Used Aircraft Review: Bombardier's Challenger 604
A wide-bodied marathoner offers lots of refurb options.
Big cabin. Long legs. Low price. In a nutshell, that is the Challenger 604’s value proposition. And it’s the reason why the aircraft, and its more modern iterations, continue to occupy a unique product niche more than 30 years after the first Challenger 600 was delivered.
After he sold Learjet, Bill Lear tinkered with a design for a large-cabin business jet that—thanks to advances in airfoils and engines—could be built and operated for midsize-cabin prices. He sold his design of the Learstar 600 to Canadair (now Bombardier), which went on to build the airplane under the moniker “Challenger.” Through the end of 2014, nearly 1,000 Challenger 600 series aircraft had been delivered.
Last October, Bombardier unveiled its latest take on this classic design: the $33 million Challenger 650. The Learstar was also the -genesis for the wildly popular CRJ line of regional jets and the Bombardier line of Global Express long-range business jets. The 600 series employs advanced aerodynamics, high-bypass-ratio jet engines and a capacious, 1,150-cubic-foot cabin, the airplane’s most distinctive -feature. It offers six feet of headroom and a flat floor that’s just over seven feet wide.
The two-section cabin, which is typically configured for nine passengers, provides flexibility. You can equip it with extra-wide, fully reclining single-seat executive chairs or side-facing three-place couches without sacrificing aisle clearance or making the space appear cramped. The double-divan configuration is especially popular with operators who regularly make transatlantic crossings. The big cabin also eases placement and installation of large bulkhead video monitors and other entertainment equipment as well as furniture monuments such as side rails, credenzas and conference tables.
The 604’s range exceeds that of earlier model series 600/601 aircraft by nearly 500 nautical miles. The airplane also offers larger General Electric CF34-3B engines, Rockwell Collins Pro Line 4 avionics with the Precision Plus upgrade, enhanced landing gear and an optional extended cabin. (Note that extending the cabin means eliminating the luggage hold.)
You can get much of what a new 650 or used 605 (produced from 2007) offers in a used 604; more than 360 of them were built between 1996 and 2007 with current resale prices ranging from $4.8 to $10.6 million. And for that you get an airplane that can stay in the air for nine to 10 hours and cover 4,000 nautical miles if you really pull the power back; even with the power forward, this is a good seven-hour jet at respectable speeds of up to Mach 0.81, according to longtime 604 captain Bret Ebaugh. “It’s a go-er,” he says enthusiastically. The aircraft holds 20,000 pounds of fuel and can comfortably transport four passengers across the continental U.S. It also is a favorite for transatlantic crossings. “It sleeps eight very well,” Ebaugh notes.
You have lots of options when it comes to refurbishing a used 604, according to Tracey Boesch, a senior sales representative at Duncan Aviation, which works on at least 100 Challengers a year. Boesch says changes to the aft cabin seem to be the most popular, whether that means adding a divan or subtracting one. Altering the seat styles and even individual seat widths also is relatively easy, according to Boesch’s colleague George Bajo, who explains that the Challenger was certified before today’s more restrictive 16g seating rules took effect. That gives refurbishers like Duncan far more latitude when it comes to selection and thickness of seat foam and seat arm styles.
Bajo recommends that Challenger buyers look into improved soundproofing that can cut cabin noise levels by two to three decibels. Duncan uses a variety of blankets, dampeners and barriers for this from companies such as Flight Environments, Hutchinson and Skandia.
Bajo notes that LED cabin lighting is a popular refurb item with an average price of around $80,000. Typically, he says, customers opt to replace their upwash, downwash and overhead fluorescent lighting with LEDs while retaining the original reading and table lights. Besides creating a more pleasant environment, adding the more efficient LEDs removes weight from the cabin by eliminating the need for some heavier power supplies.
Because of the airplane’s price point, few buyers opt for an entirely new cabin-management/inflight-entertainment-and-information system, Bajo says, pointing out that Honeywell offers a cost-effective “refresh” for the CMS.
When it comes to inflight entertainment and communications, Gogo Biz (formerly Aircell) provides several options that are more reasonably priced than satellite systems, which can easily top $1 million just to install. The Gogo Text and Talk app allows users to receive and make phone calls, send and receive e-mails, and browse the web on their smartphones during a flight. Meanwhile, the new Gogo Vision caches movies and other entertainment and news content to the aircraft server while it is on the ground, making the video available for viewing in the air. It also displays moving maps and weather. The hardware and software for both systems costs around $145,000. Connectivity charges are additional and based on usage.
Giving the 604’s cabinetry a fresh look also is popular, according to Peterborough, Ontario-based Flying Colours, another major refurbisher of Challengers. The company has recently done cabinetry in the aircraft using carbon fiber in place of wood veneer.
The best and most cost-effective time to do these upgrades is during the six weeks a 604 is down for its major periodic 96-month inspection, says Flying Colours vice president Sean Gillespie. A customer will typically pay $1.5 to $2 million for that inspection, new aircraft paint and a refreshed interior, depending on equipment selected, he says.
There are a few more things to be aware of when considering a used 604. Pilot Ebaugh notes that early ones came with the Honeywell 100 auxiliary power unit, which proved inadequate for heating and cooling the aircraft on the ground. He recommends swapping it out for the more robust Model 150. He also suggests replacing the original polyurethane cockpit windows, which are prone to cracking, with glass laminate windows.
Broker Janine Iannarelli of Par Avion notes that there will be a large price difference between 604 aircraft that have had their avionics updated to comply with the upcoming NextGen mandates and those that have not. “I’ve been addressing NextGen avionics with my clientele for two years now—whether it’s an airplane we are bringing to market or one that we are out to buy,” says Iannarelli. “Sometime within the next two years, aircraft owners are going to have to address this, and there is a real cost associated with it.”
That cost could easily approach $1 million. Bombardier offers most of the necessary upgrades now through its factory service centers and plans to have the remainder available in the coming months. Rockwell Collins, the maker of the 604’s avionics, says it will have the remainder of the needed equipment ready for installation in the second half of 2015. And that could pose a problem for 604 operators who want to fly to Europe between the time the mandate takes effect there (Feb. 5, 2015) and when that equipment is actually ready; 604s without a Private Mode-CPDLC data link may not be given preferred routing and altitudes, resulting in longer flight times and possibly necessitating an extra fuel stop.
Fortunately, this shouldn’t have much impact on North American 604 operators, as most of them fly domestically the majority of the time, with their passengers enjoying large-cabin comfort no matter the mission. So recline that big 28-inch-wide seat in the forward cabin and relax. It’s nap time.
Mark Huber is a private pilot with experience in more than 50 aircraft models.