“Chase the vision, not the money; the money will end up following you. ”
Used Jet Review: Boeing's 757
I remember when I first saw a Boeing 757: While boarding one in 1983. I was struck by the highly cambered wings; the tall landing gear; the nose, which recalled a Lockheed Constellation; and the pair of big, high-ratio bypass engines, which seemed to produce a gentle hum as opposed to a whine. This was elegance and efficiency in motion mated to a comfortable cabin with plenty of headroom. It was also a welcome change from the 727s that made up my typical airline diet—those ubiquitous, sooty, loud, fuel-guzzling trijets that seemed to be everywhere.
By contrast, the 757 seemed to leap effortlessly off the runway and planted landings smoothly and without drama. There was no bouncing here. It was a regal ride, a better bus and for a select few—beginning with our elected officials—the ultimate luxury barge. The Air Force operates a fleet of six VIP conversions designated VC-32A. One of these regularly ferries the Vice President as Air Force Two.
Boeing built 1,054 of its 757s during a 23-year production run that ended in 2004. The airplane came in four flavors: the 757-200, a freighter variant, a freighter/passenger “combi” version and a stretch 757-300 model. Most were 757-200s, which, in airline configuration, could seat 200 to 289 passengers for a range of 3,150 to 4,100 nautical miles. They remain an integral part of several domestic airline fleets, including those of American, Delta and United, which collectively operate more than 450. The aircraft’s range and size give it incredible utility and it is used on transatlantic routes from the U.S. as well as on runs from Phoenix to Honolulu. In its day, the 757 was considered advanced, as it employed glass-panel avionics and the latest engine technology and used a smattering of composites on the airframe and limited fly-by-wire controls to activate certain control surfaces, including the spoilers.
A supercritical wing architecture gave the airplane quick times to climb and made it 20 knots faster, at 468 knots or 530 miles per hour, at cruise altitude than a 737, the basis for what became the Boeing Business Jet. A handful were plucked from the production line and turned into private rides by completion centers.
Outfitting a VIP 757 can be a massive endeavor: it has more cabin space than a BBJ3, itself no slouch in the space department, and can be outfitted with auxiliary fuel tanks for an unrefueled range of nearly 5,500 nautical miles. With a 757, we’re talking five times the cabin room of a Gulfstream GV. The airplane’s massive internal canvass measures 118 feet long, 11.5 feet wide and 7 feet tall. Configurations vary with the imagination.
On the comparatively Spartan government-issue VC-32As, the four-section cabin layout includes a first section with secure communications center, galley, lav and 10 business-class seats; a second section for the VIP with private lav, changing area, two large executive seats and a berthing divan; a third section for senior staff with eight business-class seats; and the fourth section with another 32 business-class seats, two lavs, galley and closets. Aside from the communications gear and the missile defense, the VC-32As come with another option not available to the general public: in-flight refueling.
Dallas's Associated Air Center has completed 10 of the approximately 17 VIP 757s in service. In 1996, Associated completed a 757 for a private client that featured a 43-passenger layout with five additional cabin crew seats; a segregated crew rest, lav and galley area; a forward VIP suite with a queen bed, work area and lav; a forward salon with massive entertainment monitor; a conference room; a dining area; and an aft business-class compartment with 12 sleeper seats, two lavs and another galley. Four bathrooms: in my county you get taxed extra for that.
The handful of VIP 757s out there are coming in for refurbishment and the airlines are beginning to park theirs in favor of even more fuel-efficient follow-on aircraft. As a result, you can pick up a good used airliner 757, one with 20 to 30 years more useful life on the airframe, for $6 million to $10 million before updating and modifications. A used 757 already converted to VIP configuration can be had for as little as $20 million. No matter which way you go, a complete gut job on an airliner or a refurbishment of a used VIP 757, without going over-the-top opulent, would ring the register on average at $28 million to $35 million, airplane included, according to Associated. For that you’d get new paint, fabrics, veneer and headliners, in-flight entertainment and communications, LED lighting, new galleys and lavs and updated avionics in the cockpit. That’s a lot less than you’d spend for a new, or even used, BBJ2 or BBJ3.
Even with the higher fuel burns of its Rolls-Royce or Pratt & Whitney engines (buyers had a choice) and direct operating costs nearly 25 percent higher than those for a BBJ, that makes the 757 a rare deal: a conclusion shared by rarified rich including Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, real estate mogul Donald Trump and sports impresario Mark Cuban—all of whom own or have owned 757s. So have various foreign governments for their heads of state.
As with all restorations, a few cautionary notes apply. The 757 requires a major D-check inspection every 12 years. Normally, this is a $1 million to $2 million event, but if problems are discovered with the engines and/or auxiliary power unit, the price can easily escalate by a multiplier of two or three. If you are buying a used 757 VIP, you need to ensure that all the data associated with the initial VIP conversion and any refurbishments is provided. If not, that data will need to be recreated, which will add considerable cost and delay to any project. Also, understand that many banks will not make loans on completions that cost more than the valuation of the basic airframe, especially on older aircraft. So if you are looking to pluck a derelict airliner from desert storage on the cheap, you may need to bring cash. Lots of it.
Finally, keep in mind that the 757 is a really big boy: Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) is 255,000 pounds; the airplane measures 155 feet long and has a wingspan of 124 feet and a tail height of 44.5 feet. At MTOW it needs 6,500 feet of runway for takeoff. Gassing up, just with the standard fuel tanks, requires 11,489 U.S. gallons. There are some places you can’t go with it. The good news is that once you arrive, you could live onboard for days if you had to, with all the comforts of a first-class hotel. And, compared with other aircraft in this category, you get a really great deal on the rate.
Mark Huber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a private pilot with experience in more than 50 aircraft models.
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What our readers had to say
I've been on the B-757 that Mark Cuban owns [Used Jet Review, December 2013/January 2014]. It is mainly used for his NBA basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks. What is unusual about this jet is that the front section, where the players sit, has no overhead bin space at all, because all the players are so tall and they really don't need that bin space, since they have a ton of room onboard.
Editors Note: For more on Mark Cuban and his aircraft, see our June/ July interview with him, which is available at bjtonline.com.