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in Air Transport / Features

Flex appeal

Posted 11 June 2019 · Add Comment

Increasing costs and complexity mean that it’s increasingly rare for new aircraft models to appear. It’s even rarer when the driving force behind a new model is a small Gulf carrier with just two aircraft in its fleet, as Alan Dron reports.

With Texel Air a resident cargo airline at Bahrain International Airport, visitors to the island’s biennial air show at Sakhir Airbase in November would have been unsurprised to see one of the company’s Boeing 737s on the static line.
The sharper-eyed, however, might have noticed, in tiny lettering below its tailfin, the inscription ‘Experimental’.
What’s experimental about a Boeing 737?
Even those with some aviation knowledge, who noted the aircraft’s designation painted forward of the rear fuselage door – ‘Boeing 737-700FC’ – might have been puzzled. Standard 737 freighters normally carry the single letter ‘F’ after the model number or ‘QC’ for ‘quick change’, where the aircraft’s internal layout can be swapped between cargo and passenger configurations.
Few would have realised that the aircraft was, in fact, the prototype of a new freighter variant, the 737-700 FlexCombi, or that Texel Air was the first operator of the type. Indeed, at the time of the show, the aircraft was still going through its certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. Hence the ‘experimental’ designation.
The story behind Texel Air’s acquisition of the new model began around 2015, when George Chisholm, CEO of Texel’s parent company, Chisholm Enterprises, was starting to look around for a successor to the company’s Boeing 737-300Fs. While the -300Fs had given sterling service, customers were starting to ask for greater capabilities – for example, when ferrying racehorses between the Gulf and Europe.
The aircraft have a ‘horse and groom’ modification to carry the animals and their attendants, but “customers always want more seats, better comfort and better range”, explained Chisholm.
“The -300s are still very popular aircraft as freighters, but the feedstock is coming to an end. In 2015 we saw that and started to look at what other aircraft were on the market. I travelled the globe meeting with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), modification houses and conversion houses to see what was out there and what was coming. We found a lot of aircraft that met 50% of what we needed, but then met major flaws, either price or other factors.
“For example, Boeing has a 737-700 convertible ‘700C’, but it’s only available as a new-build and that’s a little too much for us. ‘QC’ convertibles, meanwhile, had to be either all-cargo or all-passenger and the overhead bins stay in, so you lose quite a bit of cargo volume.”
Texel often has a requirement to carry small numbers of passengers and it even looked at the possibility of buying a small passenger aircraft to accompany the pure freighter, but the financial figures involved in operating two types of aircraft simply didn’t add up for a small company.
Texel continued to scope out the design concept for a flexible combi and eventually ended up talking to three conversion houses. Two were really focused on the 737-800, but the third, PEMCO, based in Tampa, Florida, was looking for a launch customer for a -700 conversion.
The Bahraini company agreed to be the launch customer, at the same time incorporating the flexible cargo/passenger combination, but no lessor would fund an aircraft for it under those circumstances. Instead, Chisholm ended up buying an aircraft, a 2004 example of the 737-700 that had previously been operated by Airberlin and Russian carrier, Yakutia, and had been stored at the aircraft ‘boneyard’ at Victorville, California, for about a year.
It was a low-time example – around 24,000 hours and 16,000 cycles – and Texel bought it from owners Aviation Capital Group.
“We put it back into service, ferried it to Florida and it was in conversion from June 1 2017 to the end of September 2018,” said Chisholm.
Texel funded a proportion of the necessary research and development for the FlexCombi configuration, notably at the rear of the aircraft. That gave the Bahraini company some input into the design, notably the number of seats that it would carry.
The new aircraft will greatly expand the scope of Texel’s services, said Chisholm: “It opens up new markets. It basically doubles our range. With around 15,000lb of cargo, range is around 2,800nm. At full capacity, it’s around 2,200nm.” By comparison, at the 737-300’s maximum payload, range is between 1,100-1,300nm.
To further increase the FlexCombi’s potential, Texel is working with US avionics giant, Collins Aerospace, to fit an enhanced vision system (EVS) camera in the aircraft’s nose. This is designed to cut through poor visibility such as rain or fog and is likely to be particularly valuable, given the destinations to which Texel operates.
“We usually operate from second- and third-tier airports; a lot of private airfields don’t have instrument landing systems (ILS), so the aircraft is designed to meet that challenge.”
The second-generation digital EVS that Texel has chosen is more usually found on top-of-the-range executive jets and Chisholm believes that this will be the first time such a system, with its accompanying head-up display, has been retrofitted to a Boeing 737.
The EVS came about as a result of talks Texel had with pilots, engineers and clients: “We said, ‘We have a clean sheet, what would you want?’ That’s how the EVS, head-up display and airstairs came into play.”
Another addition to the basic design was a comprehensive security camera system. As well as the standard cameras watching the cockpit door plus the L1 and R1 doors, it added several more, including two in the cargo hold and one aimed at the cargo door, which allows the crew to watch the loading procedure remotely – either from the cockpit or by crewmembers on a suitably-modified iPad.
Texel Air is planning to keep its existing 737-300Fs in service but would potentially look at acquiring more FlexCombis; the Boeing 737-700 is still in production and around 1,700 are in service. “Everyone loves them. They were supposed to be coming out of service from major airlines starting this year, but the low fuel price and delays to deliveries of the 737MAX have held them up,” explained Chisholm.
For its part, PEMCO is also interested in looking at more conversions of the 737-700 and -800 as the number of suitable -300 and -400 models dwindles. “We’re looking at getting to the -800 by at least 2021,” said Mike Andrew, the company’s director of conversion programmes

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