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Originally published Saturday, April 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Oregon firm preparing old 757s for career in cargo

The last Boeing 757 jet built in Renton was delivered Wednesday to Shanghai Airlines. Even as it flew into the sunset, mechanics in Everett...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The last Boeing 757 jet built in Renton was delivered Wednesday to Shanghai Airlines. Even as it flew into the sunset, mechanics in Everett were giving some older 757s a second life.

Converting 757 passenger jets into air freighters is projected to be a robust business in coming decades, and a Northwest company is within days of getting federal approval of the first independent design for such conversions.

Precision Conversions, based in Beaverton, Ore., has pursued the project for four years, and once it gets the green light to fly, it hopes to win a big piece of a market for hundreds of conversions at just more than $5 million each. Two competitors are gearing up their own conversion plans.

Precision's conversions will be done at Goodrich's heavy-maintenance facility at the south end of Paine Field, across from the Everett Boeing plant. Goodrich has finished the first prototype airplane for Precision, and two more are nearing completion. The conversions will employ about 50 people at the Goodrich plant. Since most customers will want a heavy-maintenance check done on their 757 at the same time, the company expects to win extra aircraft-overhaul business that will employ another 50.

"We'll probably start with one line," said Steve Bence, Goodrich's vice president of business development. "We have the flexibility to grow as we see fit. We can go to two planes per month."

Though U.S. passenger airlines are in deep trouble, the air-cargo business worldwide is booming, driven in particular by cargo traffic to and from Asia.

Converted passenger airplanes are a lot cheaper than factory-built air freighters. Of the more than 1,600 cargo jets flying today, three-quarters are converted. After 20 years in service ferrying passengers, a converted jet might carry air cargo for an additional 15 or 20 years.

But the switch requires major structural modifications and new certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The floors inside must be strengthened, a large cargo door cut in the fuselage, passenger doors and windows sealed and a cargo-handling system installed.

Precision's approach involves extra work: to make more room for cargo, an existing door is removed and a new crew-entry door is cut out just behind the cockpit. At its annual workshop earlier this week, the Seattle-based consulting firm Air Cargo Management Group projected a need for 235 more 757-200 converted freighters in the next 10 years, with 200 more needed in the following decade.

An FAA spokesman confirmed that final approval of Precision's design is imminent. But the process of winning certification took a year longer than Precision anticipated. After problems with conversions in the mid-1990s, the certification process is notoriously tortuous.

For Precision, a 40-employee joint venture formed by the Erickson Group of Beaverton, Ore., and Wagner Aeronautical of San Diego specifically for this project, it has been a long and costly effort. Working without Boeing input, the company developed its own complete set of data on the aircraft through wind-tunnel and flight testing.

Brian McCarthy, Precision's vice president of marketing, said the company has spent in "the high teens" — millions, he meant — on the work.

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And that was before delays in certification prevented it from delivering the first converted airplane on time to its customer, Bellevue-based leasing company Boullioun. By the terms of its contract, Precision had to buy the plane, which has a market value of about $15 million.

Two more airplanes, owned by Bellevue-based aircraft-leasing company AWAS, are being converted at Goodrich, but the project won't earn any income until those planes fly from Paine Field.

"It's not for the faint-hearted," said Gary Warner, Precision's vice president of corporate development. "You have to see it to the finish."

Boeing built 80 757s as freighters and designed a passenger-to-freighter conversion used on the 33 757 cargo jets now flying for freight carrier DHL. But that design did not prove popular; it won no customers besides DHL.

Boeing has licensed its 757 data to Singapore Technologies Aerospace and Israel Aircraft Industries, which modified the DHL planes so they can produce their own design.

A third 757 conversion design is under development by Alcoa-SIE, a joint venture between aluminum producer Alcoa and a California-based company. Its modification work will be carried out by Cascade Aerospace, a heavy-maintenance provider in Abbotsford, B.C.

Precision's head start may be its key advantage. "Being first to market is significant," said McCarthy, of Precision. "It allows you to prove your product."

Beyond the two planes for AWAS, Precision has two more converted 757s on order. Those will go to Shanghai Airlines, the same airline that took the final new 757, the 1,050th, this week.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963

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