“To understand why Midcoast Aviation’s Perryville, Mo. operation is such a strong force in the Learjet MRO sector requires an understanding of our history,” Ron Herman, vice president of operations for Midcoast Aviation Perryville, told AIN. “Today’s operation is built upon the Sabreliner business that started here when Rockwell International was building Navy and Air Force T-39 trainer jets.”
Herman said that when the T-39 program ended in the mid-1960s, Rockwell management saw an opportunity to turn the T-39 into a business aircraft. “In those days corporate aviation was growing, but jets were still considered to be military aircraft,” Herman said. “So Rockwell set out to convince corporate America the future was jets.” The company invited representatives from corporations that were operating business aircraft to a meeting in Pompano Beach, Fla. “The meeting created a lot of excitement and interest,” Herman said. “The executives were interested in being able to fly farther and faster than before.” The meeting translated into the first orders for a converted T-39, which would become the Sabreliner 40.
Rockwell’s El Segundo, Calif. plant built 150 Sabreliner 40s and had them flown to its Perryville Municipal Airport facility for interior and paint completion. Almost immediately there was a demand for an airplane that could accommodate more than six passengers, so Rockwell engineers stretched the fuselage by 37 inches, added two passenger seats and built 146 Sabreliner 60s. Like the 40, the new aircraft were built in California and finished in Perryville.
By the mid 1970s, Rockwell was looking for ways to reduce overhead and noted that the cost of doing business in California was a lot higher than in Missouri. As a result, it built airframe and wing assemblies for the Sabreliner 80, the first full stand-up cabin in the line, in El Segundo but shipped them by rail to Perryville, where they were assembled and then finished. The company built only 72 Sabreliner 80s because corporations began wanting more range.
Once again, Rockwell engineers went to the drawing board, extended the wingspan by six feet and hung the much more fuel efficient TFE731-3 turbofan engine on what became the Sabreliner 65. The company eventually built 76 copies of the 2,600-nm-range airplane.
“The reason that’s all significant is that it slowly built up a huge inventory of equipment and a tremendous depth of expertise in the personnel,” Herman said. “That turned out to be a very important part of what would happen next.”
Herman said that in the early 1980s, roughly in the middle of the Sabreliner 65 production run, Rockwell won both the B-1 and space shuttle contracts. “It became obvious where Rockwell’s bread was going to be buttered,” he said. “Rockwell got out of the business aircraft construction business, scrapping design work it had already done on a proposed Model 85.
“Though production ended, Rockwell dedicated Perryville to supporting and maintaining the existing T-39 and Sabreliner fleet,” Herman said. “It proved to be a fortuitous decision that led to Rockwell’s selling the Perryville business in 1983 to a group of New York investors who named the privately held company Sabreliner Corp.” Shortly after the purchase, the company expanded into other government aircraft maintenance contracts while simultaneously expanding into corporate markets including Falcons, Westwinds, Citations and Hawkers.
“Spooling up for that large a segment of the industry would have been economically difficult, if not impossible, had it not been for the large investment in facilities, equipment and personnel that grew over the years,” Herman said.
In November 1994 Sabreliner acquired Midcoast Aviation.“Shortly afterward the company won the Air Force C-21 maintenance contract for 12,000-hour inspections. While the contract covered only 76 aircraft, it represented a significant turning point in the company’s fortunes,” said Herman.
“The contract allowed us to amass a lot of experience on the C-21, the military designation for the Learjet 35,” Herman said. “Our market analysis determined there were about 1,500 civilian Learjets. We looked at the competition in that segment of the MRO industry, compared the potential against our capacity and decided it made sense to gear up for the civilian Learjet maintenance market.”
Herman said the company hired some key people with significant Learjet background. “We recruited Tony Koprivnik, our Learjet sales and service manager, from Bizjet International, where he had more than 25 years of experience in corporate aviation maintenance. He was their Bombardier sales and service manager for Learjets and Challengers.”
Koprivnik explained how Midcoast’s Learjet business grew fairly quickly. “When I arrived here we had two very important ingredients already in place,” he said. “First of all there had been, and continues to be, a very low technician turnover rate. Our average technician longevity is 22 years.”
According to Koprivnik, the second significant ingredient in the Learjet program was that the company had established relationships with operators who had been using the company to work on other aircraft types. “Quite a few of them also owned Learjets, so we were able to piggy-back on existing relationships,” he said.
Three months ago the company won a contract to maintain 76 U.S. Air Force C-21s through 2011. Koprivnik said that in the past three years the company has assembled a Learjet team of 30 managers, customer service personnel and technicians. “We’re still expanding and should have 50 team members within the next 60 days,” he said.
“One of our primary areas of focus with Learjets is major inspections such as the 12-year inspection and 12,000-hour inspection,” Koprivnik said. “We are also well positioned to do complete interior refurbishment, modifications including full strip and paint, and avionics upgrade mandates such as RVSM and EGPWS.”
Despite making a major move into the Learjet market, the company still supports the fleet of more than 300 Sabreliners worldwide and works on other aircraft. According to Herman, the company produces 95 percent of all Sabreliner structural parts in-house. “It is precisely that manufacturing and maintenance experience that underpinned our ability to expand into other product lines.”
The FAA recently acknowledged the Perryville facility with a Diamond Award. The company has a total work force of about 200 people, including an engineering staff with DARs and DERs. The Perryville complex includes seven principal buildings totaling 206,000 sq ft.