Published in: 02/2017 aerokurier
Business aviation is a difficult business. This is especially true in the wet lease segment. WDL-Aviation has been successfully operating in this segment for a quarter of a century. Part of its recipe for success is the BAe 146, called “Jumbolino”.
The belittlement stems from the scale of that time for all four-engined commercial aircraft, the “Jumbo-Jet” Boeing 747. The “Jumbolino”, unlike all other commercial aircraft ever built with four jet engines, is the only smaller model designed for short- and medium-haul flights. WDL-Aviation has used the BAe 146 since 1998 and is now the only aviation company in Germany that still operates three aircraft of this type. The company’s home base is Cologne/Bonn Airport, where it was newly founded in 1991. In addition, its “Jumbolinos” also have a seat at Düsseldorf Airport, from where many flights operated by WDL-Aviation depart. However, every other airport is also served by the aircraft upon customer request.
The Cologne/Bonn company started with three Fokker F-27s to which a Metroliner and two Learjet LR 55s were added later. But for Walter Böhnke, managing director of the tradition-rich company, the “Jumbolino” is by far the most beautiful model he ever had in his fleet. The lawyer and commercial pilot must know, he was there right from the start. In the years he worked for WDL-Aviation, he not only flew all the different types of his employer, but also purchased more than 30 aircraft for him. He has experienced up to five BAe 146 in the company fleet at the same time.
BAe 146 instead of ATR 72
Böhnke started his career as a pilot in 1982 before the new company was founded. Today it is part of the WDL group, which goes back to the aviation veteran Theodor Wüllenkemper. The entrepreneur from Mülheim had already started commercial air advertising at the Ruhr in 1955 with a Tiger Moth – the abbreviation WDL for “Westdeutsche Luftwerbung” also originates from this time. The group of companies still operates the airport at its location in Essen/Mülheim in connection with passenger flights with an impact airship. Shortly after its foundation, an entire fleet of Piper PA-18s was available for advertising flights and later island flights were also offered. The company grew and grew before Walter Böhnke was hired there. He was quickly promoted to the position of managing director in the up-and-coming company, initially from pilot to flight operations manager, only three years after taking up his post. Since then, he has been managing the fortunes of the company almost continuously.
The acquisition of the first “Jumbolinos” 18 years ago is due to his operation and represents for him a milestone in the success of the wet lease provider. In 1991, Böhnke had the choice between buying a used ATR-72 or a BAe 146-100 at the same price as the French-Italian turboprop of 14 million D-Mark, which offered several decisive advantages for Böhnke: It could keep up with the short take-off and landing characteristics of the turboprops, but was significantly faster and quieter than them. In addition, the aircraft with the official nickname “Whisperjet” had 75 passenger seats for the same price, which could be extended to a maximum seating capacity of 82 seats. Böhnke bought the new plane and also secured a callsign with attached company code: D-AWDL.
Trump card “Whispering jet”
Just four months later, another “Jumbolino” followed, this time a BAe 146-200. The 90-seater presidential machine previously belonged to the Indonesian dictator Suharto. And once again Böhnke not only had a lucky hand with the purchase, but also with the German Aviation Agency: The new acquisition received the callsign D-AWUE, which had the company founder’s name on it. For the young managing director, this was a good omen for fleet expansion and further business development. By the end of the 1990s, the noise discussion had long since reached commercial aviation. The fast and quiet jets with a travel speed of 420 knots and a range of three and a half hours came at just the right time because they could also be used to fly to city airports without any problems. “The demand at that time was huge,” Böhnke remembers today, “not only among private charterers, but also among the feeder connections for the major airlines.
Of WDL-Aviation’s 70 employees at the time, 35 were flying personnel. Böhnke considered it possible to increase this number up to 50 without any problems. Of course, two more of these aircraft would have been needed to meet the demand. Five BAe 146 were added instead, but the last two were no longer in use.
Success in the niche market
Thus a total of five “Jumbolinos” marked the highest level of the active fleet of this type in the Cologne/Bonn aircraft fleet. Two Learjets LR 55 and 16 Fokker F-27 were added in the company’s history. Over the years, two Learjets LR 55 and 16 Fokker F-27 were added. Until six years ago, WDL-Aviation flew three propeller aircraft for various freight companies. While the small bombers were easy to use to operate the jet set – WDL-Aviation’s customer list includes such dazzling names as Naomi Campbell and Pelé – the “Jumbolino” offered tangible economic advantages over ATR aircraft for larger passenger numbers.
The last two machines of this type Böhnke bought were BAe 146-300, but he didn’t want to make use of their maximum seating capacity because this would have relativized the advantages over the ATRs: “You have to have a flight attendant ready for every 50 passenger seats you have started”, explains the ATPL owner, “a limit of 72 or 74 passengers is of course just as uneconomical as any seat above the hundredth, because then a third flight attendant is due immediately”. In his eyes, up to 100 seats have proved to be the optimum in the niche of wet leasing, a field in which few companies can hold their own. In the east of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, there is still Avanti Air, which serves the same business aviation segment with two Fokker 100s. The largest provider in Germany was certainly the airline Germania, which also relied on this model, which was built until 1997, using wet lease.
Favorite for short-haul flights
The Fokker 100 was very well available used due to the disbanding of a large part of the US Airways fleet in the 1990s. However, about 100 fewer of them had been built than of the BAe 146 manufactured until 2003. This came off the production line in a second series called Avro Regional Jet in 1993. Although the Dutch model has a noticeably greater range than the Jumbolino, the Jumbolino only needs significantly shorter taxiing distances. An advantage which especially in connection with its quiet engines predestines the BAe 146 for intercity traffic compared to other jets.
Thus, Böhnke is certain that his favorite pattern plays a decisive role in the business success of WDL-Aviation, also because its special characteristics and external appearance leave an impression on the customers. Because even a layman can see at first glance that if an engine breaks down, only a quarter and not half of the thrust is lost on this machine. High safety and comfort in connection with the good operability for regional traffic, even to smaller places, have made a lot of customers rely on Böhnke’s offer, not only with airlines. He regularly uses the last three BAe 146 in Germany today for Air France/Hop! and Brussels Airlines. His customers have also flown into the “Jumbolinos” on Airbus factory flights between Hamburg, Bristol and Toulouse – as have the staff of German premium carmakers or parts of the European football elite. Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, Arsenal London and the U21 of the German Football Association, they all have already booked the BAe 146 of the WDL-Aviation.
In order to be economically viable in the business segment “Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance and Insurance” (ACMI) – as the all-round carefree service wet lease is correctly called for the customer – the companies also operate the maintenance themselves. WDL-Aviation also has its own EASA Part-145 certified shipyard in Hangar 6 at Cologne Bonn Airport. When the aerokurier visits the hangar, a plane is taxiing out of the hangar to take off for Düsseldorf, from where it takes off with passengers the next morning. Like the “Jumbo”, the “elephant hump” in the silhouette, which rises at the surface roots of the self-supporting shoulderdecker, is immediately noticeable here too. A further WDL “Jumbolino” is already on its way, the third is just about to undergo a C-check in the hangar and thus offers deep insights into the structure of this interesting aircraft. All seats and a large part of the fairings have been removed, gigantic supports under the wings and fuselage hold the aircraft above the ground. The tailplane fin is completely scaffolded, dismantled coverings provide a view of the drive structures of the flaps, and some of the engines are also exposed. Parts and aggregates are on workshop trolleys everywhere.
Despite the enormous effort involved in such a major check, things are surprisingly quiet and contemplative in the hall – everywhere the employees are immersed in their respective construction sites. A young lady is busy with the refurbishment of the leather upholstery, her colleague checks the folding tables in the backrests. Not only is the list of all prescribed items in the maintenance manuals checked out. Work that still has time is preferred on such occasions so as not to have to take the aircraft out of service again soon after such an inspection. On the face of it, this is hardly likely to happen – on the contrary. Because after the purely external condition of the components and systems, which can be viewed more closely at this dismantling stage, everything on the aircraft makes an extremely well-kept impression. You can literally see from the “Jumbolino” that not only the boss likes him especially. And because well-equipped and well-maintained aircraft are reaching a high age of use, the last three “Jumbolinos” in Germany are likely to take to the air for a while from Cologne Bonn Airport.