The pleasure – albeit transient – of owning a brand spanking new aircraft has become exponentially more expensive and thus out of the reach of many. The benefit of this for South Africa’s thankfully still deep repository of skills in aviation maintenance is a thriving industry refurbishing old aircraft. 

IT is not uncommon to find 60 year old airframes being refurbished to genuinely better than new condition, thanks to engine improvements and in particular updated avionics. The more so since ‘glass cockpit’ instrumentation has become more affordable and easy to install – even in type certified aircraft. 

The refurbishment industry has made it possible to own 60-year old aircraft that are as good as new. With a lot of added sexy new avionics kit, such as terrain avoidance systems that a 1966 C182 would have lacked because those systems had not yet been invented. 

These days a reasonably preserved used Cessna 182 with perhaps a midlife engine can be bought for around R1 million – which is almost a tenth of the price of a new plane. Not only have you saved R9 million but your insurance premiums are much lower. Of course, maintenance will be a bit – but not that much – higher. And this is where a good AMO comes in. SA Flyer owned a Cessna 182 ZS-FPI for around seven years and then a complex turbocharged retractable Piper Saratoga ZS-OFH for four years. What we learned is that the differences in maintenance between a good and poor AMO is very noticeable in terms of aircraft availability and reliability. This was evident when we switched from the Rand Airport based agents to Ferreira Aviation in Bloemfontein. 


The leader in engine upgrades to the ubiquitous turboprops that are so popular in Africa is Blackhawk. This company has specialised in upgrades to the engines of the King Air range in particular, but also handle Cessna Caravans and Piper Cheyennes. 

The engine upgrade that put Blackhawk on the map is its Beechcraft King Air 200 engine replacement. Blackhawk offers no less than three engine upgrade packages for King Air 200s. The three upgrades are the XP42, XP52 and XP61 and they all generate important performance and savings benefits, yet each package has distinctive characteristics to benefit specific flight requirements and profiles. Some of the key benefits include: an increased rate of climb, higher single engine service ceiling and faster cruise speeds resulting in reduced time on airframe and engines and higher resale value (according to Vref). 

Blackhawk’s XP52 engine upgrade exchanges the B200’s original PT6A-41 or PT6A-42 engines for factory-new Pratt & Whitney PT6A-52 engines. No major airframe modifications are required and there are some key benefits for Africa’s hot and high operations: the increased maximum  operating ITT to 820° C with an improved horsepower flat rating of more than 1346 shp enables it to reach higher altitudes more quickly, fly higher and faster which reduces specific fuel consumption. It is calculated that this typically saves US$38,000 per year in reduced operating costs. 

Bizjets, which tend to age quicker due to higher utilisation and faster obsolescence due to jet engine designs becoming more fuel efficient, are excellent candidates for refurbishment. This is particularly evident in the upgrading of older airframes such as the HS125-400 with modern high-bypass fan jets. 

Even the basic jets with OEM fanjets such as Cessna’s Citation 501-SP are able to benefit dramatically from engine upgrades. New engines such as the Williams FJ44-2As, which put out 2,300 pounds of thrust per side, provide a much needed performance improvement. At better than 400 knots TAS (50 knots faster than the original) and with a full fuel payload of 1,670 pounds, the Williams engine upgrade takes a well-loved aircraft and makes it faster, stronger and gives it a 1,400 nm IFR range. 


Avionics are the field where the most progress has been realised and this makes older charter aircraft excellent candidates for an avionics upgrade. Particularly popular are STCs for the installation of the industry standard Garmin G1000 suite and for those aircraft that have the performance – the installation of altimetry to meet RVSM requirements. 

Specialist avionics installers such as Century Avionics at Lanseria pioneered the installation of the industry standard Garmin G1000 into King Air 200s and these have now become a very popular upgrade across the industry. Typical installations include a dual air data attitude heading reference system, dual PFDs, a centre MFD with moving map, FMS, nav/coms and WAAS GPS, radar display, and a pedestal-mounted FMS keyboard. Popular too are electronic engine instrument displays and a battery powered all-in-one standby PFD. 

A typical avionics selection to upgrade older piston singles involves a Garmin G600 glass-panel with synthetic vision as a PFD for the pilot’s side. This gets its data from a WAAS capable, TAWS-B certified Garmin GNS 530W and GNS 430W GPS/nav/com fitted in the centre radio stack. On the right side of the panel a JPI EDM 930 engine-monitoring screen that displays all engine parameters including fuel flow, rpm, manifold pressure and electrical output is an ideal partner for GAMI injectors which allows for better temperature control and lean of peak operation for fuel injected engines. 


It’s not just about engines and avionics – refurbishment customers want their planes to look like new. All good paint shops start with a complete paint strip and prime, followed by three coats of base paint with additional coats for the colour. Decals are also becoming an increasingly popular option. 

Specialist painters can do custom paint schemes as was the case with the ‘better visibility’ yellow extremities we had on our C182 and the ‘heart attack’ scheme on our Saratoga. This scheme was designed by our artist Darren Edward O’Neil and we were so pleased we added his signature. Darren will propose a sketch layout and then, with painstaking attention to detail and proportion, make sure it is applied as intended to the physical requirements of the actual aircraft. 

A key point to remember when repainting aircraft is that it must be done by an approved maintenance organisation as the control surfaces have to be removed and then professionally rebalanced before installation. 

Interiors are another essential cosmetic item – most owners elect to use wool carpeting, and new padding and leather covering for seats. All material must have a fire certificate – so this is also not a job for non-aircraft approved suppliers, even if they are much cheaper. Another popular aftermarket option are airbags – built into the seat-belt for the front two seats, as well as new LED lights and new plastic window reveals. 

South Africa is blessed to still have such a deep legacy of aircraft refurbishment skills and it remains a pleasant antidote to the increasingly unaffordable new aircraft prices.