Thousands of hours of hard work bring 1956 Cessna back to its original brilliance
By CANDACE CHASE/Daily Inter Lake
John Casalegno's 1956 Cessna 182 earned high praise from veteran pilot Barry Schiff in the November cover story of AOPA Pilot magazine.
"I don't recall any factory-fresh airplane looking and feeling this good," Schiff wrote. "The airplane even smelled new."
Schiff, who holds certifications to fly 300 types of aircraft, would know. In the 1950s, he ferried new 182s from the factory to the distributor.
Casalegno, president of Hammerquist Casalegno of Kalispell, allowed the pilot to test his rare Cessna 182 during a two-day June visit. Schiff flew the plane as a photographer snapped photos from the cockpit of a vintage T-6 Texan.
The cover shot features the mirror-finish aluminum 182 with yellow and black stripes glinting in the sunlight above the peaks of Glacier National Park. In the technically oriented magazine, Schiff complimented Casalegno's aircraft as rock-solid in turbulence.
"The controls are tight yet require only the fingertips for maneuvering," he said.
That's quite a change from the aircraft Casalegno purchased in Kalispell in 2003. He laughed and demonstrated how he had to crank on the yoke to get a response from the nearly 50-year-old Cessna.
Although he put a lot of muscle and hours into the project, Casalegno credits Dave Cano of Cano's Custom Specialties with the meticulous prop-to-tail restoration that took nearly three years and was completed in August of 2007.
"I put a lot of work into this project but it was grunt work - lots of sanding," he said. "Dave led this whole project from the first day to the end. He's got a natural given talent for going through the sequences and getting things right."
Both Casalegno and Cano gave major kudos to Reed Lamb, head aircraft mechanic for Semitool, for his pivotal role in the project. Family and friends also pitched in some of the 4,662 hours invested in reviving the Cessna.
"We tried to get it back as close to the original as we could," Casalegno said.
He wanted to restore the plane due to its historic significance as the very first 182 to roll out of the Cessna factory in 1956. It subsequently became one of the most popular models of its type in the world.
Even though the aircraft is an aviation icon, Casalegno and his son Mark intended to fly the airplane - but with a good measure of caution.
"I only fly when I wear sunglasses," he said with a laugh.
His fair-weather flying inspired the name of his Web site, www.sunglassflyers.com where he documents the airplane's history and restoration in photographs and journal entries beginning in late 2004.
But the story of Casalegno and this airplane actually started in 2001, before he was a pilot, when he needed to get to Helena in a hurry on business. He ended up chartering Kalispell resident Ed Croymans' 182, piloted by Bill Werner.
On their return flight, Werner, a well-known instructor, infected Casalegno with flying fever and a few days later, Casalegno started taking lessons from Werner.
On Werner's recommendation, Casalegno purchased the 182 in 2003 because it was the best match to his piloting skill. He then began looking for the best talent in town to restore the plane to showroom condition.
Cano's name popped up most often based on his years of restoring cars and airplanes, such as Semitool's Corsair. The two got together to discuss the magnitude of the undertaking.
"I thought he was nuts," Cano said with a laugh.
In the past 50 years, the Cessna had spent five years in Mexico before Don Steffl of New Ulm, Minn., purchased the aircraft, which he kept on his farm for the next 40 years. Croymans purchased the 182 from Steffl's estate, updated and replaced gauges and radios, and installed a new propeller and Continental 0-470L motor.
He kept all the original parts, which he transferred to Casalegno with the sale of the plane.
The aircraft body was far from original, with no polished aluminum remaining. It was painted white with black and red stripes over holes and patches held together with sheet metal screws. Cano characterized the interior as simply "a mess."
Even with Cano's cautions about the size of the undertaking, Casalegno persisted and the project went ahead. The Cessna was disassembled and the seemingly endless process of stripping, sanding, buffing and polishing of aluminum skin pieces began.
Cano enforced exacting standards for sanding to achieve the mirror finish at the end of the process. Midway into the sanding the fuselage, Cano's employee Will Lamb discovered a better method, requiring them to start all over.
"Three months into the job, I thought I was nuts," Casalegno admitted. "There were pieces everywhere. I started with this plane that flew. What did I do?"
Each time the team took apart a mechanical system, they replaced or rebuilt it under the watchful eye of Reed Lamb, an FAA-qualified inspector. Finding original parts entailed hours of research for a plane that was the first of only 843 of that model.
The interior aqua seat fabric was a case in point.
"We found some in Maine," Cano said. "It was from 1956 and still on the roll."
Because of enhanced standards, he had to treat the material with flame spread retardants, and conduct tests required by the FAA and submit them for approval. Penelope Aviation Interiors reupholstered the seats and the rest of the interior.
Some of the parts, such as the wing tips and the upper and lower nose bowls, were the last one or two remaining. Although difficult and expensive, finding and using original pieces makes a huge difference.
Cano used the example of the prop. Casalegno purchased the plane with an updated propeller with a pointed spinner rather than the original rounded spinner.
"The true antique guys - they would know that's not original," Cano said. "We traded the new prop and some of John's money to get the old one."
Reassembly was a painstaking process requiring a high level of skill and many more hours and months than Casalegno originally anticipated. However, he and Cano were of the same mind to fix the plane right for posterity and their own pride.
"I'm fortunate to have worked for a few people like John and Ray Thompson - on the Corsair - who were the same way," Cano said. "They both said 'I want you to do the best job you can do.'"
On Aug. 2, Casalegno and flight instructor Werner took off from Glacier International Airport. A small contingent of friends and family watched from below as they circled the airport on a shakedown flight.
"We did a little tweaking to the wings and ruder trim tag," Casalegno said.
He said the Cessna 182 flies better than it did straight out of the factory. Cano pointed out improved materials and expertise gained since 1956 make that possible.
"It's got a polish job that it never had," he said.
Casalegno modified his flying habits to never land on an unpaved surface to protect his investment. He won't discuss the cost except to say the purchase price was just a small down payment.
"When you do something like this, there's no way you can place a value on it," he said. "It's the love of the work and the pride you have in it in the end."
The airplane's appearance on the cover of AOPA Pilot and the praise within the pages placed a welcome seal of approval on his stewardship of the number one Cessna 182. He and his family continue to enjoy flying in Idaho and Oregon, and around Montana.
Wherever they land, aviation enthusiasts provide more pats on the back.
"The reaction is huge," Casalegno said. "When we go someplace with pilots who understand the vintage of the plane, it creates a crowd."
Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 758-4436 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.