcountry charters, and light freight forwarding. They are mounted on aircraft flown by the military, state, and local agencies and hobbyists that you see at Oshkosh AirVenture. P&WC stopped supporting the R-985 in the late ‘50s and the R-1340 in the late ‘60s however it recommends Covington Aircraft in Okmulgee, OK, for maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) work.

Covington Aircraft, the MRO

The Abbott family operates Covington Aircraft with a strong personal faith and through the four core values of integrity, dependability, quality service, and affordability.

Covington Aircraft’s Radial Engine Division is the largest R-985 and R-1340 overhaul facility in the world. It has about 30 employees that include A&Ps, engine overhaul technicians, welders, machinists, NDT and quality control inspectors, and supply specialists that perform all overhaul functions except chrome plating. I spoke to Rob Seeman and Blaine Abbott. Blaine manages the QA function and is the company historian and resident expert on most things R-985 and R-1340.

I asked why radial engines? “If you recall, in the mid ‘70s before UPS and FedEx, there was a good number of small freight and agribusiness operators flying aircraft with radial engines. Servicing this diverse customer base was good business.”

Covington has been doing this for about 40 years and I was curious as to what had changed with the OEM, the customers, and the radials. They said that the FAA certifications were easy to get and the OEM authorization had developed over time. The staff at Covington is very proud that they are a P&WC certified distributor and designated overhaul facility (DDOF).

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