A $2,500 supplemental-type certificate from a salvage yard in Texas is what turned Mike and Carolyn Kelley’s Air Plains Services Corp. from an airplane repair shop into a “speed shop” with its own manufacturing capability.
Earlier this year, the 13-employee company marked its 40th year in business.
Based at Wellington Municipal Airport, about 30 miles south of Wichita, Air Plains has made boosting the horsepower of Cessna single-piston-engine airplanes a mainstay of its business.
It does so through a number of parts it manufactures and either installs or puts together in XP – or “extreme performance” – kits that are shipped all over the world.
To date, the company has delivered or installed more than 3,000 of the kits to owners of Cessna 172, 180 and 182 airplanes. Depending on the airplane, Kelley said his XP kits increase performance by between 20 and 70 horsepower.
“It’s really tough to make a living in doing strictly maintenance work,” Mike Kelley said. “When (customers) are doing mods (modifications), they’re more inclined to spend money.”
Kelley said he got the idea for boosting the performance of those airplanes after working on a project with a friend who had an engine overhaul shop in Viola.
“That’s where he got the need for speed,” Carolyn Kelley said.
And while that business has served the company well over four decades – along with traditional aircraft maintenance and repair work – Mike Kelley, a pilot and airframe and power plant mechanic by training, is constantly on the lookout for other business opportunities.
“It is always looking for something new to do,” he said. “People would say I’m probably too interested at looking at something new.”
Right now, Kelley – along with Embry-Riddle aerospace engineering graduate Rafael Soldan, who’s been with Air Plains for 12 years – is looking to devise a smart fuel system for out-of-production airplanes that use 100 low lead gas. They’re also experimenting with manufacturing composite parts in-house.
“You might say Mike and Raf get their heads together and it’s like two little boys playing with experiments,” Carolyn Kelley said. “That’s kind of the way it is.”
Mike Kelley’s search for something new doesn’t always turn out the way he’d planned. A decade ago, Air Plains got into the parts manufacturing business by serving as a supplier to Quartz Mountain Aerospace in Altus, Okla., which was attempting to revive production of the Luscombe Model 11, a four-seat, single-piston-engine airplane from the late 1940s.
But a couple of years in, Quartz Mountain declared bankruptcy. While losing that business hurt, Kelley said, its effects were offset by the fact that none of the machining equipment Air Plains bought was purchased new – some machines, he added, cost no more than the price of shipping them.
And he was later able to use that equipment to produce parts in-house for Air Plains’ XP kits as well as other suppliers to Cessna Citation and Beechcraft King Air aircraft.
The machining equipment also will be useful for a new wave of business that Kelley expects to emerge: manufacturing parts for owners of out-of-production airplanes for which parts are no longer made by the manufacturer.
“That’s going to become a bigger business strictly because they can’t buy it,” he said.