MRO Profile: Abilene Aero

 - July 8, 2008, 11:00 AM

Texas FBO Abilene Aero is doing better than it ever has in its 40-year history, according to president Joe Crawford. The biggest challenge for the company is not finding work but rather finding qualified technicians to provide maintenance on customer aircraft.

According to Crawford, in the mid-1970s several small investors (including his father) bought into Abilene Aero to generate capital for a hangar expansion program; his father let Crawford know when one of the investors wanted to sell his share of the business. When Crawford bought out that partner 20 years ago, he brought with him a good deal of management experience. “My family owned a chain of 91 tire stores and I spent a lot of time working for the company,” he said. In addition, he graduated from Baylor University with a BBA in marketing management.

The company has three locations: Abilene Aero, Lubbock Aero and a maintenance-only facility at Amarillo Tradewind Airport that it acquired in 2004 as part of the acquisition of G&G Aero Services in Lubbock. Crawford said the company’s maintenance business has grown substantially in the past 20 years.

“The quality of our employees has driven growth. Mark Reed, our director of maintenance, has been here 19 years. Mark is highly organized and just outstanding. So too is Stuart Douglas, our director of avionics.” In 1993 the company was considering shutting down the avionics shop but decided instead to hire Douglas and see if it could be salvaged. “Thanks to him, avionics is now a large profit center for us,” said Crawford.

Abilene Aero consists of more than 210,000 sq ft under cover. The MRO portion of the business takes up 15,000 sq ft. The company’s major business is piston, turboprop and light jet aircraft.

Abilene Aero is a designated service center for Cessna single and multiengine aircraft (including the Caravan), Cirrus, Piper and Mooney. It also works on King Airs as well as Garrett, Lycoming, Continental and Pratt & Whitney Canada engines, including PT6 turbine inlet temperature calibration and compressor washes.

The company also operates the FAR 145 avionics shop, with six employees, including Douglas. The shop offers service on every major manufacturer’s products and provides avionics upgrades.

The company has a contract with Baron Aviation Services of Vichy, Mo., to maintain its 42 Cessna Caravans. According to Crawford, Baron is a FedEx feeder covering about a quarter of the U.S.

“We do everything on the Caravan, including engine changes, major structural repairs, all the phase inspections, and the ice detection system AD compliance,” Crawford said. “We’re now looking at aircraft aging inspections similar to those being required on the Conquest.”

With wireless laptops throughout the maintenance facility, mechanics can computerize aircraft records and conduct AD searches right by the aircraft. The company also offers prop balancing and overhaul, nicad battery service, pressurization repairs, engine syncrophaser repair, Level II NDT magnetic particle and liquid penetrant inspection, air conditioning servicing, window/windshield replacement and heater pressure decay testing.

Abilene Aero and Lubbock Aero have a total of 80 employees, 20 of them dedicated to maintenance. The two facilities work closely together.

“Our biggest issue is finding qualified mechanics,” Crawford said, acknowledging that there is currently more demand than the company has capacity to meet.

While many maintenance providers have gotten out of the piston engine business, Abilene Aero has not. “A number of insurers won’t insure shops that do piston maintenance, and it’s been frustrating for us,” he said. “We’ve been brought into a few lawsuits… because we were the only company doing maintenance on the aircraft that actually had liability insurance.”   

As to the future, Crawford feels somewhat constrained by the lack of qualified mechanics but remains optimistic. “The last couple of years our big emphasis has been on training to expand the type of aircraft we can work on. We’ve also been upgrading equipment such as new pressurization machines and test equipment,” he said. “Adding the wireless laptops allows the techs to tie into the shop order system so they can do all the discrepancies at the aircraft versus someone trying to read scribbled handwriting in an office. It’s significantly helped us on work-order accuracy and efficiency.”

Crawford said he always keeps an eye out for new facilities in the region to accommodate growth and plans to continue expanding in the turbine market.