As a youth in Tacoma, Larry McNeese was so enamored with aviation that he would collect and sell pop bottles to scrape together the penny-a-pound it cost to take a plane ride at the citys municipal airport.
These days, McNeesea seasoned private pilot and avionics-industry entrepreneur hereis on the other side of that experience, serving as a teacher, mentor, and employer to other budding aficionados of flying machines.
I think I have a responsibility to encourage a new generation of people getting into aviation, he says.
McNeese is president and founder of Western Avionics Inc., a 27-year-old company at Felts Field, that sells, installs, and services communication, navigation, and other types of electronic equipment for general-aviation aircraft, and also operates a gift shop and pilots store, called Pilots Place. A self-described techno geek, he also is a longtime electronics instructor at Spokane Community College and established an avionics program there in the mid-1990s that is the only one of its type in Washington state.
McNeese recently moved Western Avionics to a 12,000-square-foot building at 5505 E. Rutter, just west of Fancher Road, from a 7,000-square-foot space a half-mile east, and now is taking steps on multiple fronts to expand the business.
He plans shortly to expand its retail inventory to include aircraft tires, batteries, accessories, and hardware, and expects to begin offering flight training this winter and ground-school training and aircraft rental by next spring. Within the next month, helicopter flight instruction also will be offered from Western Avionics building through a company called Inland Northwest Helicopter.
McNeese says also that hes considering expanding Western Avionics into a fixed-base operator, following the recent Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing by Custom Aviation Inc., one of two fixed-base operators at Felts Field. Such a move would require Western Avionics to add engine and airframe maintenance and repair services and fuel sales, he says.
Western Avionics currently employs eight people, but McNeese says he expects that number to grow by up to five people as the company expands its services in the coming year.
While his primary focus is on growing the business here, he says he also is looking at acquiring aviation businesses outside of Spokane. He declines to elaborate on those potential purchases, except to say, Theyll probably be pretty much clones of what were doing here. This is what we do best.
Once limited mostly to doing light avionics work on small single-engine planes, Western Avionics has built up its expertise over the years and now derives a large share of its revenue from more technically demanding retrofit jobs. Those involve installing new radio, navigation, autopilot, and other equipment in older planes, up to medium-sized twin-engine aircraft. The company has customers scattered across North America and Western Europe, and in the last six months has done work on planes flown here from Canada, France, Germany, and Portugal, McNeese says.
Because planes are so mobile, its not necessary to depend just on those in your own back yard, he says.
McNeese declines to disclose Western Avionics annual revenues, but says they have tripled over the last three years. The company has felt some effects of the sluggish economy, but, Were still on target this year for a good growth, having shifted emphasis to areas where there has been less drop-off in demand, he says.
One such area is advanced glass-cockpit installations, involving multifunction, computerized display systemscomparable in sophistication to those on commercial airlinersthat provide private pilots a much broader array of information and a better sense of positional awareness than ever before, McNeese says.
Moving map displays
Years ago, general-aviation pilots were satisfied if their planes were equipped with basic communication and navigation instruments, he says. Now, he says, spurred on by big strides in digital technology, theyre constantly looking to outfit their planes with the latest global positioning system (GPS) and moving-map display instruments.
Thats just fine with McNeese, who says, I like to be surrounded by technology. He adds that the high-tech instrumentation array in his own Cessna 172 reflects that passion. Of Western Avionics customers, he says, We think were doing them a service, too, because airplanes with lots of technology in them are safer.
One of the businesss other areas of growth over the last three years that McNeese is most enthused about is Pilots Place, the companys gift shop and pilots store, McNeese says. Located just across the main-floor entryway from a pilots lounge, it offers everything from pilots logbooks, plotters, charts, headsets, and flight bags, to a wide array of aviation art, apparel, and novelty items. For the ardent aviation enthusiast, the items range from a $16.95 CD featuring the sounds of takeoffs, landings, taxiing, and sonic booms by various types of jet aircraft, to a Flying Santa Christmas-tree ornament.
The store even has a childrens corner that includes a sizable retail inventorywith Hot Wings die-cast planes such as the Piper Cherokee and F-117 Nighthawk for $5.95 and childrens camouflage jackets for $39.95as well as room to play while parents shop.
The aviation community really welcomed it, McNeese says of the store. Others have dabbled in it here, but they never gave it the full attention to do it right.
Coming full circle
In its recent move, Western Avionics returned to the building where McNeese started the company on April Fools Day in 1975. The building turned out to be a little big for the company back then, he says, so he sold it, and now is leasing it from the people he sold it to.
McNeeses second-floor office has a large north-facing window that gives him an expansive view of the Felts Field runway and the wooded foothills beyond. Mounted models of a classic P-51 Mustang fighter plane and a Cessna 172, similar to the one he owns, sit on a ledge next to the window, and several pieces of aviation-related art adorn the surrounding walls, offering testament to his lifelong love of flying. Also occupying a spot on one wall is an Avionics Tech of the Year plaque he received some years ago, recognizing his efforts in establishing the SCC avionics program.
McNeese was a helicopter avionics specialist in the U.S. Army and developed an interest in teaching electronics, he says, so they sent me to teach electronics at a signal school at Fort Gordon in Georgia, and I loved it.
McNeese attended Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s, obtaining an education degree in industrial electronics. Working on a paper for a technical-report writing class while studying for his degree, he says he met a longtime aircraft refueler at Felts Field who convinced him that a startup avionics business there could be successful.
I got wonderful advice from him, and he was very encouraging, McNeese recalls. I went home and compiled the information, and thought, Gee, that looks like a good opportunity. I saw a market opportunity and thought it might not knock twice.
He started Western Avionics in a small, damp hangar, with no employees, and says, I had to learn what the market needed to grow the business. McNeese began teaching electronics at SCC in 1980, and says that helped supplement his income during his companys lean early years. He gradually began hiring part-time and then full-time employees.
I realized pretty quickly that I wasnt capable of hiring people with the right skills, because they simply were difficult to find, he says, so he began training them himself, years before establishing the SCC avionics program. He says five of Western Avionics current employees were avionics students of his at SCC, and two of themDave Hood and Barry Hucknow are stockholders in the company.
McNeese expects to retire from his SCC teaching post within the next five years, but says he has appreciated being able to pursue his passions for teaching and electronics simultaneously.
Ive been real fortunate in my life to have a career that has involved both, he says.
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