Could a remanufactured aircraft be a solution for increasing backlogs lack of pre-owned aircraft for sale?

By Jason Zilberbrand

March 28, 2022 Educational

General aviation aircraft are in such high demand that the most popular models suffer from lack of availability, skyrocketing values, and an aging fleet. For most aircraft buyers' budget is everything; shopping for the right aircraft is a complex dance of mission requirements, wants/desires, and how many dollars you are willing to part with to buy your dream aircraft. The purchase is just the beginning for a small group of buyers, as refurbishment is often the next ownership phase. It is not uncommon for owners to dump tens of thousands of dollars into new avionics panels, paint, interior, and airframe modifications. Because so many piston aircraft still in operation today are from the bygone eras of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, there are thousands of aircraft whose airframes are still capable, but the systems are not. If you have the budget and are potentially looking at newer aircraft, today's challenge is finding one, let alone sticking to a budget. The backlogs continue to grow for further deliveries, and with waiting periods over 24 months, some are looking for alternatives. One of those alternatives is the remanufactured aircraft. Unlike refurbishment, the remanufactured aircraft is essentially brought back to the factory's new condition. This process, while detailed, also produces a modern aircraft, with all-new new systems allowing the buyer to operate it worry-free for an extended period, just like taking delivery of a factory-new plane.

So what's the catch? There are a few, which are not necessarily negative, just part of the process. For starters, this type of acquisition is for an experienced aircraft owner, not that a first-time buyer isn't capable of pursuing a remanufactured aircraft. Still, part of the process is knowing what you want because, like the new factory, changes or change orders can blow your budget and delay the delivery. Knowing what you want for your avionics to interior design is complicated, and a few builders get it right, making the process easy, seamless, and truly rewarding.

One of those builders is Bushliner, and Kyle Fosso, the founder, entered the market with a product that couldn't have been more timely if he had tried. The backcountry lifestyle is one of the fastest-growing segments in aviation. To meet the demands of buyers and his selfish wants and desires from a tail dragger, Kyle and Bushliner set out to design and rebuild one of the most iconic and most complex aircraft to find, the Cessna 180.

Backcountry flying and tailwheel aircraft have grown hugely popular in recent years. Every taildragger pilot wants a Cessna 180/185 Skywagon, the six-place workhorse with a 1,600-pound helpful load and 145 kt. Cruise speed (in the 300-hp 185). Then these pilots try to find one and learn that 99 percent of the available Skywagon fleet has a deal-killing blemish.

Bushliner Aircraft Remanufacturing promises its Bushliner 180/185, scheduled for market debut in early 2022, will be a "modern," better than the original Skywagon.

"We upgrade everything and don't cut corners here," says company founder and partner Kyle Fosso. (The Bushliner name is an homage to the Cessna 170 Businessliner.) "We replace every rivet in the aircraft, change the skin, and put it all back together with higher strength fasteners than the original. We add structural reinforcements to ensure the airframes last through several engines."

The Bushliner makeover includes a new firewall forward; new aircraft wiring, cables, pulleys, and controls; new carbon fiber interior and windows, and leather seats; new avionics, and a custom panel accommodating a centered large screen PDF, a configuration that won't fit in a stock panel, Fosso says.

Every airframe is first completely disassembled, and the parts are stripped and reassembled in jigs. There's often not much to take apart; With its in-house manufacturing capabilities, Bushliner needs very little airframe besides the data plate to build a complete Skywagon.

"The best candidate airframe for us," Fosso says, "is an aircraft beyond all hope of ever flying again."

Bushliners will be priced "close to $600,000" for basic models, with top-tier examples near $900,000, and represent the equivalent of buying a luxury preowned car from a dealership, custom-built for owners who know what they want. VREF supports Bushliner's customers by assisting in the appraisal process, which is a requirement by the lending institutions that commonly provide loans for this niche market.

1980s-era Cessna 185s (production ended in 1985) are currently on the market are valued at around $200,000, and they range in condition and pedigree from the dinged and dented to the salvaged airframe.

In addition to its FAA-certified Skywagons, the recent purchase of experimental aircraft manufacturer Cyclone will allow Bushliners to enter the testing market, where many operators are eager to escape FAA maintenance requirements and enable the production of PMA parts for the 180/185 market, Fosso says.

The Bushliner approach in meeting the demand for an out-of-production aircraft is as close as you can get to the actual factory manufacturing process, allowing the craftsman to hand build and maintain quality while relying on modern technology processes and design approaches. The program has a production line approach based on business models designed for markets with ongoing demand and a significant pool of candidate aircraft that can be economically upgraded. The number of in- and out-of-production aircraft that provide that kind of oxygen is limited. Fosso first noted demand for refurbished Cessna 170s before seeing a more significant opportunity in Skywagons.

The market dictates demand, but it's slightly different in the piston world. The Cessna 180 platform is the right mix of scarcity, high demand, increasing values, a shrinking fleet while still meeting the cool factor that creates the mystique about a lifestyle only achievable with one of the best tail draggers money can buy.

Many of the 180's Bushliner builds incorporate customizations high-end modifications and tend to be more similar to the car restomods than any aircraft I have seen made. One could argue that Bushliner created a new niche in recent years, and it will be interesting to see how the aircraft buyer responds. While the Bushliner aircraft might not be cheap, the result is an aircraft that would surely impress and perform as one would expect.

Whether boutique or factory style, aircraft modernization seems right in step with ongoing technology advances and today's sustainability ethos. But among the few successes over the past decade, several big aftermarket and OEM piston modernization efforts have amounted to little more than cautionary tales. The good news for buyers today: modernization programs provide real value and can deliver like new or better than new products that make economic sense. If the past is prologue, market demand and human passion and ingenuity will keep them coming.