“Restoring aircraft can be quite challenging,” Gifford explains. “A lot depends upon the desired degree of restoration. For example, when an old airplane is “restored” we consider using the original cotton or linen fabric or modern polyester fabric.”
Some vintage aircraft owners provide a restoration budget to finance the most accurate details like specially produced (correct) outer fabric sheathing to replace wiring; and wire bundles wrapped and tied with waxed chord instead of using modern nylon tie wraps.
Other options include repairing the original instruments or replacing them with modern instruments. For Gifford’s Ryan his current wish list includes components for a Pioneer Earth Inductor Compass; engine gauges (1920s vintage): oil pressure, oil temperature, and fuel pressure; and a throttle quadrant.
Gifford’s completed MGM Special will have five fuel tanks and a lion cage, and will not meet the Ryan B-1 Approved Type Certificate #25. He intends to license the restored aircraft under the Experimental, Exhibition category.
According to Gifford, the level of authenticity is literally in the eye of the beholder. “It’s more of having an eye for detail. Sometimes, however, it’s a case of cleaning and maintenance after the fact. Exterior glossy paint is easier to keep clean, whereas flat paint will stain and hold dirt and grime.”
Before the final installation of the Special’s cowling, the metal surface will be engine turned (or “swirled”) for aesthetic and practical reasons. This classic look is well-known among automobile restoration buffs as an art form requiring patience and skill. “I’ll do that myself,” Gifford says. “It was a trick they used since the cowling was hand formed out of soft aluminum. The swirls helped hide all of the dents and ripples.”
A licensed pilot since 1980, Gifford plans to fly the Special himself once it’s finished. “I’ll primarily be adding brakes and a tail wheel. In the 1920s the tail skid acted as the brake, digging into the sod,” Gifford wryly adds. “Tail skids don’t work well on concrete and asphalt and the aircraft becomes directionally unstable . . . not desirable for a pilot!” As far as communication, Gifford will need a chase plane to land at large airports where sophisticated avionics are required, but for landing alone elsewhere, he’ll install a hand-held radio with a hidden external antenna. There isn’t much instrument panel space on the Special and he doesn’t want to clutter it with new devices. Where he cannot use originals, Gifford intends to find modern instruments and place them inside vintage casings.
Safety trumps authentic replacement parts any day in the air. Leo’s cage was encased in 1/4-inch plate glass for windows. “Obviously this will not be a good idea for my plane,” says Gifford, “I’ll use Plexiglas instead.” Some of the original parts Gifford collected from the crash site include fittings, a main spar attach structure (repaired), landing gear shock struts (repaired), and the distinctive elevator trim control.
Gifford’s enthusiasm and dedication to this project is never more evident than when he proudly displays two key components: a Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine and a Standard propeller. Gifford’s wife Dawn scurried out with polish and made it shine, and they both examined every centimeter for pits or scrapes (none). “He married me for my free labor,” she jokes. Of particular pride is the reproduction vintage decal for the Standard Steel Propeller Company, which denotes that this prop was made prior to the merger of Hamilton-Standard in 1929.
The Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine Gifford will use on the Ryan has its own place of honor behind his desk at NostalgAire. Its special mounting/carrying rig just barely fits through the exterior office door so he can roll it out to be photographed. It is the same type as on the original aircraft, and he depends upon searching the Internet to find original parts, and new production runs of old assembly pieces like the exhaust valves, “which are impossible to find,” says Gifford. “I work with several shops which specialize in antique parts.”