On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, one of the most devastating and costly storms to hit the Caribbean, passed near the U.S. Virgin Islands and destroyed much in its path, including the Bohlke International Airways FBO, the lone service provider at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (TISX) on St. Croix.
While its facility was decimated, the company swiftly pivoted and received permission to occupy a vacant, less damaged facility to the east of its existing leasehold, where it set up shop. Bohlke remained there for the next five-plus years, while it wrangled with insurance providers and architects on a replacement facility.
In January, the new 4,400-sq-ft terminal finally opened with one of the reconstructed FBO’s first guests being President Biden and his family, who arrived on Air Force One.
“We went for a full audit and passed with flying colors,” said company president William Bohlke, a third-generation professional pilot and the third generation to operate the FBO over its 64-year history. “Air Force One takes its procedures very seriously, everything was inspected, and our fuel was lab tested in the States. I think we raised the bar as a company to be able to fulfill their needs.”
While the sight of a 747 may be rare on St. Croix (Bohlke, who grew up at the airport, doesn’t remember the last time he saw one there), large military transports such as the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III are common visitors at TISX with its 10,000-foot runway.
The $5 million terminal is located at the far eastern end of the field. It includes a well-equipped kitchen area, passenger lobby, 12-seat a/v-equipped conference room, pilot lounge, snooze room, shower facilities, laundry, and dishwasher. Onsite car rental and crew cars are available. It was built on one of four leaseholds the company has at TISX, including the plot where its former terminal and hangar once stood. As part of the negotiations ahead of the recent construction, Bohlke was able to consolidate the four plots into one long-term lease.
While nearby St. Thomas (a 12-minute flight) caters more towards the leisure end, St. Croix is considered more of the “industrial island,” and the mix of aircraft there reflects that with a steady flow of light cargo haulers such as Caravans and Skyvans. Medevac operations are also a key segment, and the company operates a trio of specially-equipped Citations, which are based in its hangars, along with a pair of Dassault 900s and a Mitsubishi MU-2.
“What drives a lot of the corporate traffic in my opinion is yachting, the big boats, and we just don’t have a lot of that here,” Bohlke told AIN, adding that the island lacks the marina infrastructure to cater to the large, ocean-going vessels that form the backdrop of many other islands in the Caribbean. That however has turned TISX into somewhat of a sleeper for private aircraft heading to the mainland U.S. with passengers and crews who must clear customs—even U.S. citizens. “[TISX] is the preferred place for customs simply due to the fact that we don’t have the crazy amount of corporate traffic that other islands have so there is less congestion,” said Bohlke. “The ones that have gotten smart are starting to come to us.” TISX is also a popular tech stop for aircraft transiting between the U.S. from South America.
The company has 42,000 sq ft of enclosed hangar space, ranging from the 22,000-sq-ft structure adjacent to the new terminal that boasts 50-ft-high doors and can accommodate aircraft up to a Gulfstream G550 to an 8,000-sq-ft hangar next to its temporary terminal and a recently-refurbished 12,000-sq-ft maintenance hangar at the far western end of the field. Bohlke also has a 12,000-sq-ft open hangar. Plans call for the construction of an additional 40,000-sq-ft hangar within the next two years. Situated on the former FBO site, it would be able to shelter the latest ultra-long-range business jets.
The Avfuel-branded FBO—which was recently renamed Bohlke International Aviation—also offers aircraft management, charter, and maintenance. It is open every day from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. with after-hours callout available. Between all of its divisions, the company employs 83 people. The line staff undergoes NATA Safety 1st training, while the CSRs use its fuel provider’s in-house customer service training program.
As the into-plane agent for airport fuel provider Puma, Bohlke performs all the aircraft fueling on the field, including commercial flights. It owns a fleet of eight refuelers including six jet-A tankers ranging from 10,000 gallons to 3,000 gallons, and a pair of avgas trucks. The company has access to Puma’s 200,000 gallons of tank capacity, plus its own newly-installed 50,000-gallon jet-A tank and 12,000-gallon avgas storage.