No matter how extensive the refurbishment process, there’s no feasible way to rebuild an existing aircraft back to new condition. To do that, every component down to the last rivet and strand of wire would need to be removed and replaced. But an extensive refurbishment process could be the next best option. It’s also an alternative to buying a so-called wash-and-wax resale.
Moreover, the emerging aircraft refurbishment market is gaining momentum because it offers buyers a substantial cost savings over factory- new models, while offering generous customizing and modification.
One company that’s capitalizing on the concept is Aircraft Sales Inc., with the Pristine Airplanes refurbishment program. We recently visited the company that’s based at the Wayne County Airport in Smithville, Ohio, to get a firsthand look at the refurbishment process and the finished product.
The concept of refurbishing older aircraft to close-to-new standards isn’t new. There are several industry specialists, including Mike Jones Aircraft with the Lock and Key Navajo, Nextair Avionics with the Nextair glass cockpit Saratoga and Redbird’s Redhawk Cessna 172. While they focus on a single model, Aircraft Sales Inc. has a different approach.
According to company principal Matt Kozub, nearly any piston single, twin or turboprop can be transformed into a Pristine Airplane—the name given to every refurbished aircraft the company completes. They aren’t tied to one make and model of aircraft. As long as it’s a certified aircraft, they’ll refurbish it.
A major part of the process (and partly what sets the Pristine Airplanes refurbishment apart from others) is what Kozub calls the plan-a-plane concept. Plan-a-plane is a lot like ordering a factory-new aircraft, but it has an advantage because buyers have far more options when it comes to paint schemes, modifications and avionics packages. As long as it’s FAA-approved, the company can make most any modification you want. Kozub told us that a customer can order any used aircraft any way they want it.
While Aircraft Sales Inc. farms out the major portions of the refurbishment and modifications, including avionics, paint and interior work, they also have a half-dozen licensed mechanics and IAs on staff. Many of these technicians do specialty work, including modifying and obtaining field approval for passenger cabin club seating—a mod that can cost more than $12,000.
The company maintains an extensive inventory of aircraft, many in various stages of refurbishment. For example, if you’re looking for a Piper Saratoga or Cherokee Six, chances are there will be several in the inventory because Kozub knows these aircraft are in demand. The company is selective when shopping the used market.
One of the lead technicians told us he’s often amazed at how clean the older airframes are when he tears them open. Part of that is because Kozub won’t buy an aircraft that’s based near the ocean, due to the potential for corrosion. Further, if a refurbished aircraft is sold to an owner who plans to base it near the ocean, it receives an anti-corrosion treatment.
Many of the aircraft in the inventory are purchased and refurbished on speculation. Still, that doesn’t mean a buyer is tied to any model within the inventory. If you like everything about a particular airplane except the paint scheme, for example, the company is flexible and can either change the paint or might simply start from scratch and refurbish one exactly to your specifications. Similarly, most avionics equipment can be changed. Most every aircraft comes standard with at least one used Garmin GNS530W or 430W WAAS GPS, plus a Garmin GMA340 audio system, but if you want a new GTN750 with integrated audio, they’ll make the change, while you write the check for the difference. When asked why the aircraft aren’t automatically equipped with the latest GTN navigators, Kozub said it doesn’t make financial sense.
“If one of our refurbished planes is ready to go at $150,000 and we put in pricier avionics and raise the price to $170,000 accordingly, buyers won’t even call us. Instead, we give the buyer the choice of upselling the avionics,” Kozub noted. He also noted that once buyers commit to the aircraft, they’ll usually spend the extra money for more.
Throw yours away before shopping the Pristine Airplanes inventory because its value data won’t apply. While the starting point for most aircraft appraisals is Aircraft Bluebook Price Digest and Vref Aircraft Value Reference, these references list conditions that won’t apply to a completely refurbished aircraft. Kozub makes it clear that any Pristine Airplane will be more expensive than what’s stated in these publications—a point he makes up front. Bottom-feeders and bargain-hunters take note—Kozub puts a Pristine Airplane in the top 5 percent of the used aircraft market—essentially the best used aircraft you can buy, he says. Remember, these aircraft are intended to be the next best option to buying a new one. For that reason, they command top dollar. While it’s unclear where the used aircraft market will be in a few years, the company sells their aircraft partly on the premise that the aircraft will hold its value better than non-refurbished models, as long as the new owner properly maintains it.
While Kozub says many clients pay cash, he told us that some lenders might only finance 85 percent of the aircraft selling price, referencing the market value of an “average” model. While few banks have certified aircraft appraisers, it might pay to have the aircraft appraised by one that knows what they are looking at.
On the other hand, banks may look more carefully at a buyer’s ability to pay on the loan than the market value of the aircraft. More money lent means more profit Speaking of value, while we were on location at the company’s Ohio sales office, it had just finished refurbishing a Cessna turbo 310R.
It has two freshly overhauled engines, new paint, new glass and a modern leather interior, plus a new custom instrument panel with Garmin G500 avionics. Aircraft Bluebook Digest suggests an average retail price of around $180,000. Aircraft Sales Inc. is asking $300,000 and notes that if this aircraft were factory new, it might be valued at over $1 million (that’s what a factory-new Beechcraft G58 Baron costs, by the way).
An 1985 straight-leg Saratoga that’s Bluebooked at $180,000 is currently undergoing refurbishment and will hit the market for $210,000. This price delta between average and refurbished aircraft is consistent.
If you still wrestle with spending premium dollars on a 1970s-1980s-vintage aircraft—no matter how pristine—you might find solace in knowing what you’ll get for your money.
A Pristine Airplane starts with a thorough prebuy to ensure there are no outstanding liens and that the aircraft has always been based in the United States. If the aircraft is worthy of refurbishment, the airframe is completely gutted.
We witnessed several teardown processes that were in progress and can say that most mechanics wouldn’t attempt this level of disassembly during the most thorough annual inspection. The process also includes removing control surfaces and replacing anything on the airframe that can’t be restored to like-new condition.
Any corrosion that’s found is dealt with.
Most aircraft get an engine with zero time since a major overhaul to factory new limits, with factory-new cylinders, overhauled magnetos and new ignition harnesses. All fluid-carrying hoses, scat hoses and Lord engine mounts are replaced with new ones. While a customer can specify an engine overhauler of their choice, most engines are overhauled by Signature Engines in Cincinnati, Ohio, and come with a two-year or 500- hour warranty. If the existing engine has approximately 750 hours since a major overhaul by a shop deemed reputable by Kozub, it remains in the aircraft. It’s fully inspected, and if anything is found unairworthy, it’s fixed or replaced. If the propeller has approximately 1000 hours since overhaul, it’s removed and sent to a certified propeller repair shop. It has a one-year warranty.
Every aircraft gets new glass, custom interior, new carpeting, placarding, refurbished window trim and re-webbed seat belts. New Jet-Glo paint work includes stripping the entire airframe to bare aluminum, replacing all external hardware and rubber seals, plus rebalancing the control surfaces. The paint work includes a one-year warranty.
Every flight and engine instrument is inspected for cosmetic and mechanical performance. If any instrument lenses are foggy, discolored or not working properly, it is sent out for rebuilding.
Finally, each aircraft is test-flown for approximately five hours before delivery, plus the company can help with initial training upon delivery.
Does it make sense to pay higher than current market value for an old aircraft? For the right buyer, we think it does, especially for the owner who has no plans to sell the aircraft. Even for the owner who might step up (or down), the emerging refurbishment market hints at a reasonable return on a higher investment.
If you’ve coordinated major upgrade projects, you’ll know they can be frustrating and time-consuming. The cost premium might be less of a sting when you realize you are buying a turnkey service as much as you are buying a solid aircraft. Just don’t be in a hurry—a comprehensive and custom refurbishment process could take seven to nine months.
As for Pristine Airplanes, we think it has a distinct advantage in the current market because unlike other refurbishers, it maintains a large inventory and has the ability to source a wide variety of aircraft. There’s also a proven track record of high customer satisfaction and reliability. That alone could justify the costs.