““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Fairchild Dornier's 328JET
Granted, it's relatively slow for a jet and has limited range. But the 328JET is also a modern, fuel-efficient aircraft with a roomy cabin that climbs quickly and can land on short runways. Plus, it's priced about equal to-or in some cases even less than-what you'd pay for a new turboprop. if it fits your typical missions, it's a model you really ought to consider.
The story of the Fairchild Dornier 328JET brings to mind the epic 1982 movie Das Boot. The film chronicles the travails of a German World War II submarine crew that survives all manner of combat and mechanical and political adversity while striving to complete its mission. And so it is with this airplane.
Yet, despite its somewhat jaded lineage, the 328JET (Model 328-300/310) poses a unique value: a modern, fuel-efficient aircraft with a large Gulfstream IV-sized cabin for a price equal to or in some cases less than what you'd pay for a new turboprop. You can find fully refurbished, ready-to-fly 328s for less than $6 million. Configured for airlines, the aircraft can seat 33; in executive commuter or charter configuration, typically 19; and in executive VIP cabin layouts, eight to 14.
The 328 climbs fast (3,690 feet per minute) and has great short-field performance. That said, it's not perfect. The aircraft was designed as a turboprop and morphed into a commuter jet, so it's slow-400 knots, only slightly faster than a very light jet-and has a range with maximum payload of less than 1,000 nautical miles (though four passengers and extended-range tanks boost that to 2,059). The Pratt & Whitney Canada engines had some early issues with leaky seals that truncated overhaul intervals, although most of them have been fixed.
In addition, the original manufacturer, Fairchild Dornier, cratered into a spectacular $670 million bankruptcy in 2002. And AvCraft, the company that subsequently bought the rights to the airplane, also dissolved into the ether amid accusations of financial skullduggery that included German criminal proceedings. (This company is no relation to AvCraft Support Services, the Myrtle Beach, S.C. company that currently supports the 328 in the U.S.) Operators of the 100-plus fleet of 328s can still find all the parts they need, but sometimes it is more of an adventure than they might like.
During its production run from 1998 to 2002, new 328JETs sold for about $14.5 million full price, but the bankruptcy-which precluded follow-on aircraft models or meaningful continued production of the 328-did much to slash resale values. Those who bought or leased 328s near the sticker price quickly found that they were financially upside down in the airplane. Delta Airlines used its 2006 bankruptcy to walk away from the thirty 328JETs operated by its ACA commuter subsidiary. The move sent resale values down to the deck, sometimes to less than $2 million, and created unprecedented bargains for savvy buyers. (Some two dozen 328s remain in storage awaiting sale, but prices are heading back up.)
One of those smart buyers was Ohio-based Ultimate Jet Charters, which has built a fleet of ten 328s that it uses mainly in 30-seat configurations for flying college sports teams and other large groups. "For our average stage lengths of 800 to 1,000 miles, it's a great airplane," said Ultimate's David Parsons, the company's director of operations, who also flies the 328. "There isn't any other airplane out there that can take the loads this one can out of short runways," he added.
Parsons noted that his company's 328s-including the higher-time models-have demonstrated "very good reliability." He said he sees cruise speeds of about 380 knots and fuel burns around 310 to 330 gallons per hour.
Like most things German, the 328 is overbuilt. "It is typical German engineering. They are built very, very soundly," said Mike Hill, general manager of AvCraft Support Services. Hill noted that the comparative lack of corrosion found on 328 airframes during major inspections is just one sign of how well the airplane is constructed. However, the landing gear must be overhauled every 10 years, he said, and some gear overhauls can drag on for two to three months, due mainly to the lack of available parts.
AvCraft Support is one of three primary companies that today maintain the 328 worldwide. The other two are M7 in San Antonio, Texas, and 328 Support Services in Germany. Both AvCraft Support and Goderich Aircraft (Huron Park, Ontario) have developed reputations as expert interior and exterior refurbishers of 328s. A complete interior gutting and exterior repainting can easily cost upward of $1 million for VIP configurations.
Besides being durable, the 328 is fun to fly. Parsons has logged 2,600 hours in 328JETs and calls it a true pilot's airplane. "The cockpit is very clean, well laid-out and roomy," he said. "It's a good flying airplane. It's stable and easy to hand-fly [flying without the autopilot]." The 328's cockpit features modern Honeywell Primus 2000 glass-panel avionics, but watch out for display failures on aircraft that have been placed in protracted outdoor storage.
Other companies that fly the 328 in the U.S. include Milwaukee-based Midwest Connect (a/k/a Skyway Airlines), which has 12. Among corporate operators that use the airplane as a commuter are Pratt & Whitney, Shell, Corning and Cummins. Besides Midwest and Ultimate, the other large 328JET fleet operator is China's Hainan Airlines.
In either commuter or executive VIP configuration, the 328 cabin is a standout. It is 85.5 inches wide, 72 inches tall and 34 feet long. The baggage hold is a massive 275 cubic feet. There is ample room for a large galley in the forward cabin and the aft lavatory is capacious. There is more than enough room for installation of all manner of entertainment systems and forward and aft closets, as well as couches and large, overstuffed and fully reclining single executive passenger seats. Cabin noise is exacerbated by the twin Pratt & Whitney engines hanging from pylons off the high wings and proximate to the cabin windows, and the belly-mounted landing gear. Let's just say that when the gear doors open, you'll know it. Acoustic blankets placed behind the cabin panels add weight but can ameliorate some, but not all, of these excess decibels during takeoff and landing.
Most operators find that the large cabin, good operating economics and low acquisition cost more than compensate for the 328's shortcomings and make it one of the best bargains in the sky. If your typical flights are 1,000 to 1,600 (depending on the number of passengers) miles and you want a really comfortable cabin, this is one airplane you should not overlook.