Central Oregon Aviation Industry Flying High

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(Epic LT-1 | Photo courtesy Epic Air)

Aviation and associated avionics businesses have ascended to a lofty position as a primary cluster industry in Central Oregon, with the region’s enviable annual abundance of clear skies continuing to boost flight training opportunities — in the midst of a national pilot shortage — and manufacturing highlights including Epic Aircraft winning Type Certification.

Redmond Airport (RDM) has experienced a record number of passengers again in 2019, partly boosted by increasingly handling larger jets, and expects the trend to continue over the holiday travel season, while the proposed Bend Airport expansion will be a welcome boon to the local business community.

Increased demand will see Alaska Airlines stepping up its Redmond Municipal Airport presence in a major way in early 2020, with new daily flights to and from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego on their 76-seat Embraer 175 jets.

San Diego becomes the tenth non-stop destination served by RDM. Previously, Alaska only flew from Redmond to Portland and Seattle, although those made up more than 40 percent of all commercial flights at the Central Oregon airport.

After the announcement of expanded operations, a spokesman commented, “Alaska Airlines reaffirms its commitment to the West Coast with new, nonstop service from the Pacific Northwest and the state of Alaska in the north, and from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in the south.”

Indeed, it has been another year of overall growth at the Roberts Field regional hub, as United Airlines recently began seasonal flights to Chicago, while Allegiant has returned with flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Expansion plans are also edging closer for the Bend Municipal Airport (KBDN), which caters to the needs of general aviators, hosts two flight training schools and is home to numerous businesses and ever-increasing corporate aviation travel.

Employers at the Bend Airport play a vital role in the region’s continued economic growth and diversification. From aircraft manufacturing and design to flight training and charter operations, companies based there employ around 500 people and contribute some $25 million in payroll annually

One of the more recent developments occurred in 2017, when construction was completed on a separate 8-acre Helicopter Operations Area, improving safety and increasing capacity by separating fixed and rotor wing operations. This area opened up an additional 500,000 square feet of developable land for dedicated rotor wing operators and service companies.

The number of takeoffs and landings is now hovering close to 170,000 annually, making it the third-busiest in the state in that category, while there is a waiting list for pilots seeking hangar space.

Much of the growth is indirectly created by an airline pilot shortage, which is driving up the need for pilots who train there, both privately and as part of the Veterans Administration retraining program.

That kind of activity has led the Federal Aviation Administration to ask for an updated Master Plan, earlier than scheduled, regarding the long-term direction of the facility.

The City of Bend, which owns the airport, is holding open forum sessions with stakeholders, many of whom believe it is time to add some “big-ticket” items like a control tower to boost operational efficiency, a longer runway and more hangars.

The Master Plan looks at both what’s been constructed and prioritizes what needs to be built. The revised document should go to the FAA, which must approve the plan before providing construction grant funding, by next summer.

The proposed expansion will energize business and allow the facility to accommodate bigger corporate jets. It will require some displacement of roads, but will generate revenue for installation of associated infrastructure, including for local companies like Taylor NW.

Prior to its major expansion, Redmond airport did not necessarily encourage private general aviation, so quite a few of those in that sector moved out, with a number switching gears to Bend Airport.

Now, Redmond airport is a far cry from its previous chapter of a few turbo prop “puddle jumpers” on the ramp, and the booming national and local economies and growth of Central Oregon Community College/Leading Edge Aviation training programs have seen Bend airport become a real hive of activity and thriving aviator community, versus being a base for overflow boat and RV storage!

The aviation industry mirrors the economy, and when the economy is doing well, so does the aviation industry, observes Damon Runberg, Oregon Employment Department Regional Economist.

He said, “Businesses out at the Bend airport property have been growing steadily in this current business cycle and we’ve seen a nice resurgence, though I imagine most would agree that aviation, and in particular, personal airplanes, are more vulnerable during recessions.”

The 415-acre Bend Airport has seen more than 100 jobs added in the past two years and creates an impact of about $174 million into the Central Oregon economy. Before the “Great Recession,” Cessna operated at one end of the airport and when it ceased operations, it left a hole in Bend’s aviation industry that took several years to fill.

On an associated front, a major pilot shortage is in effect and will loom for many years.

Learning to fly is time-consuming and expensive, so applicants are few relative to industry demand. But by global standards, the U.S. is the least expensive place for pilot training, which has led to companies like Hillsboro Aviation beginning training for Air China pilots at the Redmond airport.

Becoming a career pilot requires accepting a relatively low starting pay (compared to other professions or the tech industry) and disrupts traditional family life. However, if one is willing to push-through the early years, professional aviating can lead to high-paying opportunities with lots of time off and a wonderful opportunity to see the world.

According to Boeing, 800,000 new pilots will be needed worldwide over the next 20 years, partly due to increased international demand.

In Bend, COCC is playing its part in preparing students to resolve this critical need — and cultivate their own career success — through programs coordinated with Leading Edge.

COCC helicopter students train in Robinson R22, Robinson R44 and Bell 206 series aircraft. Airplane students train in Cessna 172 and Beechcraft Bonanza or Baron Aircraft.

Graduates of this program receive certificates and ratings including: Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor certificates; and Instrument and Multi-engine ratings.

Most COCC graduates become flight instructors, airline pilots or corporate pilots. Others use the degree to advance into management positions within their own companies.

Recently named one of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the United States by Inc. Magazine, Leading Edge Aviation encompasses seven major business segments including helicopter flight training, fixed-wing flight training, avionics, maintenance, helicopter charter, Robinson Helicopter overhaul and FBO/fuel services (including those for Redmond & Bend Airports).

Bend Airport-based EPIC Aircraft’s Type Certification by the FAA is also providing a huge economic boost, including creating additional jobs, and is a real feather in that company’s hat.

The Certification covers its E1000 all-carbon-fiber aircraft design, concluding a rigorous seven-year program that establishes a new industry standard for performance, price and ramp appeal in the personal aircraft marketplace.

Epic CEO Doug King said, “This is a remarkable accomplishment for our entire community.

“I want to thank our employees, who have worked so diligently to deliver this exceptional design, as well as our partners, suppliers and customers, who have faithfully supported us each step of the way. It has been a true team effort, along with the fantastic support of the FAA.”

The Epic E1000 is based on the company’s experimental Epic LT model, which was introduced to the market in 2005 through an owner-assist build program based at Epic headquarters.

“Transitioning that design into a certified version was the chance to offer a truly compelling product to the industry, a ‘no compromises’ aircraft that customers would really want. And they do,” added King.

Epic has doubled its composite fabrication capacity, invested heavily in tooling, equipment, curing ovens and refined workflows to accelerate the E1000 production ramp, and now has over 80 confirmed E1000 reservations from around the US, as well as Canada, Mexico, Central/South America, Europe, Russia, South Africa and Australia.

From a wider perspective, a variety of flight-related companies have honed skills over many decades in the Central Oregon business landscape, including Precise Flight, which continues to thrive in supplying parts to the general aviation community.

Stratos in Redmond continues to pursue their version of a very light jet, while Bend Aircraft Mechanics (BAM) is ramping-up its aircraft rental fleet and advancing flight training programs.

KAWAK is an aviation technology and innovation culture company based in Bend that has long employed talented staff predominantly engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and support of technology systems, products and services for the aviation industry in areas such as aerial agriculture and firefighting, throttle quadrants, electric motors and mission power.

And, according to its website, New Moon Aviation has also emerged as “a veteran-owned, membership-based mobile aircraft maintenance operation serving clients throughout Oregon,” with a “team of experienced mechanics with an extensive knowledge of various aircraft, with over a decade of combined aviation mechanics.”

Those are just a few of the exponents in the aviation field locally, and from a historic and aesthetic viewpoint, everyone needs to be reminded about the Erickson Aircraft Collection at the Madras airport. It offers one of the finest collections of airworthy warbird military aircraft in the nation; some say the best!

Jack Erickson is an aviation icon. The founder of Erickson Aviation transformed the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane into the Erickson Aircrane, a huge heavy-lift helicopter that has become a heralded platform for remote timber harvesting, aerial firefighting and more unconventional jobs.

The collection is focused on World War II–era warbirds including rare examples found in few other museums. There are pre- and post-war aircraft as well, nearly 30 in total, all of which fly.

Erickson has said of his assemblage, “A collection like this is also art. A lot of guys like paintings or other forms of art. We happen to be in the airplane business and these airplanes are airworthy art.

“They’re history, too. People today often don’t understand what the country went through in World War II, the sacrifices and commitment. If you can keep some of these airplanes flying, you help to keep history alive.”

Clay Trenz, AAMS, Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) / Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) is a branch manager and independent financial advisor with Raymond James Financial Services, Inc., as well as being a professional pilot.

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Clay Trenz AAMS of Acuity Wealth Advisors

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