The sky’s the limit

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AUBURN – Doug Pohl is a lot of things – pathologist, manufacturer, entrepreneur – but in his heart of hearts, he’s a fly boy.

That’s why the Florida resident doesn’t mind commuting from his part-time medical practice in Westin to his latest business venture, Silver Wings Aviation, at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.

Aeronautically speaking, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump.

But in terms of economic development, his aviation service represents a whole lot more.

“We’ve got a giant economic engine here,” said John McGonagill, manager of L-A’s only airport. “Silver Wings is a great shot in the arm.”

McGonagill estimates having a second aviation service at the airport means an immediate 20 to 30 percent boost to the airport’s bottom line, which last year recorded $1.4 million in revenue. More revenues are expected from increased fuel sales, increased landing fees and the lease that Pohl pays for the 1938 hangar that houses his business.

A business that Pohl spent $700,000 to launch.

“Yeah, that was a surprise,” said Pohl with a wry smile. His original estimate for startup costs was $125,000.

But Pohl had a vision: to marry his affection for the old World War II hangar – where former President George H.W. Bush trained as a Navy fighter pilot – with his love of flying and a deep desire to share that enthusiasm with others.

Silver Wings reflects that vision. It offers heated hangar space; the cheapest jet fuel in Maine; repair, maintenance and inspection services; flight training; and amenities for pilots and passengers like Wifi connections, a nap room, computer, flight simulator, shower, washer and dryer. Oh, and lobster packed to travel, if desired.

“We tried to think of everything,” said Pohl.

Regional airport use taking off

Pohl started to build his first plane, an experimental aviation craft, while he was still in medical school. It took him 10 years to finish.

But the process gave him a terrific grounding in aviation mechanics and he’s been airborne ever since. His love of flying prompted him to join the L-A airport board when he joined the staff at Central Maine Medical Center in 1995.

He opened a small manufacturing business at the airport, making engines for experimental aircraft, but discontinued it after certification costs soared to $10 million. He still enjoys making the plane bodies, though. Fashioned from kits, the light planes are as air worthy as commercially produced craft, he said. Pohl said they can be built for as little as $150,000.

The experimental aircraft are “10 times more capable than a Cessna and three times as fast and use half the gas,” he said.

He hopes to one day offer instruction for building the light aircraft and training pilots to fly them. Right now, he’s waiting on an application with the Federal Aviation Administration for Part 141 flight school credentials. If approved, it would allow flight students to borrow money from banks to pay for flight training.

“Doug’s hitting a nice little niche,” said McGonagill.

And tapping into a growing market. Forecasts from the FAA show traffic at U.S. regional airports growing 16.5 percent in 2005, over 2004 numbers, and more growth is expected right through 2017. McGonagill said he’s seen that trend play out here, where more than 450 companies used the L.A. airport last year for commercial traffic.

Among them were executives from Wal-Mart, who flew in to check progress of the distribution center in Lewiston. Lucien Gosselin, executive director of the Lewiston Auburn Economic Growth Council, said he doubted the Wal-Mart deal would have been possible without the municipal airport.

“The airport is an absolutely critical component to economic development here,” said Gosselin. “If Doug provides a high quality fixed base operation, he will draw aircraft from a wide region. I think that’s only a real positive thing for the airport.”

McGonagill said many companies are opting to buy their own jets or contract with charter services to fly employees around the country on business. They save time and avoid the hassles of traveling on commercial airlines. About half of the 71,000 pilots here last year were business flyers (such as Joan Lunden’s husband, who owns a summer camp nearby); the other half, recreational travelers.

Pohl is hoping Silver Wings boosts that figure. He sells his jet fuel at 25 cents per gallon less than any other Maine airport, an intentional loss leader to drive traffic to Auburn. The airport makes 4 cents from every gallon sold (a typical plane has a 120-gallon fuel tank)

“We’re trying to be the lowest in the state and attract new business here,” said Pohl, who offers the fill-ups around the clock.

He hopes once pilots stop for gas they’ll use the other services, such as the maintenance, repair and inspection services.

The heated hangar can accommodate 10 to 12 planes. He’s already landed a contract with MTM Helicopter, based in Saco, that uses Silver Wings to shelter its birds.

“Some of these guys are billionaires,” said McGonagill of his corporate customers. “The last thing they want to see is a quarter-inch of clear ice on their planes.”

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Not a flight of fancy

It’s satisfying for Pohl to see aircraft hunkered down in the hangar that at one time was expected to be demolished. He respects the building’s history, not just because former President Bush learned to fly there (he hopes Bush will attend the company’s formal open house this summer), but also because of the other Navy pilots who honed their skills there before heading off to war.

While rehabbing the 8,000-square-foot hangar, he found a pack of Old Gold cigarettes behind a wall and wondered who put them there. Likewise old markings and signs uncovered in the building.

But he couldn’t ruminate too long. The rehab was long and arduous. He had to put up 750 sheets of drywall between the hangar portion of the building and the office suites to meet fire codes. He encased his two 12,000-gallon fuel tanks with ballistic-proof shells to protect them from the errant shot of a deer hunter. The new bi-fold door can accommodate a plane with a 60-foot wing span, the size of a Gulfstream jet.

Someday he may try to manufacture aircraft engines again, this time to take advantage of the nearby intermodal facility and its designation as a Foreign Trade Zone, which exempts or delays tariffs on exported products. He’s investigating whether the FTZ could be something to help boost fuel sales to planes en route to international destinations.

“It’s now a matter of connecting the dots,” he said.

He and McGonagill look forward to Memorial Day when business typically picks up and side lots have to be used for tie-downs. Pohl hopes to fill the 15 positions he thinks he needs to make Silver Wings soar by then. It will be a sign of good economic times.

“And me having to build another hangar,” he said.

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