Behind the scenes of a DC-3 restoration
By Joe Escobar
The words of Merle Haggard came to mind when I got my first look at Delta's restored DC-3 Ship 41. Its silver wings were definitely shining in the sunlight. I was awestruck at the amount of detail in the restoration. It was like taking a step back in time as I imagined what it must have been like to work on this aircraft during the golden years of aviation. The Delta employees that keep this bird operating today are James Ray, manager of restoration and maintenance, and technicians Scott Gerken, Stacy Tyler, Joe Maknauskas, and Jeff Hoole. I sat down with some of them and discovered what it took to restore this vintage aircraft.
Legend in the making
Ship 41 was originally delivered to Delta on Dec. 23, 1940. It was the first DC-3 to enter revenue service with the airline. It remained with Delta until May of 1958 when it was sold.
In 1991, a group of retired Delta pilots set out to acquire one of Delta's original DC-3s for restoration. After several years of searching, they located Ship 41 which was flying cargo flights for Air Puerto Rico. They purchased it in 1993 and flew it back to Atlanta Hartsfield Airport in June of that year. There it stood in storage until 1996 when the restoration project kicked off.
Labor of love
James Ray was the focal point of the restoration. He organized the effort and coordinated all maintenance activity. In the beginning, most of the restoration work force were volunteers. Delta employees would clock out from their shift and then trek over to Hangar 1 where they would put in hours of volunteer labor getting the restoration off the ground.
Ray shared a little about the challenges he faced with a volunteer work force, "The volunteer end of the project was hard to manage. You didn't know from day to day how many people were going to be here, making continuity of a time line extremely difficult. Many of the volunteers in the early stages were clerical and unskilled in aircraft maintenance. This turned out to be a windfall as the first couple of years were primarily cleaning and disassembly, so we were fortunate, as they would do almost anything to be a part of the program. As we went along the technical challenges rose and the skill level increased to volunteers from Tech Ops and seasoned retired mechanics."
The restoration was a huge undertaking and controlling the disassembly was a challenge. "We really had to watch ourselves, because everyone wanted to help, everybody knew how to take something apart, but they may be long gone when it came time to put it back together. So we had to keep track of who did what and when and how it came apart. Even the standard way to label things — what is fore and aft, left or right. We made a set of rules to make sure that everyone labeled things the same way. We also took lots of pictures. We have a company photographer and I don't think he went two days without taking a couple rolls of film. Pictures are as important as drawings when putting something back together. You get to see not only the one item or area, but things around it and its orientation," Scott Gerken explained.
Rebuilding a dream
With the exception of a few panels on the center wing, every piece of sheet metal came off the airplane. After the entire plane came apart the tedious work began. Every piece of sheet metal, every rib, stringer, and skin was cleaned and inspected. Those that were serviceable were cleaned, treated, and primed. Those that weren't had to be repaired or replaced. Since spare parts for DC-3s are not readily available, the team had to fabricate numerous parts. That is where the expertise of the Delta mechanics, both current and retired, came into play.
The wings were a big project in and of themselves. Once the wings were removed from the center sections, cradles were manufactured to support them during the disassembly, they were de-skinned one side at a time. All of the interior structure was repaired or replaced as needed, treated, primed, and new skin was installed. It shows how committed Delta was to a pristine restoration. Gerken explained, "Nobody ever opened up a DC-3 set of wings and re-skinned them. If there was corrosion they'd open up a section, put a scab patch on, and fly. So we had to sit down and decide we wanted to go into them because we wanted them to be new again."
That is pretty much the story of the whole airplane. They did things that nobody will ever know about or see, but they know, and they built it so it would be as good as new.
The fuselage skin was replaced one section at a time working from the front aft in order to keep the structure from torquing. The wings were a little different. Unlike the fuselage, they couldn't work one panel at a time. The whole skin had to be removed from one side of the wing and replaced. The leading edges, 12-foot sections with tapering dimensions, had to be fabricated from scratch. They couldn't be back-drilled on the aircraft. So once the leading edges were removed, templates were manufactured to fit over them. They then back drilled using the old leading edge as a guide. The new leading edge was then rolled and back drilled using the template. This was the only way to perform the task.
Corrosion was a big issue in this restoration project. Due to the airplane's age and the environment where it had been operated, corrosion was present throughout the aircraft structure. The typical hot spots like in the bilges and under the lavatory were especially eaten up.
Even when it came to skilled labor, volunteers still played an important role. Many retired mechanics pitched in. Their expertise and dedication were crucial to the project. Ray shared that the dedication of the retirees was inspiring. "Our typical hours were 7 to 4, and these guys would be lined up at 6:30 waiting to come in. They'd been retired for a couple years, sitting at home and this program came along and they had a mission to show up here. We were working 12-hour days for a while to finish it up at the end and they were working side-by-side with us, didn't phase them a bit. One of our retirees, Bill Stapley, was replacing the main entrance door frame and worked on it for the better part of a year or more. During that time, he had serious health problems, but always came back. We had discussions about whether we should have somebody else work on it and agreed no, he'll come back. And he did. Another gentleman walked underneath a ladder and was injured. We had safety signs. We call him fast Freddy. He's long since retired with the energy of a 19 year old. Well, he's bleeding and we said we have to get you to a doctor, and he said 'No it's not lunch time, I'll go at lunch time.' So he improvised a bandage and went back to work. And he was a volunteer!"
Facing challenges head on
Another interesting job was the wiring replacement. In modern aircraft, most wiring is run in bundles. you run the wiring, tie it and clamp it, and move on. But much of the wiring on the DC-3 was run in conduit.
Gerken shared, "With the conduit, we had to bend it, get it into shape, fit it in, and clamp it. Then we had to route the wires. It's like doing the job twice."
The fact that the exterior skin is not painted served as another challenge. Everything shows. Minor cosmetic flaws that would not be an issue on a painted aircraft were reason for rejection. It called for great care during all fabrication and assembly.
The DC-3 maintenance manuals contained little detailed information. Gerken explained, "The manual has chapters, but not the ATA numbering. It is not very specific. For example on bolt torques, it says 'use standard torque.' Then on the very last page it lists a handful of bolts that it calls out a specific torque for other than the standard torque."
Stacy Tyler added, "For cable tension some of the manuals tell you 'Not so tight that it binds, and not so loose that it sags.' Far different from the temperature and tension charts we are used to working with."
When you see the completed restoration, you get an immediate sense of the labor of love that was put into the project. Restoring this important part of a bygone era in aviation was a unique opportunity for those involved. And the labor of love continues with those charged to keep the silver wings shining on this one-of-a-kind bird.