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.

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In the glory days of general aviation, Piper, Beech and Cessnatook the advice of the guy in The Graduate who whispered one wordof advice — "plastics" — into Dustin Hoffman’s ear.

The OEMs became big consumers of polyester resins. Sometimes itwent by the trade name Royalite, sometimes ABS, but it was allmade up of pellets of melted-down plastic (sometimes recycled,sometimes "virgin" — a word perhaps even more pretentiousthan Royalite) rolled into sheets and then hot-molded into whatevershapes the airframe manufacturer needed.

Plastic became the material of choice for everything from headlinersto minor fairings to wheelpants, and a nasty piece of businessit was. The problem is that such plastics are terribly susceptibleto sunlight — ultraviolet light, to be specific.

When new, they’re quite resilient, can be molded into any shapeyour stylist wishes and the material retains a very tight molecularstructure. Leave them out on a tiedown or sitting on a hot rampfor a few years, however and they weaken drastically and beginto crack and crumble.

But plastic was so cheap that the OEMs simply assumed you’d comeback to the airplane store and buy their overpriced replacementparts. 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 fittingshot-bonded (a fancy way of saying "melted") in place.

"It was made down and dirty," he says. "You canlook at something like this and just know you could do better."

The PMA Biz

In fact Rickert can do exactly that. He is celebrating the10th 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 ofGA aircraft. There’s a choice to be made when you want toreplace a cracked and crumbling plastic lightplane part, forthere are now a number of aftermarket suppliers of such componentsin 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 theunapproved suppliers ought to be reined in by the FAA. (In fact,the FAA is doing just that, having recently released new guidelineson PMA enforcement and cracking down on bogus parts in general.

Rickert’s competitors who supply unapproved fiberglass componentsdoubtless feel that airplane parts are ridiculously overpricedanyway and why pay for the expense of formal quality control andcompulsive documentation for a piece of largely cosmetic plasticto cover a stabilator tip or the junction between dorsal and verticalfin?

The regulations — FAR 21.303 to be specific — says that in orderto produce parts for a certificated airplane, the manufacturerhas 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 industryaccepted standard parts, such as fasteners. But some questionwhether it really makes sense to extend this to sun visors, landing-lightbulbs, 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 comefrom opposite ends of the market. The outlaws deal through thepages of Trade-A-Plane, established mail-order catalogues andfly 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 dreamof doing anything upon which the Administrator might look askance.

Where the Money Goes

I recently visited Rickert’s small factory in Lakeland for AviationConsumer and got a look at the way his small staff make fiberglassparts. Globe has six shop employees and four — including Rickertand his wife, Karen — in the front office. "This is thewoman behind the man who made the company," he laughs. "AndI’ve got to tell you, for every man who makes a fool out of awoman, 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, Iknow firsthand that laying up fiberglass is a miserable, smelly,messy job, but that a well-made fiberglass piece can be an enormouslysatisfying object of unparalleled smoothness, shapeliness andstrength.

And so it is with Globe’s products, all of which are carefullysanded, smoothed, finished and detailed before being painted witha two-part catalyzing primer so tough that a scrape of Rickert’shousekey leaves barely a trace.

Globe uses what it claims are the finest possible materials: 8.5-ounceHexcel s-glass or e-glass, depending on the application, bondedwith either flame-retardant polyester or flame-resistant vinylesterresins. (Ordinary polyester resin will ignite at 300°F andsupport a flame.

Flame-retardant polyester will go to 750° and even then willnot support a flame if the source of ignition is removed; vinylesteris used for parts that live in such locations as turbine-enginecompartments.)

Most of what Globe makes are wingtips, wheelpants, tailcones,dorsal fins, fairings, nosebowls and scoops — all those smallparts that get particularly battered, cracked, patched, stop-drilledand riveted over the years, eventually reaching the point whereyou’d be better off snipping a replacement out of an old Cloroxbottle.

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 wayup to 690s; Aztecs; Seminoles, Senecas; Aerostars; and Navajos.

Conspicuous by their absence at this moment are Cessnas — theprime Royalite offenders — but Rickert is about to get intothat market as well, beginning with parts for 150/152s and 170/172s.

The Globe catalogue is 36 pages long, and it pointedly featuressmall reproductions of engineering drawings for the parts. Rickertdoesn’t want you to forget that the reason his parts are two andthree times as expensive as some of the competition’s is thathis are engineered, quality-controlled and FAA-approved. Typicalprices range from $55 to $100 for simple little fairings to $200-$300for basic wingtips and on up to $800 to $1250 for such items asCherokee wheelpants, Aztec gear doors and Seneca engine nosebowls.

What Approved Means

"FAA-approved" doesn’t simply mean that somebody blesseseach part. For one thing, every piece manufactured is inspectedand signed off six separate times (or, occasionally, discarded):after gelcoating, lamination, conformity check, detailing, primingand once more as a final check. For another, each part getsa dataplate.

"It says that we made it, where, exactly what aircraft itfits, who inspected and approved it and the serial number,"Rickert says. "It’s in our database, so it can be tracedback any time in the future. We can even tell you which batchof resin and glass the part came from. A lot of companies willjust pull a part out of a mold, clean up the edges a little andship 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 theGlobe $450 equivalent and the difference is obvious. The no-namepart — and there literally is no incriminating trademark on it— has a visibly warped fin, no countersunk area for the attachfittings, and no faired radius for strength on the lip of thetire opening.

The closeout panel to keep mud out of the aft part of the pantis made of cardboard simply embedded in epoxy, since the manufacturerapparently didn’t want to waste perfectly good fiberglass on it.

There are excessively thin areas in the layup and the part waseven shipped with a small hole clean through the fiberglass atone point. And at that, the part weighs 2.5 pounds more than Globe’s— which, in combination with the warped fin, could put an excessiveload on the nosewheel shimmy damper.

"We have to compete with manufacturers of bogus parts whodon’t have to meet a standard," Rickert gripes. The problem,of course, is that it’s not illegal to make or sell unapprovedparts, it’s only against the law to install them on an airplane.(Or to falsely mark them as being approved, which is a problemwith hardware, not with basically cosmetic or airflow-fairingpieces such as these.)

What this means is unapproved-parts manufacturers prosper in amarket where there will always be owners and mechanics lookingfor ways to cut corners. And they know that nobody is ever goingto look inside their wingtip or wheelpant to see if it’s a legalpart.

Globe, however, seems to be prospering as well. "The consensusis that any company that has the staying power to survive in thelow end of the general-aviation business today is going to bea major player on down the road," Rickert insists. "Nobodyin this business has as many [FAA-PMA] approvals as we do. We’vebeen a qualified vendor to Piper since 1989, to Commander since1986 and now we’re going to take on these bogus-parts people."

Rickert exhibited his wares at Oshkosh for the first time thispast summer, and the Globe Fiberglass name is becoming increasinglywell known. If you ever get a chance to look at one of their partsup 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.