Profile: west star aviation offers refurbishments

 - March 22, 2007, 9:18 AM

West Star Aviation, of Grand Junction, Colo., has been around for more than five decades. It was originally known as Monarch Aviation and began as an aviation sales and service business in 1952. In 1987 the Bueschers, a local family, acquired the assets from Monarch Aviation and renamed the business West Star Aviation.

“Monarch did a lot of single- and twin-engine Cessna and Conquest sales and service,” Greg Laabs, v-p of operations, told AIN. “It was one of the bigger sales reps in the West. After the Bueschers took it over, West Star set about getting the FAA and factory authorizations necessary to service the turbine aircraft maintenance and restoration market. It had about 40 employees then.”

In 1987 the company signed an agreement with Cessna continuing Monarch’s Cessna Propjet Service Center status. Later that year, West Star made a significant investment in Garrett TPE331 tooling and spare parts, and Garrett (AlliedSignal, now Honeywell) named the company a TPE331 major service center. Within three years, West Star attained number-one ranking in sales among independent TPE331 service centers, despite being located in an area of sparse population for TPE331-powered
aircraft. Today, West Star remains among the top five in sales for Honeywell among independent facilities including both the TFE731- and TPE331-authorized facilities.

About two years after the Bueschers acquired Monarch they developed an STC to upgrade the Conquest’s TPE331-8 engines to -10s, giving the airplane better performance to altitude and better fuel consumption. Laabs estimates that since then West Star has converted 240 aircraft out of a worldwide fleet of 340, or about two-thirds of the world’s Conquest fleet.

Laabs said that in May 1996 Larry Graham took over as president and made expansion a top priority. Graham had previously worked for Duncan Aviation in maintenance management and sales capacities. “Larry wanted us to get into the jet market and recruited several key people with expertise in Learjet and Citation maintenance and avionics. Our first job was a Learjet 25 in April 1997. Right now we are doing our 106th twelve-year/12,000-hour inspection.” Laabs said the company has also developed Hawker and Citation maintenance teams. “We’ve done a couple of hundred major inspections on the Hawkers and Citations,” he said.

West Star Aviation is a full-service Air BP FBO that has grown significantly in recent years. “Seven years ago we had 156 employees. Today we have more than 330,” Laabs said.

Aside from its large maintenance business, many operators know West Star because Walker Field is one of the primary diversion airports for the ski resorts when the weather goes down in their part of the mountains. West Star’s 20-acre ramp is used for transient aircraft parking and servicing, maintenance aircraft storage and for fueling military aircraft. The company’s fuel farm has capacity for 100,000 gallons of jet-A.

West Star Upgrades Facility

To offer full aircraft restoration capability, West Star began performing paint and interior operations in 1991. In 1993 the company built a new 10,200-sq-ft paint facility, and in 1995 it acquired an additional 20,000-sq-ft facility for aircraft interior and additional airframe maintenance operations.

In 2000, West Star completed construction of a new 25,000-sq-ft paint facility with a strip bay and two downdraft paint bays. The paint facility can accommodate aircraft as large as a Challenger and Falcon 900. A 28,000-sq-ft jet maintenance hangar with a certified foam fire suppression system was completed in August 2001, nearly doubling West Star’s aircraft maintenance capacity. Today, West Star occupies nine buildings totaling more than 140,000 sq ft.

According to Laabs, on any given day the maintenance hangar will contain about a dozen Conquests. “We do routine maintenance on about 60 percent of the Conquest fleet,” he said. “We are very well known in that market. We even have someone who comes from Scotland once or twice a year for maintenance and modification work.”

The company also has a completions hangar with an interior shop including complete refurbishment and woodwork capability. “We’ve done refurb, paint and interior work on used aircraft sent to us by several of the major OEMs,” Laabs said. He also said their avionics repair and installation shop has grown significantly in the past year due to RVSM.

“We’ve increased from 18 to 46 people to meet the demand for RVSM upgrades,” he said. “Of course that market will peak next year, but we’re developing a number
of new product upgrades and installations so we anticipate keeping everyone after the RVSM issues are resolved.”

One of the company’s major RVSM offerings is its STC for the Learjet 35, 36 and early 31 models. The company has done more than 50 installations to date, with another 60 on the books. Laabs says West Star will have them done well in advance of January’s deadline. “We’ve got it down to about two weeks per installation now,” he said. “We’ll do more than 100 units in house this year.”

He said they’re currently working on an RVSM solution for the Conquest and are far enough along that they’ve begun scheduling installations beginning February 1. “Not getting things done by January really isn’t a problem for Conquest owners. The aircraft is fairly fuel efficient below 27,000 feet,” he said. “At the same time, it’s one of the few turboprops that can go up to 37,000 feet and operate reasonably well, so it was worth the investment to develop the STC.”

Laabs said the Conquest RVSM solution was the result of discussions with operators. “I’d estimate about 80 to 90 percent of our business decisions are customer driven,” said Gail Schweitzer, the company’s marketing coordinator.  “It is that operating philosophy that’s one of the primary reasons we have a very high customer retention rate. We listen to our customers and act accordingly. We’re a pretty down-home type of operation. We know our customers’ names; they know ours. Most of our customers get well acquainted with one or two of our employees and they become a customer’s first point of contact. We encourage that, we remain flexible and want our customers to develop a good relationship with our people.”