Plane Guys: Love & Respect of Aviation

By Scott Spangler on June 3rd, 2019

Plane Guys-10There’s no denying that general aviation is enduring an uncertain transition from its rose-colored past to a foggy future. What worked yesterday, when aviation was more widely embraced by the offspring of those alive when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic (i.e. Baby Boomers) doesn’t hold sway with their offspring and their grandchildren, for whom a growing number wonder if they even need a driver’s license. The Plane Guys Aviation at Wisconsin’s Waupaca Municipal Airport (PCZ) is finding their way by combining old and new with a realistic love and respect for aviation.

“For the love and respect of aviation” is how Plane Guys, a family business established in 2006, begins its mission statement. Straightforward and succinct, Beth Andersen said the goal is to “keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.” Beyond that, “I want people flying whether it is with my company or if I can connect with the person they need to do what they want to do, that’s the most important thing.”

Instinctively, Beth has been working to make the airport a more integrated member of the community beyond its aeronautical contributions. “When I took over in 2016, I brought EAA Chapter 444 here, and it’s been super! They do a lot of Young Eagles flights. Then there’s the Lions Club; they are holding a pancake breakfast here this Saturday. And this year we’re hosting the Humane Center [located on the other side of the airport, she said, pointing]. We’re trying to bring more events to the airport to make it a social center so nonairport users can visit it.”

Plane Guys-5Unknowingly, she was channeling Duane Cole, who in the 1990s told me that creating a social connection with the community was the key to his successful management of small Illinois airports after World War II. Plane Guys has managed the airport since 2008, and since then they have worked to “make it not a scary place, not like bigger airports” with their 10-foot-tall chain link fences and TSA agents. “When you walk in here, hey, it’s like home. We have a couple of people come in here to do their homework, adults who’ve gone back go schools and need to get away from the kids for awhile.” And just like home, Andersen wants everyone to clean up after themselves.

Originally from Racine, the Andersens established Plane Guys Aviation in 2006, when the patriarch, Pete, a longtime pilot, retired from his day job and wanted to start an aviation company. It would be at Waupaca because Pete fell in love with the airport years before, Beth said, and in 2008 the company won the contract to manage the airport when the previous manager moved on. The Andersens are not the only ones who love Waupaca; its 19 privately owned hangars and eight rental T-hangars are full.

Survey-24“It’s been quite a journey,” Beth said, and there is no implication of gender or anything else in the company’s name. “We were throwing around names, and dad said, What about Plane Guys? When you meet a group of people, you ask Hey, guys, how’s it going?” So when it comes to aviation, you want to go see the Plane Guys at the Waupaca Airport.

Training sport pilots, selling light sport aircraft, and renting aircraft were all part of the plan when the Andersens started the company. “We’ve been going to EAA [AirVenture Oshkosh] since I was potty trained,” said Beth. In 2006 they went airplane shopping. “Prices for new LSAs ranged from $60,000 to more than twice that,” said Beth. By shopping at the lower end of the spectrum, “we could have affordable rental fees, less than the $150 an hour you often see at airports for tired, middle-aged airplanes.”

They started with the Allegro 2000, Beth’s winged classroom. The RANS S7 replaced it, and a Van’s Aircraft RV-12 joined it in 2015. As a dealer for both manufacturers, “our airplanes are always for sale, which some website visitors find disconcerting,” Beth said. “If a student falls in love with the airplane, we’ll happily sell it, and replace it with a newer airplane.”

Plane Guys-13Around the time the RV joined the Plane Guys family, doctors found cancer in its patriarch. He beat it in early 2016, but related complications ended his life early that year. With the diagnosis, Beth came to work at the airport full time, and took over everything after his death (“Mom is the other owner, and she does all the books”). Learning on the job, “it’s been quite a journey,” and learning about selling airplanes is on the to-do list. Until then, she connects the interested parties with the manufacturers.

Over the years, Plane Guys has been blessed with quite a few students, and most of them fly the RV-12—“We put 300 hours a year on it,” Beth said. “We have a few students learning to fly in the RANS, but most of its pilots are earning tailwheel transitions. What’s been interesting is since Basic Med went through, we do more private pilots than sport pilots. When we started it was mostly sport pilot, new people coming into aviation, not private pilots stepping down.”

The planes are equipped to train both sport and private pilots, and the two instructors, on average, serve a half-dozen students at any given time. Located on the airport, Richard Merkley is also an airframe and powerplant mechanic with inspection authorization. Dennis Carew is an instructor who lives in Appleton. “Some people call and ask if they can learn to fly in their airplane,” Beth said. “I connect them with the instructors so they can work it out directly.”

Plane Guys-2Scrolling through the Followed Dreams, which announces student achievement on the Plane Guys website, reveals a diverse population of new pilots. “Many of them are people my age,” Beth said, “mid-40s, kids out of the house, and they find new airplanes with glass cockpits, and the price is right to make the dream a reality. We also have a number of students who are college-bound high school students” with their sights set on an aviation career. And then there are the homebuilders looking for transition training and time in type to make their insurance companies happy.

Once students earn their tickets, they join the Plane Guys family of renters, and if the preflight conversation I witnessed is typical, it is another example of a mutual love and respect for aviation, and the people that give it life. –Scott Spangler

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