WINTERSVILLE - Phil Bender figures the air charter service he and his business partner, Dale Risker, are starting at the Jefferson County Airpark is an opportunity as much as it is a risk.
Bender, a former Ohio Highway Patrol aviations operations supervisor and airpark manager, sees their start-up, Air Bleu Aviation Services, as a chance to repay area residents for their help over the years.
The risk part? That's starting a capital intensive business like an air charter service in a community that, until now, hasn't had such a thing and in a local economy that, until recently, couldn't hope to support it.
HEY, AIR TAXI – Dale Risker, left, and Phillip Bender pose with the Cessna Caravan single engine turbo prop they’ll use for their new air charter service, Air Bleu Aviation Services, based at the Jefferson County Airpark. The plane is versatile and reliable, seating passengers or carrying cargo. The pair hope to make Air Bleu a regional enterprise. - Linda Harris
But the influx of jobs and investment dollars following the oil and gas industry into the Upper Ohio Valley has them betting the time is right to launch the service.
"We've been given such a gift, the things people have been kind enough to pass on to us," he said. "This is our opportunity to pay it back, but you still have to be able to make a go of it, you have to be able to make a profit to do (that)."
Akron/Canton-based Castle Aviation is supplying the planes they'll use. They're starting with a Cessna Caravan, a sleek, single-engine turbo prop capable of carrying passengers or cargo, though they'll have access to a number of other aircraft - among them, six other Caravans, an Aerostar and a Merlin - when the occasion warrants.
The service will operate out of Hangar A.
"We can provide any type of aircraft needed, from a single engine to corporate jet," said Risker, who makes his home in the Burgettstown area.
Along with the job creating potential of their business, Risker said there's also the possibility that having an aviation-based business operating out of the airpark could help bring more state and federal dollars to Jefferson County to help with things like runway upgrades or the acquisition of the much-needed automated weather observation station.
"Having a charter company here will help the oil and gas people," Risker adds. "And with that service, smaller businesses that are already here will have an opportunity to use a local charter company."
But at the same time, Bender said they won't overlook the regional opportunities: They're looking to develop a clientele in the Pittsburgh area as well as throughout the Northern Panhandle. He sees the charter service as a way to link the area business community "to other areas, other resources they need."
"That's key to what we're trying to do," he said.
Risker has been in aviation for more than three decades. He's a commercial pilot, licensed for single and multi-engines, and at one time owned his own air ambulance and executive charter services. More recently, he's done corporate aircraft management.
Bender, who spent more than 25 years with Ohio State Highway Patrol, is commercial license rated as well in both single and multi-engines planes. He's also a helicopter pilot and operates his own flight training school at the airpark.
Risker figures that as they get more and bigger planes into the airpark, they'll branch out into corporate aircraft management, his specialty, as well as aerial photographic services and air tours. He said Bender's flight training opportunities should grow as well.
Bender said it wasn't all that long ago that the airpark's runway "was as wide as the taxiway and the runway light fixtures were fixtures with mason jar covers with the wires running across the ground." The airport authority is currently focused on a 500-foot runway extension, which, when it's done, will allow larger planes to land there safely in all kinds of weather.
The AWOS, however, is going to be driven by numbers - and Bender doesn't mind admitting he hopes Air Bleu's operations give the powers-that-be an added incentive to find funding for the equipment.
For now, though, Bender said his focus is on trying to give back to his community.
"With any business there's some risk attached," Bender said. "But I've been involved with the community and I'm trying to build things. Both of us have a passion for aviation, both of us see the value of investing in the community that made this airpark and made it basically themselves."
He said they know going into it that, as with any business, "there's going to be some risks associated" with the opportunity.
"We've been given such a gift, the things people have been kind enough to pass on to us," he said. "This is our opportunity to pay it back, but you still have to be able to make a go of it, you have to be able to make a profit to do it.
"People helped me along the way to get where I am today. I'd like to think I can repay some of that, maybe hire some young pilots or help people interested in aviation. It would be nice to retain our young people."
The business community, meanwhile, will have a chance to learn first-hand about the charter opportunities Air Bleu Aviation offers at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Hangar A.