The thing that bothered me the most was that my Cardinal, as far as I could see, had no corrosion whatsoever. This was a testament to Reims Cessna’s original attention to detail during painting. All panels and so on had been zinc-chromated before fixing together. So the panel overlaps were protected by chromate.
This was the real reason why the Cardinal had no apparent corrosion. Water will always seep through airframe-flex induced paint micro-cracks. This water will then lie between the panels. But on my aeroplane, the water had a layer of chromate to reckon with before it could get at the metal.
I reasoned that chemical stripper – even in a weak solution during after-strip pressure washing – could permeate between the panel overlaps and destroy the protecting chromate layer. And then the hideous spectre of corrosion would wreak havoc with my beautiful aeroplane.
India Victor and I had had so much fun together over the last twenty-odd years that she was completely part of my life. I couldn’t let this happen.
But, on the other hand, she definitely needed painting. I’d have to bite the bullet.
But where to start?
Finding a Paint Shop
In many ways, this is really the hardest part – and indeed, the hardest part to give advice about. For any paint shop you happen to mention, there will be people who’ll say: ‘Good God. Don’t go there under any circumstances...’ And there will be other people who give exactly the opposite reply.
At least that’s my experience.
I wandered around in limbo for quite a while. I talked to people. I peered at their aeroplanes. I went to paint shops to take a look.
One paint shop that I visited quoted me a price. When I mentioned this price to someone who’d had his aeroplane painted there previously, he announced:
‘That’s a high price. Didn’t charge me that much. Mind you they do that when they have a lot of work. If they don’t have much on, the price will be much lower.’
As you may imagine, I wasn’t too keen on this business stratagem – no matter the quality of the work. And so it went on.
I suppose what I wanted was a paint shop that turned out high quality work, but didn’t have too many customers – a bit of a tall order. I came to this conclusion after I’d spoken to somebody who had gone to one particular shop. During a progress-chasing visit, he’d found that his aeroplane had been left in a corner for two weeks so that some rush job could be fitted in. That would have miffed me enormously.
As I say, choosing a paint shop is a difficult matter to give advice about. It’s not like choosing an aero-engineering concern where you build up a long-term relationship – or not, as the case may be. Painting your beloved bird is something you don’t do too often. So every time you have it done, it’s rather like the first time. You can never guarantee that the place you used ten years ago still maintains anything like the same standards it had in the past. In fact the opposite can easily apply: The bad paint shop of today may turn out to be pretty good in ten years time.
But what I did in the end was this: I followed my own judgement.
One day I flew down to Lydd in Kent for a jolly and lunch – that’s right, yet another two hundred Dollar hamburger. I noticed a paint shop there and walked in – it wasn’t a concern I’d enquired at before. An Aztec was in the shop just having its paint job finished. It looked pretty good to me. The shop was clean, the atmosphere was business-like and friendly. I got to talking to the paint shop guy, whose name I found out was Andy.
‘What would you charge for my painting my Cardinal? I asked.
Andy walked out to the apron and gave India Victor a twenty minute inspection. Then he said:
‘There doesn’t seem to be any corrosion, but I won’t know for sure until the paint’s been stripped.’
The price he quoted was within my budget. Not the cheapest quote I’d had. But within reason, I always try not to let low prices influence me too much – especially when it comes to aeroplanes.
‘Can you do it during January?’ I asked.
‘Shouldn’t be a problem. All things being equal, you should be airborne again by the end of Jan. But there could always be a snag. You never know. But I won’t take any other jobs into the shop until yours is finished.’
This meant being without the Cardinal for six weeks. But to be fair, I mused to myself, the Christmas holidays do get in the way. My mind was practically made up. The place felt right. Andy seemed like a straightforward honest guy who didn’t make rash promises, wanted to do a good job and was keen to earn a living. His wasn’t the cheapest quote I’d had – but I never mind somebody making a decent profit if they give value for money.
But, then again, I’m never one for rushing into things.
‘OK. Thanks Andy. I’ll have a think about it and give you a call in the week.’
For the first three days of that week, I did some serious thinking. In the end, it came down to this: Did I trust my own judgement about people, or didn’t I? I decided I did trust my own judgement and gave Andy a ring.
And that’s how I chose my paint shop – a decision made almost entirely on my judgement of the character of the man and organisation who were to do the job.
There’s probably better ways of making these momentous decisions, but that’s how I did it.
So my advice about choosing a paint shop – and I suppose quite a lot of other things in life - comes to this: Trust your own judgement – especially your judgement of the character of the man who’s taking your money.
Choosing a Scheme
I’d now committed myself to the job, so the race was on to find a paint scheme. The sort of scheme I wanted was something unusual and distinctive, but not garish. Tasteful but individual. Various ideas resounded round my head. One idea I had was to paint the Cardinal in the manner of a seagull. I consider that the Cardinal is a very graceful machine with its high wing and clean aerodynamic lines - very much like a seagull in fact. I photocopied the outline of my aeroplane from the workshop manual and set to work with watercolours. The ideas I came up with varied around the theme of a generally white underside, fading into silver grey upper surfaces with dark grey nose and wingtips. I was reasonably pleased with my efforts and thought I was at last getting somewhere.
One evening at the flying club, I was proudly showing some of my painting attempts to my mates. I suddenly noticed Sue laughing to herself as she looked at one of my efforts. This was strange. What was funny about a picture of a Cardinal?
‘What are you laughing at Sue?’ I asked.
‘Well...’ Replied Sue, between chortles. ‘...It’s just that if you really want it to look like a seagull, you ought to paint the undercarriage legs and the spinner bright orange...’
She then burst into uproarious laughter and so did everybody else in the bar.
‘You could always paint a couple of eyes on either side of the fuselage as well...’ Sue continued with tears streaming down her face
‘And paint a big white patch on the tarmac under the tail...’ Said some other joker.
Eventually, I saw the funny side too. But from that moment, I went right off the seagull idea. My mates are a rotten lot of sods.
I then came up with the ridiculous notion of a ‘distressed’ finish. I was really getting twitchy trying to think of ideas. This latest wheeze was to have the aeroplane air-brushed so that it looked like an apparent wreck. Something like having it painted with the skin apparently peeling away and the internal ribs showing. That kind of thing. But I dismissed this idea as being too ostentatious – I wanted something more tasteful. The Cardinal is a beautiful aeroplane after all – such a scheme would demean it.
By this time I was becoming desperate and nearly on the point of opting for a ‘standard’ scheme. But then I had a brilliant idea. Why not look on the Internet?
I typed ‘Cardinal’ into the search engine and immediately found out that practically every baseball and football team in the USA is called The ‘something or other’ Cardinals. So I refined the search with ‘Cessna’ and straightaway found the Cardinal Flyers Online (CFO) web page. And the Cardinal Flyers web page had a photo album.
I searched through this and came up with pictures of a paint scheme that I really liked and two that were pretty good. Armed with prints of these, I once again sought the opinions of my mates at the flying club - pretty foolhardy I know after the ‘seagull’ business. But even Sue picked out my particular favourite as her choice. This particular Cardinal was the property of one Paul Millner.
With my mind now made up about the paint scheme, I thought it might be a bit cheeky to ‘pinch’ Paul’s scheme without asking. So I trawled through the membership list and found his e-mail address.
A day later I had a reply from Paul. He didn’t mind one bit if I purloined his scheme and he offered the information that the design went by the name of ‘Cold Flame’. He also asked me to send him a picture when the job was done. I replied ‘thanks’ and that I’d certainly send him a picture.
But the next e-mail I received was from the ‘Cardinal Flyers Online’ Digest’ [email@example.com]. Paul had enrolled me as a member.
I’d never heard of the Cardinal Digest before, but was soon avidly reading my way through it. The Cardinal Digest is an informal grouping of Cardinal owners, pilots and other interested parties. If you have a Cardinal-related question, answer or observation, you simply post it on the list. All the current questions, answers, observations and information are e-mailed to you under the benign and knowledgeable editorship of Paul Millner. The Cardinal Digest is free – you just have to enroll and it’s a brilliant idea. I soon found myself writing in with aircraft painting related and other queries. And I was soon getting replies.
Keith Peterson quickly showed himself to be a master of the arcane intricacies that apply to the maintenance and foibles of the Cardinal. I learned a lot from Keith (and I still am).
Randy Reamey e-mailed me with a list of the major do’s and don’ts of aircraft painting. Randy used to be an aircraft painting expert with the US Navy and really knows his stuff. I found that arming myself with Randy’s advice was extremely helpful when I subsequently visited the paint shop during the stripping and painting process. From the things I talked about and pointed out, poor old Andy in the paint shop must have thought I was some kind of painting expert – such must have seemed the depth of my knowledge.
A day or two later, another e-mail appeared on my computer screen. This one was from Craig Barnett via the Cardinal Digest. Attached was a general Cardinal profile. This was just what I needed. No more ‘dip and scratch’ with the watercolours – now I had a computerised image that I could fiddle about with to my heart’s content. And what’s more, Craig had kindly offered to create my chosen paint scheme onto the profile if I’d send him a picture. Immediately, I mailed him the picture of Paul’s Cardinal. Craig e-mailed me back in anguished terms:
‘I didn’t realise it was so complicated. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw it...’ wrote Craig.
But Craig had come up with the goods. There, attached to his e-mail, was a perfect bit map of my new paint scheme. Thanks Craig. Now I had no more work to do. Craig had done the lot.
It’s amazing to realise that I don’t know Paul, Keith, Randy or Craig personally. In fact, they’re all on the other side of the Atlantic from me. And the only reward they could possibly gain from their hard work and dedication in helping me was the pure satisfaction of helping another Cardinal owner. A great bunch of guys.
And just to say ‘thank you’ to them seems inadequate. But thank you.
And now I had my paint scheme. The paint shop date was set - December the 6th 1998. Everything was ready to go.
The Flight to Lydd
On the morning of December the 6th, I trudged across the dew-laden grass of my home field of Blackbushe. It was a gloomy, murky morning. Visibility was about three Kilometres. Not a cat’s-paw of wind freshened the crepuscular atmosphere. I pre-flighted India Victor and as I lowered the flaps, rivulets of water ran onto the tarmac. I taxied out, rolled down the runway and for the last time in her old paint colours, India Victor climbed into the Blackbushe sky.
The flight to Lydd was eerie and quiet. Nobody was talking on the radio, India Victor buzzed through the dull yellowish air surrounded by its own goldfish bowl of murky light. Fingers of mist probed into the valleys below and not a soul seemed to be moving. It was as if the world had ended. I sighed to myself and moved slightly in my seat. The aeroplane started to swing slowly to the left. I replaced my knee under the control yoke and exerted a minute upward pressure. The Cardinal grudgingly settled back on course with her wings now level again. She didn’t want to go, I thought to myself, she was trying to turn back to home.
‘This won’t do...’ I said to myself and with an effort I pulled my mind out of this stupid daydream. It was just that on the previous flight I’d run a bit long on the right tank. The tanks needed balancing up that’s all. That’s why she was trying to turn left. I reached down and selected the left tank as I passed the ancient port of Rye. Well, I say Rye is a port – it would be more true to say it was a port once. Since Rye’s mediaeval maritime heyday, the area has silted up very badly and the ‘port’ is now about a mile inland. But other parts of this ever-changing coastline are suffering from the opposite effect – the erosion has to be seen to be believed. Abandoned houses hang at precarious angles on cliff edges, their kitchen windows gazing nervously downwards at the never-resting sea. Complete villages sit a few yards back from the coastline, waiting resignedly for their inevitable turn to come.
Peering hopefully through the murk towards where I reckoned Lydd Airport would appear, I thumbed the transmit button:
‘Lydd Information. Good Morning. G-BFIV is a Cessna 177 just passing Rye at 1500 feet. Out of Blackbushe inbound to your field.’
‘Roger India Victor. Join overhead for runway 22 left-hand. QFE is 1014. No other circuit traffic.’
Lydd is a notoriously hard airfield to see. It lies towards the tip of the Dungeness peninsula; a promontory of land which pokes out into the English Channel towards France. The honour of occupying the very tip of Dungeness belongs to a massive nuclear power station. I could see the power station, but I couldn’t see the airfield. I could see where the airfield should be though. The flat vista of Lydd Airport lies in the Romney Marshes – a very flat featureless piece of landscape itself. As I forced my eyes to focus at a distance rather than concentrate on the tiny marks on the windscreen, a runway magically materialised before my eyes. Lydd Airport. It was hard to understand how I couldn’t have seen it before, so solidly was it contrasted with the tussock grass, lakes and ponds of Romney Marsh. But every time I fly to Lydd, I have the same problem.
As I swept downwind left for Runway 22 I looked down and marvelled once again at the quirky ideas that the military sometimes has when it’s spending other peoples’ hard-earned money. A massive masonry wall, probably a hundred yards in length was sitting – as it had done for the last sixty years or so - just to the south of Lydd Airport. This wall is shaped to resemble a parabola with its open end facing towards the south and France. The idea was that during the first years of World War Two, a lonely observer mouldered his life away at the focus of this parabola while listening intently for the sound of incoming German bombers. Exactly what this observer was supposed to do if the bombers came from a direction other than due south is not recorded – he couldn’t very well swing the wall round a bit. Luckily for civilisation, someone invented radar and the parabolic wall has become a lichen-covered monument to itself.
I taxied onto the damp Lydd apron, shut down and strolled over to the paint shop to meet Andy. He had everything ready for me and was eager to get on with the job. I had to taxi the Cardinal into the paint shop as, no matter how we tried, we couldn’t hand-manoeuvre the aeroplane over the hangar door track. That’s just one of the problems with the small Cardinal wheels.
The aeroplane was now in the paint shop and Andy was starting the preparatory dismantling. I didn’t want to stand over him and make him uncomfortable, so there was nothing else for me to do but to go to the airport restaurant for a cup of tea. I sipped at my tea and gazed out of the window. John should be appearing soon in his Saratoga to take me back to Blackbushe.
John is a good friend of mine and he and I go back many years. John has a beautiful brand new Saratoga, many thousands of hours and absolutely lives and breathes aeroplanes. We’ve had many adventures together, John and I. Two of the most notable of these being the time we flew to the Middle East and the months of work we put in while we supported each other in doing our Instrument Ratings. They were great days with, hopefully, many more to come. But they are different stories.
The Saratoga landed and John walked over to join me in the restaurant for a cup of tea.
‘All OK?’ Asked John with a smile.
‘Yep. No problems so far...’ I joked back.
‘Might as well go then.’
We decided to take the ‘scenic’ route back to Blackbushe. This involves flying at low level over the sea just off the English south coast and then striking inland about forty miles due south of Blackbushe. This routing became something of a habit with John and I when we were visiting India Victor over the following few weeks. But the scenery is certainly some of the most spectacular in England with soaring white cliffs and towns such as Hastings – the scene of England’s last invasion by the Normans in 1066. And it is indeed the selfsame vista that the pilots of World War two looked down upon (when they had a moment) as they fought the famous aerial dogfights of the Battle of Britain in World War Two. A beautiful and inspiring stretch of coastline.