Where do old airliners go when they retire from their original airlines? Often, a lot further than their first operators ever envisaged.

That’s been the pattern with the Avro Regional Jet (RJ), as dozens are retired from a series of major European fleets and start to serve out the remainder of their lives in remote regions of the world, with smaller carriers who are keen to snap up a bargain 80 to 100-seat jet to cover their route networks.

A mass exodus of the BAE Systems-manufactured aircraft has been underway in the past few years from Lufthansa Cityline (18 RJ85s), BA Cityflyer (12 RJ85/100s), SWISS (20 RJ100s), Brussels Airlines (26 RJ85/100s) and Irish regional specialist CityJet (27 RJ85s).

Some of these airlines – notably Lufthansa Cityline and BA Cityflyer – have completely disposed of their Avros, with Swiss and Brussels phasing them out steadily. CityJet’s aircraft will be slowly replaced by the Sukhoi Superjet over the next few years.

“It’s a niche asset and there really isn’t anything like it in the market,” says James Greenstreet, Executive Vice-president, Sales and Marketing at Lessor Falko Regional Aircraft, which was formerly BAE Systems Asset Management and had a large portfolio of the type, as well as its earlier version, the BAe 146.

While many Avros spent their early working lives pounding the heavily-trafficked Western European airways, small groups of them can now be found as far away as Bolivia, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea and Chile. “In the likes of South America, there’s some pent-up demand for some years to come,” believes Greenstreet.

Four engines are now regarded as an expensive extravagance on an airliner, but in more remote markets, running costs are much less important than capital cost. Whereas in Europe, the aircraft would be expected to be in the air for around 12 hours a day, utilization rates in Africa and the Americas are far lower, which keeps fuel costs down.

“They aren’t doing anywhere near the volume of cycles they did in western Europe,” notes Greenstreet. Typically, the latter would have been in the 2000 cycles per annum category against perhaps 500 cycles in Africa.

Four engines also allow the aircraft to make a three-engined ferry flight back to its base, should one powerplant go sick, rather than being an AOG case in a remote location.

Factors that make the aircraft popular in far-flung corners of the globe include its STOL-like capability, the ability to operate from less-than-pristine airstrips with its high-mounted engines being kept clear of foreign object damage (a gravel kit can be easily fitted for extra protection). The 85-passenger RJ85, with its higher thrust-to-weight ratio than the longer-fuselage RJ100, is better-suited to rough field operations. Indeed, in some nations, the RJ100 is not approved for these.

The aircraft’s built-in airstairs and APU also allow it to function at remote airports with minimal facilities and it requires relatively small amounts of special-to-type test and ground equipment.

Somewhat, over-engineered in traditional British fashion, the Avro is a rugged little airliner. This is particularly demonstrated in its famously tough, trailing link undercarriage, which helps explain why the aircraft is used in places like Australia for Fly-In, Fly-Out (FIFO) services to remote mining strips.

Falko now tends to sell on aircraft that come back to them from their original lessees rather than leasing them out again, because of the work involved in managing the aircraft as they enter the second half of their lives.

“They’re in great shape and many are only halfway through their airframe cycles,” said Greenstreet (the aircraft is cleared to 60,000 cycles / 60,000 hours). Although “they continue to be one of the most reliable aircraft in terms of performance and dispatch reliability,” the biggest challenge is in sustaining them in their later years.

To keep them flying, it is not unusual for new operators to buy an extra aircraft and part it out, to give them access to a ready supply of spares. It is considerably cheaper, for example, to swap one of the Honeywell LF 507 engines rather than sending it for a major overhaul. The same goes for the undercarriage.

One use for latter-life aircraft that its original designers can hardly have envisaged is that of waterbombers. Three North American companies have started buying up airframes for conversion to this demanding role, which requires maneuverability, good low-speed handling qualities, and hot-and-high performance.

“We estimate that the extreme nature of this wildfire flying means that for every BAe 146/Avro RJ flight cycle on a typical mission, the impact for structural and fatigue life is estimated to be between four and seven flight cycles of normal flight,” comments Mark Taylor, business director, engineering for BAE Systems Regional Aircraft, “this figure will be validated during the initial years of operation and might vary due to the nature of the Airtanker design.”

In what turned out to be a very busy 2016 wildfire season in North America, the 14 BAe 146-200s and Avro RJ85s of Conair/Aero-Flite (Conair’s US-based subsidiary) and Neptune Aviation flew a total of more than 5,800 tanker missions, dropping more than 12.5 million gallons of retardant to help control some of the 67,595 recorded wildfires in the USA and over 5,000 in Canada.

Avro RJ85 Conair - Credit: Conair
Avro RJ85 Conair – Credit: Conair

A further eight BAe 146/Avro RJs are under conversion for this role, with four scheduled to enter service during 2017.

Canadian firefighting specialist Conair is a major user of the Avro and has converted nine RJ85s into air tankers. It plans to take more.

The conversion process to air tankers at Conair was extensive. It involved building an external pannier tank that wrapped around the aircraft’s lower fuselage and which, when seen from head-on, gives the aircraft the look of a hamster with nuts packed into its cheeks.

However, test flights found that the tank had a benign aerodynamic effect on the aircraft.

Conair’s aircraft can drop 3000 US gallons of fire retardant from low levels and at speeds of just 120kts through a gravity feed. That, combined with the aircraft’s transit speed of 380kts (considerably better than most of the company’s other fleet members such as Lockheed Neptunes and Convair 580s) has made the Avro a popular ‘Next Gen’ waterbomber, replacing vintage airframes.

The OEM also provided technical support for other companies’ individual tanker designs. This included specialist engineering expertise such as aerodynamic/computational fluid dynamics analysis; dynamic loads assessment and structural analysis.

Given that a waterbomber may only fly 200 missions in a quiet year, the Avro is likely to be around for some considerable time to come.