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Engineering a Healthier Future

Engineering a Healthier Future

In the US, aftermarket conversions and modifications have been a feature of the general aviation world for decades. Companies like the ubiquitous Soloy conversions have been putting turbine engines into airframes intended for piston power since 1969.  

In recent times however, with the shortage of new general aviation builds and a broadening gap in price between new and used airplanes, there has been a large surge in interest in Australia around upgrading and extending the life expectancy of airframes which were intended for 10-20 years’ service, either for re-sale or for continued use of an aircraft past its use-by date. This is driven partly by technological development, availability and economics. According to AMROBA’s (Aviation Maintenance Repair and Overhaul Business Association) latest newsletter for 2015 “a new Beech Baron is $1.3 million, a Cirrus SR22 is over $700,000 and even the everyman Cessna 172 pushes $300,000 …manufacturers are selling airplanes at higher prices than ever, but making less money than ever … because used aeroplanes are such good value, you can buy one, completely overhaul it, update & modify it and still save 50% over a new aeroplane”.

The DC3 is an international example of the extent to which an aircraft’s life can be extended and repurposed with a refurbishment or two. Although production of the aircraft came to a halt in 1942, when the war ended in 1945 militaries around the world found themselves with more DC-3’s than they knew what to do with. The solution, they found, was to convert them to a civilian transport configuration and sell them to commercial airliners, ushering in the post-war air transport industry boom. With a new life and a re-purposed interior, the prop-driven DC-3 is still labouring away in some of the harshest working conditions on the planet – from deserts and jungles to Canada’s high Arctic.

Closer to home, Australia has huge numbers of aircraft, many of which are nearing the end of their useable life. This has presented opportunities for users and businesses to purchase aged aircraft at a heavily discounted price and completely refurbishing and/or overhauling them for both re-sale and use. The huge number of aircraft that were delivered to Australia in the 1970s and 1980s creates a whole era of aircraft that are waiting for a new lease on life. The de Havilland Beaver was imported to Australia in considerable numbers in the 1960’s for spreading superphosphate, however the same airframes are in a number of cases still plying the skies, predominantly in the tourism industry with numerous modifications and upgrades. 2 de Haviland Beavers, operating as part of Sydney Seaplane’s tourism fleet and registered VH-AAM and NH-OO began life originally as crop dusters.  The Sydney Seaplane website states that the aircraft have been “…completely refurbished, with leather seats throughout, new instrumentation and a snazzy new paint job”.

Buyers seeking to make a profit by purchasing, refurbishing and selling a used aircraft may find the actual process of buying a used aircraft, running it through a complete structural inspection and repair, updating the avionics package and overhauling the engine allows the aircraft to be sold competitively against new models. Jack Pelton, ex CEO of Cessna, was probably working along these lines when he and Aviation Alliance re-engined the airframe of the Cessna 421 with new Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-135A or PT6A-112 turboprop engines, offering a remanufactured, modernized turbine-powered aircraft to the aviation and defence industries as the Excalibur 421.

Obviously, a brand new aircraft has its advantages. Much like a new car, aircraft come equipped with the latest features, gadgets and capabilities, with no damage history, etc. On the other hand, the upside of purchasing a used aircraft can be its relative ease on the wallet, though the origin of the airplane and its treatment and history can be uncertain. The solution is to give your used aircraft a semi-to-complete makeover, adding modern features and comforts suited to your exact specifications or budget.

Murray Ireland, owner of the Cairns division of Aero Enterprise states that “…there is a big opportunity to specialise in the refurbishment market and I believe that several organisations have made minor moves into this area. The main reason is the high purchase cost of new aircraft…”. He warns however that not all aircraft are suitable when it comes to cost effective refurbishment in place of buying a new aircraft. “A small 2 seater aircraft would never be an option as the cost of upgrades would be comparable to a new aircraft. I believe it will only work where the new aircraft cost is over $70,000. The biggest problem with [MRO] in Australia is the small population so the market is very limited and [there is a] high cost of labour”. In comparison to a car, overhauling a GA aircraft “…is probably easier as new radios and instruments are straight off the shelf, if you are restoring a car I assume we are looking at a 30 or older car and you will want to keep it original. With an aircraft in most cases the aim would be to modernise it as much as you can.”

The range of available modifications is huge and a lot of it can be done DIY.  Even within the confines of a small budget, an aircraft owner can update an older aircraft to a safer and more comfortable machine with relative ease. While expensive add-ons always are available, there’s also a whole range of simple and economical add-ons available to make your airplane feel new. By combining several “budget” upgrades, owners can totally transform their airplanes, without the excessive cost. In older GA airplane for example, replacing incandescent exterior and interior lightbulbs with LED (light emitting diode) lights are not only an economical upgrade, but safer. As ultra-efficient lighting sources, LED’s are markedly brighter and deliver cleaner illumination without the heat or the short life span of lightbulbs. The cost of replacing LEDs is also a fraction of that for incandescent bulbs.

While seat belts have always been made to high safety standards, even newer aircraft gain value from upgraded belts. An upgrade could be a potential life saver and they can add a bit of colour to an aircraft’s interior with a range of colours now available. Seat belt strapping on older airplanes, belts that are frayed or subjected to harsh conditions should be replaced, and with many modern options available online, pilots with older aircraft can easily source and install new lap belts, add a shoulder harness or a five-point harness. Replacement door seals are also important but often go unchecked. Noise reduction in aircraft can be important in reducing the fatigue experienced by the constant grind of aircraft noise. Door seals also make a big difference on leaky aircraft, helping to stave off corrosion and other damage, protecting the life of an aircraft and adding value. As for exterior DIY investments, vortex generators are economical and relatively easy to install. They come ready in kits as small blades placed in a line just behind the leading edge of the wing and horizontal tail surfaces. Fixed to an airplane with a special adhesive, vortex generators control airflow over the upper surface of an aircraft’s wing by creating vortices that energize the boundary layer. This produces improved performance and control at slower airspeeds and high angles of attack, lowering take-off and stall speeds.

Depending on budget and plans for the aircraft, there are a range of choices for updating the interior of an aircraft. Probably beyond the capabilities of most DIY’ers however, a professional refurbishment company is recommended for these next-level upgrades as a high quality, professionally updated interior will increase the value of the aircraft and its attractiveness to potential buyers on the market.  There are a few levels of interior aircraft refurbishment; a partial refurbishment is a good option for tighter budgets or if deferring a full refurbishment is necessary. Partial refurbishment is undertaken with a focus on the most commonly worn-out items such as the seats, carpet, upper and lower sidewalls and headliner. Many refurbishment companies also offer inspection and replacement of worn interior mechanisms as well as woodwork touch-up and cleaning services for remnants of in-flight spillages.

A full interior refurbishment is best if an aircraft is starting to bear the marks of wear and tear or a significant update to the look and feel of an aircraft is desired. This work may include aforementioned soft goods refurbishment as well as the refinishing of all of the wood and plating in the aircraft, customization of interior components such as new seat frames, lighting upgrades, new galley electrical components, storage upgrades or entertainment packages.

Full customization is for tailoring an aircraft’s interior to the exact tastes and needs of the owner. With optimum comfort and convenience in mind, full customisation involves soft goods, custom carpet and new chairs as well as custom cabinetry, a new shell package for more headroom and interior space, soundproofing, high-speed data connections and bluetooth, personal flat-screen monitors and new work surfaces and fixtures.  Emerging technologies in lighting, entertainment and communications may be a part of the refurbishment on all three levels of interior refurbishment.

Exterior paint refurbishment is also an important consideration. Beyond being visually pleasing, an aircraft kept up to speed with a quality coat of paint is less likely to develop corrosion. For this reason, aircraft should be stripped, inspected and repainted by a reputable aircraft paint facility every five to seven years. Another consideration to bear in mind is the fact that inferior or older paint-jobs can cause electrical problems affecting radios and navigation receivers. In addition, many aircraft manufacturers emphasize that the paint located around the static ports needs to be kept in “new condition” with no paint chips allowed as this would disrupt the airflow over the static-sensing areas, which could potentially cause altitude errors.

Exterior paint schemes can range from the classic single colour and two stripe design to anything imaginable from corporate colours and business logos to murals. Paint technology has improved considerably in recent years and skilled paint technicians combined with high quality paint material ensure a long-lasting, top-quality finish and maximum protection for an aircraft.

For more complex modifications such as engine overhaul, airframe maintenance and line maintenance, an owner looking to update an aircraft has the option of shopping for various businesses to handle each individual element or taking the route of employing a shop capable of handling the entire work package. In Australia, shops are common enough for comparison but not so numerous that any all-encompassing shop can handle any available airframe. The aircraft maintenance industry encompasses small repair stations that typically perform specialized services such as welding, plating, or testing services. Many of these services are complex and require specialized equipment, experience, authorizations and approvals for a limited amount of equipment to minimise cost. Other repair stations provide maintenance, repair, and overhaul services relating to specific types of components, such as avionics and electronics, mechanical actuators, or fuel systems and carburettors. Many of the all-capabilities shops that are advertised only specialise in a limited number of specific airframes. Differentiating between facilities can be a lengthy process and evaluation of price, competitive downtimes, service, reputation, tooling, training, engineering and certification capabilities and testimonials from customers are all significant aspects to consider when comparing facilities.

Of course, engineering does not necessarily have to include an entire modification. As most aircraft and fleet owners are aware, ensuring that the powerplant is properly maintained is the best possible route to obtaining greater performance and an extended lifespan. It’s also the first port of call for someone looking to resell their aircraft. This is particularly apposite in the complex world of gas turbine engines fitted into the heavy iron of the helicopter world. It is mind-boggling some of the engineering skills involved and the repairs that are possible. For instance, one such Aussie company, Asia Pacific Aerospace, amongst other things, perform exotic tasks like plasma, fire and wire spraying of metallic and ceramic coatings. Those processes may sound like sorcery but the benefits are far easier to understand: increased wear resistance, reclamation of worn or and damaged parts and improved corrosion resistance. Re-engineered and re-energised.

Companies involved in engine overhauls handle inspection, parts replacement, repairs, and preventative maintenance. Airframe maintenance covers scheduled inspection and repair of airframe structures and cabin bodies. Line maintenance is scheduled to be conducted before and between operations and does not require that the aircraft be taken out of service. Modification work covers a broad range of activities, including major operations such as passenger-to-cargo aircraft conversion and product upgrades such as in-flight entertainment system installations. Component maintenance is conducted on parts that have been removed from the aircraft for maintenance or repair.

If, in today’s economy, the cost of a brand new aircraft is enough to make your wallet shudder then the surge in interest in Australia around upgrading and extending the life expectancy of used aircraft is welcome news. With so many used aircraft now nearing the end of their current life, as well as advances in technology and the availability of DIY materials, users and businesses can purchase aged aircraft at a heavily discounted price and completely refurbish and/or overhaul them for both competitive re-sale and use. Murray Ireland is optimistic about the movement towards used aircraft stating “The main advantage I would see is the ability to get more people flying that can’t afford a new aircraft” and as the industry grows and develops, a future of owners filling the skies with freshly refurbished aircraft that would otherwise have been prematurely scrapped sounds like a very exciting prospect indeed.

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