Aircraft Fabric Covering Process

It is required to have an IA involved in the process of recovering a fabric aircraft because re-covering is a major repair or major alteration. Signatures are required in the aircraft logbook. To ensure work progresses as required, the IA should be involved from the beginning, as well as at various stages throughout the process.

This page describes steps common to various STC and manufacturer covering processes, as well as the differences of some processes. To aid in proper performance of fabric covering and repair procedures, STC holders produce illustrated, step-by-step instructional manuals and videos that demonstrate the correct covering procedures. These training aids are invaluable to the inexperienced technician.

Since modern fabric coverings last indefinitely, a rare opportunity to inspect the aircraft exists during the recovering process. Inspectors and owner-operators should use this opportunity to perform a thorough inspection of the aircraft before new fabric is installed.

The method of fabric attachment should be identical, as far as strength and reliability are concerned, to the method used by the manufacturer of the aircraft being recovered or repaired. Carefully remove the old fabric from the airframe, noting the location of inspection covers, drain grommets, and method of attachment. Either the envelope method or blanket method of fabric covering is acceptable, but a choice must be made prior to beginning the re-covering process.

Blanket Method vs. Envelope Method

In the blanket method of re-covering, multiple flat sections of fabric are trimmed and attached to the airframe. Certified greige polyester fabric for covering an aircraft can be up to 70 inches in width and used as it comes off the bolt. Each aircraft must be considered individually to determine the size and layout of blankets needed to cover it. A single blanket cut for each small surface (i.e., stabilizers and control surfaces) is common. Wings may require two blankets that overlap. Fuselages are covered with multiple blankets that span between major structural members, often with a single blanket for the bottom. Very large wings may require more than two blankets of fabric to cover the entire top and bottom surfaces. In all cases, the fabric is adhered to the airframe using the approved adhesives, following specific rules for the covering process being employed. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Laying out fabric during a blanket method re-covering job.

An alternative method of re-covering, the envelope method, saves time by using precut and pre-sewn envelopes of fabric to cover the aircraft. The envelopes must be sewn with approved machine sewing thread, edge distance, fabric fold, etc., such as those specified in AC 43.13-1 or an STC. Patterns are made and fabric is cut and stitched so that each major surface, including the fuselage and wings, can be covered with a single, close-fitting envelope. Since envelopes are cut to fit, they are slid into position, oriented with the seams in the proper place, and attached with adhesive to the airframe. Envelope seams are usually located over airframe structure in inconspicuous places, such as the trailing edge structures and the very top and bottom of the fuselage, depending on airframe construction. Follow the manufacturer’s or STC’s instructions for proper location of the sewn seams of the envelope when using this method. [Figure 2]

Figure 2
A custom-fit presewn fabric envelope is slid into position over a fuselage for the envelope method of fabric covering. Other than fitting, most steps in the covering process are the same as with the blanket covering method

Preparation for Fabric Covering Work

Proper preparation for re-covering a fabric aircraft is essential. First, assemble the materials and tools required to complete the job. The holder of the STC usually supplies a materials and tools list either separately or in the STC manual. Control of temperature, humidity, and ventilation is needed in the work environment. If ideal environmental conditions cannot be met, additives are available that compensate for this for most re-covering products.

Rotating work stands for the fuselage and wings provide easy, alternating access to the upper and lower surfaces while the job is in progress. [Figure 3] They can be used with sawhorses or sawhorses can be used alone to support the aircraft structure while working. A workbench or table, as well as a rolling cart and storage cabinet, are also recommended. Figure 4 shows a well conceived fabric covering workshop. A paint spray booth for sprayed-on coatings and space to store components awaiting work is also recommended.

Figure 3. Rotating stands and sawhorses facilitate easy access 
to top and bottom surfaces during the fabric covering process

Figure 4. Some components of a work area for covering an aircraft with fabric

Many of the substances used in most re-covering processes are highly toxic. Proper protection must be used to avoid serious short and long term adverse health effects. Eye protection, a proper respirator, and skin protection are vital. As mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, nitrate dope is very flammable. Proper ventilation and a rated fire extinguisher should be on hand when working with this and other covering process materials. Grounding of work to prevent static electricity build-up may be required. All fabric re-covering processes also involve multiple coats of various products that are sprayed onto the fabric surface. Use of a high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) sprayer is recommended. Good ventilation is needed for all of the processes.

Removal of Old Fabric Coverings

Removal of the old covering is the first step in replacing an aircraft fabric covering. Cut away the old fabric from the airframe with razor blades or utility knife. Care should be taken to ensure that no damage is done to the airframe. [Figure 5] To use the old covering for templates in transferring the location of inspection panels, cable guides, and other features to the new covering, the old covering should be removed in large sections. Note : any rib stitching fasteners, if used to attach the fabric to the structure, should be removed before the fabric is pulled free of the airframe. If fasteners are left in place, damage to the structure may occur during fabric removal.

Figure 5
Old fabric coverings are cut off in large pieces to preserve them as templates for locating various airframe features. Sharp blades and care must be used to avoid damaging the structure

Preparation of the Airframe Before Covering

Once the old fabric has been removed, the exposed airframe structure must be thoroughly cleaned and inspected. The IA collaborating on the job should be involved in this step of the process. Details of the inspection should follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, the STC, or AC 43.13-1. All of the old adhesive must be completely removed from the airframe with solvent, such as MEK. A thorough inspection must be done and various components may be selected to be removed for cleaning, inspection, and testing. Any repairs that are required, including the removal and treatment of all corrosion, must be done at this time. If the airframe is steel tubing, many technicians take the opportunity to grit blast the entire airframe at this stage.

The leading edge of a wing is a critical area where airflow diverges and begins its laminar flow over the wing’s surfaces, which results in the generation of lift. It is beneficial to have a smooth, regular surface in this area. Plywood leading edges must be sanded until smooth, bare wood is exposed. If oil or grease spots exist, they must be cleaned with naphtha or other specified cleaners. If there are any chips, indentations, or irregularities, approved filler may be spread into these areas and sanded smooth. The entire leading edge should be cleaned before beginning the fabric covering process.

To obtain a smooth finish on fabric-covered leading edges of aluminum wings, a sheet of felt or polyester padding may be applied before the fabric is installed. This should only be done with the material specified in the STC under which the technician is working. The approved padding ensures compatibility with the adhesives and first coatings of the covering process. When a leading edge pad is used, check the STC process instructions for permission to make a cemented fabric seam over the padding. [Figure 6]

Figure 6
The use of specified felt or padding over the wing leading edges before the fabric is installed results in a smooth regular surface

When completely cleaned, inspected, and repaired, an approved primer, or varnish if it is a wood structure, should be applied to the airframe. This step is sometimes referred to as dope proofing. Exposed aluminum must first be acid etched. Use the product(s) specified by the manufacturer or in the STC to prepare the metal before priming. Two part epoxy primers and varnishes, which are not affected by the fabric adhesive and subsequent coatings, are usually specified. One part primers, such as zinc chromate and spar varnish, are typically not acceptable. The chemicals in the adhesives dissolve the primers, and adhesion of the fabric to the airframe is lost.

Sharp edges, metal seams, the heads of rivets, and any other feature on the aircraft structure that might cut or wear through the fabric should be covered with anti-chafe tape. As described above, this cloth sticky-back tape is approved and should not be substituted with masking or any other kind of tape. Sometimes, rib cap strips need to have anti-chafe tape applied when the edges are not rounded over. [Figure 7]

Figure 7. Anti-chafe tape is applied to all features that might cut or wear through the fabric

Inter-rib bracing must also be accomplished before the fabric is installed. It normally does not have an adhesive attached to it and is wrapped only once around each rib. The single wrap around each rib is enough to hold the ribs in place during the covering process but allows small movements during the fabric shrinking process. [Figure 8]

Figure 8. Inter-rib bracing holds the ribs in place during the re-covering process

Attaching Polyester Fabric to the Airframe

Inexperienced technicians are encouraged to construct a test panel upon which they can practice with the fabric and various substances and techniques to be used on the aircraft. It is often suggested to cover smaller surfaces first, such as the empennage and control surfaces. Mistakes on these can be corrected and are less costly if they occur. The techniques employed for all surfaces, including the wings and fuselage, are basically the same. Once dexterity has been established, the order in which one proceeds is often a personal choice.

When the airframe is primed and ready for fabric installation, it must receive a final inspection by an A&P with IA. When approved, attachment of the fabric may begin. The manufacturer’s or STC’s instructions must be followed without deviation for the job to be airworthy. The following are the general steps taken. Each approved process has its own nuances.