Modifying Aircraft to Meet the Needs of VVIPs and Special Missions

December 18, 2023

Thanks to hard work and a steadfast commitment to servant leadership, King Aerospace enjoys an enviable reputation for modifying VVIP and special mission versions of commercial aircraft. The extent of these modifications can be as varied as the customers using them.

“There are many different levels of VVIP and special mission aircraft,” says Pete Schneider, vice president of program management and special projects. “The biggest questions that drive how the aircraft will be modified are, ‘who are they carrying?’ and ‘where do they need to go?’”

Schneider has an extensive background in VVIP aircraft modifications, including on the VC-25A presidential transport aircraft typically referred to as Air Force One. King Aerospace offers modification services for Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) variants of the 737 family of narrowbody aircraft, as well as former commercial airliners that have been repurposed for VVIP or special missions work.

While these aircraft may look similar to the airline workhorses on which they’re based, they can have numerous changes under the skin. “It’s not anything most people would notice when looking at the airplane,” says Keith Weaver, vice-president for business development. “BBJs, for example, mate the 737-700 fuselage with the larger wing from the -800 and will have heavier landing gear to support the additional weight of added fuel capacity.”

When the time comes to refurbish or modify such aircraft – often coinciding with scheduled maintenance intervals requiring removal of existing interior surfaces and equipment, Weaver notes – changes typically utilize existing structural hardpoints.

“Structural modifications can be very costly, so we usually keep the original interior bulkheads in place,” he adds. “When you’re redoing all the soft goods like seat fabrics and sidewall paneling, and refinishing cabinets, doors, et cetera, the end result will still be completely refreshed and new to the customer.”

Balancing Current and Future Requirements

More extensive modifications may involve strengthening the outer wing structure to support winglets to improve efficiency at cruise. Most customer requests, however, are centered around enhancing and upgrading cabin furnishings and equipment, such as adding inflight Internet connectivity.

While such work may appear daunting to outsiders – literal miles of new wiring might be added to support inflight entertainment, connectivity and other systems, all exposed during the modification process – King Aerospace technicians are well-versed in making these seemingly complex changes.

“There are times when we might need to cut into the fuselage and wire things up within the aircraft, but it’s not terribly complicated,” Schneider says. “It’s done pretty regularly and is well within the scope of our expertise at King Aerospace.”

One popular modification to VVIP aircraft – which carry far fewer passengers than commercial airline variants and aren’t required to have the same number of exits available – is to deactivate or replace one or more service doors or overwing exits to facilitate new interior layouts.

While it’s possible to replace an entire door structure with new, unbroken panels, most of the time the doors are merely deactivated and plugged. “You need to consider the aircraft’s future usability,” Weaver says. “Not only is replacing the door an expensive modification due to the structural changes involved, but you’ve also limited how the aircraft may be reconfigured down the line.”

The modification process for special mission aircraft is often similar to VVIP requirements. “The equipment is different, and the environment isn’t as fancy, but you’re still dealing with running wires,” he adds. “For example, a special mission aircraft may have remote cameras mounted to the exterior, but we often put external cameras on VVIP aircraft as well for passengers to view.

“What is different, though, is the much higher level of security involved,” Weaver continues, “and the rigors of military certification versus Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approvals. There’s even more red tape.”

Regardless of the particular modifications needed to support a given mission, King Aerospace works closely with the customer to deliver an outstanding final product ready to serve them for the long term.

“The world we live in drives how VVIP special mission aircraft are used and the capabilities they need,” Schneider concludes. “There are no quick answers to changes in the global environment, and we constantly evaluate what our valued customers might need, not just today, but many years from now.”