Life for Fairchild Metro and Merlin owners is looking up. Maintenance, repair and overhaul options for the airplanes have now expanded to include Springfield, Mo.-based Worldwide Aircraft Services, which M7 Aerospace bought last year. According to Jim McClean, president and general manager, the company has a solid history upon which it has built the new service.
“In January 1987 my partner David Dunham and I started the company in Wichita. At the time I was vice president of maintenance for Air Midwest. I’d worked for them for about 16 years with the exception of a brief stint as a field service rep for Beech,” McClean told AIN. “The company started strong out of the gate and after seven months of success I left Air Midwest to run Worldwide full time.”
“We had intentionally targeted a niche market we thought was underserved–MRO for commuter and regional turboprop aircraft but for the leasing and investment companies that owned them,” McClean explained. “As airline contracts expired, the paper holders would find themselves with aircraft they had to maintain as they looked for new lessors. We’d do pre-purchase inspections, then refurb the aircraft and deliver it, doing both on-lease and off-lease inspections. When the contracts expired we’d refurb them again and the process started over. We used to joke that we didn’t do aircraft maintenance, we just recycled aluminum.” McClean said the company focused initially on the Metroliner.
In 1988 the company moved from Wichita Augusta Municipal Airport to Springfield, Mo., on Springfield Branson Regional Airport. The move increased the facility’s space from 10,000 to 15,000 sq ft and the next year Worldwide acquired another facility on the airport that expanded capacity to 40,000 sq ft. “At that point we had plenty of floor space so we decided it was time to expand our operation and began working on the Saab 340, Dash 8, Bandeirante and Brasilia and others,” he said.
McClean said a significant turning point occurred in 1988 when Worldwide Aircraft Services developed its first STC. It was for a Fairchild Metroliner cargo conversion. “The regional airlines were shedding 19-passenger aircraft for the newly approved 30 passenger models,” McClean said. “The paper holders were sitting with large portfolios of the smaller airplanes and no demand. It would have been disastrous except for one thing–the air cargo industry was just starting to expand into regional-size aircraft. Suddenly there was a need for a fast, efficient airplane that could haul 600 cu ft with a large cargo door,” McClean said. “Well, that’s exactly what our mod did and it had a tremendous effect on sales.”
McClean said the company did about 60 conversions, primarily in the early to mid-1990s. “That proved to be a significant financial windfall,” he said. “In 1993 and 1994 our clients began asking what they could do with the 30-passenger aircraft they had out on leases. The typical lease ran 10 years and they were already looking down the road.”
McClean said that caused the company to do a thorough study on what would be a good platform for the conversion. “We concluded that the next market would be for a 7,500-pound, 1,200-cu-ft turboprop cargo aircraft,” he said. “We decided the EMB-120 Brasilia was the best platform.”
“We were sort of on cruise control in the 1990s, with no significant changes in our business plan,” McClean said. “During that time we added backshops, increasing our avionics and engine capability to give customers greater choices, but all that time the concept of using the EMB-120 kept developing in the back of our minds.”
In late 1996 a large holder of EMB-120s approached Worldwide and asked the company to submit a request for proposal on a cargo conversion for that airplane. “By then we’d already spent so much time investigating that possibility we were able to put together a proposal very quickly,” McClean said. “The customer accepted and we signed a contract in January 1997. We funded and developed an STC and the FAA approved it the following November.”
The Brasilia cargo conversion became the staple of Worldwide’s business for the next four years, though the company continued to work on other aircraft. “The EMB-120 became our bread-and-butter; we did more than 30 of them. What made it such a successful program were the residuals that went with it. Almost every 120 that came in for a conversion also had major maintenance and refurbishment work to do,” McClean explained.
“Things were going great right up until 9/11, which cut our market in half,” McClean said. “So David and I talked about what we should do. We had cash in the bank, time on our hands, excellent resources and top-notch people. We just had to decide what to do with them.”
Worldwide had had good fortune with conversions, so after some exploration the ATR 42 caught the company’s interest. In 2002 it acquired a stripped-out fuselage and used it as a mock-up for a proposed cargo conversion. “As luck would have it, FedEx started putting out feelers for an ATR cargo conversion,” recalled McClean, “so we put together a statement of work for the ATR 42, with a follow-on for the ATR 72.”
There were discussions from August 2002 through the following May while Worldwide continued to work on the idea in-house. “In May 2003 we won a contract from FedEx for the ATR 42 cargo conversion and completed the STC by the following January. But for the first time we had to acknowledge that the FedEx program was just too big for us to handle alone. They had 33 aircraft they wanted done in 18 months.”
That’s when M7 Aerospace approached Worldwide about a joint program. The talks resulted in M7’s acquisition of Worldwide in July last year, with the conversion program moving to M7’s San Antonio facility.
“M7 Aerospace had its roots in Fairchild Aircraft, so we now focus on re-establishing product support for commercial and corporate operators of the Metro and Merlin,” McClean said. “We found that during Fairchild Dornier’s era there was less emphasis on product support and service. We’ve gone to the market and are letting people know as M7’s Worldwide Aircraft Services that we want to help operators continue to efficiently operate Metros and Merlins.”
McClean said the company has also re-energized its commitment to the EMB-120, Saab 340, Dash 8 and ATR 42 but is making a particular effort to reach out to the Merlin corporate market. “We offer major modification and refurbishment, major engine repairs other than overhaul and avionics retrofit,” he said. “Our goal is to give our Metro and Merlin customers a factory-authorized presence other than San Antonio.”