Aero-Flite Inc., a Kingman, Ariz.-based company that's providing the U.S. Forest Service with next-generation air tankers for wildfire suppression, has based some employees at Spokane International Airport and expects to move other activity there in the next year.
A small number of Aero-Flite employees are in Spokane to work on three Avro RJ85 jets being converted for the federal agency, says Rick Pedersen, senior vice president of Conair Group Inc., an Abbotsford, British Columbia-based company that has an investment interest in Aero-Flite. The Avro RJ85 is a British-built, four-engine aircraft.
Aero-Flite has accepted an assignment of an SIA lease formerly held by JetTech Aerospace for most of an airport-owned, 70,000-square-foot maintenance, repair, and operations facility, sometimes referred to as the old Guard hangar. Recent Spokane Airport Board documents say that Larry Krauter, the airport's CEO, met with Aero-Flite's managers on March 28 to discuss its business plans there.
Aero-Flite President Matthew Ziomek couldn't be reached for comment, but the airport documents say future business plans "could involve the construction of additional facilities."
The company, which specializes in the aerial suppression of wildfires in the U.S. and Canada, also operates and maintains five CL-215 water-scooping aircraft in Arizona.
The Journal of Business reported last July that Aero-Flite planned to establish operations at SIA.
That article also reported that the company's Spokane operation initially would focus on the Forest Service next-generation air tanker program contract that calls for it to provide the agency with Avro RJ85 jets converted for firefighting.
Pedersen declines to say the exact number of workers here or what other Arizona operations eventually will relocate here, though some additional business activity is expected to move to Spokane in the next 12 months, he says.
Aero-Flite employs around 40 people at its Arizona facility and could employ "40-plus" in Spokane, Pedersen says, depending on customer needs and whether any Aero-Flite operations stay in Arizona.
Pedersen says Aero-Flite is reviewing its business development planning, and the company is still working on securing customer contracts with state and federal agencies, which are reasons why it's still determining exact relocation plans.
"We have the three aircraft in Spokane in the initial program," Pedersen says. "Those aircraft are being worked on to convert them to the needs of the Forest Service."
He adds, "It's anticipated there will be additional activity based in the Spokane facility. We're in a transition period, working to finalize certain contracts that are still under review with our customer base."
Pedersen says the facility the company is leasing here is in good condition, "so we're using what's there."
Aero-Flite is leasing 31,600 square feet of hangar space, about 27,000 square feet of office and storage space, about a half-acre of parking space, and roughly 4 acres of ramp space.
The site is located on the south side of the airport complex, a short distance west of—and sharing a large apron with—a 41,400-square-foot hangar occupied by Associated Painters, a commercial- and military-aircraft painting operation here.
In accepting JetTech's lease, Aero-Flite has agreed to accept all terms and conditions of the JetTech lease and operating agreement, which lasts through Jan. 31, 2029, and includes a Washington state Community Economic Revitalization Board loan repayment commitment.
Aero-Flite claims on its website to be the largest private operator of smaller CL-215 water-scooping aircraft in North America, and says it also offers expertise in aircraft maintenance, engineering, and modifications.
Last June, the Forest Service announced that Aero-Flite was one of four companies that had been awarded contracts to provide air tankers this year as part of a sweeping effort to replace the agency's aging fleet. The Forest Service could seek additional air tankers from the companies in later years, depending on funding and other circumstances.
All of the next-generation tankers are turbine powered and can carry at least 2,000 gallons of retardant. They have a cruising speed of at least 300 knots when fully loaded, the Forest Service says.
Conair, the Canadian company that's working with Aero-Flite, is a much larger provider of aerial fire-control products and services.
Though it has an investment interest in Aero-Flite, the U.S. company operates independently, Pedersen says.
Founded in 1963, Aero-Flite asserts on its website that its main strength is in using the CL-215 water-scooping aircraft for faster initial attack against wildfires, relying on water sources near a developing fire to knock down the flames and prevent it from spreading to nearby forest fuel.
Its aircraft can scoop up to 1,400 gallons of water from a lake or other water source, the company says.
Depending on the distance between the water source and the fire, the company's aircraft can deliver as much as 28,000 gallons of water per hour to the fire.
The company also says it can mix foam concentrate with the water while in flight, so that aerial firefighters can have the option of dropping foam retardant on the fire.
Along with on-call and exclusive-use contract fire suppression services using the CL-215 aircraft, it offers aerial imaging and mapping services, operation and maintenance of customer-owned CL-215s, and engineering and structural repair for a variety of other aircraft, its website says.
Aero-Flite typically deploys its water-scooping aircraft for about the half the year, from about May through October, and devotes off-season months to working on them.
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