Aviation Industry Climbs to New Heights in Central Oregon


(Redmond-Based Stratos Aircraft’s 716X Hi-Tech Single-Engine Composite Jet, which can cruise at altitudes of 41,000 feet | Photo courtesy of Stratos Aircraft)

Diversity Ranges from Hi-Tech Jet Production to Avionics & Flight Training

Aviation occupies an important space as a primary industry cluster in Central Oregon, with a number of high-flyers continuing to excel in everything from high-performance composite aircraft production to avionics systems, parts and service and in demand top-flight training programs.

Targeted and nurtured as a clean, well-paying niche by economic development leaders, the High Desert’s abundant clear skies and availability of technical expertise has seen the sector find a welcoming base locally and chart an increasingly successful upward trajectory.

But some challenging headwinds have appeared more recently, not least due to repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak, an increase in land prices and development costs in Bend and Redmond and the ongoing shortage of qualified pilots.

On the aviator front, a lack of pilots relative to demand existed even before COVID-19, but the pandemic only made the problem worse, with widespread layoffs and many senior airline captains taking advantage of retirement package incentives to exit the field.

Exacerbating the issue, recalling pilots is more complex than other work groups due to strict regulatory currency requirements and medical assessments. After months away from the cockpit, pilots must complete recurrent training in their aircraft — or new training if shifting to a different type.

During 2020, COVID-19 undoubtedly decimated the airline industry but earlier this year, as vaccinations ramped up, air travel — especially in the U.S. — returned with a vengeance. Passenger traffic continues to climb dramatically, as customers scramble to book flights after governments eased travel restrictions.

Travel numbers are bouncing back in a big way with airports such as Redmond returning towards the previous peak of 2019, when our municipal hub experienced a record number of around one million passengers — in the wake of a 100 percent growth spurt over five years — partly fueled by increasingly handling larger jets thanks to expansion initiatives.

Now that the airline industry is growing again, and coming back to where it previously was, there’s not enough people to fill in the workforce gap and after a whirlwind 18 months, operators are competing for aviators, mechanics, technicians and flight attendants.

According to Boeing, 800,000 new pilots will be needed over the next 20 years, partly due to increased international demand, but the path to becoming a professional pilot is somewhat arduous, lengthy and costly.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tightened rules as of 2013 to require that commercial pilots have — in addition to their certificate — at least 1,500 hours of flight time before qualifying to fly for passenger or cargo carriers, up from 250 hours. Recurring training and regular medical check-ups are also needed to keep those certificates valid.

Delta has said it plans to hire a thousand pilots by next summer, and some airlines are reportedly offering sign-on and retention bonuses to lure recruits. Partial scholarships and low-interest loans to soften the student financial burden are also becoming more common.

Programs locally such as those provided by Central Oregon Community College (COCC) aim to be part of the solution to this widening vacancy problem. They offer training for students to become professional airline pilots in just two years and aspiring aviators who begin now should be well positioned to take advantage of new job opportunities as the industry recovers.

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. Programs are coordinated with Leading Edge Aviation and graduates receive certificates and ratings including: Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor certificates; and Instrument and Multi-engine ratings.

With consistently clear weather and flight visibility, plus the added dynamic of high elevation flying, Central Oregon is an ideal learning setting and most COCC graduates become flight instructors, airline pilots or corporate pilots. Others use the degree to advance into management positions within their own companies.

COCC’s four unique aviation degree options — airplane, helicopter, unmanned aerial systems (commonly referred to as “UAS” or “drones”) and aviation technology and management — offer diverse educational opportunities, each one built around FAA and industry standards and prominent national reputations. Flight simulators and a full range of aircraft at the Bend Airport help students progress quickly, while industry partnerships connect certified pilots with well-paying careers.

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 Fixed Base Operator (FBO)/fuel services (including those for Redmond and Bend Airports).

In a similar vein, Bend Aircraft Mechanics (BAM) is ramping-up its aircraft rental fleet and advancing flight training programs, while other flight schools include Bend’s Specialize Aero Works, Boundless Aviation, which also offers personal aviation, and Prineville Aviation.

In the realm of airplane manufacturing, Central Oregon boasts several companies pushing the envelope in producing unique composite models, driven in part by the rising cost of fuel. Aircraft made from composite materials are lighter and more economical to fly.

The American Composites Manufacturers Association reports that nationally the use of composites in aircraft is growing at a rate of 20 percent annually. Helping accelerate this growth are new categories of light jets and sport aircraft more recently authorized by the FAA.

These new aircraft — such as those produced by Epic Aircraft (see companion article on page 17), RDD Enterprises and Stratos Aircraft locally — also feature cutting-edge electronic instrument systems that put enriched flight and navigation control data at a pilot’s fingertips. As a result, the new aircraft are smaller, lighter, faster, safer, more cost-effective and easier to fly than in decades past.

Bend Airport-based Epic Aircraft’s Type Certification by the FAA has provided a huge economic boost, including creating numerous additional jobs which has seen the company become one of the region’s largest private employers as high net-worth individuals, fed up with flying commercial, are increasingly discovering that small jets can get them where they want to go fast, and in style.

For Redmond-based Stratos Aircraft the ultimate goal is to offer a certified 716 single-engine jet, following production of its experimental 716X — which made its first public appearance at the EAA AirVenture 2021 show earlier this year.

Its factory has an array of high-tech composite manufacturing equipment and Stratos Aircraft President and Chief Technology Officer Carsten Sundin said, “Our goal is to lower the cost of owning and operating a jet to turboprop levels,” adding that Stratos has the long-term ambition of building the most affordable, certified personal jet aircraft.

As part of an area being hailed as a center of excellence for manufacturing general aviation aircraft, Stratos continues to make major investments in its manufacturing facility, including a computer design center, production-grade composites molds, high-temperature curing oven, full-service machine shop, static test fixtures and flight test hangars.

The 1,500 nautical mile range 716 gets its name from its 0.7 Mach / 402 knot cruise speed, single turbofan engine and six-seat cabin. It will cruise at 41,000 feet, far above most clouds, weather and turbulence.

RDD Enterprises is a premiere aviation research, design and development group with a rich aviation heritage serving the experimental aircraft community. Co-owner David McRae says the company aims to help make dreams come true by providing technologically advanced aircraft systems and world-class support.

As a full-service aviation company, based in Redmond, it has been providing expert ownership assistance for high-performance personal aircraft (certified and experimental) since 2006.

The company has a reputation for balancing efficient production with creative solutions and customized detail. RDD completed the airframe construction for Airbus’ Perlan Project, a multimillion-dollar collaborative effort that is putting “engineless aircraft on the edge of space” (perlanproject.org).

Redmond Airport, which has 350 employees, most of them working for private companies, continues its growth path after the pandemic pause, including building a 42,000-square-foot operations facility to store snow removal and maintenance equipment. In addition, fixed-base operator Leading Edge Jet Center is building a $6.5 million building, as well at least one 30,000-square-foot private hangar.

After a new 500-space parking lot and car rental maintenance the next big airport project at Redmond’s Roberts Field is to rehabilitate its taxiway through a $6.5 million initiative, which will wrap up paving projects that have also included runways.

Further out is a proposed terminal expansion, which is expected to break ground in the next three years, expected to cost $40 million, on top of a $42 million expansion a decade ago, while the airport is also looking at a 3,000-foot runway extension, toward the Deschutes County Fairgrounds, to open up further destinations to places such as to Hawaii and Mexico. The longer runway would allow planes coming from the East Coast and beyond to land in Redmond.

A runway extension is expected to be another $40 million project and would need additional federal approval.

Expansion plans are also continuing 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 as the third-busiest airport in the state in terms of takeoffs and landings.

The Oregon Department of Aviation classifies it as a Category 2, High Activity Business and General Aviation airport. It has a single 5,260-foot runway and full-length dual parallel taxiways.

In recent years, construction was completed on a separate eight-acre Helicopter Operations Area improving safety and increasing capacity by separating fixed and rotor wing operations.

Bend Airport has proved an attractive site for new development or business expansion, with 60 acres of developable land, 2.6 million square feet of leasable space with runway access, and an additional 500,000 square feet of leasable space associated with the new Helicopter Operations Area.

2022-26 Capital Improvement Programs include runway and parallel taxiway rehabilitation work totaling $4.35 million.

Employers at the 415-acre 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, nearly 500 people are employed, adding up to nearly $25 million in payroll annually.

Bend Airport creates an impact of about $174 million into the Central Oregon economy and companies seeking to make significant investment in new operations or expansion may also be eligible for Enterprise Zone tax exemptions.

Much of the growth is indirectly created by the 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.

From an even 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.

Kawak Aviation Technologies, Inc. is a growing 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.

CiES, located in Bend, is an aviation system supplier most known for its work with aircraft fuel quantity systems and is the largest-volume producer of such systems for the world’s small- and medium-sized aircraft and helicopters.

The company is the recognized leader in the design, development, certification, and manufacture of electronic sensor solutions for original equipment manufacturers, as well as direct-to-market consumer products.

CiES CEO/owner Scott Philiben, who is a lifelong aviation professional and was instrumental in growing the aviation business in Central Oregon, said, “As the world clamors for more pilots, even legacy training aircraft are getting updated cockpits to allow student pilots the opportunity to fly an all-glass cockpit.

“This world-wide demand requires the aircraft to have precise fuel indication for proper glass cockpit operation. To put it mildly, CiES has the only solution.

“Our vision for growth over the next few years is to progressively grow organically from our work in aircraft fuel systems and expand that to marine and power source markets.

“Our new products on the bench are just as exciting and game-changing and will apply to the infant electric aircraft market. I see us continually adding new product and content.

“We pride ourselves on our responsiveness and customer service as they define our industry. Products that work, provide long service and have support are the exception and not the rule. We strive to be exceptional, to be lean and flexible in operation. “

Redmond-based Composite Approach is a carbon fiber and fiberglass parts manufacturing and assembly company which recently achieved AS9100/ISO9001 certification and completed a move into a brand new 26,000-square-foot facility.

CEO/co-owner Brian Harris explained, “The composites industry, as a whole, is growing rapidly as composite materials find their way into a broader spectrum of products worldwide.

“We are invested in growing with the industry, developing new technologies and promoting on-shore manufacturing and are well positioned to exploit these new market dynamics and anticipate opportunities for significant growth into the foreseeable future.

“We anticipate growing our client base to ever-larger aerospace and defense clients because of our AS9100 certification and are targeting a doubling of current sales by 2024. We also expect to make a significant investment in technology to increase productivity.”

Envisioning a world free from the limitations imposed by ground infrastructure, Bend-based Volansi drones are revolutionizing supply chains.

When Volansi, the six-year-old startup vertical take-off and landing drone company, needed to expand it chose Bend because of attributes including access to supply chains, a talented available aviation engineering workforce, abundant clear skies and enviable quality of life.

Now the company has some 50 employees with expansion fueled by $50 million in second round private equity investment.

Roger Lee, Economic Development for Central Oregon CEO, said Volansi chose the area because of its proximity to Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft systems test strips, three of which are in Oregon.

Lee said, “This is an example of exactly what we envisioned in promoting the aviation-related industry, not shifting away from general aviation aircraft, but extending it and helping build critical mass. It started with a coordinated effort a long time ago.”

Volansi sees itself disrupting the distribution system with its unmanned aircraft already performing operations in Africa, the Caribbean and in the United States. Last March, Volansi teamed with a pharmaceutical company in North Carolina to deliver medication to remote, rural communities.

Its drone fleet delivers supplies for enterprise and government and depending on the size of the model Volansi’s equipment has a range of 350 miles at 75 mph and can fly for more than eight hours. The drones have a payload of up to 20 pounds and fly below 400 feet so as not to encroach on aircraft airspace.

On the move to Bend, co-founder and CEO of Volansi Hannan Parvizian said, “With deep industrial roots, a rich talent pool and mostly year-round good weather, the fast-growing Bend metro area was the obvious choice for co-locating the development, production and testing of our aviation technology.”

Aside from the acclaimed exponents in the aviation field locally, from a historic and aesthetic viewpoint, everyone needs to be reminded about the Erickson Aircraft Collection at the Madras airport, which offers one of the finest collections of airworthy warbird military aircraft in the nation.

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

The Madras 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.”

Honorable mention must also go to AirLink Critical Care Transport which was started at St. Charles Hospital in Bend over 35 years ago and undertakes lifesaving missions on a daily basis, carrying seriously ill or injured residents to the nearest appropriate medical facility.

Currently, AirLink flies an American Eurocopter EC145 helicopter and two Pilatus PC12 airplanes to provide emergency and critical care transport via helicopter for patients with critical needs.

Every second counts in a medical emergency and no one knows that better than the flight crew at the emergency air ambulance service that covers 130,000 square miles in Oregon. With bases in Bend and La Grande, AirLink is ready to respond at a moment’s notice 24-hours-a-day.

Since its inception in 1985, AirLink has flown more than 15,000 missions. In addition to a full-time pilot, a critical care nurse and a respiratory therapist with advanced training in heart, trauma and emergency care are aboard each flight. A nurse specializing in the care of expectant mothers and newborns is also available.

AirLink offers affordable membership plans that protect members and their families from emergency air transport expenses, which can cost as much as $25,000. In addition, it offers ground and ground/air combination memberships in select communities.



About Author

Simon Mather — CBN Feature Writer

Leave A Reply