USA / Canada–– CHICO — Behind Air Spray at the Chico Municipal Airport is a Canadian company, but those toiling at the airport hangar are longtime Chico residents and former Aero Union employees.
Celebrating its 45th year in business in Canada, Air Spray has leased part of a city-owned hangar and hired eight former employees of the now-defunct Aero Union.
Like the previous company, Air Spray has been involved in converting military aircraft to aerial firefighters. That process is still the goal in Chico, but the planes are now passenger jets.
The companies were well known to each other, according to Ravi Saip, general manager for the Chico operation, which is officially known as Air Spray Aviation, USA.
A 20-year Aero Union veteran, Saip is excited at the prospect of reviving the good Chico jobs the company had here for decades, and utilizing the “tremendous talent” still here.
For the moment, his crew of seven is the team.
What’s growing in Chico is the “next generation of tanker,” said Air Spray vice president and chief financial officer Paul Lane, who was visiting from Canada recently.
The first conversion involves a BAE-146 passenger jet.
Seats and interior of the 1987 jet Air Spray purchased locally are being torn out, and a retardant delivery system installed over the next 18 months.
The jet was located at the Oroville airport for a number of months before being flown to Chico and nosed into a city-owned hangar at 77 Piper Ave., one of several formerly occupied by Aero Union.
What improves Air Spray’s chances at firefighting contracts is having a jet, a newer and safer plane, Saip said, as well as one that can fly farther and navigate short runways at slow speeds when loaded. The jet will have a 3,000-gallon retardant capability.
Once the BAE is retrofitted, Saip believes more conversions will be coming to Chico.
In Canada, the company converts and operates its own air tankers, primarily Lockheed 188 Electras. It also repairs and upgrades other large aircraft, according to Lane. The P-3 Aero Union predominantly used is a variant of the Electra.
Air Spray is owned by Hamilton Aviation Ltd. Lane’s wife, Lynn Hamilton, is the president and daughter of the late Don Hamilton, who founded the company in 1967 and was part owner of the Edmonton Oilers NHL ice hockey team.
“They really kept the dream alive for me, and for others from Aero Union,” said Saip.
Headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, Air Spray’s planes drop on wildfires in the U.S. as well as Canada.
Lane said the 100,000-square-foot facilities at Air Spray’s operational facilities at Red Deer, Alberta, are space-impacted, so the availability of room and a skilled team in Chico is appealing.
Air Spray employs 108 in Canada, and has 22 operational aircraft there, plus others waiting to be converted.
Right now, Air Spray leases a portion of the Piper Avenue building, but its overcrowding in Canada could mean more work heading to Chico, and perhaps more space leased at the airport.
Locally, Air Spray is also working with Griffon Wing of Chico, which is designing the retardant tank system for the BAE 146.
Also tapped is Sel-tech of Chico, another former Aero Union spinoff that manufactures tank systems, and is a precision machining and sheet metal fabrication company.
Of the foray into Chico, Lane said, “We wanted to grow the business, so the U.S. is obvious.”
In a letter to the city, Lane wrote, “Air Spray intends in the coming years to complete a full replacement of our air tanker fleet as well as expanding the fleet to meet new contracts. We sincerely hope that this BAE-146 will not be our last aircraft we modify in Chico.
“This we hope to be in the community for the long term, hopefully both as manufacturers and operators.”
Another impact for Air Spray is the longer fire season being experienced in both the U.S. and Canada. Previously, the demand for fire suppression over a season was 90 to 100 days in Canada, Lane said. Now it’s 120 to 140 days, attributed to global warming as well as the expanding urban/forest interface, he explained.
As planes fly longer, companies like Air Spray have to figure out how to accomplish the required maintenance and safety procedures for the pilots and the planes, most of which were built in the 1960s, Lane said.
The company is also considering work in the Southern Hemisphere, providing opportunity for year-round contracts. It also has a year-round charter business.