New Life for Old Birds

Dec 28, 2008
By George C. Larson

Some repair and overhaul shops, sensing opportunity, are providing attractive package deals to turboprop owners and operators. By combining a scheduled heavy inspection with an avionics upgrade, a new interior and new paint - plus maybe an engine upgrade to boot - a shop can roll out the virtual equivalent of a new aircraft at a fraction of the factory cost.

At Yingling Aviation in Wichita, it was a bolt from the blue that launched the company on an upgrade program for Cessna Conquest 425s and 441s. That bolt came in the form of a supplemental inspection document (SID) that had its roots in the fatal accident involving an Aloha Air Boeing 737, which lost its upper fuselage during an inter-island flight in 1988, thereby setting off a wide-ranging inquiry into the issues surrounding aging aircraft.

With the FAA's encouragement, in 2007 Cessna issued two sets of SIDs - detailed procedures for heavy inspections of its high-time turboprop twins. Tucked inside this event was a Richter-7 mega-shock: the disclosure that the Conquest II would be life limited to 22,500 hours.

"It caught a lot of people off guard - us included," says Jerry Pickett, Yingling vice president, customer programs. In fact, high-time 441s in Australia were immediately grounded. Yingling used Conquests in its charter business, and company president and CEO Lynn Nichols says the impact of the news was initially devastating when he thought his aircraft would effectively be worthless with inspection deadlines set so early (September and December 2008) that all the shops in the world couldn't handle the active fleet in time.

However, an extension process was developed to alleviate the crush, and applications can be completed through any service center; or operators can go online to cessnaservice.com and download an application. Cessna grants extensions based on its evaluation of the airframe's total time, its operating environment, damage history and past inspections.

At Yingling, the light of opportunity dawned. If these inspections delved so deeply into the airframe that they'd be removing interiors and panels to get at the forward pressure bulkhead, maybe there would be enough customers out there who would want to use the downtime to upgrade their aircraft with new avionics, interiors and Blackhawk engines for the CE 425. It turns out that yes, there are enough customers, and so far, Yingling has performed SID inspections on 28 airplanes of both models, Conquest I and Conquest II, many of them with upgrades. Pickett could probably schedule more aircraft into the Yingling shops, but he has to reserve space for other maintenance as well. The procedures spelled out in the SIDs provide an estimate of 650 man-hours to complete a Conquest II (phases 29 through 55) and 940 for a Conquest I (phases 31 through 62), the difference arising mainly in a requirement to open up the wing on the CE 425 at the stub and inspect the attach fitting. When everything goes back together, removable panels are added on the underside to ease future inspections. All airplanes get new deicing boots and interior insulation, but cabin paneling is reused on airplanes that are not refurbished.

Cessna's twins, both pistons and turboprops, have turned out to be affordable workhorses in service all over the world, and they're especially popular in places like Australia, where many of the most senior of the types are found - and where the aging issues are very much in focus.

"The airplanes have been kept in service for many more years than they thought they would," Pickett notes. "Initially, there was some apprehension, resistance, some animosity [concerning the SIDs], but that has turned 180 degrees to 'I'm really glad we're doing this.' The airplanes are 20 and 30 years old and [during the SID inspection] they are being disassembled more than they have been since they were built."

Because the inspection goes so deep and puts the airplane in the shop for weeks, upgrades end up costing less than they would if performed elsewhere.

Pickett discounts rumors of quotes from European MRO centers of $500,000 to perform the inspections. "Most of ours are in the $150,000 to $170,000 range complete and out the door," he says.

While they are finding small things wrong with almost every airplane, they've spotted no trends. The most expensive job he can recall was on a CE 441 where persistent moisture kept accumulating in a window, then drained down to the window retaining rings. The corroded parts had to be removed, ground and cleaned up, and that bill came to about $270,000, he says. Yingling hangars one of its own CE 441s used for charter and is performing the SID in groups between charter flights; they're out of numerical order but more efficiently focus the work on one portion of the airframe at a time.

For CE 425 operators, Yingling offers a Blackhawk upgrade that swaps a PT6-112 for the PT6-135A, which includes a 1,000-hour warranty from Pratt & Whitney Canada with no calendar limit. For the CE 441, the original TPE331-8s can be upgraded to the -10 version, which provides a 5,000-hour TBO as opposed to 3,000 hours on the -8s. A McCauley Blackmac four-blade propeller upgrade, already popular long before the SIDs were introduced, is available via Yingling's McCauley prop shop. Engines go to Atlantic Turbines for overhaul and can be upgraded with American Aviation "speed stacks," the "sootless" exhaust stacks for the PT6 that spread the soot out to avoid a dark streak on the nacelle flanks.

Most of the company's avionics upgrades are Garmin 530W or 430W and Avidyne EX500 multifunction displays. They are also providing quotes on an Avidyne Alliant for the CE 441. In addition to the engines and avionics, Yingling will update the interior, but lacking a full paint shop, it details or repaints limited areas; the company doesn't strip and paint entire airplanes. Pickett has about 50 aircraft booked as of October through March 2010 and can take three or four at any given time. He's running two shifts on the floor five days a week. The less demanding Conquest II takes six weeks, and the Conquest I about eight. He says the parts and engineering support from Cessna, which is within walking distance, has been superb.

The Cessna airplanes are out of production, and both Pickett and Nichols believe the chance that their hometown manufacturer will ever build Conquests again is less than zero. They estimate there are about 220 Conquest I CE 425s in service and roughly 320 Conquest II CE 441s. Worldwide there are perhaps 20 or so service centers qualified to perform the detailed SIDs procedures, with perhaps three or four of these in the lower 48. "The vast majority of operators want it done in the United States," Pickett says.

Although there's no way to know for sure, the number of Conquests in the active fleet may match very closely the number of operators who want them. For some owners, they were a transition from pressurized piston-powered twins to their first Citations, but for others who value the excellent range and speed they afford at relatively low fuel cost, plus short field and high descent rate capability, they are the perfect match. The airframe with the most time on it that Yingling has seen had rung up a little more than 11,000 hours. But the company also just recently completed a 26-year-old Conquest I that had only 5,100 hours total time.

Conquests, together with Piper's turboprop twins - which have yet to be evaluated in the same light with respect to age and possible service life limits - are being replaced in the turboprop scheme of things by newly manufactured single-engine models like the Pilatus PC-12 and TBM 850. Eventually the older airplanes will be scrapped, but until the effects of the recent fuel shock wear off, they're enjoying a comeback.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Stevens Aviation is busy promoting a slightly different proposition.

The company's ramp at the Greenville's Donaldson Center Airport is lined with C-12s, military versions of the King Air. Ever since Stevens got two recent contracts to upgrade dozens of government airplanes, the company has been installing Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 and Universal 890R glass cockpits at the blistering pace of 18 a year at the facility, performing a total of 24 per year company-wide. And when the FAA did the math it decided that the way to go was to modernize its fleet of 18 King Air 300s with a panel upgrade.

Stevens' technicians completed their journey along the learning curve long ago. All the wiring harnesses are strung assembly-line fashion at a facility that will soon be moved to a new 6,000-square-foot shop. And the Stevens shop at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in Greer is applying all that acquired knowledge to identical upgrades for corporate customers.

Rockwell Collins originally engineered the Pro Line 21 STC for those aircraft, and, as is the company's practice with all STCs for its products, retains ownership of the certificate. Collins says the FAA saved $58 million over the purchase of new replacement aircraft. The package includes a complete Pro Line 21 com/nav/surveillance avionics suite, digital autopilot, two flight management systems with GPWS, and the Pro Line 21 Integrated Flight Information System (IFIS), all driving three eight- by 10-inch active matrix LCDs. The IFIS brings advanced graphics to the party, with weather, charts and maps for a boost in safety and situational awareness.

Williams believes the buoyant list prices on a new King Air 200 or 350, roughly $5.3 million and $6.5 million, respectively (based on the recently announced price for the 350i), create a wide gap separating the new from the older models valued in the $2 million to $3 million range. Because the basic airframe hasn't changed, the only significant difference is avionics.

"The only life limit on a King Air is a 30,000-hour maximum on the spar cap, which has been a non-issue," said Jim Williams, vice president of avionics sales.

Stevens does all the harnesses for government and corporate customers in its purpose-built shop, and with an in-house paint shop, it can have an airplane stripped in two and a half days, in and out of the paint shop in 15 days total. The only difference between a Pro Line 21 install and a Universal glass panel package is that the Universal package uses the existing radios (digital but not analog); Stevens also owns its Universal STC. For corporate customers who come in with upgraded avionics but lack the glass panel, the Pro Line 21 glass is already programmed to manage advanced GPS nav functions.

As of October, the company reportedly had upgraded 22 aircraft, most of them with Pro Line 21 but others with Universal 890R and Garmin 1000 packages. Williams says that Stevens can turn around an airplane in 12 weeks, including everything from avionics to paint.

As Williams explains the basic business proposition, "You take a King Air 200, do the Raisbeck [mods], Blackhawk engines, full Universal or Pro Line, new interior, a 2009 paint job, and you've just spent about $2 million, or $3 million with engines. Now you have a B200 that you probably paid less than $2 million to buy when it was new. You can spend $3 million and keep it or trade it and get $800,000." He says Stevens has customers who ask the company to find them an airplane. They buy the used one, buy the mods, and finance it all in one fell swoop.

"You can look at two aircraft on the ramp, and you can't tell the difference between the one that just rolled out of the factory and the one that we've done," says Williams. Which is exactly why there are so many on the ramp.

Aviation Week

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