california fbo plans development to accomModate growing charter operations

 - March 22, 2007, 8:38 AM

During the Cold War in the 1950s, squadrons of North American F-86 Sabres and, later, F-100 Super Sabres stood guard over the West Coast secreted in hangars at what is now Camarillo Airport (CMA), Calif. Alex Fisher, v-p of operations for Sun Air Jets at the airport, said, “There’s a lot of history here. The pilots would sleep in their flight suits and had to be ready to take off in four minutes. The fear was that a Russian bomber would shoot down an eastbound airliner over the Pacific, intercept its transponder code and bomb California.”

Today, four of the old alert hangars are still standing, and they are the place where Sun Air Jets got its start. Fisher said, “In 1994 the operation was founded [with a different name] as a helicopter and fixed-wing flight school working out of those hangars. It got its first Part 135 certificate in 1998 and began operating helicopters to offshore oil rigs and doing some firefighting. In 1998 the owner, who is involved in the radio and broadcasting business, acquired the rights to develop the property where Sun Air Jets is now located.”

The owner operated his own business jets and was looking for a more convenient location than Van Nuys, where he had been hangaring his aircraft. “He developed this facility as a corporate FBO,” said Fisher.

But it didn’t happen overnight. After he had secured the rights to develop, the owner spent four years wrangling his way through local politics before the new facility was built and operating in January 2002. Besides the FBO, Sun Air Jets is also an aircraft charter/management company. Its certificate (kept separate from the Part 135 helicopter operation for practical and business purposes) started with a Gulfstream III and Hawker 700, then added a Hawker 800XP and Challenger 600. Late in 2002, Fisher said, the company began concentrating on its long-range charter operations and closed the flight school. Helicopter operations are now limited, and the owner might spin off the rotary-wing side of the business.

The worldwide charter market is going strong for Sun Air Jets. Within the next few months, two of its tenant/ management-customers are upgrading to a Gulfstream V and a G550, respectively. “We’re looking for more Hawkers and Gulfstreams,” said Fisher. “And we’ve outgrown our two-year-old 26,000-sq-ft hangar. So we’re building a complex of two new 26,000-sq-ft hangars that will be completed in the spring.”

Fisher also revealed that Sun Air Jets had recently acquired the rights to develop another 4.4 acres on the airport’s south side (the current leasehold covers about 10 acres). A pair of new hangars that would add another 50,000 sq ft to Sun Air Jet’s under-roof area is tentatively planned. The FBO now has about six acres of ramp space that will swell to 8.5 acres when the new acreage is developed.

Camarillo’s Hollywood Connection

Runway 8/26 at CMA is a relatively short 6,010 feet, but Fisher said Gulfstreams and Global Expresses routinely launch there on trips to Hawaii and the East Coast. He credits the cool temperatures and near-sea-level altitude with helping cut down on operational limitations that might exist otherwise, though there is no precision approach to CMA–only VOR and GPS approaches.

Further credit for the airport’s burgeoning popularity, said Fisher, comes from its location in Ventura County (a more bucolic locale than Los Angeles County) and its proximity to communities such as Malibu that are popular with the high-end entertainment-industry crowd. Fisher said, “Unlike L.A., the Ventura County political brain trust is a proponent of ‘slow or no growth.’ That makes for a rural, agricultural tone for the area that is very popular with those looking to escape the rat race of Southern California. I call it L.A.’s answer to Marin County up north in the Bay area.”

But, Fisher pointed out, there is still an economically vibrant tech corridor along the 101 freeway that passes directly to the north of CMA. Also, fractional operators who tire of operating in the busy Van Nuys/Burbank environment have discovered Camarillo as an attractive alternative. Still, Fisher estimated that approximately 25 percent of Sun Air Jets’ revenue comes directly from the entertainment industry.

And appropriately, should the hangar-storage business ever dry up completely, Sun Air Jets could revert to one of its other business functions. Fisher said, “We shoot a lot of movies, commercials and television shows here. When our helicopter segment was stronger we did a lot of aerial cinematography, which put us in the loop with a lot of the studio people. A lot of them use our facility to depict an aviation image–whether it involves an airplane or just the airport environment.”