Growth at Mid-Way Regional Airport is taking flight with the expansion of one of its longtime tenants. Airborne Imaging took delivery of the first of seven new planes that will expand its role as a flying research lab in the sky.
Since 2000, Airborne Imaging has used its airplanes as multi-sensor test platforms taking part in domestic and international missions. Some missions include laser mapping the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes for the U.S. Corps of Engineers and assisting in post-hurricane damage after Katrina and Sandy.
Airborne’s expansion came after Aviation Inventory Resources purchased the company Jan. 18. Aviation Inventory Resources supports operators of the Saab 340 and ATR43 aircraft with high-quality spare parts. The planes joining Airborne’s fleet are Saab 340s.
Leading the company is Paul Wahlstrom, Chief Operating Officer, and Vice President of Operations Morgan Whitehead.
Whitehead stated AIR is excited about the opportunity to expand its role in the aviation market. He shared that the staff at Airborne is what has makes the company successful and has earned a positive reputation across the market.
“Airborne was in a fine condition. It was a well-run organization and because it was well run and it had the capability for growth that made it an easy decision for us to move forward,” Whitehead said. “They could have continued operating like they were as long as the DC-3 could keep flying. It was in a very reasonable state. It had a good crew and a good management team. We just think that we can bring some additional horsepower to the equation with the 340. Because of the size and scope of our company it just allows a nice partnership to be formed.”
Whitehead explained the Saab is a ruggedly built plane that has an excellent safety record. One of the advantages it has over Airborne’s three DC-3s is the fuel that it uses. The Saab uses jet fuel for its turboprop engines, where the DC-3 uses Avgas. Jet fuel is more readily available internationally, which opens up more clients globally for Airborne.
“Airborne has been very successful in the leverage of the DC-3, but they are limited in their scope. They have mechanical limitations and geographic limitations. That is what the Saab 340 solves,” Whitehead said. “It gives the path to the future and lets us contemplate business much further afield. We look to leverage that and there is a significant growth plan for Airborne.”
David Wheeler, who serves as Airborne’s General Manager and a pilot, shared Whitehead’s thoughts about what the capability of the aircraft will do for the company’s future. He noted it would bring the company to the next level.
"It is going to allow us to compete in an entirely different market. More importantly, it is going to allow us to compete better in the international market,” Wheeler said. ”We have flown missions out of the country. We have flown several times in Central America and stuff. People love the DC-3 it is the perfect platform, but it is a pain because it burns Avgas.”
With the arrival of the first plane on Friday, it will take several months to complete modifications such as the installation of long-range fuel tanks before it is ready to be used on missions. The plane will also undergo a heavy check, which involves an x-ray inspection that looks for hidden problems.
“There is business worldwide and the ability to go long distances and to stay up and collect data for the customer for periods up to eight hours is important. The Saab 340B in its current configuration can’t stay up for very long,” Wheeler stated. “When we add long range fuel tanks to it we are there. It should be the perfect vehicle for this business. They have all the advantages of the DC-3 in that respective. Now that we are pressurized we can reach those higher altitudes.”
Whitehead stated this aircraft type had flown more than 15 million flights since coming into commercial service in 1984 and has not had a crash attributed to the aircraft itself.
The Saab’s turboprop engines make it have a lower noise profile along with being more fuel-efficient. He added that Airborne is not retiring the DC-3s, but they will still play an important role.
Before coming into use with Airborne, the Saab's main function was a commuter plane with American Eagle. The Saab fleet retired around 2007. This particular plane was placed into storage in Abilene and actively maintained.
According to the Saab website, fatigue testing on test aircraft exceeded more than 200,000 cycles or 75 years of regional operations. It has a maximum operating altitude of 25,000 feet with a maximum fuel capacity of 5,690 pounds.
With the expansion of its operations, Airborne is looking to expand its staff and looking at possibly upgrading facilities.
“As it stands right now the three DC-3s and the seven Saab’s will not fit on this ramp. That is the question and what we have to decide right now,” Whitehead explained. "It is going to take us a little while to put this aircraft into service. So it is going to be a few months before this one gets out and starts moving. We have some time.”
Whitehead continued stating that Airborne would very much like to stay at Mid-Way Regional Airport because it’s convenient to its office, helpful staff, and it is an ideal location as the Metroplex continues to move south towards Ellis County.
For more information about the company go to its website at www.airborneimaging.net