Afton’s Aviat Aircraft


– [Woman] Your support helps
us bring you programs you love. Go to wyomingpbs.org,
click on support, and become a sustaining
member or an annual member. It’s easy and secure. Thank you. (grand string music) – When you think of
airplane manufacturing, Afton, Wyoming may
not come to mind. Yet airplanes have been
manufactured here since 1939. Today, Aviat Aircraft makes the
Husky and the Pitts Special. Aviat Aircraft, next
on Wyoming Chronicle. (dramatic orchestral music) – [Announcer] Funding
for this program was provided by the members
of the WyomingPBS Foundation. Thank you for your support. – And I’m Craig Blumenshine
with WyomingPBS, and it’s our pleasure
to be in Afton, Wyoming at Aviat Aircraft
with Steve Anderson, the acting president
of the company. – Thanks for coming. – Steve, thank you so
much for taking time out to be with us on
Wyoming Chronicle. – [Steve] Absolutely. – As we said in our open,
I think people would be very surprised that
airplanes are being made and have been made
for a long, long time you know, right here in Afton. Let’s start with the history
of Aviat Air if we could and then we’ll work
forward from there. – Sure, sure, so the
main floor of the factory was poured in 1939. The company was founded by two
brothers, the Call brothers, who came to Afton and
fell in love with it and liked airplanes,
and so built a factory to build airplanes. – And this is the longest
continually-operating single engine aircraft
manufacturing company
in the country. – That’s right. – That includes companies like
Piper, Cessna, and others. – That’s correct, yeah. So during the ’80s when a lot
of those companies shut down due to liability issues
and things like that, we continued to
produce airplanes. – So tell me, take us way back, what were the first types
of planes produced here? – So the first thing
that they really did here was support the war
effort in World War II. So there were a lot of
training bases around the area, and when cadets happened
to bang an airplane up, they would bring ’em over
and they would fix ’em here. Then shortly after the war, once materials
were more available and not being used for the war, they started to
build the Call-Air which was an interesting
airplane, a low
wing, strut-braced, kind of a
different-looking airplane, and we’ll get you
some pictures of it so that you can see it. – Oh, we’d sure
love to see that. The main planes that are
built now, there are two, and they couldn’t
be more different. – [Steve] Right. – The Pitts Special.
– Right. – Stunt airplane.
– Right. – And the Husky, a big
strong, slow plane. – Right, right. – How did those come about? – So the Pitts was the
brainchild of Curtis Pitts, who is pretty famous
in the industry. Curtis was building
a single seat Pitts way back in the ’50s,
and he had come up with a two-seat airplane
that he was looking for a place to manufacture. They had started manufacturing
them in Homestead, Florida, and then he found out
about this company, and they were able
to strike a deal and move production of the
Pitts up here in the early ’70s, so that airplane’s been
produced continually here since the ’70s, yeah. – Ever since. So, before we talk
about the Husky, who buys a Pitts? What’s the market for somebody
that wants to do this? – You know, a lot
of guys are wanting to compete in aerobatics. There’s a lot of contests
across the country, and so people will buy a
Pitts, both men and women, to compete in
aerobatic competitions up through the
intermediate level. So that’s kind of the person
who, a lot of people have maybe another airplane as
well that they travel in, but they want to compete
in the aerobatic circuit. – Steve, we met you
earlier this summer. – [Steve] Right. – And you were actually a test
pilot for the company then, and things have changed
a little bit since. – [Steve] Right, right. – [Craig] And we saw you
screaming right at us, what, 240 miles an
hour on a runway. – [Steve] Sure. – [Craig] And this
thing is a powerful– – It is.
– Agile plane. – [Steve] It is, it’s a 1700
pound gross weight airplane with a 260 horsepower
engine, so it’s lightweight with a lot of power. – So give me a sense of what
it is like to fly the thing. If you can describe it. – Oh boy, how do
you describe it? I don’t know that
I can describe it. It’s something you kind of have
to experience for yourself. Absolute freedom in the air, and it’s just a pleasure to fly. It’s an airplane that,
when you think to turn, the airplane kind of
already starts to turn, so. – In the industry, is it one of the most agile
planes there is, is it? – It’s very, very agile,
there’s, you know, there’s some other
aerobatic planes out there. But it keeps right up there. – So does it, does
the design continue to improve a little bit? Do you continue to research
and change a little bit to adapt to new market wants? – We do, we do. So, and that goes for the
Husky and the Pitts as well. We’re continually trying
to improve the designs add new things, new avionics,
new features to the airplane to stay competitive. – So then we go to the Husky. And we’re in a shop
and I think I see one, two, three, four, five
Huskies that are right here. This is I think one of
your maintenance areas? – Yes, this is, yep. This is our factory
service department. – And this plane, to me, might
have many, many, many uses. – [Steve] Yeah. – Give us an idea for the
market for this plane. – So, for the Husky,
anything from a guy who wants to go into
the back country and go camping with you know,
maybe his wife or his friend, to Africa where they’re being
used in anti-poaching efforts in Tanzania and
Zimbabwe and Zambia and South Africa, Kenya. So they’re all
over the continent, being used for all
different kinds of reasons. – Give us its history. When was it started
to produce here? – So the Husky was a clean
sheet design in 1986. Frank Christen, he wanted to
basically take all the stuff that guys didn’t like
about the old Super Cub and build a new airplane
kind of around that idea. So when they did that,
they updated the airplane to the newest regulations
which are for Part 23, so the engineering
standards were a lot more strict than
the old CAR 3 requirements that the Super Cub
was certified under, the idea being that the
airplane’s gonna be much safer. You know, the old
certification requirements didn’t really care about the
crashworthiness of an airplane or that they occupants
were gonna be okay if something was to happen, so that was a big
thing for the airplane. And that’s kind of what
gave it this robust design, and then they got rid of
some of the other things they didn’t like
about the Super Cub, you know, the trim system,
a fixed pitched propeller, we went to a constant
speed propeller which gives you a lot
more cruise speed, so it’s a much faster airplane. It’s much more
comfortable, and it has the newest avionics in
it, so believe it or not you can fly this little airplane under instrument conditions. – I’m not sure whether
our viewers can hear, but it’s raining outside. – [Steve] Yeah. We’re just happy
it’s not snowing. – That is true, but
it does snow here. – [Steve] It does, a lot. – And so that’s what
I want to talk about, I mean Afton to me is
such a beautiful place, but you get all four seasons
with great weather days, you get rain, you
get wind, and you get a lot of snow in the wintertime. – We do. – How does that impact
what happens here? – We just work
around it. (laughs) You know, it doesn’t
impact us at all. People are surprised sometimes, but we continue to fly airplanes and operate through
the entire year, so it gets a little
more challenging, pushing airplanes
around outside, sometimes guys will
fall down on the ice. You know, but we
just, we make do. – So I have a big
checkbook again. I brought it again.
– Good. – If I want to buy
a Pitts Special, or if I want to buy a Husky, what am I gonna
write that check for? – You’re gonna be
somewhere around about 400K depending on what you want. – [Craig] For both planes? – Uh-huh, yeah, so they’re
gonna be pretty close. You know, depending
again what you want. We can get you into a Husky
probably around about 280, but most of the time
once guys add the options and things that they want, they’re gonna be closer
to that 330, 350 mark, so. – And people customize
their planes. – Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. – I mean, we’re
looking at planes, and none of them
are the same color, and I’m sure that
people can bring their own thoughts to how
it comes out your door. – We paint all
kinds of wild stuff. – [Craig] Yeah. – So that’s one of the
things that, you know, an additional thing I
think that sets us apart from the industry is how
custom the airplane can be. So if someone wants
something in the airplane, maybe we’ve not done
it before, we’ll do it. – Before we start talking
about the manufacturing process which I think is fascinating,
I want to talk about what is it like to run a
business here in Afton. You’re I think you told me
the second largest employer? – [Steve] Yeah. – [Craig] The hospital
employs more folks. – [Steve] Yep. – [Craig] But you have to
recruit many different trades. – [Steve] We do. – [Craig] Professional, people with professional
backgrounds here to Afton. Is that a challenge,
or does it work? – Sometimes it’s a challenge,
but we make it work. You know, a lot of the
folks here at the factory have either been
here for a long time or they have, you know, parents that worked
here before them. So there’s a long history
of aviation construction in the Valley, so
we draw from that, and things that we can’t
support in the Valley, we’ll bring people in for. And so, it is difficult
sometimes but you know, the people are everything here and that’s what
really makes it work. – You’re not close to any
transportation ports either, so the logistics of all of this, does that add another
layer of complexity? – It does.
– Yeah. – The hardest thing for
us right now is the fact that we have no rental
car places really in town, and so what people have to
do is if they want to come and pick their airplane up,
they fly into Jackson Hole, then they rent a car,
bring the car down, and then we’ll have
somebody return it for them, so that’s kind of you know,
just one of those things that where we are gives us
that little bit of a challenge. – Is this market like
every other market, it ebbs and flows for both
the Husky and the Pitts, is it generally ticking
up, is it staying static? – So I think that right
now we’re witnessing an upturn in the industry, and
I think that’s industry-wide. There’s a big push
right now for kind of these big tire bush planes that everyone’s
getting interested in. You know, there’s a lot
of social media content that people are watching
and going you know, this is really a
cool kind of flying, that wasn’t really
so mainstream before. And the fact of where we are
in the Innermountain West, there’s opportunities all around
us for that kind of flying and so I think
people are becoming more and more interested in it. – There aren’t just wheels
that go on this plane, I think you’re alluding to that. You can put skis on this plane, you can put pontoons
on this plane. – [Steve] Exactly. – [Craig] So these
planes literally fly not, I mean, all over the world. – Yep, absolutely, and
they’re capable airplanes, like you said, skis, floats,
tires, they do it all. – [Craig] Yeah. Let’s talk about your history. – Okay. – [Craig] When did
you first fly a plane? – I was 16 years old. Yeah, 16 years old
when I first started. – And what caused the interest? – I’ve always been
interested in airplanes ever since I was a kid. You know, I was a
young kid in New Jersey and we happened to be in the
flight path for an airport, and my parents told me I’d
be sitting on the back porch pointing at airplanes, so
I guess it’s just something I’ve always been interested in. – And did you start your
pilot license route then? – I did, yep, I started
training when I was 16. Got busy with school, finished
my private pilot’s license when I was 18. Fortunately I had fantastic
instructor, Scott Weaver, a great friend of
mine, continues to be a great friend of mine, and he pushed me to get
my instrument rating and my commercial and
my flight instructor, and so he kind of drove
me to do it all, so. – Afton also to me is not
an FAA center of operations. – [Steve] No. – How does that
impact your ability to do the work here? I mean, obviously there
are tons of regulations that you follow to the T. And for certifications
and permits and parameters and all that kind of stuff. – And there are. We deal with three
different FAA entities, an aircraft certification
office in Denver, an aircraft certification
office in Los Angeles, that bases, a lot
of flight testing and stuff are
based out of there, and then a manufacturing
inspection district office that’s based out of Phoenix. So sometimes it can be difficult
to get all of those guys kind of on the same page
talking with each other. But they do a great
job for the most part, and they come and
visit us every quarter. We have an FAA inspector
who will come onsite. He audits all the
processes and makes sure everything’s good to go. So the oversight is pretty
rigorous as you said. – We watched you this summer
get into a Pitts Special, and take off for the first time. – [Steve] Mm-hmm. – Brand new plane, off you went. – Right. – [Craig] what’s it like
the very first flight that a plane makes? I mean, that’s your job, right? – Right. – [Craig] Someone
needs to do that. – So, um, what you
didn’t get to see is all the preparation that
went into that flight before. So we don’t ever just jump
into something and go. We spend a great deal
of time inspecting. I spend time with the guys as
they’re building the airplane with my eyes on it
so I know kind of exactly what’s happening
with the airplane. We run the airplane, carefully
go through a checklist, and then we do the first flight. So, the first flight, you
know, used to bother me a little bit, you know
thinking about the things that could happen or might
happen or what could happen, but anymore I think it’s, I
wouldn’t say that it’s routine because nothing
routine about it, but you know, those thoughts
of what could happen, what might happen kind
of get pushed aside. You know, and you just
go out and do your job. – You told me a statistic
about test pilots. It had to do with mortality
rate of test pilots. Can you share that
with our viewers? – It can be a very
dangerous job. It can be a very dangerous job. So we have those
processes in place to minimize and
mitigate that risk to the lowest possible level. – [Craig] Steve,
earlier this summer, we watched you take off in that Pitts
Special, and you were zigzagging down the runway. – [Steve] Right. – [Craig] Looked odd to me. Why were you doing that? – So, where the pilot
sits in the Pitts which you can see I
think from your film is in the backseat, and so it
makes it extremely difficult to see in front of you,
in fact it’s impossible. So what we use is
our peripheral vision and sometimes you’ll see
airplanes kind of zigzagging in order to give the pilot
kind of a visual ahead. – So you look out
your side windows, and then you can
see in front of you. – Right. – As you’re going– – Right, exactly right. – That makes sense. – So we call it S turns. – Yeah. – So sometimes, going down
the runway at full power we zigzag a little bit because
we start to over correct, so there’s a lot of torque in
that little airplane, and so. – Let’s look into your crystal
ball just a little bit. – [Steve] Okay. – What’s the vision
for Aviat Air? 10 years from now is it
gonna be kind of the same? Are you looking forward? – Yeah, absolutely. So Aviat Aircraft, you know, simply the best bush
airplane in the world. – Period, that’s your vision. – Yeah. And you know, I hope to continue
to increase our production and continue to get
our name out there and continue to build the
company up and you know, continue to give
back to the Valley, and you know,
continue to take care of the people here
in the factory who
depend on this place. – Steve, we’ve
talked a little bit about the people
that you have here. – [Steve] Right. – At Aviat Aircraft in Afton. Technical people, professionals,
aircraft engineers. Give me an idea of
what those folks do and how they do their work here. – Well, without the people,
we couldn’t do any of this, so you know, we have
engineers like you mentioned, aircraft mechanics like Jim, and fabricators,
incredible welders, incredible paint folks,
the covering folks, the assembly folks, you
know, without those people, none of this could be possible. – There has to be, I mean
people don’t come here with many of the skills
probably that they need to know. There’s probably,
you probably invest quite a bit in your employees. – We do, yeah, we do. – [Craig] As far
as training goes. – Yep, and we’ll take
people and train ’em up to do a job, and a lot of
times as positions open around the factory, as
people retire or leave, you know, people will
then assume those roles and new people will
come in and be trained, and the cycle goes on. – When you talk about either
your market for your planes or the people that
want to work here, is this something
that young people are, for whatever reason,
more involved with and excited about today than they might have
been a little while ago? – You know, I think
airplanes always make young people excited. I’d like to see more
of that occurring. Obviously it’s a small
town, but you know, I hope to be able in the
future to entice younger people to come in and get their
hands dirty with us. – When you talk about general
aviation across America, I think that’s something
that a lot of people really don’t understand. – [Steve] Right. – You know, everyone knows
about commercial flying. – [Steve] Sure. – But there are many
general aviation airports. What is the future for
general aviation in your eyes? – Well, I think it looks bright. Last year was the
first year really that the pilot
population has increased due to the Aircraft Owners
and Pilots Association, their involvement, I think
they’ve played a really key role in trying to entice
people to come and fly. And I think that without
general aviation, this country would be a
very, very different place than it is today. You know, in China
for example now they’re starting
to see and realize how important
general aviation is, and they’re now
starting to embrace it. I think that it has a
big commercial effect for the economy, for travel,
for everybody involved in it. – And I don’t want
to speak for you, but your advice for people
that are interested? Start. – Yeah, absolutely. – [Craig] What do you,
call your local airport. – And there’s always
a flight instructor who’ll be sitting around
just like I was 20 years ago ready to go flying with you, and show you what
it’s all about. – You were earlier this year
at the Oshkosh Air Show. – [Steve] Yep. – What do people tell
you about Aviat Aircraft? – They love the airplanes. They love the quality
of the airplane. A lot of times
owners will come over and have a sandwich with us, and you know, spend
time just telling us about the things that
they do in their airplanes and how beautiful they are. – Is it ever like you almost
want to cover your ears sometimes when you hear
some of those stories? – Yeah, once in
a while. (laughs) Yeah, once in a while. – Sure. – Depending on what they’re
telling me they’re doing, so. – Uh-huh. Back to the future a little bit, do you see production
increasing? I think you told
me right now it’s about three airplanes a month? – Yeah, we’re closer to two
airplanes a month right now. – [Craig] Okay. – Next year I’d like to see
us at three airplanes a month, and I think that the industry and the country can
support that, so. – We’ve shot a lot of
what we call B-roll in advance of you
and I talking today, but let’s kind of walk us
through the production process. – Okay. – The first thing is the
chassis has to be built. – Right. – That’s welders and a lot
of very technical folks that are putting that together. – Right. So really the whole
process starts over in our receiving department. So every raw material,
everything that comes in has to be checked to
a blueprint or checked as far as the
certifications of that stuff that it meets our process spec. So everything in the
airplane is made in the USA, so it really, the
process starts there when Shelly, our fantastic
receiving inspector, verifies the quality of
the parts that come in. And then, those tubes will be
cut on our CNC plasma cutter, brought over to the weld
shop, which we’ve seen. It’ll be put into the jig,
and they guys will weld it, and that really is kind of
the beginning of the airframe. Now, behind the scenes,
our fabrication shop is building all of
the parts and things that will attach
to the fuselage. – [Craig] Quality control
every step of the way. – Every step of the way. Yep, every step of the
way there’s an entire list for each particular
component of the airplane that will go with the
airplane until it’s completed and then it goes into a
file that we keep forever, so I have files from some of
the very first Pitts in 1970, that if someone calls and says, hey, how about this, you
know, we can open that file and go wow, you know, it’s
like a look back into history and see exactly how
that airplane was made, who built what and
who signed it off. – To the person.
– Yeah. – To the person. You look at these planes,
they’re so beautifully painted, and it looks like
they’re you know, nice tin or metal shells,
but that’s not the case. – No. Inside of that is a very
robust steel structure that starts in the weld shop. – [Craig] Right. – [Steve] And then over
top is aluminum panels and also Ceconite fabric, so
it’s a lightweight airplane but very strong. – [Craig] Give us, talk
to us about that fabric, because that’s what amazing. You touch the side of the
airplane and it’s not metal. – [Steve] Right, right,
so it’s a polyester fiber. It’s woven Dacron,
it’s extremely durable. It’s very UV resistant,
and once it’s painted, you know, it’s beautiful. – [Craig] How long has
that fabric been used? – So, in the beginning, cotton fabric was
used on the airplanes. So cotton, there’s some
undesirable characteristics. – Moisture, seems to me
is one of them maybe. – Yeah, moisture is one, cotton is also not very good in sun. So if you’re airplane
sees a lot of sunlight, not being hangared,
there’s a big degradation in that fabric, so
that’s why Ceconite and the Dacron
polyester fiber stuff has been so important, and
that started to be used probably in the late
’80s, early ’90s. – Okay. So then that is literally
stretched over the aircraft. – [Steve] That’s right, so– – Then is there some
heat then, also? – There is. So we use irons
that are calibrated, and we use those irons to
shrink the fibric tight. So when they put it
over and glue it, they get it, you
know, semi-tight, and then they’ll go back
over it with the irons and that’s what gives it
that real taut finish. – What’s next in the process? – So, after the
airplane is covered, the fuselage has obviously
been welded, it’s been painted and corrosion proofed,
then they cover it. Then it’ll go to paint, so all– – [Craig] When are
the wings attached? – So the wings are actually
attached in Husky final. – [Craig] Okay. – So final assembly. We do things a
little differently. A lot of aircraft manufacturers put the entire airplane
together and then paint it. We actually paint it and then
put the airplane together. So we do things a
little bit differently, and that’s part of,
and due to the process, how we build the airplane. – Mm-hmm. Then it goes to final,
then that’s where all the checks happen, and then that first
flight is prepared. – That’s right. So, the airplane will
all be assembled. There’s three different
stations in Husky final, so they’ll come down just
as raw fuselage, painted, where they’ll fit all the
panels to the airplane and begin the assembly process. It’ll move to station two
where the engines are hung and most of the
wiring is completed. The landing gear is installed. From there, move
to what we call– – Obviously you’re
purchasing engines. – Yes, that’s correct. We purchase engines
from Lycoming, and then from there it’ll
move to station three where the wings are hung and
all the finishing work is done to the airplane,
and then it goes over the line to flight test. – Start to finish, today
we’re starting Steve’s plane. – [Steve] Right. – To when Aviat Aircraft
delivers Steve’s plane. – Uh-huh. So depending on what I
might want in my airplane, will change the length
of time that it takes to build the airplane, but
probably around I would say close to five months. – And if I were to
order one today, there’s a little
bit of a wait list, because you have a series
of planes in production. – We do, yeah, we’re always
continuously in production. So the next airplane I
could get you probably wouldn’t be until next year. – So I assume, back to
kind of the marketing thing a little bit, but the
internet is your friend. – [Steve] Yeah, oh absolutely. – Social media is your friend, being able to kind of
get the word out about– – Right, so we adopted
social medial stuff probably a little later
than we should have, but you know, we’re making
that presence out there now. Obviously a lot of people are
finding us via the internet. So, very important. – Well Steve, it’s a
pleasure for us to be here. It’s surprising that all
of this happens in Afton. – Yeah. – It really is important
to the community, important to Wyoming. Thank you so much and best
wishes for your future. – Yeah, thank you. I appreciate you guys coming. (dramatic orchestral music) – [Announcer] Funding
for this program was provided by the members
of the WyomingPBS Foundation. Thank you for your support.

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