Tony Cestnik, president of Anchorage, Alaska-based Aero Twin, carved a niche for himself and his business by making the Cessna Caravan more rugged to operate in the bush, and the experience he built in that untamed territory shaped his approach to the process.
Cestnik began his career in Alaska in 1973 with Anchorage Helicopters. Working in Alaska proved to be challenging and Cestnik held several jobs simultaneously to make a good living. In 1975 he started Aero Twin to provide supplemental income while working for Northern Air Cargo and Anchorage Airways. He worked part time out of his truck for about two years until Aero Twin had sufficiently steady business to justify leasing a hangar at Anchorage International Airport and to give up his other jobs.
In 1984, Aero Twin bought the single-engine Cessna sales and service center in Anchorage and shortly thereafter delivered the first Caravan sold to a customer other than FedEx. Aero Twin remained a Caravan Sales Center until 2011, but by then Cestnik had developed a reputation for designing supplemental type certificates to improve the aircraft for operation in Alaska. His first STC in 1985 was a nose tire scraper to keep rocks from being flung through the prop when operating on gravel runways.
In 1986 Aero Twin moved its operations to Merrill Field, Anchorage’s general aviation airport. More STCs followed, for rudder gust locks, exhaust deflectors, main-gear fairing ribs, auxiliary vacuum pumps, extended baggage kits, cowling and cargo pod locks, gravel deflectors for the main and nose wheels, brake disc spacers, and folding utility seats. Cestnik found a niche market: making the Caravan more rugged and easier to operate in the bush. Some of his modifications–such as the main-gear fairing ribs and the rudder gust lock–have been incorporated into the type design of the Caravan. Other mods, including the exhaust deflectors and utility seats, are available as Cessna factory options.
In 1992 Aero Twin became an FAA-designated alteration station (DAS), which allowed it to develop and certify STCs in-house. Many of the modifications to the Caravan were done as DAS STCs.
In 2000 Aero Twin embarked on a project to install a Honeywell TPE331 engine on a Caravan. The project required a resubstantiation of much of the aircraft. “We invested thousands of man hours in developing a new front end that replaces nearly everything forward of the firewall. Hundreds of hours of flight-testing and numerous structural tests went into the project, and seven years after the project initiation the STC for the engine installation was finally certified,” he said.
“Other companies have certified engine conversions on the Caravan since, and Cessna has only recently certified a larger PT6A on the factory aircraft, but Aero Twin was the first to have the vision to increase the power on the aircraft and the first to gain certification. Initially, only the 208 was certified, with the engine de-rated from 1,000 shp down to 850 shp. In 2009 we added the 208B to the STC, making it available with 900 shp, and later 950 shp. Certification for flight into known icing was also added to the engine conversion at that time and in 2012 the max weight in icing for the Honeywell-powered 208B was increased to 9,062 pounds. This is an increase of more than 500 pounds over the standard 208B in icing. The engine conversion offers greater takeoff, climb and cruise performance than the original aircraft, and provides operators with improved ability to climb through icing conditions,” Cestnik said.
While many Alaskan Caravan operators use Aero Twin for their heavy maintenance, the MRO has grown to be international and regularly fields calls from all over the world from operators trying to troubleshoot or repair their aircraft.
Aero Twin is also a Pilatus satellite service center for the PC-12 and a service Center for the Quest Kodiak 100; the company now develops STCs for those aircraft too.
Today, Aero Twin employs 25 people, including nine A&P mechanics, and continues to serve the general aviation community in Alaska up through turboprop singles and light twins. The extensive manufacturing capabilities allow the maintenance shop to do major repairs on aircraft, up to complete rebuilds.
Working out of its 13,000-sq-ft facility, Aero Twin specializes in doing out-of-the-ordinary projects. The MRO continues to expand and add equipment, including a water-jet abrasive cutting machine, a four-axis CNC mill, a standard mill, a lathe, breaks and tube benders. The engineering department consists of two engineers, one of whom is a designated engineering representative able to approve FAA data for structures, mechanical and electrical systems, powerplant installations and flight analysis.
The FAR Part 145 repair station holds a Class 1 and Class 2 airframe rating and limited powerplant and propeller ratings, and works on all single-engine, light twin and twin turboprop Cessna aircraft; non-fabric-covered Pipers, including Navajos; Pilatus PC-12s; Quest Kodiak 100s; Aero Commanders; Lake amphibians and Grumman Widgeons. Its engine expertise includes Lycoming and Continental reciprocating engines, Pratt & Whitney PT6A and Honeywell TPE331s.
Cestnik, who received the Charles Taylor Award in 2011, attributes much of his success to his wife, Diana; Jason Kepler, his chief engineer for the past 10 years; and Pat Stopher, Aero Twin’s director of maintenance. “Pat has been with me for 25 years, and he’s the smartest mechanic I’ve seen in Alaska,” Cestnik said.
“We’ve done nearly 50 STCs. We’re not afraid to tackle anything. We have worked on aircraft here as large as Twin Otters but generally we’ll work on anything you can get in the hangar. Let’s face it: this is Alaska and that’s the nature of the business.”