aircraft modifications: recovering nicely

May 15, 2018

As the decade of the recession draws to a close, the Business Aviation industry is beginning to recover, drawing along with it the aircraft modifications business – engines, airframes and avionics in particular. Kirby Harrison reports



Blackhawk Modifications has been in the business of providing major engine upgrades since 1999. However, like most companies in the modifications sector, the recession hit Blackhawk hard. “Our business was doing pretty well up until 2008 when the economy collapsed,” says President and CEO Jim Allmon. “The next eight years were a struggle.”

But things are starting to change. According to Allmon, over the past two years there has been a significant uptick in people wanting to upgrade their engines. “There are a lot of owners who have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for some signs that the economy is recovering,” he says. “With the economy now well into a serious recovery mode, I believe many people have seen those signs.”

Most recently, the Waco, Texas center has received STC approval for a new engine upgrade of the King Air 350, taking it from the original PT6A-60A to the PT6A-67A, adding about 300 thermodynamic horsepower per engine. “Engine upgrades are the bread and butter for Blackhawk, and will be for many years to come,” adds Allmon.

Blackhawk continues to enter into new areas of aircraft modification through select partnerships. “Like so many other companies, we are aligning ourselves with cutting edge companies to bring innovation and value to the modification business,” says Allmon. “With our partner companies, we are working on auto throttle applications for the PT6A engine, next-generation engine technology with full automatic engine controls, lighter composite prop solutions, lightweight lithium-ion batteries, and new interior designs that make current generation interiors look like at Model T.”

But the recovery is by no means limited to engine upgrades – airframe modification companies are feeling it too. For example, Aviation Partners reports having seen a gradual increase in retrofit Blended Winglet sales over the past two to three years. Thanks to steady improvements in the resale market, the company says sales have been particularly good over the past 12 months. The company’s retrofit Blended Winglets have saved the world’s commercial and business jet operators an estimated 7 billion gallons of jet fuel and a corresponding global reduction of 74 million tons of CO2 emissions since they were introduced in 1994.

Speaking of airframe modifications, Raisbeck Engineering has been working with partner Hartzell Propeller on a marriage of the latter’s 21st Century Advanced Composite Technology with Raisbeck’s Swept Blade Turbofan Propeller technology. Since the first four-blade swept props were certified for the King Air in 2013, the improvements have been steady – all designed using advanced computational fluid dynamics hardware and software to investigate drag reduction and performance improvement. The most recent innovation is the new five-blade, composite swept prop for the King Air 350, certified in late 2017. Next up is the same propeller for the King Air 300, with an STC anticipated as early as April of this year.

The company is continually seeking out other companies with which to partner, form joint programs, of simply acquire. “A partnership with Butterfield Industries has already been completed and four others are in active investigation, and some of them would immediately quadruple our payroll as well as our capabilities, especially in large-scale engineering projects,” says founder Jim Raisbeck.

While some aircraft modifications businesses take a rather fine focus on particular specialties in the industry segment, others are far more diversified. Many of them, like Duncan Aviation, not only include airframe, engine and avionics work, but also do cabin refurbishment and landing gear assemblies. Take the Lincoln, Nebraska company’s ATG (air-to-ground) communications system as an example. It has installed nearly 1,000 systems and in the last year has completed, started or planned for several Gogo AVANCE L5 STCs, including certain aircraft in the Bombardier, Falcon and Gulfstream families.

As the industry moves towards bigger and newer aircraft, Duncan hasn’t stood idly by. Instead, it has been constantly expanding to include service on engines powering those aircraft. In fact, currently under construction is a new engine test cell at the company’s Lincoln location. The mobile engine rapid response teams now total 36 technicians who travel from 16 launch offices, and additional engines and new engine models have been added to the rental pool.

Busy Times for Avionics

Perhaps no Business Aviation modifications segment is busier than that of avionics, with the ADS-B requirement being the driving force. According to the Aircraft Electronics Association, worldwide avionics retrofit sales for 2017 amounted to $1.342 billion, a 20.1% increase over 2016. In fact, retrofit avionics sales amounted to 57.7% of total sales in 2017.

AEA President Paula Derks points out that the retrofit surge might be attributed to aircraft owners choosing to have other avionics work done while simultaneously coming into ADS-B Out compliance. “Many avionic shops are telling us that aircraft owners are electing to order full-panel avionics upgrades rather than just ADS-B equipment,” she says. “It will be interesting to see whether the retrofit market continues to grow significantly in the next two years as the mandate draws closer.”

One of those shops is Elliott Aviation, which has STCs that provide seamless integration to existing cockpit controls, including TCAS II equipped aircraft. In addition to ADS-B OUT, the STCs also include ADS-IN using a Bluetooth-compatible device through Garmin’s Flight Stream wireless platform. With its shops filling up fast with ADS-B installation work, Elliott is offering STC kits to be installed at any Garmin dealer in the world, with the exception of the Premier 1 and 1A.

Outside of ADS-B work, the company recently launched its Elliott Connect system. “Customers can now apply, change orders and get quotes, review invoices and work orders, and manage warranty programs quickly and easily through the app,” says Elliott Aviation Vice President of Aviation Programs and Operational Logistics Mark Wilken. “It also allows them to upload documents and photographs related to their aircraft directly from their device and communicate with Elliott team members to answers questions.”

The importance of ADS-B compliance is no less a driver of the avionics business in Europe. RUAG is a major supplier, support provider and integrator of systems and components for civil aircraft worldwide and is very much involved in the ADS-B install business. “Equipping older aircraft with ADS-B transponders improves operation flexibility and preserves investment well past the 2020 requirement,” says RUAG Aviation Vice President Volker Wallrodt. “It allows those aircraft to continue to operate reliably and profitably, while adhering to the latest aviation regulations with state-of-the-art technology.”

Engineering specialists at RUAG integrate completion solutions so older aircraft like Bombardier’s Challenger 601 and Dassault’s Falcon 900 meet the full scope of EASA and FAA standards for ADS-B, including the later DO-260B. The 601 avionics project includes wiring, modifications and new mechanical and electrical installations, as well as an upgrade of existing transponders to comply with the DO260B standard for ADS-B Out.

Part of the upgrade project was the introduction of the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) for GPS sensors and the new FMZ 2000 Flight Management System software. Future Air Navigation System (FANS) 1A+ and Protected Mode Controller Pilot Data Link Communications are planned for later installation.

Not surprisingly, the avionics upgrade for the 601 was combined with a scheduled maintenance, repair and overhaul event, also managed by RUAG. This optimized downtime enabled the business jet owner to achieve significant savings on both time and budget. “We recommend that all operators, especially operators of older aircraft, begin the upgrade process as soon as possible to ensure individual schedules and operations can continue as planned,” adds Wallrodt.

Niche and New Markets

Advent Aircraft Systems has its own successful niche market, having recently unveiled its concept for a new, self-contained electric power brake system (ePBS). The ePBS aims to tap into the developing all-electric aircraft, new aircraft with traditional hydraulics but that desire an electric braking system, or as a retrofit system for existing aircraft. Incorporating the original Advent eABS as an integral part of the overall design, the ePBS will be a brake-by-wire system that consists of brake pedal sensors and feel units, primary brake electronic controllers, parking and emergency brake controller, wheel speed transducers and hubcaps, as well as both primary brake and emergency/parking brake hydraulic units.

“The success of the Advent eABS has yielded invaluable feedback from customers and the all-electric braking system was the next logical step,” says Advent President Ron Roberts. “Using the eABS as the basis to develop the ePBS, it not only has built-in efficiencies from a production standpoint, but also provides an opportunity to expand our customer base.”

Many modification centers are not content with the status quo, but are actively developing new technology and new markets. For example, working in partnership with Honeywell Aerospace, Jet Aviation has developed an STC to update soon-to-be obsolete cockpit displays with DU875 LCD units.

The program permits displays to be replaced one at a time or all at once. “Jet Aviation has completed an EASA STC for the off-the-shelf, certified solution that provides the latest liquid crystal display (LCD) technology to replace the old cathode ray tube units in Falcon and Cessna aircraft,” explains Jet Aviation Manager of Direct Sales Samuel Nemoz.

Honeywell describes the DU-875 as a plug-and-play, one-for-one upgrade option for operators desiring a lower-cost, building block approach to future growth.

Upward Momentum

It is difficult to imagine the aircraft modifications business going in any direction but up, considering the gathering strength of the US economy and the positive impact it has traditionally had on the Business Aviation industry. Looking ahead, the 2018 Knight Frank Wealth Report offered indications of good news for the business and private aviation market, pointing out that while the number of high net worth individuals worth $50 million grew 20% from 2012 and 2017, it is expected to show a substantially larger jump to 43% between 2017 and 2022. The report further forecasts that the ranks of those worth $500 million or more may increase by 39% from 2017 to 2022.

While much of the more attractive used aircraft inventory has been picked over in the past year, a wave of well-kept, quality trade-in aircraft will surely be coming onto the market throughout the course of this year, propelled in part by the entry into service of the recently certified Pilatus PC-12 and the soon-to-be-certified Citation Longitude and Gulfstream G550 business jets.

According to ARG/US TraqPak, February 2018 saw an increase in flight activity of 3.5 % compared with February 2017. In fact, TraqPak data also indicates that total business aircraft activity in 2017 was at its highest rate of growth since 2014.

All this is good news for the modifications industry. For example, Raisbeck Engineering predicts that sales for 2018 will grow another 17%, not including new product introductions. Likewise, Blackhawk is equally optimistic: “Unfortunately, the OEMs can’t always response fast enough or in an economic way to meet the needs of a given market segment, but companies like Blackhawk can meet these needs quickly and efficiently,” says Allmon. “We can approve an entire new engine upgrade in less than 18 months – and sometimes less than 12.”

But perhaps Dr. Johannes Bussmann, CEO of Lufthansa Technik, sums it up best: “Never before have we generated so much revenue, supported so many aircraft or employed so many people,” he says. “With this foundation, we will stick to our course, growing throughout the world and driving the entire industry forward.”