Some businesses are saving time by avoiding commercial flights and going the private route

Whether you’re an Eastside business owner in the market for a high-performance plane, a vacationer looking for a getaway to the San Juan Islands, or simply someone who’s always dreamed of earning a private pilot’s license, there are bountiful options available. A variety of innovative airports, fixed-base operations, flight schools, and flight-management operations can make your aviation goals a reality.

Chuck Pepka, owner of Renton Coil Spring, knows all too well the market for high-performance planes and the value they bring. Saving time is crucial to the spring manufacturer’s bottom line, and Pepka’s turbo prop, single-engine TDM 850, which holds five passengers and a pilot, does just that.


A service for clients – Charlie Conner takes to the sky to show clients undeveloped parcels of land. A helicopter allows him to hover over woods that could someday be a Conner Homes development. Photos by Rachel Coward.

Renton Coil Spring is one of many businesses that choose to fly privately to save time and avoid the headaches of dealing with long airport security lines. Pepka flies privately for the freedom it affords and the ability to control his own schedule.

“I don’t have to go through airport security,” he said. “That’s probably one of the most dangerous places — big airports. I don’t have to show up to the airport four hours early for a two-hour flight.”

Pepka not only owns his own plane, but he flies it, too. “I train twice a year,” he said. “I have (to pass) physicals that go to the FAA to keep my license. It keeps me in better shape. The (owner) that sits in the back doesn’t have those same constraints. So, basically, I have about 4,500 hours in an airplane. Compared to a professional airline pilot, I’m a low-time guy. I have enough to be serious.”

Pepka said his team makes greatest use of the airplane when making multiple stops.

“A typical trip for me might be to take off (from Renton Municipal Airport) and go to Pittsburgh and see one of our suppliers, and then fly to Niagara Falls, New York, and drive across the border into Canada,” Pepka said. “Once I’m on a trip like that, we can see NASCAR customers in North Carolina.”

Sometimes a time-saver for a company isn’t a plane; it also can be a helicopter. Charlie Conner, owner and president of Conner Homes in Bellevue, owns and flies a 1977 Hughes 500 D helicopter that holds a pilot plus three passengers. Conner takes the helicopter to show viable land to partners and lenders.

“You see a lot of land from the air that you don’t see on the ground,” Conner said. “With the way traffic is, it’s sometimes a lot more efficient to get around the communities by helicopter.”

While many on the Eastside can afford to own and maintain a plane, others are priced out of that option. This is where many local flying clubs step in to help bring the hobby within reach for those who otherwise couldn’t afford to begin flying.

Wes McKechnie, operations manager at Boeing Employees Flying Association, based at Renton Municipal Airport, said costs of insurance, maintenance and inspections, aviation fuel, and instruments have all risen.

“We’re one of the few places of our size that provides a person of reasonable financial means the ability to learn to fly for job reasons and career reasons,” McKechnie said. “We send a lot of Boeing family members on to airlines and various aviation careers.”

A quick commute – Conner (left) flies over Auburn with copilot Lance Morris on the way to Conner Homes Westridge community in the city of Edgewood. The flight time from his Renton home: 10 minutes.

A quick commute – Conner (left) flies over Auburn with copilot Lance Morris on the way to Conner Homes Westridge community in the city of Edgewood. The flight time from his Renton home: 10 minutes.

BEFA has a 62-year history of providing inexpensive flight lessons and access to planes to Boeing employees and their family members, and to Boeing-badged vendors.

“We pride ourselves on the diversity of our fleet,” McKechnie said. “We have simple analog flight trainers on up to a float plane.”

One well-known BEFA flight instructor is Will Allen, who teaches aerobatics. In 2008, Allen, 48 and a pilot since he was 20, started performing in airshows and has since created a reputation as the “Rock ’n’ Roll Airshow Man.” He performs more than eight times a year across the U.S. An Issaquah resident, Allen joined BEFA in 2000 and started instructing in 2002 after earning a slew of instrument ratings through the flying club, to which he credits his success.

“Flying is the ultimate freedom,” Allen said. “I love flying anything, but especially aerobatics. The way you’re maneuvering the airplane — it’s like a dance in the air.”

For the person who doesn’t have a pilot’s license but wants to fly privately for business or pleasure, there is a plethora of plane charter options in the area.

“With the current situation with commercial travel, we are seeing unprecedented demand for charter,” said Gene Buccola, president of Business Air, located at Boeing Field.

Business Air manages and charters 10 aircraft, from turbo props to light- and midsize jets. Charter services range from business travel to golf and fishing excursions. Prices are based on the size of plane, the distance traveled, and the number of passengers.

Business Travel also provides 56,000 square feet of hangar space for individuals or companies who want to store a plane. Maintenance services are available for $2,500 to $10,000 per month, depending on the plane’s size.

20160729_Helicopter-CharlieConners_0524Meanwhile, the San Juan Islands and many other Northwest locales are within reach, thanks to Kenmore Air, which is celebrating its 70th year in business. With its four land planes and 20 sea planes, Kenmore Air brings people to 45 destinations in Washington, Oregon, California, and northern Canada. Charter costs are based on the distance traveled and the time of year. Roundtrip travel during fall, winter, and spring are cheaper than summer.

Finally, to buy or not to buy is a decision best handled carefully. With so many planes of all shapes and sizes that are fitted with enough advanced technology to make your head spin, the financial investment alone can give one pause.

Gene Clow, an expert in aircraft sales, acquisition, and consulting services as founder of Great Circle Aircraft in Kirkland, said today’s new planes range from $4 million for a small aircraft up to $68 million for a large cabin. Clow said purchasing the right plane is based on how far and how often you want to fly, and how many passengers you usually take. Clow advises all transactions, especially those for business purposes, be done with an aircraft transaction attorney.

“Buying an airplane is a complicated legal transaction, because you have an asset that moves into all different tax jurisdictions,” said Cheryl Kringle, an attorney with Aero Law Group in Bellevue. “If you don’t understand the consequences of the transaction, you might enter into an agreement that might disadvantage you.”

Learning to Fly

Depending on what type of flight instruction you are interested in, there is a handful of flight schools in the greater Puget Sound region to meet your needs. The cost for a private pilot’s license certificate is upwards of $8,000, which includes ground school and materials. Here are a few schools to choose from:

Aviation Training Center
289 E. Perimeter Road, Renton
(Renton Municipal Airport)

Galvin Flying
7001 Perimeter Road S., Seattle (Boeing Field)

Pro-Flight Aviation
750 W. Perimeter Road, Renton
(Renton Municipal Airport)

Rainier Flight Service
800 W. Perimeter Road, Renton
(Renton Municipal Airport)