Basler Turbo Conversions - Where DC-3s are Reborn

August 2020

There’s a company in Wisconsin that’s transforming tired 80-year old airplanes into modern state-of-the art flying machines. Oshkosh based Basler Turbo Conversions has been resurrecting 1930/40’s era DC-3’s since the late 1980s, with aircraft emerging from their hangar essentially new builds ready for many more decades of service.

I recently had the opportunity to tour the company’s facility at Wittman Regional Airport and meet with company President Joseph Varkoly. I visited Basler in 2006 and a return visit has been on my bucket list for a number of years. My wife and I were visiting our daughter in nearby Madison in early August and, after exchanging emails, a visit was confirmed for Friday August 7th. Turns out that Fridays are a bit more relaxed and a great time to visit the company. Joe had time to give me a first class tour of the hangar and storage area along with plenty of time to discuss company operations and answer my many questions. Joe has been with the company for about three years and appreciates the fact that aviation history is being made every day at Basler with the restoration and rebirth of these vintage airplanes.

Basler Aviation was founded in 1957 by Warren Basler and for many years the company specialized in maintaining, rebuilding, trading and operating DC-3s. The DC-3s were operated by subsidiary company Basler Airlines, which flew cargo throughout the United State. By the mid-1980’s Basler realized that the DC-3 could be greatly improved if the piston engines were replaced with turboprop engines. While not the first company to convert a DC-3 to turbine power, the Basler conversion has been the most successful with 67 aircraft being completed to date.

Warren Basler was killed in a tragic mid-air collision in March 1997 during a photo shoot while piloting a brand new BT-67. It was a very sad day for Basler Aviation as both the BT-67 and the photo plane crashed resulting in the death of four Basler employees. While the loss of its founder could have been catastrophic, the company’s management and employees were resilient and the company continued to prosper and grow. Today, Basler Turbo Conversions is a privately held company with approximately 75 employees. Company headquarters, hangars, storage facilities and aircraft ‘boneyard’ are located on the east side of Wittman Regional Airport opposite the airport’s west side where the annual EAA AirVenture event is held.

The BT-67 turbo conversion is the company’s main focus with an average of 2-3 aircraft converted per year. In addition, the company performs refurbishment and upgrades for existing BT-67 owners in addition to occasionally doing work on classic DC-3s. The most notable recent example was the complete restoration of C-47 ‘That’s All Brother’ for the Commemorative Air Force. Over the years, the company has accumulated a large inventory of DC-3 parts, which have become increasing difficult for operators to source.

Due to the low production volume of 2-3 conversions per year, Basler can’t rely on outside venders and has developed the capability to manufacture 6,500+ parts in support the BT-67 conversion program. This includes a myriad of structural, sheet metal and fiberglass components.

The current sticker price for a BT-67 is between $9M and $13M depending on customer options. A typical conversion takes 45,000 to 50,000 man-hours and seven months and involves replacing about 80% of the aircraft’s components. A completed BT-67 is considered a zero-time airframe ready for many more years of service in a multitude of roles unimaginable when it was originally produced 80 years ago. Major items included in the conversion.
  • Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6 engines rated at 1,424 hp with TBO of 6,000 hours vs 1,200 hours for R1830 engines.
  • Hartzell five-blade propellers.
  • Repair of any structural damage.
  • Almost total reskinning of the aircraft.
  • 40 inch fuselage extension ahead of the wing root.
  • State-of-the-art avionics and flight instrumentation.
  • In-house produced fiberglass wing tips and engine nacelles.
  • Reskinning of control surfaces with state-of-the-art fabric that has a service life of 30 years.
  • Leading edge droop/wing cuff, which reduces stall speed.
  • Replacement of existing wiring harnesses.
  • Replacement of existing hydraulic system.
  • Upgraded fuel system.
  • Anti-ice capability consisting of heated windshields and wing/empennage bleed air.

    The BT-67 has an empty weight of approximately 16,000 pound with a gross weight of 30,000 pounds. Optional 400 gallon fuel tanks result in a maximum fuel load of 11,000 pounds/1650 gallons, which allows for missions as long as 11-12 hours. The aircraft has a 25,000 foot service ceiling but most flights are normally conducted at an altitude of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.

    While Warren Basler envisioned the aircraft to be a replacement for the piston engine DC-3 cargo hauler, this has not been the case. The aircraft is too expensive for the few remaining DC-3 operators carrying general cargo and a niche market has evolved for the aircraft. Many of the early conversions went to Central and South American military forces for use in counterinsurgency and drug interdiction roles. Over the years the aircraft’s mission has evolved to other specialized roles including Arctic and Antarctic support; geophysical and environmental survey; and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support. The exhaust configuration gives the aircraft a very low heat signature, which makes it particularly suitable for ISR missions. ISR aircraft are often delivered with many extra antennas, holes cut in fuselage for sensing devices and lots of classified electronic gear. The cost of the electronic gear is often higher than the cost of the airframe.

    After a Q&A session in Joe’s office, we headed outside to the storage area where DC-3 conversion candidates are stored while awaiting their turn in the conversion queue. The weather was near perfect for photography and Joe was more than willing to give me a full tour of the facility. Luckily for us, the grass had just been cut so getting around the aircraft was relatively easy. While there are a number of fuselages parked across the street on the ‘farm’ these are not readily accessible and I didn’t photograph or log any of them. I will leave this for younger enthusiasts. Joe said that those will be the last candidates used for conversion.

    We started on the ramp outside the hangar and I felt like a kid in a candy shop! In addition to the stored aircraft, company owned N300BF was parked on the ramp. While this aircraft is not a true BT-67, it is close enough that it can be used as a demonstrator and trainer. Here’s a list of the aircraft on the ramp and in the storage area.

    Front of Hangar
  • N300BF – Basler Turbo Conversions
  • N700CA
  • 315033/N227GB - OD colors, former CAF
  • C-FDTB/N856KB – Transport Canada colors
  • CF-YQG/N856RB – Nunasi-Central colors and titles - photographed on September 11, 2020 with paint completely removed
  • Unmarked bare metal fuselage

    Grass Area
  • N102BF – R4D-8/C-117D faded USMC titles
  • N115NA
  • C-FFAY/N856QB – bare metal fuselage
  • CF-QHY/N167TW – bare metal fuselage with FNT Inc. titles
  • CF-JWP/N856YB – Gateway colors and titles
  • N57123
  • C-GCXD/N856LT – Boreal Aviation colors and titles
  • N115SA
  • N68CW – North Cariboo colors and titles
  • N84KB
  • N843MB
  • C-FQBC/N960BT – Boreal Aviation colors and titles
  • N100BF – complete R4D-8/C-117D in the tall weeds

    Here's a link to a PDF version of the list.

    We returned to the main hangar where three aircraft were in work. While airframes had been assigned for conversions #67 and #68, the final decision on what aircraft to use for conversions #69 and #70 had not yet been made despite one of the aircraft in the hangar being marked #69. Joe told me that three aircraft are currently being considered for conversions #69 and #70. N941AT, which is currently in the hangar; CF-YQG (Nusani-Central colors), which is stored on the ramp outside the hangar; and C-FDTB (Transport Canada colors), which is also stored on the ramp outside the hangar. A bit confusing but totally understandable from a company perspective. N844TH, N1350A and N941AT were in the hangar.
  • #67 – former Air North N844TH c/n 13070 was about a week from its first flight and was delivered to the paint shop on August 18th.
  • #68 – N1350A c/n 33032/16284 with remnants of USAF markings on its forward fuselage. Quite a bit of work had been completed but the 40-inch fuselage extension had yet to be installed.
  • #69 candidate – N941AT c/n 12907 with remnants of ‘Vera Lynn’ markings on nose. While this aircraft is marked as #69, it may or may not be used for conversion #69.

    The tour continued with a visit to the metal fabrication, fiberglass fabrication and avionics fabrication areas. The company is vertically integrated and capable of making just about any metal, sheet metal or fiberglass component needed for the conversion. The company also owns a very nice Beech Baron, which is used for general transportation and a Cessna 172 that is available to employees interesting in learning how to fly. While the aircraft is not provided completely free, it comes at a greatly reduced rate. Company employees are the flight instructors and it’s all done off company time. What a great perk!
    It was a great visit that I thoroughly enjoyed and I’d like to thank Joe for his hospitality and for taking time from his very busy day to spend time with me. I’d also like to thank Peggy Johnson for helping to arrange the visit.

    Ralph M. Pettersen
    August 2020

    Photo Credits: Ralph M. Pettersen

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