Midcoast technicians give new life to wrecked Falcon

 - October 8, 2007, 11:52 AM
It was early evening on March 17, 2000, when N814M, a Falcon 900B owned by BP Amoco, overran the runway while landing at Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Mass. Racing past the numbers, it crashed through the Runway 24 localizer antenna array and a chain-link fence.

With a 200-ft section of fence still attached to the number-two engine nacelle, the careening trijet continued across a two-lane road where it struck three vehicles. From there it went into a parking lot, where it proceeded to hit three concrete parking barriers, three concrete light pole bases and two parked vehicles before coming to rest.

Miraculously, there were no injuries to the two pilots or two passengers, but the airplane–self-insured by the owner–was a write-off. Or so most of those involved thought as it was later loaded on a flatbed truck.

Midcoast Aviation disagreed. The St. Louis Downtown Airport-based maintenance, modification, completion and refurb center was already well into a successful repair project on another wrecked Falcon 900, and the company was convinced that N814M was a similar candidate for reconstruction. After an exhaustive analysis of the damage, Midcoast contacted John Ames, the president of Jetcraft Corp., a Durham, N.C.-based aircraft trading company. Midcoast and Jetcraft, bolstered by financial support from Boeing Capital Corp., agreed on a work contract, with Midcoast responsible for rebuilding the airplane and Jetcraft handling the marketing and resale.

But the key to this second Falcon 900 project, according to both Ames and Midcoast vice chairman Gary Driggers, was the complete cooperation of the airplane’s French manufacturer, Dassault Aviation.

Kurt Sutterer, executive v-p of Midcoast, recalls that Dassault’s initial reaction to the idea was “skeptical to say the least.” But armed with a set of laser measurements of the wrecked aircraft and a complete analysis of how Midcoast planned to proceed, early skepticism on the part of Dassault engineers turned to what Sutterer described as “enthusiastic support.”

“Our first concern was the extent of the damage to the wing box and fuselage,” said Gerry Goguen, senior v-p of Dassault Falcon Jet. “The airplane absorbed a tremendous amount of energy [in the accident] and we had to be sure it could be rebuilt to very exacting standards.”

Sutterer said the fact that N814M was built by Dassault was a major factor in the decision by Midcoast to save the airplane. Sutterer described Dassault as “an engineering company that just happens to build airplanes,” an endorsement he said has considerable basis in fact. He noted that every Dassault business jet  comes with its own individualized virtual file, and every tenth airplane on the assembly line undergoes a laser-measurement quality-control process to ensure that it meets the original specs.

As it turned out, N814M was one of those tenth airplanes. This, said Sutterer, made it easier to confirm that the airframe had not been bent in the accident, and that the rebuilt aircraft would meet the original baseline engineering criteria.

Once committed, said Ames, Dassault provided engineering specs and even sent teams to Midcoast to consult in the project. “They took it up as a cause and celebrated every victory right along with the rest of us.”

The decision to rebuild the airplane was further influenced by the fact that N814M was relatively new–S/N 155, built in 1995–and low time with only 2,200 flight hours. It was also unusually well equipped with the latest avionics, including TCAS II Change 7, TAWS and satcom. The airplane was also equipped to meet the requirements for RVSM operations.

Finally, despite the loss of some 1,200 gal of jet fuel as a result of the accident, there was no fire.

Damaged Beyond Repair?
On the other hand, the airframe damage to the aircraft belly was considerable. According to the NTSB report, the right-wing was buckled upward about six inches at the aft wing root. The right-wing inboard trailing-edge flap was buckled upward about 10 in. at its center. The outboard trailing edge flap was dented along the trailing edge and a section about 72 in. long on the right-wing outboard leading-edge slat was hanging loose.

The main landing gear had been sheared off and the nosegear was twisted, bent backwards and jammed into the fuselage aft of the wheelwell. The right and left engine nacelles were dented, and the center-engine fuselage-mounting pylon cover was compressed backward about 10 in.

And that was only the immediately visible damage. A closer examination showed substantial damage to several bulkhead lower-frame planks. The lower section of frame four had been crushed when the nosegear collapsed and was bent back and up into the fuselage, and both wings and the center box were damaged beyond repair.

With Dassault providing engineering and on-site input, Midcoast’s first order of business was to acquire a jig in which the airframe would be held during the reconstruction. The job went to the St. Louis firm of Kobak Tool and Manufacturing, at a cost of nearly $45,000. According to Midcoast’s Driggers, when the jig was measured, “every attachment point was exactly where it should have been.”
Goguen noted, “Dassault has a lot of advertising that says that’s the way it’s supposed to happen, but it isn’t often we have an opportunity to prove it.”

The airplane–fuselage and tail section–arrived at Midcoast in July 2000 and was locked into the jig in May last year. Tom Silva, head of special projects, was assigned to oversee the project and remembers that it required his team to think outside the box. “In fact, when they build an airplane, it’s built from the bulkhead frame planks up. Those were the planks we had to replace or repair, so it was like pulling blocks out of the bottom of a pyramid.”

With the airplane held firmly in the jig, Midcoast airframers removed much of the lower belly skin from frame zero aft to frame 10. With the serious damage exposed, they proceeded to remove and replace or repair sections from frame zero through eight in the belly section between stringers 22 on the right and left sides. Frame zero was repaired, frame four was partially repaired and partially replaced and the lower planks of frames five through eight were replaced entirely.

It was the first time center-frame planks had ever been replaced in the field, according to Silva. More impressive, he noted, was that when the new planks arrived from the Dassault factory, “every hole and slot lined up perfectly.”

The wings were replaced by new Falcon 900EX wings. “They’re the latest-production wings, with improved flaps and aileron control systems,” said Silva, “but with the exception of some of the wiring and new wing fairings, we had very little to do to fit the 900EX wings to our 900B fuselage.”

Taking advantage of the downtime for reconstruction, Midcoast technicians also performed a C-level inspection, which Silva noted was due anyhow.

While there was no apparent damage to the three engines, manufacturer Honeywell convened a damaged-engine review board and the engines were torn down and inspected. While disassembled, it was decided to go ahead and perform a core inspection. And since the number-one engine was a loaner at the time of the accident, the original engine was returned to service on the rebuilt aircraft.

A new exterior paint job completed the process, and Sutterer noted that with the C-check, engine-core inspections and new EX wings, the airplane–scheduled to roll out of the Midcoast hangar on May 27 for its first post-accident flight–was “not only as good as new, but in some ways superior.”

Within the Forecast Sale Expectations
Midcoast figures the project required something in the neighborhood of 28,000- to 30,000 man-hours on the part of all concerned, including Dassault, Jetcraft and Midcoast Aviation.

Two years after the accident, and against all odds, N814M flies again. No one was willing to discuss details of the work agreements, or the amount of money required, though Jetcraft’s John Ames admitted that the airplane was purchased for “slightly more than its value in parts.” And he added that the total cost of the reconstruction was within 1- to 2 percent of the budget forecast, and “easily inside our forecast sale price, maybe 5 percent within that price.”

According to Vref Aircraft Value Reference, the average resale price of a Falcon 900B is $22.8 million. However, said Vref president Fletcher Aldredge, in light of the new EX wing and C-check, that $22.8 million figure is probably meaningless with regard to this particular airplane. “While any buyer is going to be naturally skeptical, based on the accident record and extent of the damage,” Aldredge added, “if Dassault signed off on it, I doubt if the accident record should be a cause for concern.”

Dassault, as a result of its involvement, has agreed to continue its maintenance support of the airplane and to honor all the balance of the original warranties. Dassault has also agreed to provide new warranties on the major new assemblies required in the rebuilding–primarily the landing gear and wings. And, said Ames, “Dassault is not requiring any additional inspections or maintenance and nothing is out of phase in that regard.

“The philosophy behind the project,” he said, “was to do it right–the Dassault way–and build the most value possible back into the airplane.”

Ames said Jetcraft has already received several inquiries from interested buyers and is convinced that everyone involved in the project will profit from the experience, and not merely in financial terms. “The buyer will get what will in essence be a new Falcon 900B.”

With the N814M project near completion, Ames and Midcoast are already looking for new aircraft reconstruction projects. “There are a couple of Gulfstreams,” he noted. “Nothing firm yet, but we’re looking.”