A commercial airline pilot, Mike McGinn discovered Central Oregon in 1989 when he was based in San Francisco and looking for a place he could fly to in a small plane and play golf.
Sunriver fit the bill, and he immediately began planning his future there. “It’s been my 20-year goal to get a hangar in Sunriver and a plane,” he said.
McGinn, 61, lives in Sunriver most of the time now, and another piece of his dream came true a few weeks ago with the arrival of his 1978 Cessna Cardinal.
McGinn’s Cessna is among 617 aircraft the Federal Aviation Administration has registered in Deschutes County, which, in terms of aircraft, is one of the most heavily populated counties in Oregon. Only the Portland area and Jackson County in southern Oregon have bigger aircraft populations, according to the FAA.
A significant number of Deschutes County’s aircraft were registered in recent years — 75 in 2015 and 92 in 2016. So far this year, 54 have been added to the registry.
More planes means more business for people who sell aviation fuel, maintain planes, rent hangar space and train pilots. It indicates that Deschutes County is well-populated by individuals and businesses that can afford the luxury of flying their planes.
“Now sometimes, you can’t even make a radio call because it’s so busy out here,” said Gwil Evans, president of Professional Air at Bend Municipal Airport. He is also part-owner of Aero Facilities, which builds custom hangars on the east side of the airport. Aero gets a call every two days from someone looking for hangar space, he said, and the city of Bend hangars are full.
Not only are people moving to Bend and bringing planes with them, Evans said, but those who’ve lived here a while are looking to buy bigger, nicer planes. When he bought the fixed-base operation in 2005, only a few jets or turbo-props were based at the airport, he said. Now, he estimates three dozen turbine-engine aircraft are based in Bend. One of them is a King Air C90, a turbo-prop that generally sells for about $2 million, and is co-owned by an Oregon home-building company.
Professional Air shed all but one of its charter planes during the recession, so that side of the business has not rebounded, Evans said. But another charter operator sees potential. BusinessAir of Denton, Texas, this spring placed a King Air 250, a turbo-prop that seats eight people behind two pilots, in service in Bend at $2,000 per hour.
“You can always count on general aviation does follow the general economy,” said Damon Ward, CEO of BusinessAir.
The Seattle office was starting to receive a lot of requests from Bend, so the company shifted an under-utilized plane from Texas to Oregon, Ward said. The company hired a pilot and crew, who moved from Seattle to Bend, he said. So far the plane is averaging 30 hours of flight time a month, which Ward said is substantial in the charter world.
The local aviation boom belies a long-term slide nationwide. Shipments of newly built airplanes dropped off a cliff in the 1980s and hover around 1,500 a year, according to statistics from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association in Washington, D.C. (General aviation is all non-military, unscheduled flying.) The number of active general-aviation aircraft peaked in 2007 at 231,607, according to an annual FAA survey, and is forecast at around 203,000 for the next 10 years.
Oregon is one bright spot in the general aviation scene. While the Beaver State isn’t as thick with aircraft as Alaska or California, it’s seen a bigger rebound in flying time than most other states, according to the FAA survey. Oregon reported 776,000 hours of general aviation and charter flying in 2015, more than Washington and Alaska, both of which have larger aircraft populations.
Flight students like Darrin Kelley of Bend fill the airspace and hangars. A semi-retired veterinarian, Kelley bought a 1946 Piper Cub because he wanted to do his pilot’s training in a so-called “trail dragger.” With two wheels up front and one in back, the planes are more difficult to taxi and land, he said. “If you learn in one, you can fly most anything.”
McGinn also bought his plane partly for training purposes. His two teenage sons, ages 17 and 18, plan to get their pilot’s licenses.
The cost of training is lower if you don’t have to rent a plane, Kelley said. It helped that his father-in-law, also a pilot, offered him hangar space. “That was one of the things that even made it possible,” he said.
Like horse owners, airplane owners often spend more on maintenance than their initial purchase, Kelley said.
But with the price of aviation fuel at an affordable $4 per gallon and a strong economy, McGinn said it seems that more pilots are willing to take on that expense.
“People are flying again,” he said.
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