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A Wrinkle in the Fabric

By Mike Gugeler

  • A Wrinkle in the Fabric
    Photo Credit: Jim Koepnick

November 12, 2015 - Yeah, it is a nice fly-in. Great weather and a lot of good folks with beautiful airplanes are here. Yes, your first guess was right; this is a Piper Cub, a 1946 model. Well thanks, I think it’s sort of pretty, too. Original? No, not completely. I rebuilt it a while back so there are lots of new parts but mostly it’s original underneath.

What’s that? Do I know about that wrinkle in the fabric? Yeah, I sure do. That wrinkle tells a story. My dad put that there when we were rebuilding this airplane about 10 years ago. He was 80 years old then and had been covering fabric airplanes since long before I was around. This was my first attempt at dealing with fabric—I read the instruction book a few times and figured I knew all there was to know about it. So instead of listening to someone with experience, I got in a hurry and cut the cloth too short, too soon. Dad pulled my glue joint loose and stretched the fabric enough so I didn’t have to re-cover the whole fuselage. Saved yards of material and hours of time. It’s amazing this little wrinkle is all that’s left of the mess I made. When I see that flaw it reminds me to slow down and listen to people who know more than I do. Now that I’ve covered a few airplanes myself and am becoming the one with experience it reminds me that I now have the responsibility to pass that knowledge on to someone else.

Have you ever built or restored an airplane? If you ever have, you’ll know that my eyes and hands have been over every inch of this airplane many times, with paint and glue brushes, hot irons, paint spray guns, sandpaper, tack rags, washing sponges, and sometimes just a bare hand to feel what can’t be seen. So, I know just about every blemish, flaw, and triumph on this old bird. Here, duck under the wing and I’ll show you some more lessons this Cub can teach.

This little run in the paint here? I love that run. I was spraying the final coat of yellow when Dad stuck his head in the paint booth. “Hey, I’m grabbing a beer, you want one?” he asked. I looked away just long enough that my hand bumped something and interrupted the spray gun’s path. A moment of inattention rewarded with this little run. I could have sanded and buffed to make it disappear but I left it alone. It taught me about tending to the matter at hand. That paint run stays.

Over here, on this landing gear leg—see that scratch? I had the honor of giving a ride to an old World War II fighter pilot. His legs didn’t work as well as they used to and he needed some help getting into the seat. That scratch is where his foot dragged while getting in. He’d learned to fly in a Cub back when he offered his all to his country. I taxied out and did the takeoff then told him, “It’s all yours, go wherever you want.” It had been more than 50 years but he flew as if he’d never left the cockpit. He didn’t say much, but I knew he was deep in memories. He flew for a while and I rode along, but I wish I could have been on the same flight he was. That old fighter pilot can’t drive a car anymore and spends most his time in bed now, but he left his mark on this country and on this airplane. Some memorials are not made of stone.

One day I took a kid on a Young Eagle ride. It was his first airplane ride ever and he was excited to go. He put his foot in almost the same place and made this other scratch right beside the fighter pilot’s. We flew all over the place low and slow with the doors open and saw his house and school and woods and creeks he’d known only from the ground. He saw his world as never before and that kid got hooked on flying that day. He got a job, is saving his money, and comes out to the airport whenever he can to spend it all on flying lessons. I could spray a little paint or try to buff out those marks, but I think I’ll wait a while—maybe until the old fighter pilot makes his last flight and the kid solos.

Look here, under this wing strut. That thing that looks like a fingerprint? That’s a fingerprint. I painted this strut with slow-drying enamel and even though I knew it wasn’t dry I just had to pick the thing up to look at my beautiful work. Now when I’m on my back wiping oil off the belly I see that fingerprint and it reminds me to have patience.

Sight down that pinked tape on top of this wing. See where it narrows slightly, like an old Coke bottle? One of those little pinked ears was sticking up and needed a slight touch of a cool iron to put it in place. I had the hot iron in my hand and instead of walking 20 feet to get the cool iron I used what I had handy. Too much heat made the fabric shrink and put a big ol’ curve in that nice straight tape. Now I have a reminder not to shout when a whisper will do.

If we looked closer I could show you a lot of other flaws with a lesson in each, some that I haven’t learned yet.

So yeah, I knew about that wrinkle in the fabric but hadn’t remembered it in a long time. Thanks for reminding me of something I don’t want to lose. They say a Cub is a great teacher and I agree—but it’s not just about flying. It has more lessons than that to give.

Have you ever flown in a Cub? No? Well then, how about you hop up in that seat while I give this propeller a tug. I think it’s time we learn something...

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