Friday, March 6, 2020

Ministry Uses Aircraft to Care for Children in Guatemala, Part Three: The Piper Geronimo Project Engages Midwest Aviation Community

By Carmelo Turdo
Manos de Compasion (Hands of Compassion) recently took delivery of their newest aircraft, a twin-engine Piper Geronimo, for use in support of the children’s home ministry located near the Bay of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. The use of this aircraft is vital to meeting the daily needs of the over fifty children receiving foster care in a region lacking adequate ground transportation and infrastructure. In Part One and Part Two of this series, we reported on the use of aviation at Manos de Compasion and how St. Louis-based Big River Aviation became involved with the restoration to flight of the ministry’s latest aircraft. In Part Three, we take a detailed look at the aircraft restoration project as it was conducted before the delivery flight in February 2020 as told by those who were directly involved.

We pick up the story at the time when the current and former Directors of Manos de Compasion, Dave Reichard and Tom Stukenberg, were flying their early model Cessna 172 in the high altitude environment of southwestern Guatemala. Most of the flights are made between the ministry’s airstrip and Guatemala City for court hearings and grocery shopping. 

“Our grass airstrip by the home is at fifty-three hundred feet,” Tom Stukenberg told The Aero Experience. “Guatemala City is five thousand feet. And in between there you have to be seven thousand, eight thousand feet and to be up above the clouds at ten, twelve thousand feet. The old Cessna would just putt, putt, putt up there but you had to be so careful with weight and you really couldn’t haul any supplies or anything. So we were thinking and praying about getting a different one and then this one [the twin-engine Piper Geronimo] showed up in Trade-A-Plane and I thought, ‘That’s the plane we need.’ But it turned out to be more of a project than we really figured.”

“We ended up here in St. Louis through a chain of references, actually starting in Guatemala with some other bush pilots down there,” Dave Reichard continued the story. “The big issue was that the plane we had purchased was in the middle of nowhere, and we didn’t know any mechanics down there. Luckily, Paul Voorhees at Big River Aviation decided that he would take on the challenge and head down there.”

The connection was made through a mutual friend, Bob Willhoit of Central Air Parts in Staunton, IL, who had supplied aircraft parts to both Big River Aviation and Manos de Compasion over the years. Paul Voorhees, owner of Big River Aviation in St. Louis, adds his view of the initial contact.

"Bob Willhoit said, ‘Paul, I know you’ve done things for Wings of Hope. I’ve got this missionary group down in Guatemala that needs some help. They need someone to go down to Louisiana and do a pre-buy on a Piper Geronimo.’ I had been working on a Piper Aztec out at Wings, and they are a similar airplane. He said, ‘If it’s okay, I’ll give them your number.’ He did, and I got a phone call. He said he didn’t have time to do it, that he’d worked with them for years helping them get parts to support the aircraft they had.” 

Tom Stukenberg

Paul Voorhees
“I get a phone call from Tom, who is down in Guatemala, and he explains the situation,” Voorhees continued. “He tells me about doing a pre-buy down there. I told him, ‘Yeah I can go down there.’ I told him I could go down there and do everything on a budget. I talked to Steve Long, former Hangar Director for Wings of Hope, and asked if he wanted to go to Louisiana with me and evaluate this airplane. And so Steve and I go down there and we make a list of everything we needed to do…We talked to the guys down in Guatemala and they made a deal, they got the airplane…They had seen it but they didn’t realize how big of a project it really was.”

“Several years ago, I met Dave when he and Tom were looking for a small twin-engine aircraft to replace their aging Cessna 172,” Steve Long, now with One Spirit Engineering, told The Aero Experience. “They needed an airplane that performed better at high altitude and could easily takeoff and land on a grass runway surrounded by mountains. Dave explained the necessity of having an aircraft to fly himself and the children to regularly pick up supplies and meet with government officials in the family court system in Guatemala City.  

Steve Long
“Tom purchased a Piper Geronimo (Apache conversion) from Jake Hearnsberger in Northern Louisiana,” Long continued the story. “The previous year, Jake started restoring the airplane, which included disassembling the aircraft to make repairs. Being newly married, Jake and his wife had their first baby, so Jake decided his family took priority over the Geronimo. Tom was introduced to Paul Voorhees, owner of Big River Aviation, via Bob Willhoit of Central Air Parts in Staunton, IL. Tom asked Paul to make a trip to Louisiana and see how long it would take to get the aircraft back to Illinois where Paul’s aircraft maintenance business is located. Since I had years of experience maintaining and modifying mission aircraft, Paul asked me to go along with him to help with the assessment. So off to Louisiana we went...Jake was gracious to allow us to use his hangar while we re-assembled the aircraft.”

Paul Voorhees describes the situation after arriving to inspect the aircraft in the summer of 2018. “The airplane was gutted from nose to tail - everything in the nose compartment, all the air ducting going to the heater. The nose gear was not even connected. The steering was all disconnected. All the electrical had been removed out of the nose and were all just piled up around this hangar...It took six trips.”

“Paul and I were shocked to see the aircraft in hundreds of pieces,” Steve Long added. “Paul and Kevin Hammond, an Airframe and Powerplant instructor at St Louis Community College, made several more trips…The project took about a year to make the airplane airworthy enough to fly to Paul’s shop at St. Louis Downtown Airport, about a 4-hour flight. Nick Turk, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and now with Aero Careers who wanted to be part of the team as our “ferry” pilot, made the last two trips to Louisiana and flew the aircraft back to St. Louis.” 

Now the rest of the work was underway at Big River Aviation in April of 2019. There were some bright spots at the outset, with work already completed on the engines and propellers. There was new anticorrosion treatment in the floorboards and soundproofing. The upholstery had already been done. The paint job was already on the plane (the original owner in TX owned a paint shop). All the flight controls had been balanced. The interior and carpet are Airtex certified interior. There were complete logs all the way back to nineteen sixty. Even so, work continued all through 2019 until late January of this year.

Dave Reichard and Steve Long
Paul Voorhees continues with the list of maintenance items completed on the aircraft. “Every air duct in that airplane that goes from the heater from the front where the air vent comes in has been replaced with new, so all the way from the nose of the airplane to the end of the baggage compartment – all new ducting – under the floor, everything. Floor board supports needed reinstallation. All new wiring behind the panel - Steve Long did that work. We installed a brand-new Stratus transponder and engine analyzer. The radio that was in there is an older unit but it had been sent out for overhaul [MAC-1700]. It has brand-new antennas, brand-new coax going to the antennas. All the old breakers have been removed and then relocated to where the pilot can see them and activate them [they were underneath the instrument panel]. New push-pull breakers and all-new wiring.” 

“I spent almost another year installing new avionics and instruments, repairing most of the electrical system, and replacing all the flexible hoses and other things a 60-year old aircraft needs after many years of service,” Steve Long recalled. “Paul and his crew made some engine and fuel tank system repairs to prepare it for service in Guatemala. Mike Dealy, who leads the aircraft maintenance training program at Southwest Illinois College, offered his equipment to assist us in the repair and weighing of the aircraft…This was truly a team project with everyone volunteering their time and talent.”

Dave Reichard and Paul Voorhees
“We had to replace the exhaust, which was a big cost,” Dave Reichard added. “We had some radio issues, installation of some new parts. Another guy here [Steve Long], who I had met a few years ago when I was doing my training at Wings of Hope, just happened to be working here with Big River Aviation. I got to meet him again, and he and Big River Aviation really helped a lot with cost, volunteering a lot of time to help us get this plane done. It was incredible to see how so many different people just came together. Wings of Hope helped us, other mechanics and even the guys on the field would say, ‘I’ve got a part for that,’ and they would go run and grab it and bring it back. It’s been really neat to see how the people around here have come together to help us.”

(L-R) Dave Reichard, Steve Long and Nick Turk 
(Nick Turk photo)
Nick Turk, a professional pilot and owner of Turk Aviation, volunteered his services as pilot-in-command for the flights following the restoration of the aircraft to flight status. “The test flight of the plane on November 20 was the first time it has flown in eight months since the plane was flown to St. Louis from Louisiana,” he told The Aero Experience. Nick Turk, Steve Long and Dave Reichard were flying that day when a problem developed with the fuel system, causing a temporary engine failure. The engine was restarted and they returned to Big River Aviation at St. Louis Downtown Airport for repair.

The aircraft was ready for further flight testing soon thereafter, and more tweaks were needed to make the fuel tanks feed correctly and clear up radio signal issues cured by installing upgraded coax cable. Additional test flights and an extended period of poor weather conditions delayed the delivery flight until February 2, 2020. We will include more of the preparations for the departure flight in Part Four of this series. 

The Aero Experience was on site to document much of the work accomplished restoring and test flying the Geronimo at Big River Aviation. Along with this four-part narrative, told by those directly involved in the project, we have archived several thousand photos and video clips that will be included here and in future stories. Below we include a series of photos that capture the essence of our visits from April to December, 2019.

April - October, 2019

November 2019

December, 2019


We hope that you will support the great work of Manos de Compasion by contributing directly to their ministry. Please consider visiting their website and making a generous donation to support their work as a foster family to these beautiful and wonderful children!

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