It’s a problem most of us with metal airplanes face at one time or another—dings, those small dents that seem to go hand in hand with owning an aluminum flying machine. Unless you own a wood-and-fabric airplane, you’re almost bound to develop some minor dings in your airplane’s aluminum surfaces. Rag and spruce designs aren’t totally immune from hangar rash, but almost. In my early flying days, I owned a succession of wood-and-fabric Bellanca Cruisemasters, and I never had to worry about dents. The stretched, doped fabric on my Bellancas resisted most reasonable impacts and some unreasonable ones.
(In the early ’80s, a Bellanca salesman used to carry a large, solid-steel ball-bearing with him on demos. He asked prospects what would happen if he dropped it from five or six feet up onto a metal-wing surface. Then, before they could answer, he’d throw the steel ball against the side of his Viking 300 demonstrator. Of course, the ball would merely bounce off the tightly stretched Ceconite fabric with no ill effects. Any metal airplane would have suffered serious and extremely expensive damage.)
Inevitably, I moved on, and my last two airplanes have been all-aluminum Turbo Mooneys. I’ve kept most of my airplanes in an oversized T-hangar, and yes, there are other things stored there, but it’s not terribly crowded with junk (depending upon who you ask).
Still, a few minor dents appear seemingly out of thin air; I’ve rarely seen one in the making. I’ll go on a trip with the Mooney, come home and sure enough, there’s a new ding.
Most of the time, it’s best to just forget about getting them fixed. You can’t simply fill an aircraft dent with putty, sand the surface smooth and paint as you might with an automobile. There are considerations of weight, aerodynamics and balance involved, and that usually means the only acceptable method of repair is to pull the entire skin, rivet a new one into place and repaint. You don’t want to know what that costs.
The result is you learn to live with a few tiny indentations. Chances are, no one will notice them except you anyway. They don’t render the aircraft un-airworthy, and they’re more of a nuisance than anything else.
Coincidentally, I purchased a new car last year, and within a week, someone decided I needed a parking-lot door dent. As you might imagine, I was a little irritated. Fortunately, the Infiniti dealer (a fellow Mooney owner and good friend) had an expert in the art of paintless dent removal on staff, and the technician did such a good job in 30 minutes, I couldn’t tell there had ever been a dent.
Paintless dent repair for airplanes also is here, courtesy of a company called Fluxtronics Inc. of Everett, Wash. Robert Olsen, president of Fluxtronics, was in town recently showing some local FBOs the benefits of magnetic dent correction, and he agreed to use my airplane as a subject. My Mooney had only two or three insignificant dimples, but I was happy for the chance to have them reduced.
Olsen is an electrical engineer who worked for Boeing for 10 years, helping to develop different versions of the equipment he uses today to straighten skins in a variety of aircraft. While his primary clients have been airline manufacturers, operators and the military, the technology is equally applicable to corporate and general aviation.
The Fluxtronics system is most effective when applied to medium to small dents. Anything larger than four to five inches across may be difficult to work with magnets. Similarly, extremely small dings are tough to extract. The system works best on flat surfaces, but it can smooth curved leading edges as well.
My Mooney had a minor dent on the leading edge of the left wingtip. It was barely noticeable (except to me), but I was surprised at how well the Fluxtronics system sucked it out. Olsen took his time, working the metal with about 10 small shots at different angles.
“If you have a leading edge caved in from a bird strike or some other major dent, magnets probably won’t correct the problem because the metal is too stretched and deformed,” explains Olsen. “What we do best is smooth out wing surfaces where someone has dropped a heavy tool or buffer. We also can correct most hangar rash.”
The process of dent correction with magnets is different from standard sheet-metal repair. The magnet head is charged and laid directly against the surface to be smoothed out. Then the operator pulls the trigger and fires a 400- to 550-volt electrical charge through the head and into the metal. This is a far stronger charge than any magnet most people have experienced, several thousand times beyond your typical refrigerator shopping-list magnet. The Fluxtronics “shot” requires only a few milliseconds and sounds a little like the report of a powerful staple gun.
Standard procedure is to use several small jolts of current and pull dents a little at a time rather than attempt to extract the full dent in one or two pops. “If you use too much power,” explains Olsen, “you can pull too hard and wind up actually lifting the edges of the depression, creating a kind of crater effect.”
Olsen next applied the magnetic dent remover to a small crease on top of the Mooney’s right flap. Again, the depression was barely noticeable to anyone but me. The engineer laid the Fluxtronics magnetic head flush with the surface and fired a series of pulses that gradually pulled the metal back toward its original shape. No, he didn’t completely eradicate the dent, but when he was done, the irregularity was far less noticeable.
Olsen had a collection of before-and-after photos of more dramatic dents removed from the wings and tail surfaces on Citations, Falcons and Lear Jets. If the stakes are high for conventional dent repair to personal airplanes, costs can be stratospheric on bizjets and airliners. The Fluxtronics system can often reduce the dings to a reasonable level at minimal cost.
By the time you read this, Olsen hopes to have a number of his Fluxtronics magnetic dent removal systems in place at FBOs around the U.S. In those instances when magnets can handle the repair, the process is quicker, cheaper and far less time-consuming than conventional re-skinning.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide.
E-mail him at [email protected].