Determining Fabric Condition of Aircraft- Repair or Recover?

Re-covering an aircraft with fabric is a major repair and should only be undertaken when necessary. Often a repair to the present fabric is sufficient to keep the aircraft airworthy. The original manufacturer’s recommendations or the covering process STC should be consulted for the type of repair required for the damage incurred by the fabric covering. AC 43.13-1 also gives guidelines and acceptable practices for repairing cotton fabric, specifically when stitching is concerned.

Often a large area that needs repair is judged in reference to the overall remaining lifespan of the fabric on the aircraft. For example, if the fabric has reached the limit of its durability, it is better to re-cover the entire aircraft than to replace a large damaged area when the remainder of the aircraft would soon need to be re-covered.

On aircraft with dope-based covering systems, continued shrinkage of the dope can cause the fabric to become too tight. Overly tight fabric may require the aircraft to be re-covered rather than repaired because excess tension on fabric can cause airframe structural damage. Loose fabric flaps in the wind during flight, affecting weight distribution and unduly stressing the airframe. It may also need to be replaced because of damage to the airframe.

Another reason to re-cover rather than repair occurs when dope coatings on fabric develop cracks. These cracks could expose the fabric beneath to the elements that can weaken it. Close observation and field testing must be used to determine if the fabrics are airworthy. If not, the aircraft must be re-covered. If the fabric is airworthy and no other problems exist, a rejuvenator can be used per manufacturer’s instructions. This product is usually sprayed on and softens the coatings with very powerful solvents. Plasticizers in the rejuvenator become part of the film that fills in the cracks. After the rejuvenator dries, additional coats of aluminumpigmented dope must be added and then final topcoats applied to finish the job. While laborious, rejuvenating a dope finish over strong fabric can save a great deal of time and money. Polyurethane-based finishes cannot be rejuvenated.