March 1, 2010
By Dave Hirschman
Falling used-aircraft prices and a growing variety of glass-panel avionics retrofits have combined to create a new niche market: refurbished airframes with ultra-modern panels at a far lower price than factory-new aircraft. Two companies, Crownair and NexAir, are focusing on six-seat aircraft (Cessna 210s and Piper Saratogas, respectively); a third, Tango Ten Conversions, is specializing in four-seat Cirrus SR20s and SR22s.
“There’s tremendous value in combining the technology revolution that’s taken place in avionics with existing airframes that perform as well or better than new ones,” said Lars Jensen, Tango Ten founder and CEO. “People who want the enhanced capabilities and reliability that come with state-of-the-art avionics have traditionally had to buy new airframes to get them.”
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Jensen said that high-performance aircraft built in the 1970s or 1980s perform about the same as their newly manufactured counterparts today. And glass-panel avionics with satellite weather, electronic approach plates, traffic and terrain warnings, and digital autopilots can give those airframes tremendous new capabilities. Add new paint and an interior and it can be hard to tell some old and new airframes apart.
But the unknowns in planning and managing any aircraft restoration project are a major obstacle to many used-aircraft owners and potential buyers. Even the most basic questions—How long will it take? And how much will it cost?—are hazy at best at the outset of most aircraft renovations.
“It’s intimidating and time consuming for an individual aircraft owner to plan and oversee a total aircraft refurbishment,” Jensen said. “And it’s hard for buyers to find exactly what they are looking for, or assure the quality of what they see on the used aircraft market.”
Each of the companies shepherd individual owner’s airplane through the restoration process, or sell them a refurbished airplane.
Crownair and NexAir perform most of each restoration in house. Tango Ten Conversions has formed a network of aircraft paint, interior, engine, and avionics shops to handle the specialized work. Crownair CEO Grant Murray said the San Diego-based company has used a Cessna 210 for frequent business trips around the Southwest for many years but wanted an aircraft with modern avionics. Instead of buying a factory-new aircraft, the company totally refurbished its own 210 and added an Avidyne Entegra PFD and MFD, S-Tec System Fifty-Five X autopilot, Garmin GNS 430/530 GPSes, and a JP Instruments digital engine monitor.
The spinner-to-tail overhaul of an existing airframe carries a retail price of $365,000 (not including the price of the airframe), and it requires 60 to 90 days to complete the transformation. “The customer ends up with an extremely capable airplane with a modern glass cockpit at half the price of a comparable new six-seat airplane,” Murray said. “We can give an old 210 a whole new life.”
NexAir, based in Mansfield, Massachusetts, makes Avidyne’s Release 9 avionics package the centerpiece of its “Saratoga NX” upgrade program. NexAir completely does away with the old aircraft instrument panel and replaces it with a new one that includes a dazzling pair of high-resolution R9 screens, an FMS, and satellite radio. The airframe gets a series of LoPresti speed modifications; Aero Design installs a new interior, and Prestige Aircraft does the paint.
The company is seeking FAA certification of its R9 installation, replacing the original vacuum system with electronic gauges and a second alternator, and converting the original 12-volt electrical system to a 24-volt system.
“We’re getting lots of interest from people that own Saratogas and want to make them better than new, and people who want the latest Release 9 avionics package at an affordable price,” said David Fetherston, NexAir general manager. “There are plenty of great airframes out there in need of refurbishment, and opportunity to make them real nice.”
The fly-away cost for a complete Saratoga NX is $395,000 (including the airframe). A factory-new Piper 6X with similar options carries a list price of about $600,000.
Jensen, who specializes in Cirrus SR20s and SR22s, said his company will act as a “concierge” for aircraft owners, or used-aircraft buyers, who want updated airplanes. “It’s not the cost of the upgrades that scares people away,” he said. “It’s the uncertainties and the time commitment involved in managing the project. With Tango Ten, customers will be able to say, ‘I want this, this, this, and this.’ We’ll give them a known price on the front end and handle all the details.”
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