Activity at the Tuscola Area Airport is taking off now that a small aircraft manufacturer has opened shop in a long dormant hangar — a move that could prove an economic boon to the area, say those involved.
Midwest Sky Sports L.L.C. signed a lease with the airport in November, but is now hitting its stride, already building and servicing small airplanes for customers across the country.
The company has seven employees in Caro, and co-owner Stephen O’Connor says he expects that number to grow as business ramps up.
He credits the Tuscola Area Airport Authority with “bending over backwards” to help Midwest Sky Sports find a home, especially after the business seemed to encounter one obstacle after another in Lapeer, where the business was going to originally set up.
“(The TAAA board) have been nothing but gracious to us,” O’Connor said. “They really wanted us here and have been nothing but totally on our side.
“When went from someone kind of fighting us a little bit (in Lapeer), to a place where everyone is saying ‘Welcome,’” O’Connor said.
Midwest Sky Sports is owned by O’Connor, Rick Hayes, and Caro native Andy Enos. Their specialty is light-sport aircraft — those that are generally about 1,300 pounds. It’s based out of a 70×70 hangar at the airport in Caro.
Though the signage at Tuscola Area Airport says Midwest Sky Sports, there are actually two businesses. (O’Connor said the two different companies were formed for liability purposes.)
Midwest Sky Sports serves as a U.S. dealer for The Airplane Factory, a Johannesburg, South Africa-based company. The current brand names of The Airplane Factory planes are “Sling 2” and “Sling 4.”
Midwest Sky Sports also is certified to work on Rotax brand aircraft engines, used in a variety of light-sport aircraft (not limited to Sling brand planes).
The second company is Midwest Build Center, which essentially serves as a U.S.-based manufacturer for The Airplane Factory. Midwest Build Center also will build the planes to the half-way point, and then bring in customers to help finish the project. Doing so allows aircraft to qualify under FAA guidelines as “experimental.”
“Under the rules of the FAA, a customer has to be involved in building at least 51 percent of the plane,” O’Connor said, adding that the benefit of a plane being experimental is that it “opens a whole new world for them because now we’re not regulated by the FAA, and we can do what we want.” (The FAA still must approve planes after they have been built.)
Whether built fully or half-way, planes start out by being shipped to Caro in large wooden crates with all of the sheet metal pre-stamped and ready for assembly — one cleco (a special kind of rivet) at a time. (Engines arrive pre-assembled in their own crates, too, and attach to the plane body with just a few connections.)
Typically, it takes 800-1,000 hours to assemble the planes (or about three months).
The planes start at $135,000 each.
O’Connor said the hope is for Midwest to build at least eight planes annually.
It’s fully achievable, he said, because the market for light-sport/experimental aircraft built from kits has continually grown in the last decade.
Factors driving the market have included more disposable income, and lower costs for kit planes (about half the price of those that are manufactured in factories by companies such as Cessna), O’Connor said.
Another factor is a growing number of pilots who can’t pass the medical test required to fly larger aircraft.
O’Connor said many of those people are able to fly planes perfectly, but unable to pass their required “medicals” for having diabetes and other issues not directly related to flying.
“About 10 years ago, the FAA said ‘“We’ll make a compromise. What we’ll do is start a light-sport category and you won’t have to have that medical every five years, but you’re going to be limited’” O’Connor said. “The plane can only be 1,320-pound max takeoff, and can only be a two-seater.
“So that’s what brought about this market,” he said.
O’Connor said he expects customers to come to Caro from all across the country to help build, pick-up, or have service done on their planes.
“The thing is, for light-sport repair, there isn’t a lot out there,” O’Connor said. “It’s a newer market.”
Midwest already has worked with customers from places such as Alaska and Texas.
“Every year, an airplane has to get a condition inspection,” O’Connor said, adding that such inspections will likely draw light-sport aircraft owners to Caro from all over the country.
“They will stay at motels, eat in restaurants, buy fuel,” O’Connor said. “We’re not going to boost your economics by a huge amount, but it will bring business to the area.”
The Caro area could benefit other ways, too.
“We want to bring the community in with events like our fly-ins,” O’Connor said. “They’re not going to be our customers, but we still want to open up to the community.”
Fly-ins are essentially the aircraft version of car shows, where enthusiasts with similar interests and hobbies gather to show-off, talk shop, and generally have fun.
Midwest Sky Sports is planning a fly-in event on June 10.
And O’Connor said the company hopes to eventually work with area schools and help students learn about building airplanes.
“The airport’s kind of been dying here over the last couple of years so we’re trying to bring some life back to it,” Hayes said.
The Tuscola Area Airport is publicly owned and partially funded by taxes.
For the current fiscal year, Caro contributed about $8,900 and Cass City, about $9,300. The rest of the revenue for the airport comes from the state of Michigan and sales of fuel and hangar rentals, among other things.
The airport is the only general aviation airport located in Tuscola County and is owned and operated by the authority.
The authority was incorporated in 1993 and originally included Caro, Cass City, Kingston, Almer Township, and Elkland Township.
Today, only Caro and Cass City are in the authority. Board representatives from Caro are Mayor Joe Greene and Richard Pouliot along with Carl Palmateer, village president, Cass City. The board currently has a vacancy following the resignation of former Cass City Village Manager Peter Cristiano.
The airport has struggled to generate revenue.
At an airport authority meeting last June, the board identified the hangar leased by Midway Sky Sports as one of the airport’s largest expenses. The airport took out a loan to build it, but struggled for years to find a tenant while it was used to store maintenance vehicles and equipment.
At an airport authority board meeting Thursday, Greene said Midway Sky Sports is leasing it for $8,000 for the year.
Board members said they are glad to have someone leasing the space.
“Now we have someone leasing the space and using it in a way it was designed for,” Greene said.
“And stirring up business and commerce and bringing in pilots,” Pouliot said. “It’s what makes an airport useful.”
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com