Aviation

Planes essential part of DeBoer's business

As a young apartment developer in the 1960s, Jack DeBoer flew his Cessna 310 each week between Wichita; Peoria, Ill.; Topeka; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Omaha.

He'd work all day, get into the plane and fly to the next town at night.

He was so busy that sometimes in mid-flight he'd write out checks on his lap using the light in the cockpit.

DeBoer would fly about 100 hours a month.

During icy weather en route to Kalamazoo one day in 1967, DeBoer decided he should hire a pilot.

By 1982, a full corporate flight department to support DeBoer's businesses was formed.

The company was incorporated as Wichita Air Services in 1988. Today, there are two divisions.

One is the corporate flight department located at Jabara Airport.

Another is an aircraft and warbird restoration business located in two 10,000-square-foot hangars at the Newton City-County Airport.

That side of the business grew out of DeBoer's love of vintage aircraft.

In 1986, it took on the restoration of a North American SNJ-5 Texan owned by DeBoer.

The plane won national awards.

"It was such a nice airplane, it became our calling card," said Fred Bruns, president of Wichita Air Services.

Since then, the business has made award-winning restorations on a variety of aircraft from early fabric-covered planes, radial-engine antique biplanes, Mustangs and jets.

"We just really viewed it as a way to keep these guys busy and start generating business," DeBoer said of the reason the company began taking on other projects.

Perfect restorations

Some restorations have started out with only boxes of parts and pieces, Bruns said.

Many restorations were made using original manufacturer's drawings and technical data.

It's not a high-volume business.

"We just do a few airplanes, but they're perfect," DeBoer said.

The company spent seven years restoring a U.S. Navy biplane with floats, a Grumman J2F-4 Duck amphibious airplane. The plane was one of only a few aircraft on the ground to survive the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, DeBoer said.

In 1955, the plane sank in a lake in the Bahamas, where it stayed for 36 years before being salvaged in 1991.

Chuck Greenhill of Keosha, Wis., bought the plane and hired Wichita Air Services to make it flyable again.

The company had to fabricate nearly everything on the plane.

Currently, the company is working on another Grumman Duck. It's also building some subassemblies for a P-40 for another customer.

Wichita Air Services recently reassembled a Boeing B-47 Stratofortress on display at the Kansas Aviation Museum.

Wichita Air Services performs a variety of services — such as custom metal forming; jig, tool and die building; plating; priming and painting; fabric repair and covering; inspections; and maintenance.

"We can handle a vast spectrum of projects," Bruns said.

With the down economy, business has slowed.

"This is a very expensive hobby," said Brad Hatt, president of Consolidated Holdings Group, which includes DeBoer's non-hotel holdings such as Wichita Air Services.

Warbird owners restore the aircraft because they're passionate about them. But many have been hurt by the recession.

The company is pursuing business. It will exhibit at the Sun 'n Fun Fly-in next week in Florida, where it will display the RV-7A it recently built.

A love of flying

DeBoer has been flying since 1963 and has more than 7,000 hours of flight time.

"I've wanted to fly since I was old enough to see airplanes," DeBoer said.

Over the years, he's owned 25 to 30 planes, including seven new Learjets, two Gulfstreams and several Hawker Beechcraft products.

DeBoer sponsored the Race 77 "Rare Bear" aircraft, which won several championships in the Reno Air Races and other competitions.

And DeBoer won a world speed record using a corporate Learjet 31.

DeBoer got out of racing six years ago.

"I really enjoyed it, though," he said.

Currently, he has seven airplanes, including a Hawker 4000 and Hawker 400XP, which do the most corporate traveling for the company. He also has a Cessna 310, Cessna 206, a Caravan on floats, the RV7A and a Cessna 172.

The jets used for business aren't flying as much as they have, however.

DeBoer's ValuePlace hotel business is doing well, but with the economy and a difficult credit environment, franchisees aren't opening new hotels.

Because of that, the flight department flew fewer hours last year.

The jets used for business flew 500 hours last year, down from the 1,000 hours they flew in 2008 and 1,500 in 2007.

Still, he said. flying is an important tool for his business.

"The jets we use for business have never cost us anything," DeBoer said. "We make money because of them."

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