A Tale of Two Tails

Pebbles scratched the paint. Bigger rocks just turned over in the propeller blast.

But golf- to baseball-sized stones pounded the tail of my airplane. Couldn’t be helped on the gravel strip. Still had to takeoff.

Two boys next to a Cessna 206 at a typical grass airstrip in Ecuador. Photo by Mark and Kelly Hewes.

Back at base, I stooped down to inspect the underside of the horizontal stabilizer (aka, “back wing”). It looked terrible. Months of flying in and out of rotten airstrips took their toll. Hundreds of scratches overlaid dozens of dents. A couple sharp gouges actually tore through the thin aluminum skin. But the orange-sized smash in the leading edge grounded the plane.

Not unusual. We pulled an airplane offline every few months to renovate the tail surfaces. Getting the pieces off the airplane didn’t take long. Rebuilding them did.

First we drilled out hundreds of rivets, careful not to deform their holes. Then we removed the skin sheets from the upper and lower surfaces. Next, we detached each of 14 main ribs and 16 nose ribs from the two spars. Every inch of every piece, including each rivet hole, required inspection and, if necessary, repair. And both elevators hanging on the horizontal’s trailing edge needed the same treatment.

But keeping the airplane out of service for three weeks or more hurt—a lot. Teachers didn’t get to their village schools on time. Vaccination teams didn’t get to all the villages on their schedule. Emergency patients waited too long for help. Missionaries couldn’t attend conferences. Indigenous evangelists missed opportunities. And those groundings always seemed to occur when we most needed every aircraft up and flying.

But help finally arrived. While I served as the Ecuador Program Manager, generous benefactors funded a complete spare horizontal and elevator assembly for our Cessna 206 aircraft. Instead of nearly a month offline, an aircraft with a damaged tail returned to service in one or two days. Dramatically improved our ability to serve. Also reminded me that our donors’ deep faith yielded fruitful works (James 2:14-26).

The following photos feature the MAF floatplane PK-MCB (in Palangkaraya, Kalimantan, Indonesia) as it undergoes the same process. Photos are by former MAF pilot Sean Cannon. 

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