Mixed News On The Refurb Trainer Front

One would think a spinner-to-tail rebuild for the nations training fleet would be in the best interests of aviation…


The cost of new aircraft keeps going up and the number produced keeps going down, so it’s really no surprise that people have begun looking for other ways to get the benefits of a new airplane without having to pay increasingly unreachable amounts for them. Taking old planes, stripping them down and rebuilding them seems like it might be a feasible answer. As tends to happen, several businesses in recent years saw the potential and began offering like-new refurbishments.

For companies like Nextant, Basler and others, refurbishing business and commercial aircraft has proven quite successful. But on the training aircraft side of things, refurbs have experienced a bit more of a good news/bad news scenario.

Cost and Options

Generally speaking, training refurbishments fall into two categories: full commercial refurbs and custom/partials. Refurbishing an aircraft typically starts with finding an airframe. For trainers, a decent airframe typically costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000-$50,000. The aircraft is usually disassembled and checked thoroughly, with any worn parts replaced and all airworthiness directives brought into compliance. Cost for all of that (plus reassembly) typically falls in the $8,000-$12,000 range. Getting a low-time, overhauled or new engine comes next, to the tune of about $15,000-$30,000. The commercial refurbs all include avionics ($40,000-$60,000 if you want to go for partial glass), paint ($16,000-$25,000) and interior ($8,000-$12,000). A refurbishment project, particularly a full tip-to-tail deal, can easily take several hundred hours.

Although refurbishment costs can vary significantly from airframe to airframe, its fairly safe to say that a fully refurbished trainer will run approximately $150,000 less than a new plane of the same type. Those kinds of savings for like-new quality seems like a recipe for success and, beginning with the highly touted introduction of Redbird’s RedHawk diesel 172 in 2012, several other companies began offering fully refurbished trainers targeted at flight schools and flying clubs.

Unfortunately, our recent status check on these refurb projects revealed that the savings haven’t made enough of a difference to stimulate the market for total trainer refurbs. Of the four programs we surveyed, only about 35 fully refurbished training aircraft have been delivered over the last six years. Here’s where those programs currently stand.

Redbird RedHawk

The Redbird RedHawk—a tip-to-tail 172 refurbishment that includes a Continental CD-135 diesel engine—was one of the earliest training aircraft refurbs available. At $249,000, it was also one of more expensive refurb options, in part due to the diesel conversion. The RedHawk refurbishment started with 172M or P models for which Redbird says they generally paid about $35,000 to $40,000 per aircraft. The refurb itself included stripping the airframe down to bare metal, cleaning and repairing any corrosion, replacing worn structural components, adding a firewall doubler and swapping out the fuel tanks. The aircraft also got new paint and interior, new avionics including a Garmin G500 and touch-screen GPS and a new CD-135 diesel engine.

Status: The company pulled the plug on the RedHawk in 2016. According to Redbird, although they felt there was market demand for something like the RedHawk, they “just couldn’t squeeze enough cost out of the components to hit the right price point.” They delivered 13 aircraft in the four years the program was active, usually as fleet deals of 3-4 aircraft.

Yingling Ascend 172

Yingling introduced its Ascend 172 remanufacture in July 2015. The initial list price was $159,900, although that rose to $230,000 – $330,000. The Ascend program offered a wider array of options than most of the others, with separate VFR and IFR packages and an array of options for additional avionics, interior design, paint schemes and the choice of a 180-HP Lycoming O-360-A4M instead of the standard 160-HP Lycoming O-320-H2AD. The Ascend refurb included complete engine and propeller overhauls, all new interior and flight instruments, rebuilt landing gear and a new windshield, along with a host of other component inspections and replacements.

Status: Yingling has recently suspended Ascend, although the company has said it will still refurbish planes on request with the cost to be determined based on the work to be done. Over the life of the program, Yingling remanufactured seven Ascend 172s including one for the AOPA sweepstakes.

Sporty’s 172LITE

Sporty’s gave refurbs a try with their 172LITE model. The rebuild included replacing the original Lycoming O-320-H2AD engine with an overhauled O-320-D2J, an overhauled propeller, airframe inspection and repair, window replacement, and inspection and adjustment of control cables. The interior got new seat coverings, floor and panel coverings, and trim. On the instrument panel, a new metal panel was installed along with a simple communications radio and transponder, and all switches replaced. LED lighting was added and the aircraft got a new paint job. The rear seats were also removed.

Status: The company refurbished two 1976 Cessna 172Ns in 2015 and 2016 with the idea that they could come up with a stripped-down aircraft that would be more cost effective for primary students. On that level, the plan was a success. The two aircraft were rebuilt and are still being used by Sporty’s Academy for that purpose. However, Sporty’s said that when they asked around to see what outside interest in the project might be like, they couldn’t find enough of a market to justify going any further with the idea. Retail price for a 172LITE was estimated at $135,000 at the time they were built.

Aviat 152 Reimagined

Aviat’s 152 Reimagined program is about three years old. Aircraft are rebuilt on demand and have been from the beginning of the program with wait times between six and nine months. As the name implies, they rebuild Cessna 152s (and some 150s as well). The process begins with disassembling the airframe for a detailed inspection. Aircraft are then rebuilt with an overhauled Lycoming O-235 (152) engine, new or overhauled prop, replacement of pretty much everything forward of the firewall, new paint, new or reconditioned windows and interior, and a new panel with new, refurbished or overhauled instruments.

The program is closely tied in with AOPA. Aviat’s President, Stu Horn, said that the Reimagined program began when AOPA requested a rebuilt 152 for its annual raffle and at least eight of the refurbished aircraft have gone to the organization since. AOPA also offers financing and insurance for Reimagined aircraft. At the beginning, due to sponsorships and deals with manufacturers, Reimagined 152s were going for $80,000. The base price has since risen to $129,000, with some additional options available.

Status: The 152 Reimagined is one of the only full training refurbs still being offered. Aviat reports that they have completed between 12 and 15 refurbishments and have orders for a few more, including a two-aircraft request from a university flight school.

Full Refurb Failure

It’s safe to say at this point the market for fully refurbished training aircraft never really made it off the ground. Almost all of the companies we asked reported that refurbishing aircraft took more time and money than they initially planned for. In most cases, prices were either raised significantly from the original or never made it as low as the company intended. Everyone we spoke with said that profit margins are very slim on refurbs.

In addition, it seems that while significantly cheaper than a new plane, fully refurbished trainers are often still too expensive for small flight schools. On the flipside, many of the larger schools (such as ATP Flight School with its recent—and second—order for 100 Piper Archers) want—and can afford—new aircraft, which they often use as part of their advertising. That leaves the commercial refurb market with a small section of midsized schools that have the money but don’t want to be bothered with overseeing the refurb work themselves, plus private customers who find the idea of undertaking a refurb project attractive. This is not a prescription for a booming business.

What About Partials?

Partial refurbishments are an entirely different story. Quite a few flying clubs and flight schools looking to pick up an aircraft report plans to do some work on them once they bring them home. It’s still perfectly possible to find older trainers for reasonably cheap and, with a good strategy, putting twice as much as you paid toward refurbishment to decent standards.

As an example, an Arizona-based flying club started by AVweb publisher Tom Bliss bought a 1976 172N for $33,000 and spent an additional $40,000 to refurbish it. For that amount, the list of upgrades included a zero-time rebuilt Lycoming engine, Lynx 9000 ADS-B, Garmin G5 attitude indicator, new TKM MX300 radio and TMF80 DME. They also added new hook and hold harnesses and new AeroLED landing and taxi lights.

“I wanted a trouble-free engine, which was a zero-time factory re-man, a very capable ADS-B and the Garmin G5 for attitude information,” Bliss said. “We may replace the G5 with an Aspen E5 including the full HSI features because this airplane is not only a primary trainer but a basic instrument trainer as well.” The aircraft currently rents to club members for $125.00 per hour wet.

The State of the Refurb Market

Total nose-to-tail refurbs in the training market are likely to remain limited. Also contributing to refurb complications, the cost of aircraft parts is rising, sometimes substantially. Refurbishers are increasingly looking to salvage yards for hard-to-find parts including flight controls, small engine parts, seats and cabin accessories.

On the bright side, although numbers are much harder to track on aircraft being refurbished outside of established programs, based on the reported sales volume of new engines, engine components, retrofit avionics (including ADS-B), tires, batteries and accessories, the refurb market for owner-flown aircraft appears steady.