Monday, May 28, 2012

AeroCraftsman - Flabob

Late last year I went on a trip with a friend to deliver his Travel Air Project to AeroCraftsman, a restoration shop at Flabob. While there we spent some time with some old friends and finally met, in person, some fellow vintage aviation nuts with which we had previously only exchanged emails or phone calls. All in all it was a good trip.

Seven months later, I was deleting old photos on my phone and came across a few from this trip. That got me thinking and this in turn led me to email Mark Lightsey to see if he would tell me the story of his restoration business. What follows is word for word what he sent.  Ordinarily I don't do that but it was such a good basic autobiography of his journey in aviation, and it since it included some great information about his current projects, I asked him if I could and he said yes.
"I don’t remember when or where I got interested in airplanes, it’s just something that’s always been there. I grew up in Southern California which has always been an aviation hot spot. I had neighbors and teachers that were pilots. I also got a ride in the Goodyear Blimp as a little kid. No matter where it came from, it’s just always been there. Balsa and tissue models led to control line, which led to R/C and so on.
I used money saved from paper routes, pet departments and pizza deliveries to pay for flying lessons at Long Beach airport. Right after getting my Private license, I started making the trek to Santa Paula airport where taildraggers were available for checkout and rental. I learned some acro and had a chance to fly Cubs, Decathlons, Great Lakes, etc. After flying, I’d usually grab a soda and wander around the airport to see what was going on. There was hangar right behind the FBO where an old guy was usually working away on some project or another. He wasn’t real chatty, but he’d let you watch if you didn’t bug him. I later found out it was Jim Dewey. Anyway, standing there watching this guy building and restoring antique planes, it struck as about the coolest thing a guy could do.
In the interim, I did the normal stuff. Went to school, had a series of “real” jobs, got married, bought houses, etc, but aviation was always there and I was always reading, learning, trying to soak it up. I bought flew and sold a variety of older planes including a J-3 and a Bellanca Cruisair that I used to commute to work for several years. I also build a Corben Super Ace from the 1934 Popular Aviation articles. If you own and build these types of planes, you start learning a lot of new skills. After a while, I started to become the “go to” guy at the field in Hemet where I was located.
After a while, my wife suggested that I make a go of it as a full time occupation. She agreed to be 100% supportive as long as I was successful. With an offer like that, how can you refuse, so I left The Gas Company and started doing this for real. First with a partner who was already in the restoration business, and about a year later on my own when he left for other opportunities.
Maybe I’m just lucky, but each project led to others. Decathlon, Stearman, TravelAir, TravelAir, Commandaire, etc….
About the time I was trying to finish the re-restoration and recover of Bob Lock’s Commandaire, I was approached by Jon Goldenbaum, the president of PolyFiber. Jon had been operating a restoration arm of PolyFiber, but his main guy was moving out of the area. After some discussion, I agreed to move my operation to Flabob to take over the projects being left behind. These included the Caudron C.460 racer replica and a 1937 Waco YKS-7. To get the Commandaire finished in time for Barnstormer’s Air Tour, I had the Mendoza brothers, Hualdo and Nando come out to Hemet to lend a hand. They were a couple of young guys working for PolyFiber learning the trade. With their help, we got the airplane finished and out the door just ahead of the deadline.
After moving to Flabob, I talked with the owners of the Flabob projects as well as the projects I was bringing from Hemet and we established some timelines and expectations. I didn’t want to jump into too many projects at once; it’s better to finish one thing before starting another, so we set the projects in order and got to work. At Flabob, I was able to tap into a lot of local expertise when needed to keep the projects moving along. It’s a lot different than being a one man shop.
Two of the standout projects are the previously mentioned Cabin Waco and a TravelAir speedwing.
The TravelAir is owned by Richard and Dan. About 15 years ago, they got the bug for an antique biplane and after researching all the designs, settled on TravelAir. Rather than just restoring one airplane, they decided that the economies of scale would more make sense to restore 7 airplanes at once. Fast forward a decade plus, and I met Richard and Dan through Bill Hill who had done the majority of the restoration over the years. The economic realities of a large project like this had caused several stops and starts along the way, but they were now ready to get at least one ship finished and in the air.
At that point, most of the structural work for ship number one was complete, but it still needed wiring, plumbing, sheet metal work, cowling and of course fabric and paint. The paint scheme was not a simple one, but it was certainly a challenge to layout and install. At this point, we’re just a couple of weeks away from final assembly and rigging. Licensing will be another hurdle since the airplane was previously a duster and was in Restricted category, but we’re planning to get it back into Standard category.
The Cabin Waco is owned by Jerry. He’s a great guy grew up in the Riverside area and took his first airplane ride here at Flabob. Jerry has had a number of interesting airplanes over the years and found this Waco at an Auction. He fell in love with it and considered flying it home, but wisely decided to take it apart and truck it back to California. For Jerry, one of the compelling aspects of the project was the chance to use the project as an opportunity for the Mendoza brothers to further develop their skills, so this project had been started by the previous Flabob restoration shop. Unfortunately, much of the disassembly work started by that shop wasn’t well documented and most of the original woodwork was lost. Add that to the fact that this poor airplane was flat worn out and you have the recipe for a challenging project. In any case, the guys have had the chance to up their game on this project and then some. When it came time to choose a paint scheme and theme for this airplane, Jerry wanted something a little more custom. We worked with Jim Bruni the designer of the TravelAir scheme to come up with some options for the Waco. I think the final design strikes a nice balance between custom and traditional. We used the Waco logo to develop the winged design on the fuselage and wings and used Jerry’s company logo as a medallion on the front. We were trying to capture the look of a corporate airplane from the era and the end result is quite stunning.
Both of these airplanes are very close to being finished and we have a couple more TravelAir projects in storage, patiently waiting their turns.
It’s been a bunch of years since I was a teenage kid, standing outside that Santa Paula hangar, yet here I am, doing exactly the same thing, and you know what? It is the coolest thing in the world."
Take a look at Mark's website to see more of the projects he and his crew are restoring.  They have some amazing machines going together.

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