A Visit with Globe Fiberglass
Are your plastic wingtips, fairings or wheelpants cracking and crumbling after years of UV exposure? Long-lived fiberglass replacements are available for many of these parts ... but did you ever wonder why they cost so much? We visit a leading manufacturer of PMA fiberglass parts to find out.
In the glory days of general aviation, Piper, Beech and Cessna took the advice of the guy in The Graduate who whispered one word of advice — "plastics" — into Dustin Hoffman's ear.
The OEMs became big consumers of polyester resins. Sometimes it went by the trade name Royalite, sometimes ABS, but it was all made up of pellets of melted-down plastic (sometimes recycled, sometimes "virgin" — a word perhaps even more pretentious than Royalite) rolled into sheets and then hot-molded into whatever shapes the airframe manufacturer needed.
Plastic became the material of choice for everything from headliners to minor fairings to wheelpants, and a nasty piece of business it was. The problem is that such plastics are terribly susceptible to sunlight — ultraviolet light, to be specific.
When new, they're quite resilient, can be molded into any shape your stylist wishes and the material retains a very tight molecular structure. Leave them out on a tiedown or sitting on a hot ramp for a few years, however and they weaken drastically and begin to crack and crumble.
But plastic was so cheap that the OEMs simply assumed you'd come back to the airplane store and buy their overpriced replacement parts. Ken Rickert knows what junk plastic airplane parts are, for he worked for several years as a purchasing agent for Piper, helping to build Cheyennes in Lakeland, Florida.
Rickert shows me an original 1978 Beech Sundowner stabilizer wingtip — a wrinkly piece of vacuformed dreck, the internal fittings hot-bonded (a fancy way of saying "melted") in place.
"It was made down and dirty," he says. "You can look at something like this and just know you could do better."
The PMA Biz
In fact Rickert can do exactly that. He is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his own Lakeland company, Globe Fiberglass, which has made a business out of supplying hand-laid, FAA-approved, high-quality fiberglass replacement parts for a wide variety of GA aircraft. There's a choice to be made when you want to replace a cracked and crumbling plastic lightplane part, for there are now a number of aftermarket suppliers of such components in fiberglass. The choice is cheap, adequate and unapproved parts; or expensive, permanent and FAA-PMA approved pieces.
Rickert concentrates entirely on the latter market and feels the unapproved suppliers ought to be reined in by the FAA. (In fact, the FAA is doing just that, having recently released new guidelines on PMA enforcement and cracking down on bogus parts in general.
Rickert's competitors who supply unapproved fiberglass components doubtless feel that airplane parts are ridiculously overpriced anyway and why pay for the expense of formal quality control and compulsive documentation for a piece of largely cosmetic plastic to cover a stabilator tip or the junction between dorsal and vertical fin?
The regulations — FAR 21.303 to be specific — says that in order to produce parts for a certificated airplane, the manufacturer has to have a PMA, unless the parts are made under a type certificate, a TSO, by the owner or operator for his own use or are industry accepted standard parts, such as fasteners. But some question whether it really makes sense to extend this to sun visors, landing-light bulbs, purely cosmetic trim pieces, hubcaps and the like on Mach .2 airplanes.
There's something to be said for each point of view and they come from opposite ends of the market. The outlaws deal through the pages of Trade-A-Plane, established mail-order catalogues and fly markets with pilots who simply want to keep 'em flying.
Rickert and certain others (he mentions Met-co-Aire and Univair) are after the market that will pay for quality and wouldn't dream of doing anything upon which the Administrator might look askance.
Where the Money Goes
I recently visited Rickert's small factory in Lakeland for Aviation Consumer and got a look at the way his small staff make fiberglass parts. Globe has six shop employees and four — including Rickert and his wife, Karen — in the front office. "This is the woman behind the man who made the company," he laughs. "And I've got to tell you, for every man who makes a fool out of a woman, there's a woman who makes a man out of a fool."
Having built an airplane myself that has a number of glass pieces, including the cowling, gear doors and a variety of fairings, I know firsthand that laying up fiberglass is a miserable, smelly, messy job, but that a well-made fiberglass piece can be an enormously satisfying object of unparalleled smoothness, shapeliness and strength.
And so it is with Globe's products, all of which are carefully sanded, smoothed, finished and detailed before being painted with a two-part catalyzing primer so tough that a scrape of Rickert's housekey leaves barely a trace.
Globe uses what it claims are the finest possible materials: 8.5-ounce Hexcel s-glass or e-glass, depending on the application, bonded with either flame-retardant polyester or flame-resistant vinylester resins. (Ordinary polyester resin will ignite at 300°F and support a flame.
Flame-retardant polyester will go to 750° and even then will not support a flame if the source of ignition is removed; vinylester is used for parts that live in such locations as turbine-engine compartments.)
Most of what Globe makes are wingtips, wheelpants, tailcones, dorsal fins, fairings, nosebowls and scoops — all those small parts that get particularly battered, cracked, patched, stop-drilled and riveted over the years, eventually reaching the point where you'd be better off snipping a replacement out of an old Clorox bottle.
The parts fit a dozen different series of aircraft: Piper Cherokees, Arrows and Lances, Saratogas; Tomahawks; single and Twin Comanches; Beech Sundowner/Musketeer/ Sierra and Duchess; Bellanca Viking; a variety of Rockwell Commander singles and twins all the way up to 690s; Aztecs; Seminoles, Senecas; Aerostars; and Navajos.
Conspicuous by their absence at this moment are Cessnas — the prime Royalite offenders — but Rickert is about to get into that market as well, beginning with parts for 150/152s and 170/172s.
The Globe catalogue is 36 pages long, and it pointedly features small reproductions of engineering drawings for the parts. Rickert doesn't want you to forget that the reason his parts are two and three times as expensive as some of the competition's is that his are engineered, quality-controlled and FAA-approved. Typical prices range from $55 to $100 for simple little fairings to $200-$300 for basic wingtips and on up to $800 to $1250 for such items as Cherokee wheelpants, Aztec gear doors and Seneca engine nosebowls.
What Approved Means
"FAA-approved" doesn't simply mean that somebody blesses each part. For one thing, every piece manufactured is inspected and signed off six separate times (or, occasionally, discarded): after gelcoating, lamination, conformity check, detailing, priming and once more as a final check. For another, each part gets a dataplate.
"It says that we made it, where, exactly what aircraft it fits, who inspected and approved it and the serial number," Rickert says. "It's in our database, so it can be traced back any time in the future. We can even tell you which batch of resin and glass the part came from. A lot of companies will just pull a part out of a mold, clean up the edges a little and ship it."
As a comparison, Rickert lays a $179 pull-it-and-ship-it part, a Cherokee nosewheel pant. He places it on a table next to the Globe $450 equivalent and the difference is obvious. The no-name part — and there literally is no incriminating trademark on it — has a visibly warped fin, no countersunk area for the attach fittings, and no faired radius for strength on the lip of the tire opening.
The closeout panel to keep mud out of the aft part of the pant is made of cardboard simply embedded in epoxy, since the manufacturer apparently didn't want to waste perfectly good fiberglass on it.
There are excessively thin areas in the layup and the part was even shipped with a small hole clean through the fiberglass at one point. And at that, the part weighs 2.5 pounds more than Globe's — which, in combination with the warped fin, could put an excessive load on the nosewheel shimmy damper.
"We have to compete with manufacturers of bogus parts who don't have to meet a standard," Rickert gripes. The problem, of course, is that it's not illegal to make or sell unapproved parts, it's only against the law to install them on an airplane. (Or to falsely mark them as being approved, which is a problem with hardware, not with basically cosmetic or airflow-fairing pieces such as these.)
What this means is unapproved-parts manufacturers prosper in a market where there will always be owners and mechanics looking for ways to cut corners. And they know that nobody is ever going to look inside their wingtip or wheelpant to see if it's a legal part.
Globe, however, seems to be prospering as well. "The consensus is that any company that has the staying power to survive in the low end of the general-aviation business today is going to be a major player on down the road," Rickert insists. "Nobody in this business has as many [FAA-PMA] approvals as we do. We've been a qualified vendor to Piper since 1989, to Commander since 1986 and now we're going to take on these bogus-parts people."
Rickert exhibited his wares at Oshkosh for the first time this past summer, and the Globe Fiberglass name is becoming increasingly well known. If you ever get a chance to look at one of their parts up close, you'll understand why.
Globe Fiberglass Ltd.
4033 Holden Road
Lakeland, FL 33811
PHONE: toll-free 1-800-899-2707 or 813-644-2178 in Florida.