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Hire a Farmer to Fix WWI Aircraft

logistics and maintenance

Mike Gugeler on WWI aircraft maintenance

Mike Gugeler is one of the rare people who, like Vintage Aero Flying Museum director Andy Parks, knows not only WWI aviation history, but also how to fly and how to build WWI replica airplanes. He is the sort of person who at a WWI aviation museum fly-in would be the one spreading out blueprints for WWI airplanes on the tables set out for lunch. 

Eddie Rickenbacker thought that pilots should be recruited from racecar drivers, since they were already adrenaline junkies (all right, it's not how he phrased it) who understood machines. (The US Army disagreed, thinking anyone who understood flying machines would be too scared to fly them in combat.) Similarly, Mike Gugeler today thinks mechanics for WWI replica aircraft are best recruited from farmers rather than FAA-licensed A&P mechanics. A farmer has to have woodworking skills to fix the barn (useful for shaping a propeller, or rebuilding the wooden aircraft structure), metalworking skills to fix the plow or tractor (aircraft engine), toolmaking skills for the places the standard tool doesn't reach (WWI aircraft were not very standardized), and so forth.  

Like medicine, aircraft maintenance has become much more specialized over the last 100 years; today you could spend a whole career as an avionics specialist, the whole field of which was unknown in WWI. Also unknown: composite materials, epoxys, resins, and the FAA! Maintenance procedures weren't written yet, and drawings of what an aircraft needed could be literally a thumbnail sketch.

Ax handles for the red tri-plane

If you wanted to be able to fix an airplane 100 years ago, you pretty much needed the skills to build it in the first place; sometimes there wasn't much difference between building and rebuilding. If the landing gear broke, you might need to do some woodworking, as in going out and chopping down the tree and forming it into new landing gear. (All it had to do was work in combat; it didn't have to get past the FAA!)

Mechanics at that time had to be able to do sheet metal work, welding, engine work, fabric work, and maybe even enough blacksmithing to create unique parts on an anvil. (At a VAFM fly-in several years ago, Mary Feik, a teenage aircraft mechanic in WWII whose father was a blacksmith, spoke about the early days of aircraft maintenance; you should read what she said about how the P-51 rivet changed WWII.)

It was an era of experimentation for mechanics as well as pilots, and they paid attention to trends; if the same thing kept breaking all the time in the same way, they'd invent something to do about it, from whatever was around. For instance, the Dr1 ("Red Baron airplane") tri-plane the museum used to have had ax handles on the bottom of the wings. That was because WWI mechanics noticed that wingtips tended to break a lot when the pilots dragged them on the field, so they mounted ax handles to be a sturdier first point of contact with the ground.

Modern makers and maintainers

Today, combat isn't a factor, but the FAA is, yet inventiveness is still a necessary trait for WWI aircraft maintainers. Mike explains that each of the VAFM's aircraft mechanics comes to the job from a different perspective, and each tends to see the aircraft in terms of his own specialty. One wants to build everything with aluminum, another would do the same job with fabric, another with wood, and another with plastic. They amaze each other with ideas for doing the same job with a different material, and they learn from each other.

So next time you watch the museum's aircraft flying or even presented as a static display, realize that you are looking at the result of many, many hours of labor by the modern versions of the farm boys of 100 years ago, figuring out how to present the spirit of WWI aviation in a new century of aircraft construction.

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  • Joel on

    I have worked with and around farmers most of my life and am familiar with some farmers who have been and still are some of the best mechanics I know of. They seem to be able to fix anything quickly and before the next rain storm comes to ruin their crops which are in need harvesting.

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