by knight ridder
Part of Douglas Aircraft Co. history is being rewritten by a 150-employee company in Oshkosh.
Basler Turbo Conversions is taking the legendary DC-3, once the mainstay of commercial aviation, and turning it into the Basler-Turbo-67 - a faster, quieter, more-economical airplane that can compete in today's market.
"There are certain products with ageless design," says Tom Weigt, president of Basler. "The DC-3 is clearly that kind of product." It has high-lift wings, good fuselage, good cabin space, sturdy landing gear.'
Douglas began manufacturing the twin-engine DC-3 in the 1930s. The last ones rolled off the line in 1945.
Warren Basler founded Basler Airlines and Basler Flight Service in 1957. In 1960, he purchased his first DC-3 to fly people to Canada on hunting and fishing trips. In 1970, he bought four more.
While he was buying DC-3s, others were phasing them out. Despite its sturdy airframe, the aging aircraft could not compete with the more powerful, efficient, quieter new aircraft on the market at the time.
The answer: Get new engines. It had been tried before, but most of those ventures faltered and failed in the time-consuming and costly certification process.
It took two years, but Basler won certification with a new DC-3 conversion design, utilizing Pratt ' Whitney PT6A-67R turboprop engines. with five-bladed propellers.
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In 1990, he opened the Oshkosh plant, turning the 50-year-old airliners into a new competitive product.
Each conversion takes six months. The aircraft is stripped of all electrical, hydraulic and fuel systems, checked for corrosion or structural damage, and the wings are removed.
The fuselage is extended 40 additional inches forward of the wing and the cockpit bulkhead is moved forward another 60 inches, increasing cabin space by 100 inches or 35 percent, says Weigt.
When the Basler workers finally put it all back together with more powerful engines and reinforced wings, the take-off weight of the aircraft is increased to 28,750 pounds. The converted aircraft has a maximum cruising speed of about 240 mph, up 24 percent from the DC-3's 195 mph cruise speed.
And with turboprop engines, the plane uses JP-4 jet fuel, rather than aviation gasoline, which is usually more expensive.
The plane's ability to land on small, unimproved runways and its sturdiness make it ideal for military and other special uses.
So far, the company has converted 13 of the DC-3s into BT-67s, about half of them for government use such as drug interdiction aircraft in Bolivia and Colombia, a gunship in El Salvador, a cargo and troop carrier in Guatemala. and a firefighting plane for the U.S. Forest Service.
Cost of the conversion runs about $3.5 million per aircraft, compared to $12 million for new planes with similar capabilities, Weigt says. Customers may supply their own DC-3 for conversion, or the company will find one for them.
Since the price of the DC-3 is only a small part of the final cost, this is not a significant factor, he says.
Meanwhile, the company is not worried about running out of old DC-3s to convert. The company estimates that worldwide there are about 2,000 of the old planes available for a new life as BT-67s.