WILLMAR -- Owners of aging Mooney aircraft are having their leaky fuel tanks repaired with a unique process developed by a local business at Willmar Municipal Airport.
The process removes the old sealant in the fuel tank with a chemical stripper that's sprayed into the tank by a special machine. The chemical strips the old sealant down to bare metal. The tank is then washed, dried and resealed, adding many years of useful life to the aircraft.
The process replaces the task of scraping out the old sealant by hand -- and nicking one's knuckles on rivets and sharp edges. The task is more difficult because Mooney fuel tanks are part of the airplane's structure and cannot be removed. Access to the tanks is gained by removing panels from the underside of the wing.
Paul Beck, 39, has been using the chemical process for more than 10 years. His company is called Weep No More.
A "weep,'' according to Mooney maintenance manuals, is the smallest of four types of leaks that if not repaired can lead to a large leak that renders the plane no longer airworthy. Weep also refers to the thoughts of an owner with a leaking fuel tank.
The combination of the two stuck and it's worked very well. Beck said his company has become well-known on an international basis.
"It's a process we pretty much have the corner of the market on,'' says Beck. "We're pretty much the only ones that do it chemically. There is a company in Florida that does it the old scraping method. It takes forever and you never get all of it out. This way you're down to bare aluminum and can build the tank back up in a 3-step process of sealing to get it back to a state where it will last 30 years again.''
Beck, a 1991 graduate of New London-Spicer High School, started working in 1995 for Bruce Jaeger, who owned Willmar Air Service at the time. Jaeger was a long-time Mooney dealer and is a well-regarded Mooney expert.
Before switching to the chemical process, Beck scraped leaky tanks with handheld pieces of old aircraft windshields honed to an edge and small picks and screwdrivers. He often scuffed and bloodied his knuckles.
"It was a disgusting job,'' he recalls.
From the beginning, Beck wanted to help Mooney owners because leaking fuel tanks and few repair options were compromising the value of the entire Mooney fleet. There are more than 10,000 Mooney airplanes worldwide, including more than 6,000 in the United States -- the majority of which were built from the mid-1960s through the 1970s.
"We knew there was a need for fuel tank work on Mooney aircraft,'' said Beck. "The fleet was being compromised due to leaky fuel tanks.''
Experts say leaky fuel tanks are not unique to Mooneys, but certain conditions such as leaving the plane in a hot environment, leaving tanks empty or dry, and stress from touchdowns cause older sealant to become less flexible and result in leakage.
Beck said he and Jaeger began investigating the chemical process in 2000. They found a chemical that works and developed the equipment to perform the process. After a trial-and-error period, the process took off about seven to eight years ago. Beck switched from being a regular federally-licensed airframe and power plant technician to full-time fuel tank serviceman for Willmar Air Service.
In October 2008, Jaeger sold Willmar Air Service to Brian Negen, who renamed it Maximum Cruise Aviation. In December 2010, Beck bought the fuel tank shop from Negen and became his own boss.
Beck says the chemical process speeds up repairs. He can strip and reseal about five airplanes in the 90 hours that it formerly took to do one plane by hand.
Mooney owners spread the word and Beck's business grew. In 2003-2004, Beck and Jaeger decided to advertise and work really took off. Right now it's a one-man shop working seven days a week, but Beck's looking to expand.
"It gets to be a lot of work but it's fun because we're known around the world. We'll be starting the process in Europe, based out of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The Netherlands will take care of France, Germany, The Netherlands, doing the same process over there,'' said Beck.
"They have 800 Mooneys and 799 of them leak.''
Mooney aircraft owners need no longer 'Weep' over fuel leaks thanks to unique process developed locally